On False Moderation

Everyone should read Paul Berman's most recent essay in The New Republic about how Islamist radicals are using the supposed crime of “blasphemy” to terrorize people in the Middle East and beyond.

In it he mentions Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's “moderate” Islamist party Ennahda.

By now everyone has noticed the fog of euphemism that has crept over the word “moderate” when applied to Islamist movements and leaders. A “moderate” is someone such as Rachid Ghannouchi, the Islamist leader in Tunisia, basking for the last few months in his October 2011 triumph at the polls—who has spoken at length over the years about “Jewish Masonic Zionist atheistic gangs” and the “Talmudic satanic project” to create a “new Jewish world order on the ruins of the American Western world order,” about the mothers of suicide terrorists as “a new model of woman,” and more generally about “the extinction of Israel” or, more recently and hygienically, “the germ of Israel,” which he has come to think will, like polio, shortly be eradicated. Ghannouchi is one of the leading champions around the world of Hamas—a leading champion because Hamas itself has never been well-endowed with intellectuals, but Ghannouchi is an educated philosopher. Then again, Ghannouchi promises to respect democratic norms within Tunisia itself. Measured by Islamist standards, he is indeed a “moderate.” No one but satanic Masonic Zionist germs need fear extermination, if Rachid Ghannouchi has his way. At least, not for the moment! Yet how can it be that Islamist standards have ended up accepted in the mainstream Western press, such that, for months now, barely a day goes by when we do not read encomia to the “moderation” of Rachid Ghannouchi?

Since I'm still in Tunisia, Berman emailed me and asked if I thought he got Ghannouchi right or if he's overreacting. He is not overreacting. He got Ghannouchi right. The leader of Tunisia's Islamists really did say those things. Ghannouchi also says moderate things, but look: sophisticated extremists will sometimes lie in order to come across as more reasonable than they really are. Genuine moderates, on the other hand, have no reason to lie and pretend they're extremists when they are not.

Ghannouchi pretends to be moderate for two reasons. First, most Tunisians are moderates who are frightened by violent radical Islam. If Ghannouchi's party is to succeed, he can't go around telling people he wants their mothers, daughters, and sisters to strap on suicide vests.

He also has to stop talking like that if he doesn't want to be treated as a pariah by the civilized world.

I met a few Ennahda people in Tunis. They do come across as moderates compared with their counterparts in Egypt. They do this not because they want to, but because they have to. That's a good enough reason for guarded optimism, but let us not kid ourselves.

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