Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Power of Nightmares: Baby It's Cold Outside

Here is the first installment of an excellent documentary series from the BBC called The Power of Nightmares. It's split into two sections, both of which you can find below. There are two other parts to this series which I'll be posting on my blog over the next week or so. The first doc in the series, 'Baby It's Cold Outside', makes a compelling case that the present conflict between 'the West' and 'the Muslim world' has been fueled by two revolutionary anti-liberal movements: Radical/Political Islamism and American Neoconservatism.

The documentary draws interesting parallels between the two groups. It notes that both groups are elitist, focused on fear and conflict, and deeply ideological movements. These parallels are intriguing, but not altogether surprising considering both movements have a strong anti-liberal component (i.e. they both feared modern individualism and the culture it 'inevitably' produced). Both Qutb and Strauss were particularly terrified by the notion that anything seems to be permissible or possible in liberal societies.

The intellectual founders of Middle Eastern radical/political Islam and American neoconservatism are the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss. Strauss was inspired by the vision of a Platonic ruling intelligentsia keeping America safe from the inevitable nihilism that results from individualism, while Qutb envisioned a vanguard of pious Muslims keeping the spiritually devoid and selfish materialist culture of the West out of the Muslim world.

Various figures in the Bush administration are linked to Straussian thought, including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Abram Schulsky, and John Bolton. You can listen to a couple of interviews with professor Shadia Drury on Leo Strauss and the Neoconservatives. Here's another interview on Strauss with a panel of political scientists. In Strauss' view, liberal democracy contained the seeds of it's own undoing since it encouraged 'the masses' to engage in uninhibited 'free-thought' which they are inherently 'unequipped' for. This inevitably leads to dangerous experimentation that could destroy society (the Weimar republic being the classic example of this).

The radical political Islamists have direct links to Sayyid Qutb. Osama Bin Laden's 'mentor' Ayman Al-Zawahiri, often described as the brains behind Al-Qaeda was directly inspired by the thought of Qutb, and deeply involved in the political movement influenced by Qutb. The ideas of Qutb have also been one of the main inspirations for political Islamist movements across the Arab world, from Algeria to Palestine. Sayyid Qutb's ideas were formed while living in the US as a student, and were increasingly made more radical during the ten years he spent in Egyptian prisons. He believed that Western culture was creating miserable selfish individuals, completely divorced of any sense of community and the greater good. In his eyes, 'Westernized' individuals thought they were free, but actually their 'liberal freedoms' made them slaves to their 'basest' 'animal' desires.

I found the emphasis the documentary placed on torture at the hands of Nasser's regime in radicalizing the Egyptian Islamists an interesting and compelling point. It seems intuitively correct that the bloody world view of Al-Qaeda would have roots in humiliation and rage, in this case spawned by repressive governments. The most heinous means becomes acceptable when you're convinced your objectives are sublime and you believe your enemy is completely depraved.

It was fascinating and disconcerting to see in the documentary how much Egypt, and the Middle East in general, has 'dewesternized' and increasingly moved towards a politicized version of Islam over the past few decades. Some would probably rightly argue that 'westernization' only extended to a small elite in these societies, and the rise of conservative forces has coincided with the growth of democratic and anti-authoritarian notions in these societies. There is probably some truth to this, but it should be noted that radical political Islam has done great harm to itself across the Muslim world in the last couple of decades. The violent tactics, repressiveness, and incompetence of the political Islamists displayed in Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt etc. had largely discredited these movement by the late 90s. This argument has been articulated quite well in a book titled Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel. According to Kepel the events of September 11th, instead of showing the strength of the political Islamists, was actually an act of desperation by a floundering movement. I believe there's a great deal of truth to this view; political Islam was largely successfully stifled by the powers that be, failed to receive the support it expected from the 'masses', and demonstrated an inability to adequately govern where their revolution was successful. Unfortunately, the events following the September 11th attacks have breathed new life into political Islamism by reinforcing the notions of assimilative Western imperialism and an inherent hostility of Westerners towards the Muslim world.

Another intriguing and troubling theme raised by the documentary is the concept of the 'noble lie' or myth-making advocated by Straussian thought, and the use of misinformation by 'Straussians' involved in American politics. Particularly interesting was the revelation that Pipes and Wolfowitz deliberately built up an exaggerated case of a Soviet threat. Dangerous weapons were hypothesized to exist and it was argued that there existence could not be disproven despite the lack of any meaningful evidence. Even more troubling was how the documentary demonstrated distortions deliberately fabricated by the CIA were actually believed by Reaganites, and were used to justify increased aggressiveness towards the Soviets. Needless to say, this should sound eerily familiar to the reader.

While I thought the makers of the documentary did an excellent job of drawing the links between the anti-liberal roots of ideologues on both sides, it did have its limitations. Obviously with the short time frame, and the nature of the medium, the documentary could only delve into the complex subject matter it investigated in partial detail. The creators of the documentary were sometimes forced to draw facile conclusions for the sake of affect, when more detailed inquiry is occasionally called for. This gives neocons and their sympathizers far too much room to maneuver, and respond to the doc by dismissing it as a dramatic oversimplification of Straussian thought and the influence it has had on American politics. Also, there are other important factors behind radical political Islam which the documentary doesn't address. In particular, the influence of the Saudi petrodollar-funded spread of Wahhabi/Salafism isn't discussed. In my opinion, this is an influence at least as pernicious as Qutb and the Egyptian Jihadists. But as I mentioned above, I believe these important omissions by the documentary are primarily due to the limited time and lack of viewer knowledge on the subject matter. Overall, the doc did a remarkably effective job in connecting the dots and providing insight considering the constraints.

One final point that I think is important to make is that while their ideology should be condemned, there are some valid complaints that both Strauss and Qutb had about modern liberalism. Strauss' ideas were formed primarily out of the rise of Nazism from the Weimar liberal-democracy in Germany. The divisiveness and instability of the Weimar republic did enable a radical figure like Hitler to rise to power. Liberal democracy failed to provide stability to Germans in the chaotic aftermath of World War I, and the inherent divisiveness of liberalism was ruthlessly exploited by the Nazis for their own advantage. A Straussian would presumably argue that, a 'morally grounded' society with de facto constraints on democracy, would have provided the necessary stability to have avoided such disastrous consequences. Similarly, Qutb recognized that a liberal secularized society tends to degrade notions of community and greater good in the name of selfish individualistic desires. Liberalism naturally leads towards an ever-present nagging skepticism and a questioning of all tradition. To Qutb, a man raised in the pious and modest world of Egyptian village life, he could see the seeds that 'western' liberalism would plant that would undermine the aspects of his identity that he held most dear.

The point that both ideologies neglect is that while a meaningful commitment to human liberty will necessarily produce negative consequences, so does any other form of government. While liberalism does tend to diminish traditional beliefs and is inherently chaotic, the codified freedoms it provides are also what safeguards the pious from persecution and provides some means of preventing despots from accumulating too much power. While the Straussians and radical Islamists might think that a whole-hearted embrace of liberalism might inevitably lead to the enslavement of mankind, they fail to recognize that their own ideologies are much more likely to produce repressive and regressive societies.


Blogger handyguy said...

Thanks for helping spread the word about The Power of Nightmares, a superb movie that has had shamefully limited distribution in the US. For more thoughts on this and other movies, see

10:55 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home