Blogs > HNN > Copenhagen and the Ideological Illusions of Empire

Sep 18, 2006 4:51 am


Copenhagen and the Ideological Illusions of Empire



Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948. He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Click here to access his homepage.

I just returned from Copenhagen the other day, which is why I haven't posted in a while. Why I was there, however, is worth discussing. I was there to attend a meeting, sponsored by the international writers' organization PEN, and which brought PEN members from around the world to the beautiful Scandanavian city, on freedom of expression—in the Arab world. This might smack the reader as an attempt to bone up Denmark's progressive credentials after the cartoon fiasco of earlier this year. But what made the event special is that Muslims from Morocco to Iraq were in attendance, participating in the main plenaries and just listening. These were Muslim who were none too happy with the cartoons, but they understood that freedom of speech was more important, and that the way to defeat the hatred and ignorance represented by the cartoons is through engagement and dialog, not burning down embassies. One participant, a well known novelist and professor from Morocco, was full of tales of how the Makhzen, Morocco's political and economic establishment, were able to use censorship—and more specifically, pitting religious conservatives against social liberals (musicians, artists, etc) to maintain their hold on power. Another participant, head of Iraqi PEN, had a much graver story to tell: how Iraq's intellectual life is being systematically destroyed by the occupation and the insurgency, and the country's 4,000+ year old culture with it. It's so bad that Iraqi PEN has to meet in Beirut—if enough money can be raised to get the members there.

On my panel was a courageous Tunisian writer and human rights activists, who described how the small country, mostly known to Americans (if at all) as the one-time HQ of the PLO, and to Europeans as a nice vacation spot, remains in the grip of the Arab world's most successful authoritarian system, which is second only to China in its ability to censor the internet and track down users who try to utilize it for spreading a message of democracy. All in all, a depressing day; yet highly energizing precisely because it demonstrated how many brave Arabs and Muslims are out there, working with their counterparts from the West, even in the city that is presently enemy number one for their extremist co-religionists, to fight for the freedom of expression we all hold dear (or at least some of us do).

But what do all these countries have in common? They're all patronized by the US, by our war-time President whose mission of spreading democracy to the Middle East has always been a lie and nothing but a lie. Too bad no one other than the Danish media showed up to report on the meeting, because it says as much about the state of Islam today as any number of terrorist fatwas and jihadi tracts.

It would seem the President should be interested in this sort of stuff, as on the plane over to Copenhagen—which a few weeks earlier had hosted another meeting, this one of some of the leading young Muslim voices from across the Muslim world and West—my LA Times reported (Sept. 6) that President Bush is now convinced that “ideas are key to beating terrorists.” His contribution to such an exercise, of course, is “Islamo-fascism,” a term of such vacuity that it's already fallen off the media radar screen, except for speeches of Administration officials. I won't offer a critique of the statement, as it's already been sufficiently eviscerated by Ray Hanania, Juan Cole, and others to require my input.

Bush's ideas in this latest revamp of America's defense posture are wrong at every turn. He argues that “ideas can turn transform the embittered and disillusioned either into murderers willing to kill innocents, or into free peoples living harmoniously in a diverse society.” But as the meeting in Copenhagen made clear, in the absence of real democracy and justice, and with active US support to keep them down, there can be no fight against whatever he really means by Islamofascism in the Middle East or larger Muslim world, there can be no hope for harmony and diversity and freedom. Without real and sustainable development via a globalization that does more than structurally marginalize most of the Muslim world, Bush's dreams will also go up in smoke.

In fact, if we want to know who the “hidden enemy seeking to bring dramatic changes to the world” is, well, it's not just “radical Islam” but radical American empire as well. The two are inseparable, as the latter was in many ways the protector and educator of the former, whose parents were Islamic autocracy and European empire.

But Bush's speech did have the intended effect of getting the punditocracy and commentocracy to argue, right in step with Bush, that the new document is a “recognition of the ideological basis of terrorism and the need to combat it.” Forget about Democracy, forget about sustainable defelopment; it's ideas we need to send Muslims! Since they clearly have none worth noting of their own—other than 14th century tracts on jihad or whatever it is the Pope is reading these days to convince himself that Islam is an eminently unreasonable religion compared with peace loving Christianity (Jews perhaps would seem to be in Purgatory on this score in his analysis, or else we don't matter compared to the two religious behemoths around us).

And Democrats have played their part all too well, not challenging Bush on the core issues—our continued support for some of the most corrupt, authoritarian and brutal regimes around, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa—but rather faulting him on not fighting terrorism well enough.

One thing that was reaffirmed for me in Copenhagen was the systematic nature of the problems confronting us when it comes to terrorism and empire, and how connected ideology, political power and economic interests are in the global era. Of course, they were also connected in the Cold War, and the late 19th century era of High Imperialism/globalization. None of this is new; there is no need to reinvent the wheel. We merely, all of us, need to decide that American “full spectrum dominance” or “world-wide jihad” are not worth the price, and that a truly humane globalization built on real democracy, justice and sustainable development is the answer. That's the ideology that will defeat extremism, if we choose it soon. But I see few people willing to pay the price in creature comforts here, or ideological purity there, to make such a vision reality. Let's hope are children are wiser.




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Jason B Keuter - 9/21/2006

Yes, neither American Imperialism nor world wide Jihad are desirable. The only problem is : no one in America is aspiring to global, imperial pre eminence but there is a serious Imperialistic jihad.

So : let us moderate our animus towards the inhumane, violent and twisted jihadists for fear that we may give aid and support to an imaginary American Imperial Impetus.


Yehudi Amitz - 9/20/2006

Sorry I didn't intend to spam.


Yehudi Amitz - 9/20/2006

Did any of the Moslem participants protest the anti-cartoons violence? Do you agree with the Islamic control of our freedom of speech?
Who's "they"? The deceivers! Why there is no Islamic anti-violence movement (only some low voices, far from comparison to the western anti-war movement)? What do you think? I am sure Salman Rushdie, a member of PEN, knows very well why! Some seance with Theo Van Gogh may help?!
Your article is a kind of petting on the back for very little, the same as I do with my cat when he agrees to take his hair ball medication, I even tell him "good boy". It's the old patronizing western behavior towards the natives.


Yehudi Amitz - 9/20/2006

Did any of the Moslem participants protest the anti-cartoons violence? Do you agree with the Islamic control of our freedom of speech?
Who's "they"? The deceivers! Why there is no Islamic anti-violence movement (only some low voices, far from comparison to the western anti-war movement)? What do you think? I am sure Salman Rushdie, a member of PEN, knows very well why! Some seance with Theo Van Gogh may help?!
Your article is a kind of petting on the back for very little, the same as I do with my cat when he agrees to take his hair ball medication, I even tell him "good boy". It's the old patronizing western behavior towards the natives.


Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 9/20/2006

i think you have a problem with exclamation points!!!

who's 'they'? no one at the copenhagen meeting burned any embassies or churches, or synagogues.


Yehudi Amitz - 9/18/2006

Sure, they didn't burn embassies this time only churches and attacked some synagogues (it may be an old work in progress and not related to the Pope).
Calling the Danish cartoons and the Islamic violence that followed a "fiasco", shows how deeply LeVine understands and approves the intrinsic violence in Islam! I am sure that the killing of Theo Van Gogh, in the neighborhood, has his understanding too!
No one demonizes Islam but Islam itself! Propaganda trumpets and pseudo intellectuals like LeVine help only a bit!