Good news and bad news

I’m back from London and the conference at Chatham House devoted to the question: “Is Islam a Threat to the West?” The good news, in case you’re worried about losing the clash of civilizations, is that the assembled experts answered the question with a resounding “no!” The bad news that there still exists a dire threat to the West. It’s posed by America. I simplify, but that was the general tenor of the deliberations: in the blame game, the United States incurred the most fouls. I did what I could to balance the score (and got thanked by someone from the U.S. embassy for my troubles). But it was a lopsided contest.

Fred Halliday and I had a civil exchange; when the summary of remarks is released by the organizers, I’ll post it. Avid readers of this site may know that Halliday is the author of a scathing review essay of my book Ivory Towers on Sand (an essay that appeared in Chatham House’s journal, International Affairs). He’s obviously misguided, and I’ve promised him that I’ll set him straight when it suits me. But I’ve no problem appearing with Fred or debating him. Why not?

So I was amused to hear him tell the audience that Edward Said once attended a conference at Chatham House and demonstratively left the hall when it came Halliday’s turn to speak. Why? Halliday had made a (rather mild) critique of Said in an essay on the orientalism debate. Christopher Hitchens once wrote of Said that he was “famously thin-skinned” and “had a vivid tendency to take any demurral as a personal affront.” This character trait had the neat effect of keeping acolytes in line. Hitchens adds that “it can be admirable in a way to go through life with one skin too few, to be easily agonized and upset and offended.” I fail to see anything admirable in it at all, and it’s too bad the same tendency has infected so many of Said’s disciples. To whom I say: give me your best shot, and I’ll give you mine. No hard feelings.

The star of the show was Tariq Ramadan. He’s the Geneva-based thinker, named to a chair by the University of Notre Dame, whose visa got yanked by Homeland Security only days before his departure for South Bend. Ramadan is persuasive, subtle, and disarming, and it’s easy to see how some might see him as a great threat, and others as a great promise. I’ve nothing to add to the debate about him, and I’ll just repeat the allusion I made to his case in my own remarks:

Don’t be misled by the affair of Tariq Ramadan. His exclusion from the United States has led some observers to think that the administration has set the bar for Islamic moderation impossibly high. But the Ramadan affair was governed by a very peculiar set of U.S. domestic and French circumstances. In fact, in the Middle East, the administration keeps setting the bar for Islamic moderation lower and lower. Today the Da’wa party in Iraq gets a pass, tomorrow it might be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the day after, it could be Hamas and Hizbullah.

And that was my key point. Not only does Washington not see Islam as a threat. It doesn’t see Islamism as a threat either, and some of my friends, backed into the democracy cul de sac, are talking about it as a solution. Some ideas never die.

Update: Here is a rapporteur’s detailed summary (pdf) of our debate and the discussion that followed.