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D'Souza goes native
On Dinesh D'Souza's controversial new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.
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Dinesh D’Souza was an early editor of The Dartmouth Review, the conservative student newspaper. He earned a reputation as an enfant terrible before he graduated from college. In his tenure at the Review, D’Souza brilliantly tormented the liberal college administration that presented him with the perfect target. Whatever his earlier attainments, he established himself as a writer of substance with his 1991 book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, a critique of political correctness and multiculturalism. Intensely reported, the book was full of astute commentary and analysis. It justly won the applause of such knowledgeable observers as the eminent historian Eugene Genovese, who celebrated the book in a New Republic cover story.
In his subsequent career as an author and controversialist, D’Souza has followed the path he started down in Illiberal Education. If he has sought to provoke, he has also sought to illuminate. Thus in his 1995 book The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society, D’Souza ably summarized a massive body of scholarship and literature. While there was much to disagree with in the book, he presented the evidence in such a way that an intelligent reader could both learn from him and form his own opinions.
The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11—D’Souza’s new book—is something else entirely. The book works a strange metamorphosis. Whereas Illiberal Education and The End of Racism proved D’Souza a precocious commentator and gifted polemicist, the new book is crude and sophomoric. Worse than its sophomoric treatment of serious issues is its presentation of a blinkered and politically correct version of the Muslim world. It is a presentation that the young D’Souza would have scorned. It is as though, having arrived on the scene as Franz Kafka, he has turned himself into Gregor Samsa.
The subject of the book is the shooting war and the culture war. D’Souza frames the book on a thesis that, he acknowledges, “will seem startling at the outset.” His thesis is an indictment that he levels in the second sentence of the book’s introduction: “The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.” D’Souza does not reveal how, more than five years after the event, he alone among the thousands of commentators on 9/11 has tumbled to its root cause.
D’Souza identifies “the cultural left” that is responsible for 9/11 as “the left wing of the Democratic Party” and “a few Republicans, notably those who adopt a left-wing stance on foreign policy and social issues.” As D’Souza himself proudly notes, he doesn’t just hold a piece of paper in his hand and wave a list of names around. He actually names names, identifying the “leading figures” among the cultural left: Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, George Soros, Bill Moyers, and Noam Chomsky. He also names organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Planned Parenthood. (And to those named in the introduction he adds an extensive enemies’ list in the last chapter of the book.)
The charge is serious, even if D’Souza’s invocation of Joe McCarthy belies its seriousness. And the list is long. Does D’Souza prove his case? Although prosecutors are famously able to get grand juries to indict ham sandwiches, I don’t think that D’Souza’s indictment would make it out of a grand jury room. D’Souza simply lacks any evidence to sustain the charge connecting “the visceral rage,” as D’Souza calls it, of the Muslims who carried out 9/11 to “the cultural left” that supposedly provoked it. Given the disparity between the seriousness of the charge and the thinness of the evidence, the book is a disgrace.
D’Souza acknowledges that he “is making a strong charge, one that no one has made before.” One therefore expects that the book will bear the stamp of deep research to support its controversial thesis. On this count The Enemy at Home is a curious book. It purports to probe the deepest motives of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Yet the book lacks a bibliography and otherwise shows no evidence of familiarity with important accounts of the evolution of al Qaeda such as Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s Age of Sacred Terror (2002), Richard Miniter’s Losing bin Laden (2004) and, most recently, Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower (2006). D’Souza acknowledges the 9/11 Commission Report but does not mention its account (chapter two of the report) of the evolution of bin Laden’s thought. D’Souza observes dismissively of the 9/11 Commission Report that “it does not tell us why [9/11] happened.” None of these basic secondary sources supports D’Souza’s thesis. But a vision has been vouchsafed unto D’Souza.
Were D’Souza not a respected conservative commentator affiliated with one of the finest research institutes in the United States (the Hoover Institution), one could write his book off as unserious or worse. To be sure, as might be expected from a writer of D’Souza’s caliber, parts of the book sparkle, such as D’Souza’s exposition of the unholy alliance (in David Horowitz’s words) between elements of the American left and radical Islam. Nevertheless, the book’s insubstantial thesis and superficial research are not its only curiosities. In the four years he claims to have spent studying America and the West “through Muslim eyes,” D’Souza appears to have gone native. Early in the book, for example, D’Souza writes: “No one can deny the horror of Palestinian and Chechen attacks on civilians, but these have to be measured against the state-sponsored terror on the other side: the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, the shooting of stone-throwing teenagers.” I’m not sure that even State Department foreign service officers have yet gone quite as native as D’Souza.
D’Souza’s reference to alleged “state-sponsored terror” by Israelis desperately seeking to defend themselves is of a piece with the blind eye he turns to the anti-Semitism that is ubiquitous in the Muslim world. Muslim anti-Semitism has turned Mein Kampf into a bestselling book, as Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, under the title Jihadi. Television in Muslim countries likewise features such rank anti-Semitic programming as the 41-part series based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. D’Souza cannot even see bin Laden’s anti-Semitism. “Yes,” D’Souza asserts without any citation or support, “bin Laden opposes Israeli occupation because in his view it constitutes foreign rule over Muslims. But as bin Laden sees it, the deeper problem is a conspiracy on the part of Israel and America to take over the Muslim world.” D’Souza omits any reference to the title of bin Laden’s 1998 manifesto—“Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders.” According to D’Souza, Muslim radicals “could repudiate the entire Islamic tradition and argue that Christians and Jews are no different from atheists and deserve the same treatment.” Daniel Pearl didn’t get much of an argument on the subject of his religion before he was murdered by radical Islamists, but they appear to have “repudiated the entire Islamic tradition” as D’Souza understands it. D’Souza appears to be unfamiliar with the sermons denouncing Jews as apes and monkeys that regularly issue from fundamentalist mosques.
D’Souza’s portrait of the Muslim world verges on apologetics. He makes a gratuitous gibe at Jewish tradition in his discussion of the severity of Islamic justice: “Islam is notorious for the harshness of some its punishments, such as cutting off the arms and legs of thieves, flogging adulterers and executing drug dealers. In this respect, one may say, with only a hint of irony, that Muslims are in the Old Testament tradition.”
One wonders if D’Souza is making a lame stab at humor with his concession that the “Western effort to understand the Islamic world is never more difficult than when Muslims do things like blow themselves up while flying planes into buildings—actions no sane Westerner would even contemplate.” D’Souza holds himself out as one who has made the effort to understand Islam even in the face of 9/11. He issues pronouncements that suggest he is not a reliable guide either to Islam or to 9/11 as in the false antithesis he draws to dispel conservative misunderstanding: “This may come as news to some conservatives, but Wahhabi Islam is not a breeding ground of Islamic radicalism. It is a breeding ground of Islamic obedience.” D’Souza does not address the authoritative accounts that connect Wahhabi Islam with Islamic radicalism or to the perpetrators of 9/11.
D’Souza’s parenthetical comment on the Danish cartoon controversy is as inexplicable as his characterization of Wahhabi Islam: “If it is within the parameters of acceptable satire to blame Muhammad for the pathologies of radical Islam, why is it not within those same bounds to blame [Martin Luther] King for the pathologies of inner-city black America”? D’Souza condemns as “churlish and exaggerated” the view that, “since pious Muslims are the ones launching terrorist attacks against Europe and America, Islam is to blame and Islam is the problem,” just as he does the view that Islam fosters “the fanatical mind-set that leads to terrorism.” He does not stop to explain why.
Indeed, D’Souza stigmatizes such views as “Islamophobic.” It is a judgment he expresses in the lexicon of the high church of political correctness that D’Souza mocked in a previous life. Getting in the spirit, he asserts that conservatives “have to cease blaming Islam for the behavior of radical Muslims.” (We must instead learn to blame “the cultural left” for the behavior of radical Muslims.) D’Souza also advises that “it is time for conservatives to retire the tiresome invocation of Turkey as a model for Islamic society.” Why? “What Atatürk did for Turkey was anomalous and, in all candor, ridiculous.” Such candor! Of all the Muslim countries discussed in The Enemy at Home, Turkey is the only one that earns D’Souza’s frank contempt.
D’Souza seeks to “refute the notion that radical Islam can be understood as the latest incarnation of totalitarian movements the West has seen before, such as the Nazis and the communists.” D’Souza draws the following distinctions. There is no intellectual lineage between the Western totalitarian movements and radical Islam. Moreover, “there is not even a similarity” between fascism and contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic radicalism has produced true believers “who are willing to give their lives to destroy America and the West,” while Nazism and Communism did not. Finally, the totalitarian movements were atheistic, but “the distinguishing feature of Islamic radicalism is Islamic.” Eureka!
Compared to his discovery that the distinguishing feature of Islamic radicalism is Islamic, his assertion that the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century lacked true believers comes as a surprise. When Auden referred to Hitler as a “psychopathic god” and Richard Crossman titled his famous anthology of essays on disillusionment with Communism The God That Failed, well, they lacked the benefit of D’Souza’s insight. Will somebody get this man a copy of Darkness at Noon?
D’Souza seeks “to understand [Muslims] as they understand themselves.” His effort culminates in a chapter devoted to a defense of patriarchy. There he observes that the practices most offensive to modern Americans, such as arranged marriage and polygamy, are not distinctively Islamic. Rather, D’Souza explains, they are characteristic of patriarchal cultures such as those of ancient Israel. “More recently in America,” D’Souza adds, “polygamy was permitted and practiced by the Mormons.” D’Souza fails to note the traditional American condemnation of polygamy, in the words of the 1856 Republican platform, as a relic of barbarism; Utah was not admitted as a state until it prohibited polygamy. D’Souza seeks to mitigate our antipathy to polygamy with the observation that Islamic law limits polygamy to four wives and that it is conditioned on requirements so onerous that “its practice is quite rare in the Muslim world.” Reliable data on the incidence of polygamy are not readily available and D’Souza cites no data whatsoever. It is at least worth noting in this context, even if D’Souza does not see fit to do so, that bin Laden is the issue of a polygamous marriage and is himself a polygamist. Bin Laden’s father took numerous wives who collectively bestowed some fifty children on him.
D’Souza ignores secondary sources that contradict or fail to support his thesis, and he fares no better in his treatment of primary sources. D’Souza only briefly discusses bin Laden’s pre-9/11 manifestos and does so in an extremely misleading manner. Foremost among them is bin Laden’s 1996 “declaration of war” against the United States. The declaration obviously bears on D’Souza’s thesis, but he never even cites the declaration by name: “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places (expel the infidels from the Arab peninsula).” Bin Laden decries “the Zionist-Crusader alliance” and asserts that, with the American “occupation” of Saudi Arabia, Islam has suffered “the latest and greatest of” the aggressions committed against it in recent history. “It is the duty of every tribe in the Arabian peninsula to fight jihad,” bin Laden announced, “and cleanse the land from these Crusader occupiers.” According to D’Souza, bin Laden’s grievance with the American occupation of Saudi Arabia “must be understood in a metaphorical sense… . What bin Laden objected to was America staying in the Middle East, importing with it the immoral ingredients of American values and culture.” I think it’s fair to say that the rambling twenty-five-page text of the 1996 declaration belies D’Souza’s reading of it.
The second of bin Laden’s pre-9/11 manifestos is his 1998 declaration of holy war against the West and Israel. Again bin Laden complains of America “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places.” Again bin Laden refers to the “Crusader-Zionist alliance,” alleging that more than one million Iraqis have been killed by Americans stationed in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden then issues his “ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military,” proclaiming it the “individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip.” D’Souza does not devote more than a few words to bin Laden’s 1998 manifesto specifically, though it is bin Laden’s final pre-9/11 written declaration of war. D’Souza generally observes, “When bin Laden calls America a Crusader state, he means that America is on a vicious international campaign to impose its atheist system of government and its pagan values on Muslims.”
According to D’Souza, bin Laden’s war against the “Crusader” United States and his condemnation of the “Zionist” half of the “Zionist Crusader alliance” are not based on the religion of either, but rather their lack of it. “The context of bin Laden’s arguments clearly shows that bin Laden is not speaking of a religious war between Islam and Christianity… . In the classical Muslim understanding, there is a fundamental distinction between Jews and Christians on the one hand and polytheists and atheists on the other.” D’Souza suggests that bin Laden either thinks highly of Christians and Jews, consistent with D’Souza’s understanding of traditional Islam, or maintains a discreet silence concerning his dissent from the tradition for fear of “alienat[ing] traditional Muslims.” To paraphrase the Biblical verse, in D’Souza’s book you shall not hear of jihad or rumors of jihad. The word does not appear in the index and the concept is not discussed in the book.
D’Souza places great stock in bin Laden’s November 2002 “Letter to America.” D’Souza cites it as cardinal evidence of bin Laden’s hatred of “the cultural left.” In the letter, bin Laden calls on Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.” For the purposes of argument we might concede that “fornication” and “homosexuality” can in some sense be laid at the feet of “the cultural left” and shoehorned into D’Souza’s thesis. But alcohol, gambling, and trading with interest cannot. D’Souza uses the passage to support his claim that bin Laden’s quarrel with America does not derive primarily from foreign policy. He does not even pause to take note that the passage supports the proposition that Islam contributes more to the quarrel than does “the cultural left.” D’Souza conveniently omits bin Laden’s statement that “the first thing we are calling you to is Islam.”
D’Souza is neither a historian nor a student of Islam. His research is neither broad nor deep. He refers in passing to interviews he conducted for the book, but he does not appear to have interviewed many scholars, journalists, or witnesses who have devoted themselves to the subjects that bear on his book’s thesis.
The Enemy at Home is a strange book, both for what it says and for what it does not say on subjects that D’Souza must know conflict with its thesis. D’Souza says, for example, that he would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Michael Moore than with the grand mufti of Egypt (is this another lame stab at humor?), but that when it comes to “core beliefs,” he feels closer to “the dignified fellow in the long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap.”
Having engaged in the effort to understand the Muslims as they understand themselves, in The Enemy at Home D’Souza generally does not seek to judge them by a standard above or beyond Islam. In this respect The Enemy at Home stands in contrast with D’Souza’s first post-9/11 book, What’s So Great About America. In the earlier book, D’Souza first rehearsed many of the same themes that he explores in The Enemy at Home. There he placed radical Islamists among the “blame America first” crowd. There D’Souza lauded the disentangling of the institutions of religion and government, “a separation that was achieved most completely in the United States.” There he argued that Islamic fundamentalists don’t just object to the excesses of American liberty, they object to liberty itself. There he noted that America could not appease the radical Islamists by staying out of their world because we live in an age when the flow of information is unstoppable. There he concluded that there was no alternative to facing their hostility. There he condemned the “coerced virtues” of the realm of Islam, because “compulsion cannot produce virtue.” There he declared America to be, on balance, “an oasis of goodness in a desert of cynicism and barbarism.” There he chose to cast his lot with his fellow citizens rather than with the grand mufti of Egypt.
If provocation is the standard by which The Enemy at Home is to be measured, the book is undoubtedly successful. It seems to me, however, that its cynicism exceeds its provocation.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 March 2007, on page 4
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