November 19, 2003 | Op-ed

Hearts and minds

By Ariel Beery

There are a number of wars raging around the world right now, but none of them are more important or more pivotal than the war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim/Arab world. And we are losing.

We, not they. We, the educated citizens of this great democracy, know that words and ideas have great power, enabling the few to harness the collective energy of the many, and yet we have forfeited the debate with militant Islamism. Most of us do no more than watch or criticize the Bush administration as Islamism strengthens its position as the dominant force in the Middle East. At present, the liberal community has become so engrossed in its hatred of the current administration that it either chooses to sit on the sidelines of the war of ideas between Islamism and democracy or, in some cases, it has allowed the enemy of its perceived enemy to become its de facto friend.

“Let's not speak about Bush,” said Paul Berman, a noted intellectual and author of, most recently, Terror and Liberalism. “Let's speak about Bush's critics.” Speaking last week at the inaugural event of the “Struggle for Human Rights and America's Role in the World” lecture series at Columbia, he continued, “The New York Review of Books in the 1970s and '80s took up the cause of the East Bloc Dissidents. It made it its mission to champion these people.” But, he noted, “Nowadays no magazine is promoting the dissident Muslim intellectuals. Who has written about the dissident Iranians? Which of Bush's critics say, 'We're against Bush, but we are in favor of [Egyptian democratic activist] Saad Eddin Ibrahim?'”

Actually, the last publication that quoted Ibrahim was The Wall Street Journal, a conservative paper. The last time he made headlines was after his release from an Egyptian prison following monumental American pressure. No, he has not stopped publishing. Yes, he is still as active as ever, and has a website to boot. Yet the press virtually ignores him, preferring articles attacking Bush and American foreign policy.

This effectively undermines Ibrahim's cause since the marketplace of ideas in his own country is restricted, to say the least. The West would have to act as his petri dish for there to be any hope for his ideas to catch hold and germinate–as the West did for Vaclav Havel and the other East Bloc dissidents. “One of the ways Communism was defeated,” Berman said, “was that intellectuals had been arguing with Communism for years, and in the 1980s the arguments became very powerful, causing the leaders and thinkers in the Eastern Bloc to change sides.”

Ibrahim is not the only dissident the intellectual establishment is effectively ignoring, and thus undermining. Hossein Khomeini, a Shiite cleric and the grandson of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, told Christopher Hitchens that “it is necessary for religion and politics to be separated,” and that this separation would benefit Islam. This is a far cry from what extremists in the Middle East proclaim across the airwaves–yet no major article has featured Hossein Khomeini since Hitchens'. Making these arguments public is essential to empowering these societies to free themselves from tyranny. That would preempt the arguments of those who think that America should act on these societies' behalf.

The ironic thing is that President Bush has broken this deafening silence. In his speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush stated the obvious, saying that “60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe … because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

It is simply pathetic that a president who came into office as an isolationist should become the main voice calling for liberty, while all those who supported human rights in the past oppose him on principle. Bush does not have much credibility when it comes to civil liberties, but that does not mean we should ignore the potential his speech showed for revolutionizing American foreign policy objectives.

There is another way. The New Republic, a nearly century-old vessel of liberal thought, has succeeded in keeping its morals above its partisan politics, and has provided an excellent intellectual justification for American intervention so long as it is used for liberal ends. If even Noam Chomsky can admit in The New York Times Magazine that America “is the best country in the world,” maybe it is time for intellectuals to free their minds from their partisan hatred, and join the fight for freedom in the Arab/Muslim world. We have nothing to lose but their chains.

Ariel Beery is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.