Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 2/7

Let’s start, somewhat arbitrarily, on p.158:
“[Gilles] Kepel [in his Jihad: on the trail of political Islam] has pointed to Tariq Ramadan, the philosopher, as yet another example of the turn toward democratic moderation – though in this instance, with Ramadan’s Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity open before me, I can judge for myself. Ramadan condemns the violence of the Islamist radicals, but, then again, seems to celebrate violence against Israel as a religious duty, “incumbent”, in his word, on devout Muslims. The move toward pluralism and tolerance seems a little halting, here.”
Without a page reference from Berman, it’s hard to be sure exactly which passage he’s talking about, but the passage that follows is the best match I can come up with, and it’s certainly got the word “incumbent” in it. Ramadan is writing about his father:
"Often, he spoke of the determination in his commitment, at all moments, against colonialism and injustice and for the sake of Islam. This determination was though never a sanction for violence, for he rejected violence just as he rejected the idea of "an Islamic revolution". The only exception was Palestine. On this, the message of al-Banna was clear. Armed resistance was incumbent so that the plans of the terrorists of Irgun and of all Zionist colonisers would be faced up to…" [pp.viii-ix]
Curious, then, that an opinion Ramadan reports as belonging to his father several decades ago should then be silently projected by Berman onto Ramadan himself in the present. Curious, too, that a book which itself urges a militant response to terrorism should quite so casually transform an opinion about the legitimacy of armed resistance to Irgun into something else. But Berman has judged for himself that it’s alright to present Ramadan in the pages of his book as a celebrant of violence against Israel without any acknowledgment to his reader that perhaps – just perhaps – things are a little bit more complicated than this.

I think he’s unfair to Tariq Ramadan; he’s certainly unfair to Noam Chomsky. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, Berman tells us that Chomsky’s “first impulse was to deny that the attacks were especially bad." [p.149] Now turn to Chomsky’s first piece published in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. "The September 11 attacks were major atrocities", he begins, and he goes on to say, "But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt." Discussing Chomsky’s controversial argument that President Clinton’s attack on the al-Shifa plant in Sudan (or “the Sudan”, if you’re Paul Berman) led to more deaths than the 9-11 attacks, Berman writes that “Chomsky stood by his argument, and did so with his customary blizzard of references to obscure sources.” [p.150] Turn to pp.48-9 of 9/11, the relevant Chomsky text, and we find that Chomsky’s sources are drawn from the pages of the Boston Globe, the Guardian and the Observer, and whatever else these are, they are not obscure publications. (Professional Decency-Watchers might like to note that one of the cited pieces was by Ed Vulliamy, and they might remember also that on those occasions when he doesn’t rely on Vulliamy’s reporting, he gets criticized for that, too: see the Emma Brockes interview, still available here.).

On the following page, Berman makes a set of claims about Chomsky’s politics, but without direct quotation from Chomsky’s writings. So let’s take a moment to juxtapose what Berman says Chomsky says with some of the words Chomsky actually uses. Berman on Chomsky: “The attacks on 9/11 represented the reply of oppressed people from the Third World to centuries of American depredations.” [T&L, p.151.] Here’s Chomsky: "The Bin Laden network itself falls into a different category, and in fact its actions for 20 years have caused great harm to the poor and oppressed people of the region, who are not the concern of the terrorist networks" [9/11, p.27]. Here’s Berman on Chomsky, again: “The notion of a Saudi plutocrat as a tribune of the oppressed was fairly ridiculous. Still, Chomsky stuck with this argument, too” [T&L, p.151]. Here’s Chomsky, sticking to his argument: "As for the bin Laden network, they have as little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony as they do for the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East who they have been severely harming for years” [9/11, p.31].

If we are going to play the “he says something but actually means quite the opposite” game, incidentally, that Berman tries out on Chomsky, then we should probably acknowledge that Berman himself offers a particularly juicy target, specializing in particular in the non-denial denial. "I don't mean to go after the left, however" [p.152], he writes, at the end of a chapter when he has gone after the left again (French anti-war socialists, pp.124-8) and again (José Bové, José Saramago and various leftists sympathetic to the Palestinians, pp.130-44) and again (Noam Chomsky, pp.144-52). And there’s another nice example a little later: “But I don't mean to say, "Europe is like that: look, and groan"” [p.205:], which comes after pp.202-5, which look at Europe, and groan. He also says right at the end of one chapter that, “In this country [i.e., the US], we are all Noam Chomsky”, and I don’t believe he really thinks that, either.


Blogger STA said...

Great (bibliographical) work. Thanks.

4/16/2006 10:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to undermine his assertions on Chomsky's politics, you have to illustrate that Chomsky does NOT believe in what Berman alledges, no that the he also believes in something else. It's possible, and some might say widepsread, for political commentators to hold contradictory views which are not resolved.

The Chomsky article you post here, for example, does begin by identifying 9-11 as a major atrocity but then spends the rest of the opening paragraph saying it's not as bad as many others, some of which involve the US government. Fine, if the article is supposed to be about universal moral standards but in a piece ostensibly about 9-11 what role exactly does such a focus play? Imagine if the roles were reversed and the subject was the Sudanese pill factory.

Of course Chomsky does not directly say that 9-11 is a violent response from oppressed peoples against the US. He is too clever for such crass statements. But in all of his articles on 9-11 that I have read, the inferral is that US policies in the Middle East create anger which leads directly to terrorism. THis very broad point contains some truth, as very broad points tend to. But Chomsky's trick is in leaving out all the other factors involved in the political situation in the Middle East and terrorism. By isolating very specific elements - the US's support for Israel, the centralisation of Palestinian victimisation and the omnipresent 'anger' of the masses, Chomsky bolsters the perception of Bin Laden and co as serious opponents of US hegemony, motivated - at least in part - by a justified anger to destructive US policies.

I've never understood why Chomsky or the US government do not break out of this constructed opposition, as it does a hell of a lot to instil respect for Al-Qaida. The US's relationship with the Middle East is very complex, and as a region it is no more wronged by its policies than any (non-Western) region in the world.

4/25/2006 12:32:00 PM  

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