Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 6/7

Fast forward now, towards the present, and we find that Berman continues to play fast and loose with matters of chronological sequence, causality and scale, as he massages the messy terrain of politics and history to fit his preferred ideological template. He considers the Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, and writes this:
“Islamism's triumph in Iran right away inaugurated what each of the totalitarian revolutions had inaugurated in the past. This was war. Within a year of taking power, the Ayatollah's new Islamic Republic was immersed in a horrendous combat with Saddam Hussein's Baath Socialists of Iraq." [p.107]
Well, yes, though in this case we might reasonably observe that Iraq started it. And on he goes: "The war lasted eight years. It killed upward of a million people... It was the eastern front of the Second World War, updated." [pp.108-9] Well, yes, but, nasty as the Iran-Iraq war undoubtedly was, an eight-year war that kills one million doesn’t seem especially analogous to a four-year war that kills thirty. (But what’s an order of magnitude or two when there’s Decency to be defended?)

Berman turns his attention to the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s:
“The Islamist movement grew in Algeria, and when the secular authorities decided to repress it, the Armed Islamic Group and other organizations excommunicated the whole of society and set about massacring the impious. Between 1992 and 1997, a full 100,000 people are said to have been killed in the Algerian civil war…” [p.110]
To repeat an experiment we tried earlier: if these sentences were all you had to go on, you’d probably think that the “excommunication” (takfir) came in 1992 or shortly afterwards. But in fact it came in the GIA’s final communiqué of September 1997, towards the close of these ghastly proceedings, when it had already basically lost the war, and its organization was rapidly falling apart. [On this see, Gilles Kepel’s Jihad, p.273, which is, of course, another of Berman’s cited sources.]

And Berman writes about more recent bloodletting in Israel/Palestine after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000:
“And, at that decisive moment, Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad - the two factions of Palestine's Islamist movement - finally succeeded in dominating the Palestinian political scene, at least for the time being. The suicide terror campaign, simmering for many years, now began to display the qualities of a genuinely popular impulse... Militias from Arafat’s nationalist organization joined in the campaign…" [p.129]
The suicide campaign is presented as a consequence of the domination of Palestinian politics by the militant Islamist groups. And in searching for the “logic of the suicide attacks” [p.132], Berman falls back on his master narrative derived from Camus: “Suicide terror against the Israelis was bound to succeed in one realm only, and this was the realm of death – the realm in which a perfect Palestinian state could luxuriate in the shade of a perfect Koranic tranquility…” and so on [p.133] But more sober analysis suggests that this misunderstands the causal sequence. When we remember that the opening months of the Al-Aqsa Intifada were largely characterised by (non-suicide) attacks organized by al-Fatah and other, often related, secular groups – details you won’t find in Berman’s narrative – an alternative explanation of the appearance of the suicide bombers becomes possible. In Luca Ricolfi’s words, the pattern of the attacks "seems to contradict those interpretations that stress the role of Islamic extremists and their persistent opposition to the peace process, and supports the idea of a competition between secular and religious organizations to achieve political control over the Palestinian insurgency.” [Ricolfi, in Diego Gambetta, ed., Making Sense of Suicide Missions p.96.] On this view, suicide attacks aren’t the consequence of the militant Islamists’ dominance of Palestinian politics at all, but one of the means or instruments of the of attempt to achieve that domination. And the resort to suicide terror by one group helped to bring about to a gruesome auction in which both religious and secular armed organizations were trying not to be outbid in the militancy and popular martyrdom stakes. That seems to me to be a more plausible explanation of what was going on during the Al-Aqsa intifada than that offered by Berman, but it’s an explanation you can only get to if you hesitate a bit longer than Berman does before reaching for the Camus.

(Here, in fact, is a general blindspot in Berman’s analyses. What he doesn’t seem to notice with several of the episodes he describes is that the most violent moments often occur precisely when the militant Islamists aren’t really in control of the politics of the situation: in Algeria, the bloodiest months came in 1997 when the GIA was falling apart; in Palestine, when competition between secular and religious groups in the context of the intifada was at its height; on 11 September 2001, when, in Gilles Kepel’s words, “in spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.” [Jihad, pp.375-6])


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