Conquest reveals Western “traitors to the human mind.”
by Bruce S. Thornton
I’ve been reading one of the great works of recent history, Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century. His chapter on “Soviet Myths and the Western Mind” is particularly fascinating, and ripe with parallels to our own battles today against Islamic jihad.
As Conquest documents, many Western intellectuals and academics were delusional about the reality of the communist threat. For a host of reasons — a quasi-religious faith in utopian socialism, neurotic hatred of their own culture, vulnerability to an ideology that dressed itself in scientific garb, an adolescent romance with revolution, and sheer ignorance of the facts — many professors, pundits, politicians, and religious leaders refused to believe that Soviet leaders meant what they said about revolution and subversion.
“The Communist Party,” Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote in his book The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, “subordinates all its theoretical and practical activity in the sphere of foreign relations to the tasks of strengthening the position of socialism, and the interests of further developing and deepening the world revolutionary process.” Yet despite such clear-cut expressions of the desire for world domination and the spread of communism — expressed not just in words but in deeds — for decades in the West many explained away this motive and attributed Soviet behavior to anything and everything other than what communists themselves had been saying going all the way back to Marx.
Thus throughout the Cold War, the Western resolve to resist Soviet expansionism was undercut by “peace” movements, nuclear disarmament movements, calls for détente and “dialogue,” and claims of moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“This misunderstanding of a major force on the world scene,” Conquest concludes, “could have proved disastrous in the period between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As it was, its influence made the pursuit of a rational foreign policy difficult. It hardly needs saying that we must do our best to avoid, or prevent, anything resembling a repetition — in fact that the lesson should be learned.”
Alas the lesson has not been learned. As we fight what Norman Podhoretz calls World War IV, the same refusal to take seriously the motives of the enemy, and the same bad Western habit of indulging our own superstitions at the expense of a clear understanding of the enemy, are compromising our actions and policies.
For centuries now the jihadists have been telling us that they hate the infidel West because it stands in the way of fulfilling Allah’s mandate “to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Last year a letter surfaced from Al Qaeda’s second-ranking leader Ayman al Zawahri, in which the current jihadist terror in Iraq was cast as part of the long war between the “true faith” and “atheism” and “polytheism,” the latter Islamic code for Christianity. “The victory of Islam,” Zawahri wrote, “will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world . . . . The goal in this age is the establishment of a caliphate in the manner of the Prophet.”
Zawahiri, moreover, is entirely consistent with a long line of jihadist theoreticians whose writings on jihad had little to do with local events. The Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Iranian Islamic Republic that today represents the most important and powerful state sponsor of jihad, wrote in 1942, “Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. All the countries conquered by Islam or to be conquered in the future will be marked for everlasting salvation.”
Rather than a modern distortion, Khomeini’s thinking was in line with earlier Islamic scholars like Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406): “‘In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and [the obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.’” Or Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328): “‘Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.’”
Likewise Muslim Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb rooted his own jihadist thinking in Islamic tradition by referencing the eighth-century writer Ibn Qayyim: “This legal formulation [regarding the relationship of Muslims to other groups] is based on the principle that Islam — that is, submission to God — is a universal message with which the whole of mankind should accept or make peace. No political system or material power should put hindrances in the way of preaching Islam.” And if such “hindrances” exist, Islam then “has no recourse but to remove them by force.”
Despite this centuries-long, consistent expression of jiahdist doctrine, many in the West continue to dismiss it as an aberration or a deformation of Islam, and to look for other economic or political causes. Just as Sovietophiles during the Cold War dismissed Soviet expansionism as an understandable response to Western aggression or a traditional Russian anxiety over its long western border, so too today jihadist aggression is waved away as a natural reaction to neo-colonialist sins or autocrats at home or lack of economic development or even sexual frustration — indeed, anything and everything except what the jihadists plainly tell us is motivating them, and what millions of Muslims around the world who support the jihadists clearly understand to be the spiritual imperatives for jihadist violence.
Conquest shrewdly links to Freudianism this strange Western habit of thinking that people are incapable of knowing their own minds and saying what they mean. Like Marxism, this materialist explanation for behavior dismissed conscious motives as so much camouflage or rationalizations for deeper, unconscious causes. “And both doctrines provided,” Conquest writes, “separately or together, that built-in proof that disagreement was due to prejudices predictably embedded in the opponent’s mind by forces understood by the elect.” Likewise with many of today’s commentators who ignore conscious motives: these “elect” know that such spiritual beliefs are mere illusions masking some deeper psychic dysfunction or compensating for some environmental cause. And they display the same elitist disdain for those who prefer to take seriously what the jihadists tell us, scorning them instead as intellectually unsophisticated or in thrall to various neuroses such as bigotry.
Other parallels between Cold War Sovietophiles and today’s rationalizers for jihad present themselves. The academic establishment for most of the Cold War was predisposed to leftist ideology, and so seemed “notably prejudiced against realities and persuaded by smoke and mirrors,” as Conquest puts it. A wave of revisionism in the eighties attempted to explain away the horrors of Soviet communism, a change noted with approval in Moscow. As late as 1990, at the Soviet Union’s last hour, a Soviet professor could write in Pravda, “Anti-Sovietism has begun to disappear from the works of contemporary Sovietologists.”
So too today, when some of the most blatant apologizers for jihad are found among the academic ranks of the Middle Eastern Studies Association. Their perspective can be gleaned from the titles of the talks at their upcoming annual conference: “Anxious for Armageddon: Christian Zionism and U.S. Policy in the Middle East”; “Bad Fences for Bad Neighbors: The Divisive Process of the Israel-Palestine Border”; “A Tale of Two Walled Cities: Jerusalem and Johannesburg.” You get the picture: terrorism is all about Western sins, particularly those of Israel, and has nothing to do with spiritual motives — unless those are the neurotic ravings of Christian fundamentalists.
Another similarity is the bizarre double standard that many Westerners use when judging the West. This too recalls the behavior of Cold War appeasers, who strained mightily the Western gnat while swallowing whole herds of communist camels. Puffed up with pretensions of being independent thinkers beyond the parochial prejudices of the average oaf who loves his own country, they betrayed their own principles by dismissing the overwhelming evidence of communist tyranny and failure. As such they were, Conquest puts it, “traitors to the human mind, to thought itself.”
We see the same pathological double standard everywhere today. Western “insults” to Islam — which most of the time are, as in the cartoon controversy or the Pope’s recent remarks, exercises in the precious Western value of free speech — are decried by apologists. Yet the rankest anti-Semitic and anti-Christian slander in Muslim lands, most of it emanating from government-sanctioned media or the religious establishment, are mostly ignored. A punk who rolls a pig’s head into a mosque gets much more attention and condemnation than a Muslim who shoots a pregnant Jewish woman or who rams his car into “infidels.” The genocide in Darfur — a race- and faith-based persecution — is never linked to Islam, and the Muslim world is rarely called to account for their total silence about this human catastrophe.
Meanwhile, the American attempt to create freedom and democracy for Muslims in Iraq is condemned as vicious imperialist aggression. Such critics may think that their willingness to ignore the blatant sins of the “other” even as they use a microscope to find the sins of their own culture is a sign of intellectual sophistication. But in actual fact it is, as with the earlier apologists for communist tyranny, a “morbid affliction,” to use Conquest’s phrase — and a sign of Western spiritual corruption in the eyes of the jihadist enemy.
Rather than the dubious comparison of jihadists to fascists recently popular with some commentators, we should instead look to the war against communism for insights into our present crisis. Not because the jihadists are like communists in their ideology, but because the cultural pathologies that endangered the struggle against Soviet tyranny have not disappeared and are today compromising the war against jihad. As with the Cold War, winning this current struggle will require that we see the enemy and his motivations clearly and not dismiss them on the basis of our own prejudices and superstitions.