Friday, March 25th 2016
“How Western intellectuals turn themselves into the enemies of an entire class of liberal writers from Muslim backgrounds” was the subhead of a March 21, 2016, op-ed by Paul Berman (the critic-at-large of Tablet magazine) and Michael Walzer (emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton). “The Daoud Affair” ran on the website of Tablet magazine on March 21, 2016.
The front part of the article related why the Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud is “threatening to renounce journalism,” and the two authors discerned a pattern of unfair condemnations of liberal ideas expressed by Muslim writers like Daoud, Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Boualem Sansal.
This retired Public Diplomacy officer, however, found the last half of their article most thought-provoking. It drew parallels to the contest of ideas during the Cold War.
The two of us who are writing this commentary call attention to a second pattern in these condemnations, which dates to the days of Soviet Communism. Everyone who remembers the history of the 20th century will recall that, during the entire period from the 1920s to the 1980s, one brave and articulate dissident after another in the Soviet bloc succeeded in communicating a message to the Western public about the nature of Communist oppression—valuable messages because the dissidents could describe with first-hand accuracy the Soviet regime and its satellite states.
And, time after time, a significant slice of Western intellectuals responded by crying: “Oh, you mustn’t say such things! You will encourage the reactionaries!” Or they said: “You must be a reactionary yourself. A tool of imperialism.” The intellectuals who responded in these ways were sometimes Communists, pledged to loyalty to the Soviet Union, and sometimes they were fellow-travelers, who defended the Soviet Union without having made any pledges. But sometimes they were merely people who worried about their own societies—who worried that criticism of the Soviet Union was bound to benefit right-wing fanatics in the West. These people considered that, in denouncing the Soviet dissidents, they were protecting the possibility for lucid and progressive conversation in their own countries.
But that was a mistake. By denouncing the dissidents, Western intellectuals succeeded in obfuscating the Soviet reality. And they lent the weight of their own prestige to the Soviet regime, which meant that, instead of being the enemies of oppression, they ended up as the allies of oppression. The progressive intellectuals were not foolish to worry about right-wing fanaticism in their own countries, but they needed to recognize that sometimes political arguments have to be complicated. They needed to learn how to defend the Soviet dissidents even while attacking right-wing fanatics in the West. They needed to make two arguments at the same time.