Back at the beginning of the Cold War – that’s more than 60 years ago now – US and European universities scrambled to find professors who knew something about Marxism. It seemed like such a good idea. From Warsaw to Moscow, from Beijing to Hanoi, communism was ascendant and it seemed wise to suppose that the men who ran the gulag spent their spare time reading the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon or, perhaps, the more densely packed Critique of the Gotha Programme.
It was believed that the writings of Marx and Engels contained the hieroglyphs of “Soviet” Russia and “Red” China’s political motives and that if we could only understand these tomes, we would also understand people like Nikolai Bulganin and Zhou Enlai.
We got it wrong of course. The stubby fingered Bulganin was less interested in the suppression of the bourgeoisie than competing for power (in vain, as it turned out) with Nikita Khrushchev – a petty Ukrainian thug and Stalin suck-up – while Zhou Enlai was more concerned with vegetable yields than party factionalism.
Never mind: By the mid-1960s Western universities were chock full of intellectuals who could speak endlessly on the minutia of Marxist economics, Marxist humanism, the psychology of Marxism – and “the proletariat’s” realisation, eclipse or epitome.
The political payoff was as enervating: From Angola to Iran, the United States and its allies supported regimes and leaders (from Savimbi to the Shah), who were as bloody-minded as anything on offer from Moscow’s politburo. It didn’t matter: They were “anti-Communist”.
Blessedly, in the midst of this obsession with everything Marx, wiser heads suggested that perhaps the real threat faced by the West had less to do with the historical fantasies of a German philosopher and more to do with emerging Russian and Chinese nationalism. What followed was almost creative: A round of political activity that fractured unsteady alliances and kick-started a process of international diplomacy.
In time, the ice melted in what we’d viewed as “communist” societies and revealed what had always been there – Poles, and Russians, and Chinese and Vietnamese nationalists. Put more simply, we lopped off the “Soviet” from Russia and the “Red” from China and acted as if the same Chinese students that waved Mao’s “Little Red Book” might, in time, move to the city and become bond traders.
Of course, it’s not as nearly as simple as all of that, but the history of the Cold War – and what “we” got wrong (and what we got right), is suggestive of the way in which America and its allies are now fighting “the war on terror”. And there’s a strong sense that we’re getting it wrong yet again – and for many of the same reasons.
As with their predecessors in the early years of the Cold War, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many academics actually recoiled from offering their students readings on the challenges our, and all, societies faced.
The readings of Sayyid Qutb were considered too subversive to be assigned to officers at the Army War College (as an example), because, as it was said, “terrorists have nothing to say”. But the phrase was never a good stand-in for the once popular, if antiquated, “better dead than red”, and such anti-intellectual censorship was quietly dropped.
The teaching of “political Islam” is now standard fare at American and European universities, where the offerings and readings on the history of Islam and its development are, at best, spotty. That said, professors, lecturers and experts on the Arab and Muslim world, once marginalised, are now sought after for their expertise and views.
Not all the news is good, however, for these experts must meet an unstated and intangible litmus test – we must never be at fault. A regular Arab expert on a major American cable news network, for instance, views the wounds of the Arab world – and its rage – as “congenital” and “self-inflicted”, a viewpoint that is commonly held by a political establishment that perceives America and Europe’s role in the region as unblemished.
Then too, the study of “political Islam” is often used as a subterfuge to present Islam as anti-modern, unsophisticated and primitive – the same disguise that allowed professors to claim that in studying Marxists we were studying Russians. What a crock.
Then too (and much like the early days of the Cold War), there seems little detailed analysis of the antecedents that have fuelled the Arab world’s turmoil – because studying these controversies means acknowledging our own role in seeding them, which would force us to study the Arab-Israeli conflict, a particularly uncomfortable minefield for American universities.
So, as one colleague who knows this subject well notes, people who study the Arab world tend to focus on development and on internal politics and avoid the tough political questions.
The ‘war on terrorism’
But all of this might well miss the larger point. Once the US (and its allies) decided that the 9/11 attacks were the result of “who we are” instead of what we did, the “war on terrorism” became inevitable. The “clash of civilisations” thesis was adopted – whole cloth.
“Professors, lecturers and experts on the Arab and Muslim world, once marginalised, are now sought after for their expertise and views.”
It is this “war on terrorism” that continues, despite the best efforts of many people, to consume academia, think-tanks and the policymaking establishment – much as communism was once viewed as an undifferentiated and global threat.
So while we might be pleased that “Western” colleges and universities are teaching “political Islam”, Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones might be as useless to us now in understanding what is going on in Tahrir Square as the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon was in telling us about what was going on in the Kremlin.
Historians of revolution tell us that what we are seeing in the streets of Tunis and Cairo and Damascus is a “fire in the minds of men” – people lifted up not by God, but by the idea that they can control their own destiny. It is a revolutionary faith, and while for a time it might be accompanied by shouts of “Islam is the answer” (as, in China, it was accompanied by little red books) it is also accompanied by the flags of nations. It seeks to limit tyranny – and ought to be supported.
So to now, in the midst of this Arab Spring, designating one group or another as terrorists, as the US did recently with the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, is only to reflect, yet again, a profound misunderstanding of what is happening on the streets of Tunis and Cairo and Damascus. Instead of being afraid, we should be filled with pride: These people are so dedicated to the idea of liberty that they’re actually fighting for it.
There are good reasons not to support groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, as there were good reasons not to support the “terrorists” in Anbar in 2005. But America’s willingness then to engage with Iraqi currents and movements who recoiled as much from our support as we recoiled from giving it provided a way forward for a nation riven by sectarian conflict. The result then was what it might be now: The transformation, in an eyeblink, of terrorists to insurgents and, in the midst of that conflict, the marginalisation of the Jacobins from the Gironde. It is not always the case that my “terrorist” is your “freedom fighter”, but nearly so.
If it is in the national interest of the US and its allies to support change in the Arab world (and it is), then it is time to do so – and without fear. The lesson here is that it might well be past time to admit that while the US and Europe have much to answer for, it is still possible for them to gain some purchase on the future, and to be supporters of the transformations taking place in Arab societies.
Then too, if history teaches us anything, it is that moderates don’t storm barricades.
Mark Perry is a Washington, DC-based author, historian and foreign policy analyst.