Is the ‘New York Review of Books’ afraid of Islam?

on 45 Comments

I believe that the answer to the question in my headline is Yes, and the best evidence is a line in a recent piece in the New York Review saying that during the Arab spring, Islamists have “corrected history” by reviving “the era of musulmans sans frontières.” This is a more acceptable way of saying that Islamists want to restore the Caliphate and Sharia law, which of course is the allegation by the far-right Islamophobes Robert Spencer and David Yerushalmi. But imagine for a moment a piece in a leading intellectual magazine speaking of Jews “sans frontieres,” invoking the bugaboo of the international Jew, the Jew who cares nothing for patriotism to the country he lives in. That of course would be considered anti-Semitic.

But the New York Review of Books has no problem publishing an alarm about musulmans sans frontieres.

I make this claim against the New York Review slightly tentatively– because Islamophobia is widely shared throughout the American establishment, and that mitigates the offense. On this site we have focused on extremes of Islamophobia, but the secret truth is, Many Americans are suspicious of Muslims or afraid of Muslims. As Moustafa Bayoumi said recently, nearly two-thirds of Americans have never met a Muslim. So it is not their fault entirely that they have alien pictures of Muslims. Just as Jews were an alien group in the early 1900s, and anti-Semitism soared in the United States. Just as racism against blacks was pervasive in the segregated American establishment through the 1970s, and we routinely heard about the pathologies of ghetto culture. Americans didn’t know Catholics in the 1840s, and that fear of the stranger produced anti-Catholic riots.

But there’s a term for being prejudiced against a human family you don’t know: ignorance. And intellectuals should never valorize ignorance. It’s their job to combat ignorance. 

I know about Islamophobia in American elites because I have been prey to it myself. I knew no Muslims until a few years ago. When I began going to Arab countries, I was very aware of cultural differences between the west and Muslim societies– and disturbed by the public role given women. This remains an important issue to me. On my last trip overseas, I went from occupied Palestine at Ramadan–where few were drinking and women wore tunics buttoned to the neck in fiendishly hot weather– to Greece, where everyone was drinking and everyone wore skimpy outfits on the beach. It was more fun in Greece. There are important cultural differences between east and west; and I must tell you that when liberal Americans decline to take up the Palestinian cause, one reason is that liberal feminists are wary of Islamism. The new correspondent for the New York Times in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, is someone who openly battled the “patriarchy” in the United States; and I would imagine that women’s freedom is a crucial criterion for her when she weighs Palestinian society against the Israeli society she lives in.

I have seen this wariness often in the New York Review of Books since the Egyptian revolution. Pieces in the magazine have emphasized the possible setbacks to women’s rights when Salafis are in the Parliament. (And yes I myself wrote about the persecution experienced by Coptic Christians when I was in Cairo.)

But this latest piece by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, called This Is Not a Revolution, goes beyond earlier pieces in its degree of fear about what is taking place in the Arab world. It is just chaos, the authors argue, and as likely a step backward in history as a step forward, with Islamists throwing a dark cloak over the whole region. The lack of thoughtfulness in the piece is indicated by the absurd title– as if what happened in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia was not revolution.

There is no charity in this piece, no marveling at the Arab achievement. There is no hopefulness or even open-endedness, no concession that all revolutions produce turmoil, as they did in France and America and Russia. There is little information in the piece about the important ways that Islamists have tempered their religious agenda now that they have power.

And of course there is nothing about the western-backed religious agenda that helped produce the clash of civilizations in the Middle East: the triumph of Zionism in Palestine.

As I have written here before, I believe in a clash of civilizations. There are real differences in tribe and religion and sect that are more important today than the former clash of empire and colony. Zionism is a more important factor in U.S. policy in the Middle East than the military-industrial complex.

But even if you believe in a clash of civilizations, that is no excuse for our elite, for the leading journal of American intellectual life, to succumb to common fears of the other. It is the job of intellectuals to analyze and to lead, to look at root causes, and in this case to survey the history of racial bigotry and try and rise above it. As Mustafa Bayoumi and Lizzy Ratner did so honorably in the Nation several weeks ago, with a special issue on Islamophobia that helped progressives to understand: if you opposed anti-Semitism, then you must oppose Islamophobia.

As I say, I have struggled with this prejudice myself. And what I have learned is that while Muslims may come out of more traditional societies than ours, they are engaged in the same struggles for freedom that we are engaged in. And their struggle for women’s rights and gay rights is inspiring because it is that much more difficult than the struggle is now in the west. Just take a walk through Nablus some day with the young feminist Beesan Ramadan, and see all that Beesan is up against. In Beesan’s eyes and words, I see the exact same desire for intellectual and social freedom I’ve seen in activists in the west.

Then step back and reflect that the greatest obstacle to Beesan’s freedom is apartheid, imposed by our close ally Israel, on a religious basis. And rationalized by American elites, because after all those people are Muslims— a rationale that the New York Review of Books is quietly feeding.

I have overcome my own prejudice by getting to know Muslims. I’ve found that I dislike some and like others, and some are highly intelligent and most aren’t, etc. And three or four are people I’ve become very close to because we share temperament and values. I have observed in myself the same transformation that Americans experienced with respect to Jews. They’re different, but they’re not. They’re part of our society, they enrich our society. It seems to me that this process is far easier for young people who take our generational battles for granted (on civil rights, feminism and gay rights) and are looking at the next ridge. But it is a progressive’s duty, whatever his or her age, to climb that ridge. And not succumb, as the New York Review has, into an unkind, generational fear.

45 Responses

  1. jewishgoyim
    November 3, 2012, 12:05 pm

    I did not know that Phil believed in “a clash of civilization”. I don’t know if Phil means something like a “natural” confrontation that needs to run its course but if that’s the case, he might as well close Mondoweiss and hand out the keys to the lobby…

    I think what we’re seeing is rather “differences in civilizations” that could easily be copped with if the Western world were not adamant in seeing “gay prides” in Teheran (not in Riyad by the way) at once!

    This “clash of civilization” is the basis of the neoconish propaganda apparatus. It is more and more difficult as events like 9/11 and plain fabrications are succeeding in changing the Western psyche but in my view, one must draw the intellectual line in the sand ways before conceding there is a clash of civilization.

    The “clash of civilization” theory is a fig leaf for westerners to explain away why the absolute control demanded of Arabo-muslims may here and there be met with some resistance. It is a fascist and colonialist concept to impose total submission (and silence internal opposition like mondoweiss, antiwar, greenwald…).

    We are propagandized into seeing the Muslim world as this dangerous juggernaut out to get us precisely as the violence we impose over there is many folds the violence it is able to project to our shore (I’m talking more than 1 to 100 or a 1 to 1000).

    It is ridiculous. The Muslim world is in truth weaker than we make it out to be. Most of the clash of civilisation is a fabrication. What would be left of it with a Palestinian State and a “soft power” approach to the region?

  2. bobsmith
    November 3, 2012, 12:08 pm

    I had a similar reaction to the article when I read it in print. NYRB has published plenty of criticism of Zionism, such as by Beinart’s book (which Mondoweiss covered last May). Do a Google search with “ zionism” and you’ll see how long liberal Zionism and even post-Zionism has been covered in its pages. On the other hand, a similar search on “islam” or “islamism” on the site reveals a less progressive view. Agha and Malley have long been a tag team warning against Islamism. Of course, Agha made a career as a friend of Fatah with no time for Hamas. Malley worked for “Israel’s lawyer” on the Camp David accords. Past NYRB articles have included reviews of books on Islam by Bernard Lewis, Salman Rushdie, and numerous pieces on Islam by Malise Ruthven, the colonialist author of the term “Islamofascism,” whose veddy British forebears were thrown out of Egypt. So, yes, the slant is notable in a magazine I otherwise enjoy reading.

    • Philip Weiss
      November 3, 2012, 12:38 pm

      Thank you for providing research I should have provided.

    • seafoid
      November 3, 2012, 12:54 pm

      I think the NY Review is still pretty poor when it comes to Israel. For every Shulman article there’ll be three Zionist ones. This site covers stuff that I never see in the Review.

      What is the point of giving space to Agha and Malley explaining again why the Palestinians do not deserve their rights ?

      • seafoid
        November 3, 2012, 3:46 pm

        I don’t think the review would dare print the opinion of someone from hamas or fatah or that of a palestinian academic. The only contributors worth reading on israel- judt and shulman- are/were both jewish. The review is unmissable otherwise but on israel’s occupation is marked by cowardice imo. BTW this seems to be an American media problem. The progressive is no different. I never ever see jokes about israel in the funny times which compiles op ed cartoons. Israel is pretty much untouchable.

  3. Miura
    November 3, 2012, 12:23 pm

    “…one journal that was smart enough to react intelligently was the New York Review of Books.“.

    • Donald
      November 3, 2012, 3:00 pm

      The record of NYRB is mixed on this subject, I think. In fact, it was these very authors who were among those who pushed back on the claim that Clinton and Barak had tried to offer a just solution to the Palestinians, but Arafat rejected it. They said there was fault on all sides for the failure of the talks in 2000-2001, which was a pretty revolutionary claim within mainstream American circles at the time.

      Also, even this article is mixed, IMO. They are questioning the view you find among some that the Syrian civil war is a simple one of good against evil. I’m going to see if I can find Asad AbuKhalil’s post on this article at “The Angry Arab” blog. I think his view was more nuanced than Phil’s.

      • Donald
        November 3, 2012, 3:12 pm

        Found it. I mean As’ad AbuKhalil’s post on this article. He says it’s one of the best articles he’s seen on the Arab Spring.


        You don’t have to demonize Islamists or be an Islamophobe to worry about some of their views, you know.

    • Henry Norr
      November 3, 2012, 4:11 pm

      Miura: I’m not sure what you intended to communicate with that out-of-context quotation about the NYRB. For those who didn’t bother to follow the link, it goes to the transcript of a talk by Noam Chomsky about Norman Finkelstein’s exposure of Joan Peter’s From Time Immemorial as a fraud. Here’s a more extensive excerpt:

      Finkelstein’s very persistent: he took a summer off and sat in the New York Public Library, where he went through every single reference in the book—and he found a record of fraud that you cannot believe. Well, the New York intellectual community is a pretty small place, and pretty soon everybody knew about this, everybody knew the book was a fraud and it was going to be exposed sooner or later. The one journal that was smart enough to react intelligently was the New York Review of Books—they knew that the thing was a sham, but the editor didn’t want to offend his friends, so he just didn’t run a review at all. [emphasis added] That was the one journal that didn’t run a review.

      Perhaps choosing to say nothing about a book they knew to be a fraud was an “intelligent” reaction on the part of the NYRB editors, in terms of protecting their jobs and their status in the Zionist-dominated market they serve. I guess it was better than giving the book the kind of rave the New York Times and so many other publications did. But that choice was hardly a sign of courage or integrity. On the contrary!

      On the other side of the ledger, I do appreciate their providing an occasional outlet for David Shulman, who writes marvelously but seems to get almost no play in other media. Maybe they print him because he’s still a Zionist, of sorts, but at least he’s honest about what’s actually happening on the ground, and beyond that – beyond even Gideon Levy and other Israelis with open eyes and hearts – he actually puts his body on the line, on a regular basis, in support of his liberal convictions.

  4. Rusty Pipes
    November 3, 2012, 6:07 pm

    Phil, I too was troubled by perspective of the Agha & Malley piece at the NYRB — but from a different angle than yours. Like you, I do see how their piece plays into Islamophobic memes. However, unlike you, I have been suspicious of the revolutionary rhetoric (and actions) of those who claim to represent the people of Libya or Syria.

    My problem with A & M is not only that they perpetuate a stereotyope about “Islamism,” but that they attempt to draw a broad picture of the Arab Spring across many differing countries using Islamism, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest unifying factor. As a consequence, they relegate the role of international actors to the realm of Arab conspiracy theories:

    Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.

    What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.

    A & M’s “Islamist” overview leaves little room for fine distinctions between Shias and Sunnis, much less between the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. They make no allusion to the role of the Shia crescent or how the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah “axis of resistance” to Israeli expansionism has been affected by the Arab Spring’s “nonviolent activists” (with anti-aircraft weaponry) in Syria or about how the neocons’ plan for a new American century have advanced without America’s boots on the ground during the Arab Spring.

    • Inanna
      November 4, 2012, 2:13 am

      I hate to break it to you Phil but many of us Arabs and Muslims do see the Islamists, Salafis and Jihadis to be dark forces to fight against but I don’t think that makes us anti-Islamic or Islamphobic. In the same way, for example, that your average western Christian might see fundamentalist Christians who are armed and engaging in violent combat to enforce their retrograde religious ideology. Or even be wary of fundies elected into Congress and try to ban abortion even in the case of rape or deny access to contraception.

      As for your argumentation that A&M don’t saying anything positive about Arabs or hopeful about Arabs – you’re just succumbing to that fake ‘fair and balanced’ crap that Americans think has to be there. This piece may have a few problems but they are certainly not the ones you mentioned. I fear that you are using the same yardstick for Islamophobia that you use for anti-semitism, sometimes seeing bigotry that is not there.

      • Mooser
        November 4, 2012, 12:04 pm

        “I fear that you are using the same yardstick for Islamophobia that you use for anti-semitism, sometimes seeing bigotry that is not there.”


    • Inanna
      November 4, 2012, 8:57 am

      @ Rusty Pipes (btw great name):

      I’m not as troubled as you by the non-mention of the Shia/Sunni divide or the PNAC agenda. I think that adding the former would’ve been quite informative but it doesn’t really negate the thesis that Islamist/Salafi forces supported by Saudi and Qatar are reactionary rather than revolutionary forces. As for PNAC, I think both their agenda and that of the current US admin has really been on the back foot in all this – Agha and Malley at least give Arabs primary agency in all this – whether the secular leftists and unionists who began this whole thing in Tunisia and Egypt or the Brotherhood and Salafis (supported by Qatar and SA respectively) who have their own agenda that might have some similarities with PNAC but who certainly have their own motivations. And I also like the fact that they question the legitimacy of both the revolutionaries and the reactionaries and wonder whether what we have now in Egypt and Syria is a true reflection of political expression.

      • Annie Robbins
        November 4, 2012, 9:28 am

        inanna, speaking of primary agency, i am curious what you think of hillary’s new initiative. link to

      • Inanna
        November 4, 2012, 4:45 pm

        annie, cue derisive laughter. I would doubt the credibility of anyone taking part in this exercise. It’s designed to usurp the agency of Syrians by assuring that any group that forms is sufficiently compliant to US desires, which the US is desperately trying to assert. But if the French, British, German and American secret agencies in Turkey and Syria cannot even unite the religious opposition in Syria or make the SNC relevant in the past 19 months, what hope does the US SoS have in uniting a broader range of activists who oppose the regime? And how to reconcile conflicting Saudi/Qatari interests and counter the disunity resulting from that which is fed by their generous contributions to different parts of the FSA? If Clinton thinks that only the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition is a problem, she obviously doesn’t know much about the Middle East.

  5. RoHa
    November 3, 2012, 9:32 pm

    “But the New York Review of Books has no problem publishing an alarm about musulmans sans frontieres.”

    It seems they do have a problem finding writers who can write English rather than French.

  6. ToivoS
    November 4, 2012, 1:48 am

    Is the ‘New York Review of Books’ afraid of Islam?

    Not if you are using the Agha and Mallory article as evidence. What is clearly on display here is Phil’s own confusion. There is no doubt that there are extremely reactionary elements inside Saudi Arabia called the Salafists. They act in the name of Islam. As did Al Qaida. These elements are sponsored by the Saudi government. The US government also tries to use them as shock troops to advance US interests. We have a history.

    First there was the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when we sponsored them to fight the Soviets.

    Next we gave them tacit support in Bosnia in the 1990s to undermine Yugoslavia and later to defeat the evil Serbians.

    Last year we supplied them with weapons to over throw the Libyan government . When that effort succeeded and they killed Khadaffi, Phil here “exulted” in a victory article. Of course, these same forces just murdered our Ambassador to Libya (oops). This went by without comment here.

    Today these same Salafist elements are trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and Phil seems to think that is a good idea.

    What Agha and Malloy are trying to explain to the humanitarian warrior followers of Clinton, Rice and Powers is that there are some serious problems with what is called the Arab spring. It has empowered some seriously destructive forces in the Islamic world.

    • Inanna
      November 4, 2012, 9:02 am

      Good points. I would add that it wasn’t the Brotherhood and Salafis who were out on the street in Tunisia or Egypt or Bahrain or Syria initially. MB and Salafis are essentially conservative/reactionary forces and they did not call for this revolution. They in fact had a large role in usurping it, violently in the case of Syria.

    • gamal
      November 4, 2012, 10:19 am

      I see nothing to complain about in the article, except all the final paragraph, perhaps, about how the western powers helped liberate the Arabs from, inter alia Saddam Hussein, when it is well known that they also helped install him and conspired against Abdul Kareem Kasem, a Shia much and much beloved revolutionary leader by all sectors of the Iraqi people, dispatched like Lumumba with the connivance of our then man in Baghdad Saddam Hussein, and Turkey the west supplanted Turkey sure enough, but liberate is too strong a word to use.

      Also re Salafists, i never thought i would say this but i prefer the term Muslim Fundamentalist to the use of Salafi, or Jihadi-Salafi, but there we are, it seems to have stuck. such things as islah so ripe for misunderstanding cant be far behind. Because of its derivation from a traditional phrase the Pious Ancestors, in one sense all Muslims would sort of consider themselves salafi, though it has in truth assumed a new meaning, depressingly, no doubt al-Islah cant be far behind.

      most Muslim Fundamentalists are political quietists, and oddly are in some senses some of them are more liberal than some traditionists, but really strangely they have the reputation of favouring the Hanafi madhab, Abu Hanifa in the crucial matter of what constitutes unbelief differed with the Muatazilites (Rationalists), the Hanbalites and even Ashari in asserting that faith in the heart and declaration were enough crucially rejecting “acts” as signs of unbelief, odd.

      Modern Fundamentalists call each other Khawarij or Murji’a, derogatively, the Khawarij being what would now be called Jihadi-Salafist, both terms are drawn from the crises of legitimacy that began in the reign of Uthman, the Murji’a or postponers accepted his rule despite his questionable policies and the Khawarij (seceders) derive from an incident during the battle the Siffin when Ali with astonishing magnanimity accepted arbitration at the point of victory, he really did behave very well during the whole battle, witness the skirmishes at the river, only to be denounced by some of his followers crying “la hukm illa li-llah” Judgement is Gods alone, so they seceded from his camp and eventually one of their number assassinated him, as he was praying, he also behaved very well while dying and is reported to have said when the guy who struck him with a sword as he was prostrating was brought back to the scene bound moments later “loosen the ropes on that man, cant you see that they are hurting him, treat him kindly”( from the Naghul Balagha) before bleeding to death. Sunnis though revering Ali obviously privately feel he was a touch too idealistic and his opponent the son of Abu Sofyan, and an Umayya like Uthman, one of the Prophets most determined enemies assumed control of the state, and was admirably worldly and practical in administering it, from this traditionist scholars propound a distrust of idealistic rulers, but they wont tell you that, its a behind closed door kind of thing.

      anyway as to the current Arab foreign legion they are terrifying anyone supporting their depredations in the Levant and North Africa is going regret it and no doubt blame the barbarity of Islam. I thought it was a good article because i largely agree with it, so no surprise there, our people are exhausted and frightened despite their bravery and steadfastness, they have children to feed and old people to protect its not a game and no new worlds are being birthed, its the same old game of domination and the powers are opting for chaos.

      • ToivoS
        November 4, 2012, 4:21 pm

        Gamal, thanks for these details. They are obviously relevant. I kept it overly simple to make a point. That is, it is a losing game for the US to try to choose among the various warring factions. They have their own agendas and they are not those of the US. Our policy should be to simply leave them alone and let them sort out their problems.

      • gamal
        November 4, 2012, 10:48 pm

        I dont think i added much to what you said T with which i broadly i agree, except perhaps that this regions has “problems” which do not relate to the international system, of domination, established by the Bretton Woods institutions, UN etc, here is a bit of non-aligned speech from Nkrumah that summarizes how things look to us Third-worldist dupes, the processes underway in the Arab world are nothing new, many of us have been watching their evolution for our whole lives, in Nu’mans article you can see our insistence on being allowed to articulate our perspective, different perhaps from those whose knowledge of our societies comes from speed reading the latest news in conjunction with some superficial historical texts, its strange that sub-saharan Africa is rarely mentioned these days, and that its striking similarities with what is going on in the Arab world rarely referenced, i think it helps to look at them as whole : here the Pan-Africanists speak,

        Nkrumah wrote that the political economic situation in the world is one in which a tiny minority of the people grower “richer and richer, while the rest grow poorer and poorer.” Challenge of the Congo, p. x He further elaborated that the situation required world socialism as it was the only remedy, for “as long as capitalism and imperialism go unchecked there will always be exploitation, and an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and all the evils of imperialism and neo-colonialism which breed and sustain wars.” Challenge of the Congo, prefice, p. x.
        Kwame Nkrumah

        He also warned against dependence on capitalist global institutions such as the United Nation Organization (UN) and the Bretton Woods institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. Of the UN he reminded us that the UN is the tool of the elite states which control the Security Council and that it was / is “just as reliable an instrument for world order and peace as the Great Powers are prepared to allow it to be.” I Speak of Freedom, preface, p xii.

        Which, as in the case of the Congo, the creation of the Zionist terrorist entity, the continuing disguised warfare against states such as Cuba, the more overt wars being prosecuted throughout every region of the world and everything else that plagues humanity, means absolutely no corrective action at all, indeed it means that the capitalist super power and its allies have a free hand to create mayhem and destruction wherever it chooses.

        Thus he emphasized that socialism and true African unity were and are “organic and complementary.” Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare Warfare, p. 28

        This is his challenge to us and his legacy to us. We must embrace his call and complete the job that he and his millions of colleagues began in the latter half of the 20th century. We, the staff of Pan-African Perspective, hope that these selected quotes will be of use to you and encourage you to continue your commitment to the noble struggle of creating a socialist, united African continent and global nation. This is our only hope of finding the justice, freedom, happiness and prosperity that is in fact the right of all humanity. “History has shown that where the Great Powers cannot colonize, they balkanize. This is what they did to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and this is what they have done and are doing in Africa. If we allow ourselves to be balkanized, we shall be re-colonized and be picked off one after the other….”

        link to

      • Inanna
        November 4, 2012, 4:36 pm

        Very good points gamal.

  7. Rizla
    November 4, 2012, 2:38 am

    A lot of good comments above. Generally — NYRB has gone downhill from the 80’s-90’s when I used to read it at my folks’… A lot less dialogue about all sorts of stuff (including literature); a ton of stuff about what the establishment wants you to think (their multi-part Election special in the same issue Phil mentioned)… It depresses me. Phil, all your comments on NYRB are from the heart and I agree and feel the same way. I think the way forward lies in making new realities. New voices. You’ve done it here. But I do miss the old NYRB. [and I’m worrying about my friends in New Jersey, so I’m out…]

  8. Nevada Ned
    November 4, 2012, 3:10 am

    Noam Chomsky’s brilliant essays against the Vietnam war helped to establish the reputation of the NYR in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but Chomsky has been blacklisted by the NYRB for the last 40-odd years. Which tell you all you need to know about the NYR.
    Chomsky was “prematurely critical” of Israel, and he criticized not just the Israeli right wing (Begin and Sharon), but also criticized the labor Zionists who ran Israel from 1948 until 1977.
    All of which established Chomsky as “too radical”.
    NYR preferred Bernard Avishai and Tony Judt instead of Chomsky.

  9. Shmuel
    November 4, 2012, 6:35 am


    First of all, thanks for pointing out Agha and Malley’s terrific analysis. Where on earth did you get the idea that it is Islamophobic? From the line about “musulmans sans frontières”? Your analogy to a Jewish conspiracy for world domination is completely off-base. Agha and Malley simply (actually, not simply at all) describe the tensions in the Arab and Islamic world between nationalism and trans-national, shared identities – Islam, in particular. Where is the prejudice in that? Why was the “Arab Spring” so quick to cross borders – from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, and beyond – if not as a result of the deep historical connections between the people of these post-colonial states, shared identities, processes and projects?

    Where do you see fear or fear-mongering in this sober, scholarly analysis? Robert Spencer and David Yerushalmi? Really?

  10. lproyect
    November 4, 2012, 7:39 am

    I think the NYR is simply reflecting the consensus of elite opinion on the Arab Spring, which amounts to buyer’s remorse. There were high expectations that somebody like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi would emerge clutching a copy of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” in one hand and the phone directory of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in the other. Nowhere has the disappointment been keener than in Libya where the militias are Washington’s worst nightmare. What is going on here? We expected these people to turn in their guns and follow their leaders obediently. Maybe decades of dictatorship has made them unruly. That is one of the reasons there has been no support for the FSA in Syria. Despite the bleating of the pro-Assad left, there has been no real support for the overthrow of Assad.

    • Miura
      November 4, 2012, 9:40 am

      Here is an exchange in NYRB pages between Edward Said and Noam Chomsky on one side and the “philosophers” Michael Walzer and Avishai Margalit on the other. The sophomoric quality of Walzer and Margalit’s arguments reminds one of George Scialabba’s take on the “Moral Giant”/”spokesman of the Decent Left” Walzer:

      I have cited several statements in Arguing about War that seem to me inaccurate, misleading, or biased, invariably in Israel’s favor. They are representative of many more. Twenty-five years ago, in a review of Just and Unjust Wars, Noam Chomsky tellingly observed that Walzer all too often “assigns a special status to Israel and reconstructs the moral world accordingly.” Sadly, Walzer has not profited from that comradely criticism. On the contrary, to judge from Arguing about War, the distortion of moral perspective that Chomsky noted has become chronic, and probably terminal.

      Incidentally, another telegenic Aung San Suu Kyi-like leader who remained Washington’s preferred client till her death was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto despite her well documented weakness for 8 figure kickbacks. Suu Kyi has revealed a less than saintly side recently by by maintaining a “curious silence” on pogroms routinely carried out against a despised minority in her country.

      • gamal
        November 4, 2012, 10:14 pm

        a friend of mines father was a member of the SOE during the second world war, dropped into Burma to fight the Japanese, his local contact and leader of the anti-Japanese forces and ally of the old colonial administration was one General Aun Sang (sp?). His name was Lieutenant Colonel Tom Carew.

        link to

    • gamal
      November 4, 2012, 10:57 am

      well you do have a point Louis, the centripetal forces that the authors allude to, of tribalism, thats always a good one, and sectarians etc are receiving enthusiastic support from the USA’s regional allies, and the problem is that the local forces of both the left and those that just want more responsible governance, even if it is neo-liberal or capitalist are simply no match for the global forces ranged against them, despite the odiousness of the Syrian regime, which they share in no small measure with such regimes as that in power in Washington, but i dont see scores of Americans fighting and dying destroying the material bases for social organization, perhaps it is all just pro-baath bleating, is Libya the model? the problem is that these societies have been under considerable stress for a very long time, and are deeply penetrated by all sorts of foreign agencies destruction of the state will provide tremendous opportunities for all sorts of retrograde forces to manipulate the outcomes of any general conflagration, the only regional groups with an organizational capacity are Islamists and they are disastrously inept. its like a revolution without revolutionaries,

      No doubt the authors also do represent the disappointment of hawks in the US who were hoping for more favourable results but they also hint at the Congo option, endless low intensity conflict which is better than nothing for the empire, and the people of the region are likely to retire from the political arena in terror leaving the terrain open for some very retrograde groups.

      The US has rarely had problems with Arab regimes they are easily co-opted, the worry so eloquently described in an Eisenhower presidency national security document has been the resistance of the peoples to domination, they may not be delirious with joy at current developments but they don’t have too much worry about either, dont you think? what are the major challenges they face in Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi, Somalia, Afghanistan. Iraq and the Gulf? not local revolutionary forces anyway, perhaps Russian and Chinese penetration over the next few decades.

  11. Felice Gelman
    November 4, 2012, 11:59 am

    Just a tiny message re your comment on Jodi Rudoren NYT correspondant… “women’s freedom is a crucial criterion for her when she weighs Palestinian society against the Israeli society she lives in.” Israel, using the same hasbara techniques we are so familiar with, for years has gotten far more mileage than it deserves out of issues relating to the status of women. Even 20 years ago, at social occasions in Tel Aviv, I remember the extreme disinterest and dismissiveness of Israeli men in my work and professional life. I felt it like a slap in the face at the time — a startling contrast to life in the U.S. Today, the myth of warrior equality — the women tank drivers, etc. has vanished. Instead, women face constant challenges from the religious right — dress, employment, even their presence in public places — and a constant imperative from mainstream society to be sure to bear enough children to outrun those frightening Arab “demographics.” If Jodi is alert to the Israeli society she lives in, she will find the situation of women in Israel deteriorating rapidly — surely a cost of the endless occupation and the ideology that enables it.

  12. Mooser
    November 4, 2012, 12:01 pm

    “the era of musulmans sans frontières.”

    Ah! Another mystery solved. Thanks!

  13. aiman
    November 4, 2012, 7:48 pm

    This has got to stand as one of Phil Weiss’s most blundering articles in an otherwise jewelled pile. It is not Islamophobic to criticise the “revolution” in which hypermasculine thugs have usurped power from former tyrants. That they claim that “revolution” is in the name of Islam is neither here nor there. The concept of “revolution” was artificially implanted in Muslim politics, nay theology itself, by the founder of Muslim terrorism and regressiveness named Maududi. His ideas were celebrated in Saudi Arabia and led to the Iranian “revolution”. But as one intelligent scholar at the time pointed out: “No revolution, only evolution.” While Maududi’s heretical ideas were celebrated, the noble scholar’s translation of the Qur’an is banned in Saudi Arabia and was burned by fundamentalist thugs in Morocco. That should tell you something that “revolution” will only empower the most powerful, hypermasculine and violent forces in places. In Libya, Qaddafi was lynched in tribal vendetta, in Syria Assad is being hounded by sectarian thugs funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. That both Qaddafi and Asad are/were tyrants should be noted but you can’t do that without considering the evildoers on the other side. As the history of the world attests, the meek get trodden up time and again. And as a great man said, may they inherit the earth.

    My question is, how can you support these inorganic revolutions, which are different from popular uprisings like in Tunisia, and at the same time complain about puritanical ideas? It is exactly these same puritanical forces who have usurped the former halls of injustice.

    • gamal
      November 4, 2012, 11:38 pm

      Yes aiman, Maududi, one thing you say that his ideas, led to the Iranian revolution isnt that going a bit far, the overthrow of Mossadegh and the installation of Shah were surely the proximate cause of the Iranian revolution.

      Actually Maududi is a deeply depressing character in the history of modern Islamic thought, to true, also he was not a Scholar whatever else he was; Nadwi on Maududi:

      By Yoginder Sikand,

      The late Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (or Ali Miyan as he was also known) was one of the leading Indian ulema of modern times. A noted writer, he headed the famous Nadwat ul-Ulema madrasa in Lucknow from 1961 till his death in 1999. He was associated with several other Indian as well as international Islamic organisations, a mark of the high respect that he was accorded among Muslims all over the world.

      Maulana Nadwi’s wrote extensively on a vast range of subjects, including on Islam and politics. On this issue, his views underwent a gradual process of change and maturation, beginning with his early association with a leading Indian Islamist formation and later making a forceful critique of some crucial aspects of its understanding of Islam. His views in this regard point to the little-known yet rich internal debate among Indian Muslim scholars about the relationship between Islam and politics, particularly on the question of what Islamists describe as an ‘Islamic state’.

      In 1940, Maulana Nadwi came under the influence of Sayyid Maududi, the founder of the principal Indian Islamist outfit, the Jamaat-i Islami. Maududi, along with the Egyptian Syed Qutb, may be said to be among the pioneers of contemporary Islamism. Soon after joining the Jamaat, Maulana Nadwi was put in-charge of its activities in Lucknow. This relationship proved short-lived, however, and he left the Jamaat in 1943. He later wrote that he was disillusioned by the perception that many members of the Jamaat were going to what he called ‘extremes’ in adoring and glorifying Maududi as almost infallible, this bordering on ‘personality worship’. At the same time, he felt that many Jamaat activists believed that they had nothing at all to learn from any other scholars of Islam. He was also concerned with what he saw as a lack of personal piety in Maududi and some leading Jamaat activists and with their criticism of other Muslim groups.

      Maulana Nadwi’s opposition to the Jamaat’s understanding about Islam and politics, which it shared with most other Islamist formations, comes out clearly in his Urdu book Asr-i Hazir Mai Din Ki Tahfim-o-Tashrih (‘Understanding and Explaining Religion in the Contemporary Age’) which he penned in 1978, and which won him, so he says in his introduction to its second edition published in 1980, fierce condemnation from leading members of the Jamaat. Here, Maulana Nadwi takes Maududi to task for having allegedly misinterpreted central Islamic beliefs in order to suit his own political agenda, presenting Islam, he says, as little more than a political programme. Thus, he accuses Maududi of wrongly equating the Islamic duty of ‘establishing religion’ with the setting up of an Islamic state with God as Sovereign and Law Maker. At Maududi’s hands, he says, ‘God’, ‘The Sustainer’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Worship’ have all been reduced to political concepts. In this way, Maududi, Maulana Nadwi says, sought to incorrectly suggest that Islam is simply about political power and that the relationship between God and human beings is only that between an All-Powerful King and His subjects. However, Maulana Nadwi says, this relationship is also one of ‘love’ and ‘realisation of the Truth’, which is far more comprehensive than what Maududi envisages.

      Linked to Maulana Nadwi’s critique of Maududi for having allegedly reduced Islam to a mere political project was his concern that not only was such an approach a distortion of the actual import of the Quran but also that it was impractical, if not dangerous, in the Indian context. Thus, he argued, Maududi’s insistence that to accept the commands of anyone other than God, including of an elected government, was tantamount to shirk, the crime of associating others with God, as this was allegedly akin to ‘worship’, was not in keeping with the teachings of Islam. God, Maulana Nadwi wrote, had, in His wisdom, left several areas of life free for people to decide how they could govern them, within the broad limits set by the Islamic law or shariah, and guided by a concern for social welfare.”

      link to

      • aiman
        November 5, 2012, 2:31 am

        Gamal, thanks for that article. It’s very interesting and sits in well with a few conclusions I have made myself. Allow me to share one on the topic of “revolution”, a concept Maududi inserts in his rendering of the Qur’an. Maududi borrowed this concept from what was happening in Russia etc. and this changes the meaning of religion itself and opens into a sphere of oppression and puritanism.

        Muhammad Asad’s critique of the concept of revolution from the Islamic standpoint in his 1948 work The Principles of State and Government in Islam, which would be revisited in his future projects, is the earliest of its kind and is an indirect reference to Mawdudi’s thesis. Asad would also live through the so-called Islamic revolution in Iran, witnessing the growth of the movement. “Islamisation” here was nothing short of intellectual dishonesty, a form of cultural realisation and of authoritarian control over Muslims. In these states women were invisible and difference of opinion was not tolerated. In contrast, Islam inspires God’s unceasing teachings and mercy, uplifting man to a level which he attains through His belief in the One God accompanied by good works which rescinds the first and only response of the angels to God on His declaration to “establish upon the earth one who shall inherit it” (The Second Chapter, Verse 30).

        Like the forebears of Zionism and Hindutva, Maududi conceives of Islam as a political project, he was the first to form an “Islamist” political party and personally instigated sectarian riots. That’s the reason Zionism interests me so much, many people who attack it do from the purely secular standpoint but I think both Zionism and Islamism require a full theological assault in addition to that, expanding on the work of genuine moral believers like Elmer Berger and Muhammad Abduh.

        And yes you’re right that it is going too far to say that his ideas led to the Iranian “revolution”. I would correct that by saying that his ideas had direct bearing on the Iranian revolution and also inform present-day Puritanism in Iran and even Saudi Arabia. Maududi was a huge disaster to Muslim ethics and he undid the great direction Muhammad Abduh had taken Muslim ethics in, which would have followed an uplifting modern Enlightenment with rights for both men and women and a culture of education and liberality of experience. The combination of British colonialism and self-serving charlatans like Maududi who took advantage of communities looking for direction following the collapse of the British Empire defines our present. The task of today’s Muslim and Jewish thinkers is to undo that damage and usher in a tradition of humanity and compassion for everyone.

      • gamal
        November 5, 2012, 7:18 pm

        Hi aiman, I want to post a reply to your beautiful sentiments but have some duties to perform first

        “The task of today’s Muslim and Jewish thinkers is to undo that damage and usher in a tradition of humanity and compassion for everyone.”
        though I am generally unburdened by positive “beliefs” of any kind I could not have said anything better than that, quite so, and the astonishing Rabbi David Israel Weiss would I am sure agree. As in their heart of hearts would everyone, i guess.

        thank you i am very much in your debt.

  14. piotr
    November 4, 2012, 10:56 pm

    Like some others, I do not find the article to be “Islamophobic”. If anything, Muslim Brotherhood type of Islamism is presented as cautious and not dictatorial, as befits a political party in a normal democratic state. And more secular political forces emerged tainted and disorganized, but the authors expects that they will have their day if the current governments in Egypt and Tunisia will not fulfill popular expectations, some of which pertain to a more resolute policy in respect to Israel.

    That much is spelled out. Situation is Syria is sketched with very broad brush, but again, it is hard to find faults in the analysis which could have large part borrowed from Angry Arab.

    That said, the title is wrong. There was a revolution. A revolution because whatever ideology the regimes in Egypt, Tunesia, Yemen and Libya had, the reality was of oppression and corruption. In the case of Egypt, the regime followed the path of Islamisation, so it managed to combine social regress AND tainting the secular ideologies that the dictators followed about 40-50 years ago. Getting rid of kleptocrats and releasing normal politics between different social trends is a revolutionary change. And I did not notice any mention of corruption and oppression.

    The article did not mention terror either, or barely. Hamas is described basically as a political movement, and moderate at that. On Israel, it is hard to tell what authors think, as hints are a bit contradictory. And the issue of oppression is very much pertinent to Israel, and if the opposition to oppression as a normal tool of governance takes root in the Arab world, Israel with its current policies will find resolute opposition sooner or later — which is kind mentioned somewhat obliquely in the article.

    Perhaps authors are conservative themselves, and “this is not a revolution” is meant “it turned out better than we thought”.

  15. aiman
    November 4, 2012, 11:09 pm

    Notwithstanding the contradictions inherent in the argument, I agree with Phil about the phrase “musulmans sans frontières” which gives away Agha and Malley’s colonial-more-than-Islamophobic mentality. Let’s also note how colonialism and puritanism and religious heresy abet each other, weakening the structures of society and preventing the formation of a civic society. The clash of civilisations is an ideology constructed by damaging thinkers like Bernard Lewis and Maududi, from positions of power and weakness respectively but positions which have led to charges of “infidelity” and “otherness” of the stranger and the meek.

    • dbroncos
      November 5, 2012, 2:46 am

      The political struggles in traditionally Islamic societies need to be worked out by the citizens who live there. If it takes a year to accomplish a strong measure of stability, equity and continuity -great! If it takes one hundred years so be it. Waging war, including economic warfare, as part of a Western effort to make over Islamic societies in our own image is a farce.

      • aiman
        November 5, 2012, 3:51 am

        I agree, and conservatism and imperialism feed off each other. I would, however, not call any living society traditionally Islamic since tradition died in the 10th century with the end of the era of creative thought and what is “tradition” is merely parroting the past without knowledge of the past. More on that, check the excellent book This Law of Ours by Muhammad Asad. From an Amazon review by Naushad Sheikh:

        “The author Muhammad Asad explains why the Shari’ah is no longer a dominating factor in the lives of Millions of Muslims, as it once was in the very early history of Islam. The book is realy a collection of thoughts, essays and broadcasts made by the author over a 40 year period. At once we realise how Shari’ah has come to be manipulated in the hands of a few specialists who call themselves fuquha, who themselves have forgotten that the opinions of the four Imams are only time bound and could have no bearing on todays problems. Yet this absurd notion of piety for the dead scholars is continued to this day by many scholars, with endless rhetoric about nobody now is cable of understanding the Shari’ah. The author argues strongly that the Shari’ah, by its very nature a divine law cannot be subject to scholary opinion, but must be laid down in plain terms, technically called a nass. By their very nature most of these nass injuctions are always given in general terms, to allow for human social development.”

        link to

  16. marc b.
    November 5, 2012, 10:02 am

    the current issue of the NYRB is worth a read front-to-back, not just for the article cited, but to get a sense of its focus. i don’t have time for a detailed comment, but the ‘clash of civilizations’ meme is also present in an article by rachel polonsky on russian literature, the collision of civilizations being in that case being between slav and khazar. the literature bit is just cover for an ‘historical’ analysis of this clash.

    also, OT, but see yehuda bauer on FDR’s ‘failure’ to save european jews.

    link to

  17. maggielorraine
    November 5, 2012, 4:52 pm

    “One reason is that liberal feminists are wary of Islamism”

    One reason is that liberal feminists don’t actually know much about Islamism, Islamist women, Islamic feminists, Muslim women, or Muslims for that matter.

    Saba Mahmood – Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject
    Lara Deeb – An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon
    Elizabeth Fernea – In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey
    Lila Abu Lughod – Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East

    Just to start. As one of those “liberal feminists” this absolutely rocked my world.

    As for the clash of civilizations, Phil…I’m a bit disappointed. I know you’re a journalist, and I know where your heart is, so I understand. But please, read more.

  18. piotr
    November 5, 2012, 9:12 pm

    Certain types of conservatism are only loosely connected to imperialism etc. In any society some people want “new improved” and some “return to our Golden Age” with different (usually mythologized) concept of that Golden Age.

    I did not find the phrase “musulmans sans frontières” colonialist. The article is pretty acerbic about everyone, including “the West”. The phrase itself is neutral, and one has to admit that the principle of religious solidarity can be used to guide international alliances. Including our Congress, where members care of Christians are abused (especially if they are recently converted Protestants), and in case of Muslim getting slaughered, which happens on occasion, that MAY be a point of concern if the perpetrators are Greek Orthodox, due to historical connection to Communism, but in other cases — like now in Myammar — not so much.

  19. Mooser
    November 28, 2012, 5:05 pm

    “On my last trip overseas, I went from occupied Palestine at Ramadan–where few were drinking and women wore tunics buttoned to the neck in fiendishly hot weather– to Greece, where everyone was drinking and everyone wore skimpy outfits on the beach.”

    Yup, you can always tell how advanced a society is by how much the women drink, and how skimpy their bathing-attire is.

    • Rizla
      December 20, 2012, 4:09 am

      I know it’s a month late, Mooser, but I won’t neglect another chance to drink to your brilliance.

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