Monday, March 18, 2013

The latest totalitarian threat: Radical Islam

The excerpt below is from an article by Jeffrey Herf providing a historical context as the US and the West face a radical, politicized Islam, the successor to Nazism/fascism and Communism as a threat.
Herf's first sentence could be a description of City Hall's reaction to Pamela Geller's anti-Jihad ads on our Muni buses---"tolerant and well-intentioned souls" made "uncomfortable" when confronted with undeniable evidence of an anti-Semitic, anti-modern Islamic extremism.  

Why the West consistently underplays the power of bad ideas
by Jeffrey Herf
The American Interest

As uncomfortable as it may make some tolerant and well-intentioned souls, an intellectually respectable case can be made that radical Islam constitutes the third variant of totalitarian ideology politics in modern history. The first version emerged in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The second was that of modern communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. While these first two versions succumbed to military might and ideological exhaustion, respectively, the political, ideological and military battle with radical Islam remains undecided...
Karl Bracher, for many years the leading German historian of the Nazi regime, called attention to what he termed "the problem of underestimation" of the causal impact of totalitarian ideology. Bracher argued that before 1933, during the era of Western appeasement in the mid- to late-1930s, and even during the war itself, many of Hitler's politically influential contemporaries refused to believe that his ideological assertions were actually the basis of his policy.

For varying reasons, Marxists, conservatives and liberals defined sophistication as the ability to see past Hitler's ideological statements to his deeper, more genuine motivations. Hence these "sophisticated" thinkers underestimated the prescriptive intent of his publicly expressed views in foreign policy. (Churchill's willingness to take Hitler at his word was, of course, the exception that proved the rule.) The enduring merit of Hannah Arendt's postwar classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), lay precisely in its challenge to the reductionist approaches to ideas common among Marxist, liberal and conservative analysts.
The problem of underestimation remains with us. When Osama bin Laden declared war on "Jews and Crusaders" in 1998, Washington was obsessed with the presumably more earth-shaking issues of the Lewinsky scandal. Even more striking is that after the attacks of 9/11 and those elsewhere in the world, it is still difficult to convince the American political and intellectual establishment to take the ideology of radical Islam with the seriousness it deserves. Part of the current form of underestimation is due to partisan division, for which the Bush Administration bears some responsibility. Yet part is also due to habits of mind that are perhaps not so distinct from what passed for political sophistication in the mid-20th century and which have also become components of contemporary American liberal perspectives.
On September 5, 2006, President Bush delivered what a non-partisan observer would have been right to view as a well-informed, thoughtful speech on "The Global War on Terror." In just over 5,600 words, he described the ideological dimensions of the terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism. The President said, "We know what the terrorists intend to do because they've told us­ and we need to take their words seriously." He drew on documents from the world of Islamist terrorism to present its totalitarian worldview, its strategy and its tactical flexibility in considerable detail.

But the President's attempt at a serious presentation didn't elicit an equally serious response from the political opposition and the press. The next day, the New York Times reported that "[t]he speech used a classic strategy of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, who specializes in turning a candidate's weakness into a strength. In this case, Mr. Bush's weakness is that Mr. bin Laden has not been captured­--a point that was quickly picked up by Democrats. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said that if Mr. Bush had ‘unleashed the American military to do the job at Tora Bora four years ago and killed Osama bin Laden, he wouldn't have to quote this barbarian's words today.'"
The focus of attention shifted from the accuracy of the President's claims about Islamic extremism to the presumably partisan motives for giving such a speech in the first place...
The rest of the article is here.

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