The antidote for misuse of freedom of speech is more freedom of speech.
- Molly Ivins


David C. Schweickart

Christopher Hitchens spoke at the University of Chicago on Tuesday. I've been thinking about his talk ever since. Hitchens seems not to be a very nice person. He was boorish during the question period, derisive to the anti-war folks and especially to the poor Socialist Workers students, who had, in fact, some good questions to ask. I found his behavior repellent.

Still, much of what he said during his talk was arresting, and, I think, has to be taken seriously. Let me lay out his position (more carefully than he laid it out), and see what you think.

Hitchens' main point was that the Taliban should be seen as a fascist organization with transnational designs that is truly dangerous and needed to be stopped. Neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations had any real interest in confronting the Taliban - any more than the United States or Britain had any real interest in reigning in Mussolini or Hitler, since, in both cases the movements were resolutely anti-communist. But, says Hitchens, "Osama bin Laden saved us." His grandstanding attack on the U.S. provoked a war, much as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. hand. In both cases, without really wanting to, the U.S. has been compelled to wage war against fascism. Hitchens' conclusion: "Bush's war is our war." ("Our" meaning the Left's.)

The argument that the Taliban is fascist: (This argument applies not just to the Taliban, but to various other versions of virulent Islamic fundamentalism.)

1) Its horrendously retrograde treatment of women. Nazism, too, preyed on masculine gender insecurity by invoking a hyper-masculine ideology, emphasizing purity, cruelty, military valor, etc.

2) Its peculiar nature as a modern mass movement energized by an atavistic ideology. The Nazi ideology of racial purity - though hardly foreign to Western culture - was retrograde by then current Western standards, just As the Islamic fundamentalist ideology - while hardly foreign to Western Culture - is retrograde by our current standards. In both cases, the movements appeal to prejudices that flourish under conditions of extreme social and economic insecurity, and hence gain a mass following.

3) It has been funded by the wealthy as a mass movement capable of destroying the progressive Left elements. Hitchens argues that Saudi Arabia (which, incidentally, is refusing to cooperate with the investigation of the Sept 11 hijackers, most of whom were Saudis) has poured money into radical fundamentalist organizations and schools around the world - including Palestinian organizations, where it has done poisonous damage. The U.S. has been ambivalent. The first great outpouring of Islamic fundamentalism was the Iranian Revolution, which hated the U.S. On the other hand, the fundamentalists destroyed the Left, aided the Reagan Administration's war against the Sandinistas, and - a different branch - waged a holy war against the Russians in Afganistan.

4) Like Nazism, Islamic fundamentalism sometimes bites the hand the feeds it. It takes on a life of its own. Hitler led Germany to destruction, against the wishes of his wealthy backers. Bin Laden now hates the Saudi government.

5) Like Nazism, Islamic fundamentalism has an expansionary ideology, but no coherent economic policy for dealing with real problems of the people over which it rules. Hitchens claims that the Taliban was seriously involved in an effort to infiltrate the Pakistan military and eventually take control of that country too - which, incidentally, has nuclear weapons. Islamic fundamentalism sees itself spreading eastward through Indonesia and the southern Philippines, southward into north Africa, including northern Nigeria and of course westward into other regions of the Middle East. Like European fascism, its ideology is transnational, and appeals to those suffering the insecurities of modernity, particularly young men of the middle classes. (It has not gone unobserved that the Sept 11 terrorists were not poor.)

6) Like European fascism, Islamic fundamentalism promises law and order, and delivers. However, although initially welcomed by large segments of the population, its repressive apparatus generates increasing discontent. Hence, the struggle in Iran to roll back the power of the mullahs. Hence the sense of liberation that so many seem to feel in Afganistan, now that the Taliban has fled. (It may well be that the Afganis hated the Taliban more than the U.S. bombs. Certainly many Italians welcomed the allied "invaders.")

This, in essence, is Hitchens' argument. He didn't make all the comparisons I've made, but he could have. I have to say, I find the analogy compelling. (Hitchens, by the way, finds the right-wing Zionism so dominant in Israel right now to be fascist also, or at least morally on par with Islamic fundamentalism in its desire for a theocratic state.)

What follows? Here's where things get more complicated. Hitchens' position, at least as articulated on Tuesday, doesn't go much beyond "support the war and rejoice in its success." What he didn't comment on, but which seems to me equally important, are the U.S. aims.

Its clear that whatever they are, combating Islamic fascism is not one of them. We are not, after all, declaring war on Saudi Arabia or making non-negotiable demands.

In my view, the principle aim of the U.S. state right now is to find an enemy to replace "the international Communist conspiracy" so as to justify our role as global hegemon - and the massive military budget needed to sustain that role. Policing the world for human rights violations - the prior candidate - wasn't doing so well. Neither was "international terrorism" either - until September 11. Now the latter is back in business, with a vengeance. Policy makers are looking again at Iraq and at North Korea and even (unbelievably) at Cuba. The easy victory over the Taliban may be a good thing - a very good thing - insofar as it breaks the momentum and mystique of Islamic fundamentalism, but the other side of that coin is the encouragement it gives to our policy-makers to pursue their quite different agenda. (I wish the world weren't so complicated, so "dialectical.")

I don't know what to say next. I welcome comments and critiques (insulting or otherwise).

David Schweickart, is a Marxist philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago. This submission is carried with his permission.



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