Where Do You Stand in the New Culture Wars?
A glorious culture clash took place in Iran recently that made me laugh out loud. The children of Che Guevara, the revolutionary pin-up, had been invited to Tehran University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their father’s death and celebrate the growing solidarity between “the left and revolutionary Islam” at a conference partly paid for by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.
There were fraternal greetings and smiles all round as America’s “earth-devouring ambitions” were denounced. But then one of the speakers, Hajj Saeed Qassemi, the co-ordinator of the Association of Volunteers for Suicide-Martyrdom (who presumably remains selflessly alive for the cause), revealed that Che was a “truly religious man who believed in God and hated communism and the Soviet Union”.
Che’s daughter Aleida wondered if something might have been lost in translation. “My father never mentioned God,” she said, to the consternation of the audience. “He never met God.” During the commotion, Aleida and her brother were led swiftly out of the hall and escorted back to their hotel. “By the end of the day, the two Guevaras had become non-persons. The state-controlled media suddenly forgot their existence,” the Iranian writer Amir Taheri noted.
After their departure, Qassemi went on to claim that Fidel Castro, the “supreme guide” of Guevara, was also a man of God. “The Soviet Union is gone,” he affirmed. “The leadership of the downtrodden has passed to our Islamic republic. Those who wish to destroy America must understand the reality and not be clever with words.”
Don’t say you haven’t been warned, comrade, when you flirt with “revolutionary Islam” as if it were a mild form of liberation theology. But it is time, too, for Che to lose his secular halo. If he were still living, the chances are he would be another dictator like Castro, who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for half a century but gets a pass from liberals because he provides a modest health service.
There used to be a clear dividing line between conservatives and liberals. It defined the culture wars of the late 20th century, which pitted reactionary fuddy-duddies against tolerant, enlightened types, who believed in equal rights for women, minorities and gays. That fault line is becoming as dated as the flower power of the 1960s.
By the time Terry Eagleton, a Marxist professor of literature – how quaint and old-fashioned that sounds – is laying into Martin Amis, the Mr Cool of British fiction, for remarks on Islam that supposedly make the son as racist as his father, Kingsley, “an antisemitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”, it is obvious we are into a wholly different culture war, between phoney and real progressives.
Wasn’t one of Amis fils’s main complaints about Islamic militants that they were “antisemites, psychotic misogynists and homophobes”? Confused? You are not the only one.
My own test for spotting a phoney liberal is as follows. If you think Bush is a fascist and Castro is a progressive, you are not a democrat. If you think cultural traditions can trump women’s rights, you are not a feminist. And if you think antisemitic rants are simply an expression of frustration with American and Israeli policy, you have learnt nothing from history.
It is no longer possible to tell at a glance which side people are on. My husband, a photographer, has long hair and wears T-shirts and cargo pants. We live in stuffy Washington, where almost everybody wears a suit and tie but secretly longs to be artistic and hip. On the school run, nice lawyers confide to him that they hate George Bush, despise the Iraq war and are not as reactionary as they look. They are completely thrown if he tells them he dislikes Islamo-fascism more than Bush, is glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein, supports Nato against the Taliban and thinks the Iranian mullahs should never be trusted with a nuclear bomb. He considers himself an antifascist who believes in the secular values of the Enlightenment and human rights. There is nothing radical about being tolerant of the intolerant, he says.
On the other side of the looking glass, jeans-clad leftists are horrified that one of their own could possibly have anything in common with the dreaded neocons. Christopher Hitchens is a rock star among atheists, most of whom oppose the Iraq war. Last weekend, he travelled to Wisconsin to receive an award from the Freedom from Religion conference for his book God Is Not Great.
“In my acceptance speech I upbraided the audience by saying I could easily have got the impression that they thought the only threat to our society came from the Christian Coalition and possibly the odd Israeli settler,” he says. “You would not have known from anything on sale, any T-shirt, any peaked cap, any book or pamphlet, that there was such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism.”
They didn’t like it. “I got the usual lame and bleating replies that, to the extent that if there was such a thing, it’s been created by us,” Hitchens says. One of the most indulgent forms of western narcissism is that everything is “all about me” – or, in this case, the West. Myopic liberals find it impossible to believe that radical Islam may have a dynamic of its own that threatens their values. “You cannot stand for multiculturalism if you represent a group that wants to kill all the Jews and Hindus. Shouldn’t that be obvious?” Hitchens asks. “Martin [Amis] was saying, ‘Look, there’s a real problem here’, and good for him.
“The name of the problem is religion, and there is only one religion that threatens us with this kind of thing . . . There is a reason people look askance at a mosque in their neighbourhood, and they are not mad or cruel or stupid or selfish or bigoted to worry about it.”
Nick Cohen, whose book What’s Left? has just been published in paperback, identifies progressives as antitotalitarian internationalists who subscribe to “some kind of universal values”, as he puts it.
“The left are like old-style Tory imperialists, who believe rights are all very well for western Europe but not for Johnny Foreigner, and that the liberation of women is essentially for white-skinned women, not brown-skinned women,” Cohen says.
A case in point is the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born author of Infidel, who has received an astounding lack of support from liberals and the left. An article in Newsweek described her as a “bomb-thrower”, when it is Hirsi Ali who faces death threats from real bomb-throwers merely for speaking her mind and has had to rush back to the Netherlands because its government will no longer pay for her bodyguards while she is abroad.
Natasha Walter, reviewing her book in The Guardian, wrote blithely: “What sticks in the throats of many of her readers is not her feminism, but her antiIslamism” - as if the two could be separated. It was Hirsi Ali’s culture that led her to be genitally mutilated as a girl, and it was her Muslim former co-religionists who murdered her friend Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker. Why should she remain quiet?
Irshad Manji, the Canadian Muslim feminist, is about to become director of the new Moral Courage Project at New York University. “It’s about developing leaders who speak truth to power within their own community,” she says. “Ultimately it is about defeating self-censorship.
“Human beings are born equal but cultures are not,” she believes. “They are human-made and for the most part man-made. There is nothing sacred about cultures and nothing blasphemous about reforming them.”
When Amis said something a little more forceful along those lines at the Cheltenham literary festival, he set off a new firestorm. “Some societies are just more evolved than others,” he said. Then last week on Channel 4 News, he said: “I feel morally superior to Islamists.”
Note that he is not saying he feels morally superior to Islam - but to Islamists. Is it wrong to make such a judgment, when there is nothing immutable about culture and society?
Manji says: “I absolutely defend his right to believe that certain civilisations are superior to others,” but adds the important rider: “In contemporary times he may be right, but in the past Islam gave birth to the Renaissance.”
To my mind, Manji is a “moderate” Muslim, in that she still describes herself as a person of faith, but to many of her Islamic brethren, she is off the scale. Liberals have been too quick to accept as moderates Muslims who are nothing of the kind – except in comparison with the suicide bombers and theologians of Al-Qaeda.
“It’s not a waste of time to search for the moderate Muslim, because there is a civil war within Islam between people who do and don’t want to live under sharia,” says Hitchens, “but there are a lot of counterfeits who are being seized on in our cultural cringe moment.”
The chief cringers, he might have added, are the phoney liberals. The new culture war looks set to run and run.