Confronting the Pharaohs of today

“You know the Party slogan: ‘Freedom is Slavery’. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom.” — O’Brien in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

There are a number of great books which remind us that the freedom we celebrate on Passover should not be taken for granted. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon relate the horrors of the real-life Stalinist totalitarianism, but nothing matches the absolutism of Orwell’s dystopia; the complete absence of individual freedom. And yes, it is a work of fiction, but – as with Animal Farm – the author was critiquing real-world, contemporary (for him) regimes. And though it describes an extreme case, we would be wise not to dismiss it as implausibly so.  Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a book on Orwell’s indispensability as a polemical opponent of both fascism and Stalinism, remarked that after visiting North Korea (one of the few western journalists to do so) he could not help thinking that Kim Il Sung had read a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and decided to use it as the template for his own regime.

Photographs of the Leader displayed by order in every home… Loudspeakers and radios blasting continuous propaganda for the Leader and the Party… A pervasive atmosphere of scarcity and hunger… of a society where individual life is absolutely pointless, and where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.

It is hard to avoid the parallels.

North Korea sets a standard for ‘unfreedom’ that is hard to match, but short of nuclear war, the fanatical regime of Kim Jong-Un does not pose a threat to our way of life in the liberal democratic west. Our freedom is under attack from two separate adversaries; one largely external but widely appeased by the political left, the other internal and increasingly granted legitimacy by the political right.

The Pharaohs from the East

The first announced its intentions with a deafening crescendo in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001. The decade of Western hubris following the defeat of communism was at an end; a new ideological foe had emerged. Well, actually, it wasn’t so new, and it had been gradually emerging since the 1950s when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (yes, Egypt again) was revolutionized and radicalized by Sayyid Qutb. The ideology of Islamism – not just the suicidal jihadist terror of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but the theocratic-political ideology itself – is as absolutist, as anti-Western and as expansionist in its aims as Soviet communism or Nazism. And the threat to our freedom comes not only from the Sunni Islamists who periodically perpetrate acts of terror in Europe and the United States, but even more potently from the Shi’a Islamic Republic of Iran and its long arm in the Levant, the Shi’a Islamists of Hezbollah. Like North Korea, Iran is pursuing the ultimate weapon of mass destruction; unlike Kim Jong-Un, who just needs the Bomb as security against an US-led effort at regime change, the Ayatollahs have loftier ambitions, seeking to become the hegemonic power in the Middle East.

All of this dangerous enough. What compounds the problem is not only the justification for Islamist terror offered by the likes of George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn and Noam Chomsky (“we deserve it”), but the more common response from world leaders on both the left and right: condemnation, coupled with the hasty caveat that the violence “is nothing to do with Islam”. This is a dishonest and dangerous cop-out. Not all – or even most – Muslims support terrorism, but Islamist terror is a major global threat and yes, it absolutely does have something to do with Islam. A non-Muslim would not and could not be an Islamist. The politically correct squeamishness which prevents too many mainstream political leaders from dealing honestly with this problem is one of the causes of the rise of the second threat to liberal democracy: authoritarian (or illiberal) nationalism.

In Germany for example, voters worried about Merkel’s open-door asylum policy have turned en masse to the far-right AfD Party – particularly after the events of New Year’s Eve 2015, when mobs of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East perpetrated mass, coordinated sexual assaults on hundreds of women across the country. The AFD, previously inconsequential in German politics, it is now leading the polls in certain parts of the country. The reason is crystal clear: many ordinary Germans feel deeply uneasy about Merkel’s decision and no one from the mainstream right- or left-wing parties had been willing to criticize it.

Across Europe, nationalist parties with neo-fascist roots have become genuine political forces by warning of the ‘Islamification’ of their countries and castigating the ‘appeasement’ of established political parties. One exception that proves the rule is Holland, where the prime minister Mark Rutte successfully defeated his country’s resurgent illiberal nationalist party, Geert Wilders’s PVV, in 2017 by taking a hardline position against immigrants who “refuse to adapt, and who criticize our values”.

The Pharaohs from the West

Hungary and Poland provide us with the most potent cautionary tales. Both countries embraced liberal democracy 30 years ago, after their release from the yoke of Soviet communism. Today, both are on a fast track to authoritarianism. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly cites Vladimir Putin as a model and has embraced what he calls “illiberal democracy”, essentially a hollowed out democratic system where all the checks-and-balances to rampant executive tyranny have been neutered or removed. Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski declared as early as 2011 that he was “convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw”. In both countries, the courts have been packed with judges loyal to the regimes. In Hungary, a new Media Council was established with the authority to fine outlets whose coverage Orban’s government did not deem ‘balanced’. The Election Commission is now staffed almost entirely by loyalists to Orban’s Fidesz party.

Ostensibly, a leader like Orban is a threat only to the freedom of Hungary’s citizens. However, the legitimacy bestowed on him my supposedly mainstream conservative figures in the West raises questions about the commitment to liberal democracy from within the mainstream right, and if those (no doubt well-intentioned) thinkers proposing “conservative democracy” have thought through where such a concept could lead. Orban was a guest speaker at the National Conservatism conference held in Rome earlier this year. He has been lauded by a number of conservative thinkers in the United States and Israel, as well as across Europe. One-time Donald Trump aides Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are overt admirers. As Marc Plattner, a founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, has explained, Orban has deliberately conflated small-l ‘liberalism’ – the political left in the United States – with ‘Liberalism’ – the overarching philosophy which, combined with ‘Democracy’, has produced what we have come to know as the Free World. In endorsing Orban’s ‘illiberalism’ they are not being anti-liberal, but anti-Liberal. They are not just opposing gay marriage or big government; they are opposing free speech, a free press, the rule-of-law, an independent judiciary, minority rights. This is not anti-left or anti-progressive; it’s anti-freedom.

The most recent political development in Hungary should have silenced any doubt as to Orban’s direction of travel. Exploiting the coronavirus crisis, he has pushed through parliament emergency legislation allowing him to rule by decree. No elections, parliamentary or judicial oversight can take place while the measures are in effect. This is the classic ‘democratic’ route to dictatorship (students of 20th century European history may recall Hitler’s ‘Enabling Act’ of 1933). So far, there has been no public criticism by his admirers and legitimizers in the West.

Orban, Kaczynski, Le Pen and others claim they are the defenders of western civilization – against Islam and its liberal enablers, and against rootless ‘globalists’, a group that tends to be dominated by Jews. (These leaders are always at pains to distance themselves from the antisemitism which had been so prominent in the far-right of a generation ago, though it is invariably still present and obvious among the rank-and-file of their parties.) What they forget – or more likely simply ignore – is that the West’s values are not just ‘Judeo-Christian’, they are the (capital-l) ‘Liberal values’ of the Enlightenment. The values they explicitly reject.

Yes, our freedom is threatened by Iran and Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Hamas. But the correct response to a totalitarian ideology from the Middle East cannot be an indigenous authoritarianism.

As we reach the end of the Jewish people’s holiday of freedom, it’s worth considering today’s Pharaohs. George Orwell was right a century ago that the most significant political divide was not left vs. right, but authoritarian/totalitarian vs. free. He understood, (in contrast to too many of his fellow British socialists), that the real enemy was not the Conservative Party, but fascism and Soviet communism. So it is today. Whether you lean left or right, liberal or conservative; if you value the freedoms we take for granted in the West, your enemies are Islamism and its appeasers, and the new nationalist authoritarians and their apologists.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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