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Douthat and Anti-Jihadism

Glenn Greenwald’s response to Ross’ last column badly misunderstands what Ross is arguing and imputes views and motives to him for which there is no evidence. First of all, let’s make clear what Ross is not doing in this or any of his other columns. He is not trying “to pretend that threat-induced censorship is a uniquely Islamic practice.” What he is trying to say is that the response to Islamist “threat-induced censorship” from leading figures in our political and cultural institutions is noticeably different to the response to other kinds of threats and censorship. Perhaps Ross exaggerated some for rhetorical effect, and it is fair to say that Ross overlooks a wide array of political and policy taboos that are enforced all the time, but among most Western politicians, journalists and entertainers there is a greater impulse to self-censorship and a greater willingness to acquiesce in the face of potential or real threats when the subject matter concerns Islam.

Ross is not engaged in an “anti-Muslim crusade,” nor is he engaged in “sectarian religious promotion.” He does not write, and to the best of my knowledge has never written, “bitter tribalistic encyclicals.” There are American conservatives and Christians who would fit that description, but Ross is not one of them. This is an error that critics of Ross in particular and critics of Catholic conservatives like him frequently make. For whatever reason, these critics do not see that Ross has not been advancing an “anti-Muslim” agenda, but that he is actually defending fairly conventional assumptions about Western liberal society against a form of illiberalism and, as Ross puts it in this column, “totalitarianism.” Even by the standards of this kind of writing, Ross’ rebuke is mild.

At one point, Greenwald mentions the decision of the previous administration to refuse an entry visa to Tariq Ramadan. It might interest Greenwald to know that when Ramadan was the subject of that interminable, mind-numbing critique in The New Republic, Ross found the article significantly lacking. In his response, he wrote:

Such a piece would have been a valuable contribution to the debate over whether Western liberalism should seek dialogue with the more moderate elements within political Islam – with Ramadan a prime example – or pursue confrontation instead, along the lines suggested by Ali. I’m by no means certain which side of that debate I’m on, Buruma’s or Berman’s [bold mine-DL], but that’s all the more reason for TNR to run an essay that contributes substantially to the argument.

If Ross were embarked on an “anti-Muslim crusade,” do you suppose he would have been undecided about whether or not to engage in dialogue with Tariq Ramadan just three years ago? No, of course not.

What is also clear is that Ross is not writing about state-sanctioned violence and abuse. He is discussing the relationship between Islamists living in Europe and America and the societies in which they live. His column this week is addressing the effect of censorship on civil society and free expression. Greenwald is correct when he insists on remembering “the tens of thousands of Muslims whom the U.S. has imprisoned without charges for years, and the hundreds of thousands our wars and invasions and bombings have killed this decade alone, and the ones from around the world subjected to racial and ethnic profiling, and the ones we’ve tortured and shot up at checkpoints and are targeting for state-sponsored assassination.” It is absolutely right and fair to argue that there should be far more concern for the human costs of illegal, unwise and immoral anti-terrorist and foreign policies than there is for the creative freedom of cartoonists. I would agree completely that conventional anti-jihadism in this country has this entirely backwards and that it is far less credible as a result.

Where I believe Ross’ column ultimately does go wrong is in the final lines of the column:

Happily, today’s would-be totalitarians are probably too marginal to take full advantage. This isn’t Weimar Germany, and Islam’s radical fringe is still a fringe, rather than an existential enemy.

For that, we should be grateful. Because if a violent fringe is capable of inspiring so much cowardice and self-censorship, it suggests that there’s enough rot in our institutions that a stronger foe might be able to bring them crashing down.

While it is good that Ross acknowledges that a small group of fanatics scattered across half a continent on the other side of the planet is not an “existential enemy,” it cannot be stressed too much that these are still “would-be” totalitarians we’re talking about. The Islamists in question have little or no power, and it is at least partly because of this weakness that there is as much willingness to yield to their mainly symbolic demands as there is. Obviously, when even some Muslims are viewed as a remotely serious physical threat, the obsession with countering the threat is intense and the Western response has been marked largely by massive overreaction and quick abandonment of Christian, liberal and constitutional values by our political class. No, this isn’t anything like Weimar Germany, but if there has been an impulse to turn to authoritarian measures and international conflict as a cure for decadence it has come from our non-Muslim countrymen in positions of authority and influence.

One could call the easy and frequent recourse to the use of force and coercion as proof of Western decadence, but what we all should be able agree on is that it has been disastrous. The far greater problem we have today is not that we are too inclined to yield to Islamist demands in Western countries, but that we are far too ready to disregard the lives, property, dignity and political rights of Muslims in their own countries if we think it might marginally enhance our physical security. Perhaps if Westerners made fewer unreasonable and illegitimate demands of majority Muslim nations, we could defend our values at home with more confidence.

There is no question of a foreign foe bringing our institutions crashing down. The greatest danger all along has been that we would destroy or corrupt our institutions and our values out of an irrational exaggeration of the threat posed by jihadists, and that we would make this even worse through a widely shared blindness to the consequences of our national security and foreign policies. One reason anti-jihadist commentary has seemed less and less persuasive to me over the last decade is that anti-jihadists have done nothing to avoid these dangers and have done all that they could to make them worse. In all of this, Ross’ column on the illiberalism of certain Islamists is not the problem.

P.S. Later in his post, Greenwald links to a 2007 item from Ross and claims that he “previously cited with approval Goldberg’s explicit advocacy of right-wing censorship.” The post from 2007 Greenwald links to has nothing to do with censorship, and instead chides Goldberg for ignoring the utopianism of Bush’s Second Inaugural in Goldberg’s complaint against “crusading” forms of conservatism. For that matter, Goldberg’s original post mentioned censorship in one sentence practically as a throwaway remark. The thrust of Goldberg’s argument was a rejection of crusading politics, and it was this rejection of political crusading with which Ross was agreeing. In other words, the post Greenwald cites basically contradicts the claim that Ross is someone strongly interested in political or religious crusades. My original 2007 response to both posts is here.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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