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Conservatives Debate ... Is the Threat of Islamic Terrorism More Dangerous to America than Communism Was?

In his post 9/11 Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, President Bush described the new threat of Islamic terror:

"They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions -- by abandoning every value except the will to power -- they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

Recently, the editors of Frontpage invited a distinguished panel of experts on Communist totalitarianism to compare the threat of radical Islam to that of the Soviet empire. The four are Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident who spent twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his fight for freedom, and whose works include To Build a Castle and Judgement in Moscow; Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum and author of a new book, Militant Islam Reaches America; Paul Hollander, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of Political Pilgrims, Anti-Americanism and most recently Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist; and Michael Ledeen, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute author of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and Tocqueville on American Character, and a forthcoming title, The War Against the Terror Masters, to be published by St Martin’s Press.

The symposium interlocutor is FrontPageMagazine.com associate editor, Jamie Glazov.

Question: Gentlemen, how would you compare socialist messianism to Islamic messianism?

Pipes: The latter owes much to the former. It is not coincidence that Islamism originated in the late 1920s, just as totalitarian fervor was sweeping Europe and Stalin was consolidating his grip in the Soviet Union. Beyond this temporal angle, militant Islam's radical utopianism shares much in common with Marxist-Leninism.

Bukovsky: A plague on both their houses. The first was more dangerous due to its universal appeal. Indeed, it was far more dangerous, particularly at the beginning (1920s - 1940s).

Hollander: Islamic messianism seems capable of inspiring more individual fanaticism but has not succeeded in nation building. It offers the promises of other-wordly rewards that socialist beliefs could not or did not.

Ledeen: The secular leftists were much better at running countries and institutionalizing terror.

Q: Gentlemen, do you agree with Bukovsky’s assertion that the socialist messianism was more dangerous due to its"universal appeal"?

Pipes: I disagree. One can convert to the cause of Islamic messianism just as one can to socialist messianism - note the well-known recent cases of John Walker Lindh, Richard Reid, and Jose Padilla. Plus, the Islamic case is true" conversion," not the metaphoric kind, and has the power of religion behind it.

Hollander: Too early to say. If the Islamic fanatics manage to use some weapon of mass destruction they will prove more dangerous.

Ledeen: Yes. It was possible to be enlisted in the socialist movement on the basis of a few vague feelings and a dream of doing good. Islam is more rigorous, more demanding, and, for most people in most of the world, more"foreign."

Bukovsky: Well, the three names Mr. Pipes refers to constitute the whole list of the converted non-Muslims. Compare it with the hundreds of thousands of Marxists in 1920-1930, millions of socialists of one kind or another who would serve as a pool for later recruitment, or at the very least as fellow travelers. At the time the Soviet Union had emerged, the socialist utopia had captured the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and it also dominated labor movements. What do we have to compare it with in the present day pattern we discuss? A few thousand American blacks who converted to Islam out of some kind of protest? One must convert to Islam first in order to be further seduced, and that is a big step in itself for any Western individual to take, which is far from common here. If there was such a trend here recently, I failed to notice it.

Pipes: Actually, Mr. Bukovsky has it wrong. First, those few thousand blacks he refers to are actually hundreds of thousands. There are toward a million American-born converts to Islam (and their descendants) in the United States and most of them have shifted allegiances away from their native country. Second, there are a couple of million Muslim immigrants (and their descendants). Nazis and Communists never had the audacity to emigrate in large numbers to the United States; much less did they hope to find a substantial base of support among Americans. Yet that is precisely what Islamists have done.

The numbers of both groups are expanding rapidly, having grown perhaps 30 times in 40 years. In combination, they make for a large body among which militant Islam can recruit that is beyond anything the fascists or communists ever found. Unlike the Brown Shirts and Communists of the 1930s, Muslims who hate the United States are growing both in numbers and in reach, enjoying the protections afforded by the rule of law and the indulgence of a benevolent, pluralist society.

Q: How do you see the response to radical Islam by the West in comparison to the West's response to the Soviet empire?

Pipes: Very comparable. I wrote a whole article on this ("Same Difference." National Review, 7 November 1994, pp. 61-65) where I conclude,"Liberals say co-opt the radicals. Conservatives say confront them. As usual, the conservatives are right."

Bukovsky: The West’s response to radical Islam is as bad as it was to the communist challenge. Essentially, this is because the West is poorly suited to fight ideological war of any kind. It always fights itself more than it fights the enemy. It cannot define the goals and the means, the nature of the threat, a coherent strategy to deal with it, possible consequences and inevitable sacrifices. In short, the West is not terribly good at fighting wars as such, least of all the ideological ones.

Hollander: I think there is a sharper difference in the Islamic case between the U.S. and the other Western countries; the latter are far more inclined to avert their eyes or to appease than the U.S. They used to be a bit more alert to the Soviet danger presumably for reasons of geography.

Ledeen: At first it was pretty feeble, and hence, as Vladimir says, just as bad. I hope it gets more vigorous. As we saw with the Soviet Empire, it doesn’t take all that much to bring down a messianic system. Ask Mullah Omar.

Q: What do you gentlemen make of Bukovsky’s assertion that the West’s response to radical Islam is"as bad" as it was to the Soviet threat?

Pipes: the West's response to militant Islam may be even worse than to Communism, for the former is more alien and therefore confusing. I am confident the West will win this new war just as it won the Cold War but I worry about the unnecessary casualties we incur due to liberal sensitivities, whereby civil liberties trump security. The best strategy is to defeat the militant Islamic ideology and its regimes, in parallel to the defeat of communism and its regimes.

Hollander: I am not sure that the Western responses are worse in the recent case - but for Western Europe. The Western European responses were much worse (compared to American) in the recent case vs. the old Soviet threat.

Ledeen: I thought we were hopeless at first, then we had a spasm of rationality and toughness after September 11th, then we lapsed into dithering again for a while. I’m convinced we’ll be ok in short order because I think Bush has excellent instincts.

Q: Are you gentleman as confident as Mr. Pipes that the West will win this new war just as it won the Cold War?

Bukovsky: Let me go back a step for a minute. The beginning of the Cold War was not too bad: the Korean war, the Marshall plan, the Berlin blockade etc. But it very soon transpired that the Western democracies, due to their very nature, are incapable of conducting an ideological war. Now, the beginning of this Cold War Part II (or should it be called Part III?) is not bad either: the Taliban are no more and Osama is on the run. But, those you call"liberals" are actually in command here in the West. And they are but one reason we cannot win. Unless and until America sorts out itself, we have no chance in hell winning.

Pipes: Certain liberal sensitivities are definitely in the ascendant. Why else does George W. Bush refuse to target a specific enemy in the current war? why else his effusions about Islam being a"religion of peace"? But the liberals are not in command - if anything they are on the defensive since Sept. 2001 - and I am confident we will win.

Hollander: We are in the paradoxical situation that the more Islamic outrages against the West the more likely that the West will pull itself together and take effective action. But it is hard to predict or imagine what would happen if the Islamic terrorists succeeded in using some weapon of mass destruction.

Ledeen: Of course we’re going to win. Radical Islam is not going to destroy America and we will certainly destroy the terror masters. The question is"when." On the other hand, China could very well destroy America, and once we’ve won the war in the Middle East we may well lapse back into our belief that peace is the normal condition of mankind, and subvert ourselves again…as a Turkish general once said,"the main problem with having the Americans as allies is that you never know when they’re going to stab themselves in the back."

Q: But Mr. Bukovsky, surely you must concede, at least, that though the West’s response to the Soviet threat was weak in many instances, the West did, in the end, win the Cold War.

Bukovsky: No, I cannot agree that the West won the Cold War and I have written a whole book (Judgement in Moscow) demonstrating the opposite. More recently, I repeated the same arguments in Washington while receiving the Truman-Reagan Freedom Award.

(Editor’s note: Bukovsky argues that while there might have been a Western military victory, socialism still prevailed as a popular idea ideologically throughout the world. He writes:"Having failed to finish off conclusively the communist system, we are now in danger of integrating the resulting monster into our world. It may not be called communism anymore, but it retained many of its dangerous characteristics. . . .Until the Nuremberg-style tribunal passes its judgement on all the crimes committed by communism, it is not dead and the war is not over." )

So we did not win the previous Cold War. We did not finish off one enemy, and we did not even learn how to conduct an ideological war. And yet, we are declaring another such war with an even less clearly defined goal. Can you give me a good and universally accepted definition of terrorism? While the old unfinished enemy is ganging up on us, the chances of winning this one are even smaller.

Pipes: I disagree. The United States defeated communism in the Cold War as triumphantly as it defeated fascism in World War II; both are marginal movements. Now, it must attain a similar triumph over militant Islam.

Hollander: As I wrote in my 1999 book on the Soviet collapse, the causes of the Fall were primarily internal, but the armament race helped. I agree in part with Bukovsky that the ideas of Marxism haven’t been sufficiently discredited, at any rate not among Western elites and intellectuals. Nothing comparable to the discreditation of Nazism.

Ledeen: I agree with everyone in part. Vladimir is too pessimistic about America, but he is right that we have not yet proclaimed victory over communist ideology and, as Paul says, we did not conduct a proper"decommunization" program after the Cold War. And I agree with Dan that we must thoroughly defeat and humiliate radical Islam, and I expect we will.

Q: How would you comment on the fifth column supporters of Communism vs. the fifth column abettors of and apologists for the terrorists?

Pipes: The same people (i.e. George McGovern) are saying roughly the same things. In my National Review article, I argued that the cause lies in the fact that"The Left, in keeping with its materialist outlook, sees communist or fundamentalist Islamic ideology as a cover for some other motivation, probably an economic one. . . .The Left sees Western hostility as a leading cause for things having gone wrong. . . .It's the old liberal `blame America first' attitude."

Bukovsky: Those are usually the same people with the same reaction.

Hollander: People who hate the West, the U.S. and capitalism are eager to embrace any movement that is anti-Western, hence the current support or benefit of doubt regarding Islamic fanatics, Palestinian guerillas etc. These people do put a brake on efforts to fight them (e.g. the great solicitousness toward the civil rights of accused terrorists) but they don’t stop the efforts.

Ledeen: Nothing to add except"amen."

Q: Yes, the fifth column supporters of Communism and the fifth column abettors of the terrorists are the same people. If we dig deeper, what do we find here? Why does the liberal-left fall in love with America's enemies? Is it a self-hatred? A hatred of life? A death wish?

Pipes: Fifth-column supporters is too strong a term for the liberals; they are appeasers who sincerely believe that (1) showing good will go very far, (2) the West is to blame for the world's ills, and (3) all men have good in their hearts.

Bukovsky: Intellectuals are the most power-hungry stratum of any society. They crave total power. That is what explains their embrace of totalitarianism and, particularly, of the Left ideologies which, if you look closer, give them a unique and privileged position in the utopian society. They hate anyone else who might be viewed as being in power.

Hollander: I agree with Pipes;"5th column" is too strong a term.

Ledeen: Vladimir has it right. They hate America because America gives them low status. They want to play the consigliere to a powerful Prince, and Americans give little glory to intellectuals. Only Arthur Schlesinger Jr. fulfilled the intellectuals’ dream, which is why he was so happy for so long.

Final Question: Any concluding thoughts?

Bukovsky: I think we have to keep focused on the psychotic state of the minds of Western leftwing intellectuals. Even if they are in power as they are today, they still view themselves as an opposition, as underdogs, as victims. Second, although they crave absolute power, they do not accept any responsibility for exercising it. You can say, if you wish, that it is self-destructive tendency, but only from an objective viewpoint. Thus, objectively, their theories and actions usually lead to destruction of the society. They just refuse to see themselves as a part of it. This is why Western leftist intellectuals represented a great threat to the West in the face of the Soviet threat, and why they represent such a great threat to the West right now in the face of Islamic extremism.

Pipes: The Cold War does offer important and edifying comparisons to the current war. It should be studied and kept in mind.

Hollander: I spent much of my professional life trying to understand the aversion of so many Western and especially American intellectuals toward their own society. There are several possible explanations: 1) as far as the U.S. is concerned it has always been a society, a culture of high (and unrealistic) expectations; when disappointed, these idealists respond with anger and resentment toward their society.

2) The discontents of modernity: life in these societies increasingly felt meaningless, isolated, routinized -- loss of community was a major problem. New meaning was also sought via political activism, or there was just plain anger; a resentment about the"emptiness" of life. These phenomena explain why communist systems used to be so appealing for these people. These individuals also venerate, less openly, traditional societies. Now of course this presents" cognitive dissonance," since these people reject aspects of traditional society (e.g. treatment of women). Sixties radicals, after all, hated modernity quite openly (bureaucracy, routine, commerce, high levels of consumption, science etc).

3) It is also possible that people of certain personal problems and grievances gravitate toward the role of the social critic, the intellectual. In their bitter rejection of their society, they can combine (without acknowledging to do so)"the personal and the political." It is also good for one's self-esteem to be a righteous critic of all the corruption and injustice that seems peculiar to one's own (Western) society.

Ledeen: I think Mencken was right when he said that God protects the blind, the drunk, and the United States of America. Our enemies always get the advantage of striking first. We believe in the basic goodness of man, which is a terrible mistake. We have a short attention span (and we always have, as Tocqueville already recognized in 1831), so we fight in spasms, without the sort of long-term strategy that foreign policy logically requires. But we usually win, because we have enormous strengths—those of a free people united in a common mission—and amazing creativity and energy. We are very hard to understand, even among ourselves. How can our enemies possibly understand us? And so they make fatal mistakes, just as they did on Sept. 11th. Sooner or later we will meet an enemy who does it right, and we will fall. But I don’t think the terror masters are up to it.

This article first appeared in the July 1, 2002 edition of FrontPage Magazine.com.