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Contemplating with his customary scorn the artists who had embraced the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wondered what it would take to break their attachment to a cause that would eventually murder many of them — and kill Trotsky too, although he was yet to know it. "As regards a fellow-traveller," he said, "the question always comes up — how far will he go?" Would the barbarism of the dictatorship of the proletariat persuade him to "change at one of the stations on to the train going the other way"? Or would he stay on for the rest of the ride?

As Trotsky implied, fellow-travelling with communism was not always akin to endorsing the creed. Communists accepted crimes committed in the name of the revolution without hesitation. The fellow-traveller looked away from communism's victims and invited others to do the same. Communists damned "bourgeois democracy". It disillusioned communism's fellow-travellers, too, but not enough to persuade them to give up on democratic politics completely and join the revolution. They wished the Soviet Union well and found its experiments on the human race bracing. But in the words of David Caute, the best historian of fellow-travelling, their support was a "commitment at a distance". 

The reception given to Tariq Ramadan when he arrived in New York in April showed that today a type of fellow-travelling with radical Islam has spread from Europe to America. From the applause he drew, it seemed to me that no one involved would be changing trains for a while. The willingness of Ramadan's admirers to ignore the victims of totalitarianism was familiar but everything else was different. The readers of the New York Review of Books and the Nation, like the readers of Le Monde Diplomatique and the New Statesman, are not committing to radical Islam, even at a distance. They do not believe in the subjugation of women, the murder of homosexuals and apostates, the Jewish conspiracy theory and the creation of a theocratic empire in the way that communism's old fellow-travellers in socialism believed to varying degrees. The best they can manage is a feeble relativism. "But it's their culture to oppress women," they insist. "It's imperialist to impose Western human rights standards on others." For good reasons as well as bad, they hate the policies of their own governments. I accept that their denunciations can often give the impression that they want the Iranian mullahs or the Taliban to triumph. But with the exception of the far Left which has merged with the Islamist far Right, most don't think about what Islamism represents, let alone what a victory for Islamist forces would entail.

The absence of a positive commitment sets them apart from the intellectual friends of communism in the early- and mid-20th century. Modern fellow-travellers go along for a ride with ideas they would find repugnant if they could ever bring themselves to confront them.

The contortions the new ideology necessitates were on display at the Great Hall of Cooper Union College in Manhattan. The audience treated Ramadan as if he were a victim of oppression, which in a small way he was. The Bush administration had refused him permission to enter America in 2004. Citing the "ideological exclusion provisions of the Patriot Act", the State Department claimed that he had supported charities linked to Hamas. Ramadan did not suffer greatly. Oxford University, now a home for reactionary causes, made him its Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies, while the Labour government consulted him about how to deal with Islamic extremism. Quite properly, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American branch of PEN successfully lobbied the courts to have his travel ban lifted. They argued that their fellow citizens were grown-ups who were entitled to hear what Ramadan says.

Defending freedom of speech is one thing. Permissively — or passively — agreeing with the speaker is another. At the end of his session, a questioner asked Ramadan for his response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's feminist critique of Islam. Ramadan was scathing. Hirsi Ali believed that the only way to be a Muslim in an open society was to be an ex-Muslim, he replied. Her assertion that democracy and secularism were incompatible with Islam was very close "to what I get from racists" who target you "because you are a Muslim".


Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Clarity of writing and purpose; Tariq Ramadan: Islam's Luther or poster boy for the Muslim Brotherhood? (Getty Images)

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Ibn Rushd
October 5th, 2010
10:10 AM
Sad, sad piece of work. Ramadaan's actions, thought and work is not analysed in its own right, but in relation to others and what others have done. So, it is not surprising that it starts of with the Russian Revolution, Trotsky and communists and the supposed comparisons for Ramadaan and his supporters. Ramadaan is not criticised for what he says or writes, but in terms of what others say and his lack of commenting on matters that Cohen would like him to comment on. Cohen puts up a number of strawmen and finds Ramadaan guilty in terms of them. The agrument becomes vague and nebulous and does not deal with the merit of Ramadaan's own thought. Vague and crude terms abound, such as Islamism and Radical Islam, withou them being cogently defined, but you can be found to aid and abet them. You are guilty by association and without the defining what you are you are being charged with. Or, if you may, by not doing what others, like Ayan Hirsi, does or says, etc. Like I said, a sad article that serves soem other (ideological purpose?) and it does not help to explain Ramadaan's own thought and the merits thereof.

As with other major articles written by Nick Cohen, I had to take several breaks reading it, because what he says is so uncomfortably true. To oppose the tide of unreason and cowardice that he identifies means more than merely singing the words of the second verse of Jerusalem, it means getting up and doing them (morally, if not physically), of having the courage to stand against the tide of the cosy BBC/metrosexual narrative, sometimes to the embarrassment of friends and family. And courage is out of fashion these days, enfeebled by the steady drip, drip of liberal bromide and post-modern obfuscation. In 1938, the enemy was clear enough, and the remedy straight forward, if hard and costly - the Munich sell-out made the case clear enough for our leadership. The enemy today is more insidious, and is also among us. Despite even 9-11 and other horrors, we still only see the head of the snake that threatens everything we value - it is subtle, it is patient, it is insidious and many of our allies cannot see it through their rose tinted glasses. But face it we must, if to do so at the moment is lonely and courts unpopularity, even danger. Those who see clearly, like Berman, Cohen and others must stand firm and make the rest of us uncomfortable and to prepare us for the long struggle to come. Keep going, Nick

John
September 15th, 2010
7:09 PM
An excellent article, and a great exposé of the mindset displayed by the current crop of deluded liberals

Khalid
September 8th, 2010
8:09 AM
Isn't there something racist about leftists who support and apologize for rightwing Islamism - in that they are all white?

Larry in Tel Aviv
September 6th, 2010
7:09 AM
Nick Cohen continues to do good work here on the Left's alliance with reactionary right-wing Muslim extremists and their slick front-men like Ramadan. But Cohen continues to not follow through on the implications of his own writings, he does not take it further to its logical end-point, since Cohen has drawn his line at 'radical Islam' and that is that. Ramadan is spouting taqiyya, he is a master at it. Where does Cohen acknowledge this? And why not? It is an integral part of sigh radical Islam after all, but that would beg further questions. And Cohen doesn't want to go there. How does radical Islam differ from the canonical texts of Islam itself? Will Cohen let us know? Which religious texts in Islam do radical Muslims misrepresent and misinterpret and how? Will Cohen let us know one of these days? I'm not holding my breath. An irony here is Cohen is not that much more clued up on Islam and radical Islam than the know-nothing dhimmis in Ramadan's Manhattan audience. At the end of the day, Cohen like Ramadan's naive audience, simply doesn't want to know. It shows you how bad things are in the West and how dhimmified we are, when Cohen (who skirts around the elephant in the room) is considered a brave maverick speaking politically incorrect truths that people don't want to hear. To a degree this is true, but only to a degree. Cohen cannot take the logical steps and do the necessary research, because at the end of the day he does not want to face a terrible truth, and it is the truth about radical Islam and its roots.

Gareth
August 31st, 2010
2:08 PM
Great post, Nick. But I would take issue with cowardice being the main motivation of today's fellow travelers. Isn't it more my enemy's enemy is my friend? And given there's been a shortage of such friends post-1989, the most unlikely people are liable to be roped in.

John L Murphy
August 30th, 2010
9:08 PM
A good corrective to Pankaj Mishra's 'Islamismism' in The New Yorker, 7 June 2010 critique of Berman on Ali vs Ramadan.

Jon da Silva
August 30th, 2010
8:08 PM
"Accusations of betrayal, of selling out or of becoming a craven compromiser flow too readily from leftish lips. Tony Blair was on the receiving end of this kind of abuse when he was in power." Blair never explained in his 100 revolving reasons for war that this is what he was opposing - indeed he settled on the palatable and rhetorically easy overcoming an 'evil' dictator. Indeed Labour pushed the patronising racist creed of multiculturalism (as opposed to its opposite multi cultural - never has a space made a bigger difference in a word or two). The Blair Govt did what you say we should not and cosied up to Muslim Council of Britain an organisation that pumps the kind of thing you write against here. Whilst many of us realise that the oppressive side of Islam needs resisting trying to jemmy us into supporting seemingly mindless military strategies those charged with pushing cannot or will not explain is not working. I would love it if the loss of our soldiers, however many civilians, drone strikes and collateral damage was serving an actual purpose to end the oppression of 10s of millions of women. Blair has never said he opposed Islamic fascism explicitly. Indeed at Chilcott his reasoning whether you agree with the policy or not came across as delusional rantings of a religious loon. The problem is not the analysis it's the way forward. Not more self aggrandisement trying to fill cracks in egos for supporting acts in the past.

Paul Owen
August 30th, 2010
1:08 PM
Superb piece, Mr Cohen. The confusion of so called liberals on the issue of Islamism is one of the most infuriating and perplexing of our time. Brave writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Rushdie and yourself are to be applauded and encouraged. I shall be linking to this on my blog.

Mentat
August 29th, 2010
10:08 PM
In his excellent book, The Killing of History (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000)Keith Windschuttle says, among many other intelligent things, as follows: "The late Ernest Gellner pointed out the basic logical flaws in cultural relativism. In his book Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, Gellner showed that relativists are saddled with two unresolvable dilemmas. They endorse as legitimate other cultures that do not return the compliment. Some other cultures, of which one of the best known is Islam, will have no truck with relativism of any kind. The devout are totally confident of the universalism of their own beliefs which derive from the dictates of God, an absolute authority who is external to the world and its cultures. They regard a position such as postmodern cultural relativism as profoundly mistaken and, moreover, debasing. Relativism devalues their faith because it reduces it to merely one of many equally valid systems of meaning. So, entailed within cultural relativism is, first, an endorsement of absolutisms that deny it, and, second, a demeaning attitude to cultures it claims to respect." (p. 301-2)

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