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Seeds of Revolution

Theodor Herzl, founding father of the Zionist movement, was not a gifted novelist. Nevertheless, his novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land), is one of the most remarkable books of the twentieth century. Although Herzl finished it in 1902, the visionary ideas expressed in this “fairy tale,” as he called it, belonged firmly in the century before. Altneuland is a blueprint of the perfect Jewish state, a technocratic utopia, a socialist dream with all the advantages of capitalism, an idealistic colonial enterprise, a model of pure reason, a “light unto the nations.” It also helps to explain the extremism of some of those who rebel against the dominance of what is widely regarded as the arrogant West.

By the 1920s, in Herzl’s tale, Jerusalem would be transformed into a thoroughly modern me-tropolis, “intersected by elec-tric street railways; wide, tree-bordered streets; homes, gar- dens, boulevards, parks; schools, hospitals, government buildings, pleasure resorts.” Arab and Jew would live happily together in the New Society, working in vast “co-operative syndicates.” And all the nations of the world would meet in Jerusalem at the Palace of Peace.

The real Jerusalem is rather different. In times of high tension, the streets of the old walled city are silent; shops are boarded up; dignified old tourist guides, bereft of clients, softly beg for a little cash. Only ultra-Orthodox Jews still venture into the medieval streets. In the modern western areas of the city, men armed with machine guns stand guard in front of cafés and restaurants. Hotels are empty, abandoned by tourists. You never know where the next bomb attack will strike: on a bus, in a cinema or a discothèque. Arabs do their necessary jobs, cleaning Israeli floors, building Israeli houses, mending Israeli roads, and then scurry back to their homes, each one, in the eyes of a fearful population, a potential suicide bomber. An edgy silence often haunts the streets, broken, periodically, by the sirens of police cars or ambulances.

Israel has to bear much of the responsibility for this menacing atmosphere. You cannot humiliate and bully others without eventually provoking a violent response. Palestinians have been treated badly by Arabs as well as by Jews. The daily sight of Palestinian men crouching in the heat at Israeli checkpoints, suffering the casual abuse of Jewish soldiers, being screamed at, being made to wait endlessly, being insulted in front of family and friends, helps to explain much of the venom of the intifadas. Destruction of property and physical violence turn insults into injury, and even death.

But Israel has also become the prime target of a more general Arab rage against the West, the symbol of idolatrous, hubristic, amoral, colonialist evil, a cancer in the eyes of its enemies that must be expunged by killing.

Herzl could not possibly have foreseen this, and yet the seeds of tragedy are already buried in his text, which was well meant, deeply idealistic, and in many ways typical of everything that people who feel so victimized by the West that they wish for its destruction find most hateful. We call such people Occidentalists. They are not just critics of Western ways. They see the West as less than human, as a kind of ruthlessly efficient, soulless, machine civilization which must be violently resisted.

The narrative of Herzl’s novel is carried on the cardboard shoulders of three cut-out characters. A misanthropic American millionaire of aristocratic Prussian origin, named Kingscourt, pays Friedrich Löwenberg, a depressed Viennese Jew, to be his companion on a tropical island. Löwenberg is much like Herzl himself, a disillusioned dandy. The third character is a poor and virtuous Eastern European Jew named Littwak. In a moment of guilty generosity, Löwenberg gives his money to Littwak’s family. So here we have them, the good Jew, the anguished Jew, and the rich and unassailable Germanic goy.

In Book One, Kingscourt and Löwenberg interrupt their Mediterranean cruise with a visit to the Holy Land. “Your fatherland,” says Kingscourt to his paid companion; Löwenberg cringes. In Book Two, they revisit the Holy Land, about twenty years later, and are filled with the wonder of it all. Littwak is now a sturdy pioneer helping to build the New Society. By the end, in Book Five, Littwak has become the first president of the Jewish state. Löwenberg marries Littwak’s sister and stops feeling anguished. And Kingscourt, filled with admiration for the New Society, becomes the loving benefactor of Littwak’s infant son.

The tragedy of this optimistic fairy tale does not lie in the story itself, but more in the tone, the fanciful descriptions, and the peculiar justifications for Herzl’s ideals. This is how the trio find the Holy Land on their first visit, before the Jews have built their New Society: “The alleys [of Jaffa] were dirty, neglected, full of vile odors. Everywhere misery in bright Oriental rags….” The landscape on the way to Jerusalem is “a picture of desolation.” The people of “the blackish Arab villages looked like brigands. Naked children played in the dirty alleys.”

Jaffa twenty years on is “a magnificent city,” whose “magnificent stone dams showed the harbor for what it was: the safest and most convenient port in the eastern Mediterranean.” Littwak, the happy pioneer, explains: “Never in history were cities built so quickly or so well, because never before were so many technical facilities available. By the end of the nineteenth century, humanity had already achieved a high degree of technical skill. We merely had to transplant existing inventions to this country.”

A bit of Europe, then, transplanted to the desolation that was the Middle East. And with all those technical skills came many of the ideas that were fashionable then: blinkered faith in economic progress; trust in social engineering by the state; a fetishistic taste for power plants and big dams. Here is the Dead Sea, with “mighty iron tubes” jutting from the rocks, “set vertically upon the turbine sheds, resembling fantastic chimneys. The roaring from the tubes and the white foam on the outflowing waters bore witness to a mighty work.” Löwenberg feels a little overwhelmed, even crushed by “all this greatness.” Not Littwak: “We have not been crushed by the greatness of these forces—it has lifted us up!”

Not only is the New Jerusalem a socially progressive, economically advanced place, but even religion is transformed into something so secular it hardly feels like religion anymore. Passover is a time to celebrate the New Society. The song to the Sabbath bride reminds Löwenberg of Heinrich Heine and the great poet’s “Jewish identity.” Contemplating the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, Löwenberg thinks of the right of Jews to feel proud and free.

This is all most gratifying, but what do the Arabs make of it all? What about their traditions, beliefs, and aspirations to be proud and free? Not to mention their “identity.” The question does in fact come up. Kingscourt, impressed as he is by the Zionists’ great achievements, asks an Arab named Reschid Bey whether his people resent the new interlopers on their tribal lands. “What a question!” he replies. “It was a great blessing for all of us.” The landowners sold their land to the Jews at high prices, and “those who had nothing stood to lose nothing, and could only gain.” Nothing, he continued, was more wretched than an Arab village in the late nineteenth century. “The peasants’ clay hovels were unfit for stables. The children lay naked and neglected in the streets, and grew up like dumb beasts.” But now everything was different. For everyone “benefitted from the progressive measures of the New Society, whether they wanted to or not, whether they joined it or not.” The swamps were drained, canals dug, trees planted. And there was plenty of work for everyone. Only begging was now strictly forbidden.

This is the kind of stuff that filled Chinese and Soviet publications in the 1960s, the idea that human happiness could be bought with foaming turbines and bumper harvests, that nothing so irrational as religious, or national, or ethnic pride would stand in the way of the mighty roar of modern progress, and that “primitive” peoples would be only too happy to be taken in hand by more enlightened races marching toward a glorious future. These dreams turned out to be fraudulent. Herzl could still express them innocently.

Altneuland is worth reading because it contains so much that is grand and hopeful about Western thought since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. From this kind of thinking came the Industrial Revolution, liberal democracy, scientific discovery, and civil rights. But the same Promethean dreams of European rationalists, taken to logical extremes and brutally implemented, often by non-Europeans who wanted to catch up with Western progress, have ended in the mass graves of the gulag and the killing fields of China and Cambodia. Europeans justified their imperial conquests with claims of progress and enlightenment. Asian tyrants murdered millions with the same justifications.

Reactions to the rationalist dreams of Eastern tyrants or Western empires have been just as bloody. The Islamist revolutionary movement that currently stalks the world, from Kabul to Java, would not have existed without the harsh secularism of Reza Shah or the failed experiments in state socialism in Egypt, Syria, and Algeria. This is why it was such a misfortune, in many ways, for the Middle East to have encountered the modern West for the first time through echoes of the French Revolution. Robespierre and the Jacobins were inspiring heroes for Arab radicals: progressive, egalitarian, and opposed to the Christian Church. Later models for Arab progress—Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union—were even more disastrous. But to see the upheavals of the twentieth century as a pendulum, swinging from Western rationalism to Oriental religious zeal, would be a mistake, for the two extremes are dangerously entangled.

Most revolts against Western imperialism, and its local offshoots, borrowed heavily from Western ideas. The samurai who founded the modern Japanese state in 1867 did so to defend themselves against being colonized by the West. But it was defense by mimicry. Their ideals could have been lifted straight from Altneuland. The Meiji oligarchs were in many ways the perfect pupils of Europe. Changing their kimonos for tailcoats and top hats, they set about smashing Buddhist temples and transforming their country in the name of progress, science, and enlightenment. Japan’s own imperial conquests were justified along the same lines. Like Herzl, Japanese empire-builders took the gratitude of lesser breeds for granted.

But coiled, like an anaconda, inside the modern transformation of Japan was a nativist counterrevolution, which sought to save the spiritual purity of an ancient culture from the soulless modernity of the Occident and its slavish Oriental acolytes. Yet the counterrevolution, too, despite its Shinto and samurai romance, was heavily in debt to Western ideas, most particularly the anticapitalist strains of National Socialism. What complicates the picture even further is that Western-style modernity and nativist revolt existed inside the same establishment, and often in the minds of the same people.

This is the problem. No Occidentalist, even the most fervent holy warrior, can ever be entirely free of the Occident. The pre-war Japanese conundrum, of revolution fermenting in the heart of the establishment it seeks to destroy, is evident in the Middle East as well. Islamic revolutionaries are harbored, and sometimes even encouraged, by nominally secular regimes, in Syria and Egypt; some were in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. What makes their terror so lethal is not just the religious hatred borrowed from old texts, which is in any case often based on distortions, but the synthesis of religious zealotry and modern ideology, of ancient bigotries and modern technology.

The furnace for such syntheses is often located in the West itself. Pol Pot melded revolutionary Marxism with Khmer nationalism as a student of radio technology in Paris. The Iranian revolutionary scholar Ali Shari’ati was only a few years younger than Pol Pot, and like him spent some years studying in Paris, where he translated the works of Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Shari’ati’s views on “Islam as practical socialism” were a conscious fusion of secular and religious dogmas. His faith was turned into the vehicle of armed struggle. Martyrdom (“red death”) was promoted as the highest form of existence—not just an end, but a goal in itself. He had turned from Marxism to a purist version of Islam. And yet he used the political terminology of freedom and equality.

Baathism, the ideology of the Syrian government and the former Iraqi government, is a synthesis, forged in the 1930s and 1940s, of fascism and romantic nostalgia for an “organic” community of Arabs. It was developed, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of World War I, by such thinkers as Sati’ al-Husri, the Syrian promoter of pan-Arab nationalism, and Michel ‘Aflaq, founder of the Baath Party in Syria. European colonialism was now the main enemy of pan-Arab activists. But, as usual, the West was fought with ideas that originated in Europe, the same ideas which inspired radical nationalists in Japan.

Sati’ al-Husri (1880–1968) was a secular thinker whose concept of Arab unity was based less on Islam than on blood ties, history, and language. An activist in Damascus when the French ruled Syria in the 1920s, he was a keen student of German Romantic thinkers, such as Fichte and Herder, who countered the French Enlightenment by promoting the notion of an organic, völkisch nation, rooted in blood and soil. His ideal of pulling the Arab world together in a huge organic community was directly inspired by pan-German theories that held sway in fascist circles in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s. An Arab Volksgemeinschaft, bound by military discipline and heroic individual sacrifice, was what he dreamed of. And, by the way, some of the early Zionists were just as much in thrall of the same German ideas. In his memoirs, one such figure, Hans Kohn, writes that young Jews “transferred Fichte’s teaching” into the “context of our own situation…we accepted his appeal to bring forth the ideal community by placing all the power of the rationally and ethically mature individual at the service of his own nation.”*

Sati’ al-Husri also used the idea of asabiyya, or Arab blood solidarity, developed in the fourteenth century by Ibn Khaldun. The aim, in any case, was to overcome “abstract Western thinking” and free the Arab people from feudalism, colonialism, imperialism, and Zionism. This, along with a version of totalitarian socialism, is still the official ideology of the Baathists today.

Islamism was the revolutionary idea coiled within this secularist revolution, and to crush actual or potential religious revolts against their secular tyrannies, Syrian and Iraqi Baathist rulers have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of fellow Arabs, mostly Shiite Muslims. Far more Muslim blood has been shed inside Arab nations than in all the wars between Israelis and Palestinians. And yet the Baathists, when it suits them, have also encouraged religious terrorism against the Western “Crusaders” and “Zionists.” Saddam Hussein, for one, liked to portray himself as Saladin, savior of the Arabs, riding his white steed to wipe out the infidels.

The question, then, is how to protect the legitimate idea of the West, that is to say, the world’s liberal democracies, against its enemies. And the West, in this sense, includes such fragile Asian democracies as Indonesia and the Philippines. Quite aside from military tactics or international diplomacy, the question is what to think, how to conceive the problem. It is perhaps easier to conclude what not to think.

Although Christian fundamentalists speak of a crusade, the West is not at war with Islam. Indeed, the fiercest battles will be fought inside the Muslim world, not strictly between religionists and secularists, but between those who favor civil liberties and freedom of thought and those who wish to impose a theocracy. The religious revolution will have to be halted preferably not by outside intervention but by Muslims themselves. In fact, Western intervention often makes things harder for non-Western liberals, who will be seen as traitors slavishly following Western ways. There is indeed a worldwide clash going on, but the fault lines do not coincide with national, ethnic, or religious borders. Moderate Muslims in Indonesia and Pakistan are as much the targets of Islamist zealotry as Westerners. It is indeed the Westernizers in their midst who provoke the greatest rage among the religious revolutionaries of the Middle East and beyond. The war of ideas is in some respects the same as the one that was fought several generations ago, against various versions of fascism and state socialism. This is not to say the military war is the same, or that all the ideas overlap. In the 1940s, the war was only between states. Now it is also against a disparate, worldwide, loosely organized, mostly underground revolutionary movement.

The other intellectual trap to avoid is the paralysis of colonial guilt. It should be repeated: European and American histories are stained with blood, and Western imperialism did much damage. But to be conscious of that does not mean we should be complacent about the brutality taking place in former colonies now. On the contrary, it should make us less so. To blame the barbarism of non-Western dictators or the suicidal savagery of religious revolutions on American imperialism, global capitalism, or Israeli expansionism is not only to miss the point; it is precisely an Orientalist form of condescension, as though only Westerners are adult enough to be morally responsible for what they do.

The idea that organized religion is the main problem might come naturally to the newly secularized, disenchanted Western intellectual, but that too is off the mark. For some of the most ferocious enemies of the West are secular, or at least pretend to be. Religion is used everywhere, in India no less than in Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, for reprehensible political ends. But it does not have to be. It can be a force for the good. In the Middle East, it might offer the only hope of a peaceful way out of our current mess.

A distaste for, or even hatred of, the West is in itself not a serious issue. Occidentalism becomes dangerous when it is harnessed to political power. When the source of political power is also the only source of truth, you have a dictatorship. And when the ideology of that dictatorship, including Hitler’s, is hatred of the West, ideas become deadly. These ideas are often inspired by religion. But this does not mean that all religious authority must be crushed. Organized religion has a place in offering community and spiritual meaning to those who seek it. In the Muslim world today, religion might become central to the struggle for political freedom, perhaps in the shape of contending political parties. Experiments in governance by democratic Islamic parties are alive in such countries as Turkey and Indonesia. The Turkish parliament has resisted US policy by democratic means, and Islamic politicians are showing a greater interest in improving human rights than many of their secular colleagues used to do. Success is far from guaranteed. But it is hard to see how any road to freedom can steal its way around the mosque.

Where political, religious, and intellectual freedom has already been established, it must be defended against its enemies, with force, if need be, but also with conviction. What should be clear is that we have not been witnessing the Manichaean history of one civilization at war with another. On the contrary, it is a tale of crosscontamination, the spread of bad ideas. This could happen to us now if we fall for the temptation to fight fire with fire, Islamism with our own forms of intolerance. Religious authority, especially in the United States, is already having a dangerous influence on political governance. We cannot afford to close our societies as a defense against those who have closed theirs. For then we would all become Occidentalists, bent on the destruction of an ill-defined, less than human, alien enemy, and there would be nothing left to defend.

  1. *

    Living in a World Revolution (Trident, 1964), quoted in Amos Elon, The Israelis (Holt, 1971).

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