David Whippman

Intellectuals, Israel and Islamism: Fair Play goes West

In the western world, there’s now a palpable radical left/intellectual/artistic swing against Israel (and Jews in general). On this site, articles by Robert Wistrich,  Martin Krossel and others have drawn attention to it.

The corresponding phenomenon is the way that the intelligentsia have given Islamic extremism an easy ride. Of course the picture isn’t completely bleak. Some intellectuals have denounced radical Islam as being inimical to free thought. To the end of his days, the British novelist Alan Sillitoe refused to climb aboard the anti-Israel bandwagon. The writer Martin Amis, while being no knee-jerk admirer of Israel, has written scathingly of the Islamist mindset.

But the voice of the chattering classes hasn’t got much to say about the subject. No doubt this is partly due to anti-semitism of one kind or another. It’s a simplistic reasoning, but even intellectuals can be simplistic: If Israel is bad (and that’s a given for a hell of a lot of people nowadays), then her enemies must be good.

But that’s only part of it. Intellectuals have always tended to be sternly critical of the   society in which they live, and sympathetic – to the point of naivety – towards its enemies. In the 1960s, Bertrand Russell et al spoke loud and long (and maybe rightly) against the US involvement in Vietnam: they were way out of their comfort zone when the topic was repression in the USSR, or the invasion of Czechoslovakia. It goes back a long way: two and a half thousand years ago, Plato scorned the political setup in his native Athens. For him, the austere military organisation of Sparta, where philosophy had no foothold, was the closest thing existing to an ideal state.

Maybe, to some extent, all this is healthy. We wouldn’t want the greatest minds in our society to spend too much time praising the establishment.  But realism has to kick in somewhere. The alternative, as we’re seeing now, is hypocrisy. And, in the case of Johan Galtung and his fellow travellers, something a lot more vile.

Intellectuals have their sacred cows like anyone else. In the 1960s it was communism, so the USSR escaped much criticism. Nowadays – and quite rightly – it’s unacceptable to be racist. But in practical terms, racism is defined as prejudice against people with a darker skin than oneself. Intellectuals would be horrified by the words of an Islamist if those words came from the mouth of a white Anglo-Saxon. But most Muslim radicals are brown or black-skinned. Multi-culturalism and all that….

Finally, quite starkly, there’s the fear of physical violence. Any western writer who criticised the Judaeo-Christian tradition was routinely described as “fearless”, though usually he faced nothing more dangerous than a mild reproach from a rambling clergyman. But the Islamic radicals have raised the stakes. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie turns out to be the 9/11 of artistic freedom.

The British sculptor Grayson Perry said it plain, and you have to admire his honesty: “I don’t want to offend Muslims because I don’t fancy getting my throat cut.” He wasn’t talking financially or artistically, either. Ask Theo van Gogh. The pen was mightier than the sword when the sword was blunt and ceremonial. But what if it’s a  sharpened scimitar, wielded by a man who likes to video himself beheading his prisoners? And his friends are ready to firebomb the printing press that publishes what the pen wrote? All bets are off, and the intellectuals – those who aren’t Jew-haters anyway, a la the loathsome Professor Galtung – are well aware of the fact.  They  might have big brains, but they’re not stupid.