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On Ideology and Its Delusions: Mark Danner Debates Bernard Henri-Lévy

MS. CAROLINE WEBER:  It's intimidating company on this stage, and I'm going to try to keep my presence to a minimum up here, as much as I can, in large part because we're so pressed for time, and these two writers have so much to discuss.  But I have a small introduction, which isn't in the way of a biography.  These are two very, very accomplished writers, as all of you know, and their bios are given in detail in the program.  But I'd like to give a little bit of a thematic introduction, if I may, to get the discussion going.

Intellectuals are there to break the silences.  This is what the gentleman to my left, Bernard Henri-Levy, said in an interview with Salman Rushdie at the beginning of the fatwa against that author.  Before you today you have two writers who have traveled into the heart of some of the most dangerous conflicts of our time to break the silence, to report on the unspeakable, and have written about horrors that had either been condemned to silence or, perhaps even worse, failed to move an informed public to action. 

In the latter category, Mark Danner, to my right, has located the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and he writes in his book Torture and Truth, "The scandal is not about uncovering what is hidden, it is about seeing what is already there and acting on it."  Filming the massive human rights abuses in Bosnia, Bernard Henri-Levy addressed his harrowing documentary's audience by describing the European public and the American public that wasn't yet moved to act as a public qui a des yeux qu'on ne pas voir, et des oreilles qu'on ne parle pas, it has eyes not to see and ears not to hear.  In both cases, from Afghanistan to Darfur, Israel to Iraq, South America to Sarajevo, BHL and Mark Danner have stood as two of the most courageous and outspoken witnesses of our contemporary atrocities, and it's my honor to talk to them today.

So to get the ball rolling, so many of the atrocities...those of you familiar with BHL's earliest work know that it's located in the line of a critique of Marxism in France, but so many of the atrocities that both of you have covered have emerged precisely in the post Cold War era, so I'd like to talk a little bit about the demise of the Cold War ideologies and narratives that held the world together in an uneasy and uncomfortable and often dangerous peace for so long, and then what happened afterward, is what I'd like my two writers to try to address today in all the ways in which that's appropriate, especially in this 20th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the post Cold War era. 

That was a topic that Mark Danner, in particular, had asked me to make sure we got to talk about at this particular moment.  And I'd like to do so, I'd like to introduce that idea by reading a small passage from Mr. Levi's book, War, Evil and the End of History.  One of the protocols of this that was suggested is that we begin a session with a reading from our distinguished French authors, so I'll do so from the opening pages of this book, which is in English.

"The decline of Marxism, along with all of the great narratives that conspired with it to give a meaning to what had none, namely to the infinite pain of men, has shattered that dogma, and it's like a great tide that has withdrawn, leaving behind it men and women who continue to fight, who do so even sometimes with redoubled ferocity, but without our being able to read, in their confrontation, any trace of the promises, the coherences, or the epiphanies of former days. 

With them comes a world where, for the first time in the modern era, and because the great narratives that provided meaning have fallen silent, great masses of men are caught in wars without aim, without clear ideological stakes, without memory, as the wars last for decades, perhaps without outcome, and where it is sometimes difficult indeed to tell, between protagonists who are drunk with equal parts of power, money and blood, where lies the true, the good, the least evil, the desirable. 

It is a new world that is appearing where Job has the face not of one suffering just man, but an entire people's, continents abandoned to this radical desolation, the same useless suffering, the same emptiness of heaven and of meaning, and in our midst, the same professors of distress who, like the friends of Job in the Bible, but with a background in ethnic studies or neo third worldism, apply themselves to decoding an adversity that has become illegible."

Both of you have spent so much of your careers decoding adversities that have become illegible.  And Mark, I was wondering if you would like to start.

MR. MARK DANNER:  I hadn't known I was doing that. 

MS. WEBER:  I'm a professor of not neo third world culture, but anyway, so Mark, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind beginning by talking about what you see as being at stake in this, the 20th year of the end of the Cold War. What are the biggest dangers, ideologically, for you on the horizon? Obviously we're emerging from a period of considerable ideological danger and problems, so what is most important to you and significant to you about this moment politically?

MR. DANNER:  Goodness, that's a wonderful question, Caroline.  Let me thank, first of all, NYU and the French Cultural Center for putting on this just terrific event.  I'm very glad to have the chance to speak to Monsieur Levi, and I wonder, for the purposes of today, could I be known as MD?  Is that possible?  [Laughter.]

MS. WEBER:  You may, indeed.

MR. DANNER:  I feel this lack of initialization.  That probably sounds better in French.  I think that that quotation that you read is a typically beautiful and evocative passage, and one of the wonderful things about doing an event like this is you find yourself suddenly immersed in the writing of your partner on stage, which I've been doing for the last couple days, particularly on the plane yesterday, and it was just an enormous pleasure reading books I hadn't read, and also revisiting old favorites.  So I'd like to thank Monsieur Levi for that.

I think, to get to your question, it's very true that in 1989, 1991, an old and enormous narrative died, one that had guided American foreign policy since the late '40s and that had told the American people, in particular, what their purpose was in the world.  Their purpose was to protect freedom, their purpose was to face the Soviet Union wherever it tried to intervene in the lands of freedom.  I'm putting all this in quotation marks.  Their purpose was, in essence, as set forth by Harry Truman in 1947, an ideological one, to protect freedom wherever it was threatened, which, of course, was a mission that the United States, even with its great power right after the Second World War, could not hope to fulfill. 

It didn't have the power to do that.  But nonetheless, that was the ideological trust that Americans' leaders told their constituents that they were going to take on.  And sometimes this ideological vision led the country into rather striking mistakes, of which Vietnam is the most obvious, but of which one could name others in Central America, other endeavors that I think were mistaken because of the proclivity for reading situations ideologically that would have been better read pragmatically, that would have better been seen as examples of nationalism rather than Communist penetration.

And so it was in the potted history of four decades or so.  In 1989, 1991 that narrative ended and we entered, at least in my judgment, what one might call a post ideological period, which lasted from 1991 through the Clinton years and ended very abruptly, and it's only rarely that we can point to history ending with such an éclat, bam, on a certain day, in this neighborhood, on September 11, 2001.  And then very quickly, in the next few days, literally days, the United States, with the help of their leaders at the time, acquired a new ideological mission.  And it was set out with great clarity, I think, great vivacity, great eloquence, one could even say, by George W. Bush and his speech writers and the intellectuals who surrounded him.

I brought a wonderful quotation that I think is not much remarked on, but I've always loved. 

"We have seen their kind before.  They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century.  By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism, and they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies." 

Does anybody recognize that quotation, the intellectual who uttered those words?  Oh, it's very sad.  Characteristically, there are allusions to Nietzsche, to [Karl Klowski].  Well, of course it's George W. Bush speaking to the Joint Session of Congress in certainly the most famous speech he ever gave, 20thof September, 2001.

So what had been a single attack, an absolutely astonishing world historical event, certainly, that none of us will ever forget, that was a television event, an imagistic event as much as it was a horrible event of bloodshed and killing, with that event America launched itself once more on an ideological mission, seeing and constructing terrorism as an ideology that was heir to Nazism, Stalinism, totalitarianism.  And so the next eight years went by.

Now, there are advantages to this way of thinking, and disadvantages.  The advantages are that those words put things in a very clear context for the American people.  It's absolutely obvious who the enemy is.  It's absolutely obvious the degree of evil the enemy represents.  It's absolutely clear who is good in that equation.  A titanic struggle is drawn out in a kind of story that all of us have learned as children, where good faces evil and must struggle and defeat evil in the end.

The disadvantage, of course, is that it's not true.  It isn't good versus evil, and in my view the actors responsible for 9/11 were not heirs to all the...what was that wonderful line?  "All the murderous ideologies of the 20th century."  And I think these disadvantages have weighed heavily on the country.  They were responsible, I think, for the Iraq war.  They were responsible also for the allegiance of the intellectual class in this country — I'm not talking just about the Right, but the Left as well — to the Bush Administration as serving as spokesmen and ideologists of the Iraq war and the war on terror.  And they were responsible, if you want some good news at the end of this little litany, for the election of Barack Obama.

So we see ourselves at a very interesting point, I think, which is that at the end of this period of overarching ideology and the failure of this ideology, at least in the view of the great majority of the American people, in very pragmatic terms in the battlefields of Iraq, the bodies coming home, the endless war, not to mention the deficits, the degradation of Katrina and other things, in those images that ideology has been shown to be bankrupt and another way has come forward.  And that's where I think it's a very interesting time to have this discussion with Monsieur Levi, because of course we have, in the United States, and I'd like to welcome him in these terms, le gauche au pouvoir.  That is, the Left, even if it's le gauche moderate, the moderate Left, is indeed in power. 

And he arrives here the day after a budget has been introduced.  One hates to point to a budget as a revolutionary document, but nonetheless it is a revolutionary document in which, in essence, a progressive program has been put forward, including universal healthcare, including higher taxes on the well-to-do and lower taxes on the rest of the country, and also, and I'll finish here, a foreign policy I think — this is not in the budget, although it's alluded to in that document — that is more pragmatic, that is a foreign policy of problem solving rather than crusades.  And I would say that the United States, in its history, has oscillated between those two points, but only in the last half century has it had the power to actually try to carry out its crusades. 

And I think at the end, because I think this is where this crosses very directly with Mr. Levi's work, which I have read and admire, but in which I see a danger, which is in battling an enemy that was very great 30 years ago, which is the Left's willingness to back Communism and close a blind eye to its human rights depredations, in battling that enemy, and I think transferring it to our time, we risk not seeing the world clearly, as it is, and we risk the kind of adventures that the United States has undertaken during these last eight years.  So I think the ideological vision is comforting, but I also think it's dangerous, and I think we stand here, in a sense, in our post ideological Obama moments as veterans of what that kind of ideological view can do. Thank you.  [Applause.]

MS. WEBER:  I should add, as the moderator, that I'm trying to keep track of even time for both participants, and also MD, MDay, had requested—

MR. DANNER:  I like it.  MDay.

MS. WEBER:  MD, MDD had requested to speak first, so BHL will speak last when it comes to that.  I'm saying this to remind myself as well.  So Bernard, what would you like to respond to this very long and eloquent — do you want to talk about the idea that your work is somehow dangerous in reviving an ideological vision of the world?  Do you view that as an accurate characterization of what you've done, especially with your most recent work?

MR. BERNARD HENRI-LEVY:  I can try to answer to that, yes, of course.  I'm going to try to find, I suppose that it is a rule of the game, some points of disagreement.  I had not so many before arriving.  I did not know Mark Danner, but I read him and I crossed his road at the time of the Bosnian war.  I cannot forget he's the first one, or one of the first one to have had an accurate and brave view of what happened in Srebrenica, which is a huge crime against humanity.  And we were, both of us, strong adversaries of the war in Iraq.  I was a reader of his accounts about Abu Ghraib.  I don't know, but I think we agree. 

So while listening to him, I tried to find the [gnose] of the disagreements, and he helped me because he finish on that.  I would say that I see two ones, which maybe can start the discussion.  The first one, you are right, Mark, to say that there is no, of course we should not divide the world between the good and the evil.  This crusade of tone is obviously not the right one in order to deal with geopolitics and with politics in general. 

Where you are wrong, I think, at least where I disagree, is when you say that those who committed the World Trade Center attack, those who inspired them, those who were their mates or accomplices cannot be said, cannot be qualified without abusive language, as fascist.  The problem is that they qualify themselves this way.  When you read, after September 11, you hadDer Spiegel produce the testimony, witness account of the roommate of Mohamed Atta, who said, in a very long diary and interview, that Mohamed Atta happened to be — it's a fact, it is not an invention of George W. Bush — happened to be a real admirer of Hitlerism, of fascist tradition, and clearly inscribed himself in this following. 

When you read what we know before Guantanamo accounts, of course, of the itinerary of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the inspirer of the World Trade Center attack, again, but who was beyond, because America is not always the center of the world, but who made the apology of mass murder all over the world, against women, against homosexuals, against intellectuals. He claimed himself in an ideological sense, and he was a clever man.  He is a clever man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  He is a learned man, well educated. He read as many books, maybe, as we read, you and me, Mark, and all of us. He read books.  And he claimed to be, to belong to this tradition, which is the tradition of European fascism.  It's a fact.  It's not an invention of Mr. Karl Rove or Mr. Dick Cheney.  It's what these sort of guys say themselves.  The same could be said about, for example, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, who clearly inscribe itself in a political tradition which has something to do with this fascist tradition.  So that is the first point.

And I'm not sure that George Bush is so eloquent.  I'm not sure that this speech was such an eloquent one.  But I do believe that we have, today, it is not a transfer of time to another one.  After the fall of the wall of Berlin, we entered in a time which was not a time of de-ideologization.  I don't believe that.  I don't believe in a world without ideology.  This was the belief of some thinkers in America and abroad.  Some believe that we were entering in a sort of calm and quiet time of pure pragmatic policy without ideologies.  It was the dream of Francis Fukuyama, for example.  It is not the case.  The political nature hates this other emptiness which is the ideological emptiness.  And in Serbia, in Arab world, in Western world too, you have...we saw, we attended new predictions, a new stemming of new form of ideologies, of which this one is an example.

And when you see the situation, and again, I would like to take this debate out of the American centrism or even the European centrism, of course.  When you see the world situation today with the eye of an Algerian woman eviscerated by the so-called believers in [integration], when you see the world with the eyes of the Pakistanis, young girls buried alive because they refuse the practice of forced wedding, when you look at the world from the point of view of the intellectuals hunted and killed and put in jail in some more moderate countries, you have to admit it is not the same, of course, history never repeats itself, but you have to admit that you have the real political ideological stake with some real and terrible consequences in terms of human rights, of human lives, and so on. 

When the Serbians committed the crime of Srebrenica, which Mark Danner knows better than anybody, it was not just cruelty.  It did not come from the sky.  It was a crime which was embedded in, molded by post 1989 ideology, a mix of nationalism, of Communism, of whatsoever.  And the cases I just evoked are also the product of an ideology.  So of course we cannot and we must not put the old skins, the old  patterns on the realities of today, but to say that there is no patterns at all, not to try at least to find the patterns of today, not to try to understand what is the set of ideas which allow, which justify and which sometimes multiply these crimes seems to me, in my eyes, to be a defeat of intelligence or at least a lack of will to understand and to fight.

MR. DANNER:  Can I...? 

[Applause.]

MR. DANNER:  Well, as you mentioned, our paths have crossed in many places, though we've not met before, and I suppose it's natural that we will see things from different points of view, coming from different cultures, and having, especially, different recent political experiences.  I should say, to clarify, I certainly am not saying there is no ideology in the world.  I'm certainly not saying there's no murderous ideology in the world.  That would be a foolish thing to say.  I'm saying that the idea of making an ideology, for example, of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a fascinating and horrible man who is now at Guantanamo, into an ideology that is homologous, or equivalent to Soviet Communism, and that constitutes arrival in world power of a similar sort, that requires a crusade from the United States to conquer that ideology has been, I would say, very damaging to this country and to the Middle East. 

I say that because of the roots of the Iraq war, for example, in that ideology, indeed, that Saddam was a fascist, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden are the fundamentalists, in fact fascists, that everybody is a fascist, and that the United States is bound to fight them, and that Saddam should be the first target.  The ideological argument led the country, essentially, to — and many of its intellectuals, I'd say most of its intellectuals, for it was, in many ways, an intellectuals' war, whether intellectuals within the administration or their cheerleaders outside it — it led them to forget about practical concerns about what this country is actually like, the political divisions within it, the sectarian makeup that led to Saddam's power in the first place. 

For as both you and I know, having covered various places in the world, usually horrible governments and horrible dictatorships come to power because of some kind of political dysfunction underneath.  Not always, but very often they do.  And led intellectuals in this country and the government to take on a war that they weren't prepared to wage, weren't prepared to fight, and weren't prepared to win. 

I'm not, by any means, arguing that there is no ideology or that Saddam had none, or that Osama bin Laden has none.  I'm saying that the tendency that we see and that's been represented by the Neoconservatives in this country, theNouveaux Philosophes in France has its downside as well.  Its upside is the recognition of suffering, and the clarity that suffering, particularly large-scale suffering, deserves a response.  Deserves a response.  The down side is to conflate things, one thing with another, whether it's Islamic fundamentalism with Ba'athism, for example, and to lead a crusade without, I think, necessary regard for what is possible, what can be achieved, and what damage might be done if, indeed, that crusade fails. 

The United States, of course, is forgetting about Iraq at the moment, and soon probably, although the situation is very fragile there, one by one, American troops will be withdrawn.  And it's a characteristic of the blitheness of power that we're like this great spotlight.  We shine it on Vietnam, Korea, Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq, the elites of the country learn all about it, they fight about that particular country, argue about it, and then, at a certain point, the spotlight moves and the ruins are left and the bodies are left, and the power of the country is so great that we can forget all about it. 

But in fact it strikes me as the duty also of the writer and the intellectual to look at the pragmatic and to say the cause of relieving suffering is very great, but we shouldn't mistake that for a rhetorical pose that leads us to fight for our ideals with the bodies of Iraqis which, in my opinion, is essentially what has happened.  And I emphasize again there is great suffering in the world, much of it caused by dreadful ideologies.  But I have to — there's another quotation, it's a short one, I must read.  It's also beautifully written.  Not from the same source.  It's from a writer who is landing to cover the Hezbollah war of two years ago in southern Lebanon. 

"It was 70 years ago that the Spanish general set off the war, civil, ideological and international, that the fascist governments of the time wanted." 

This is the beginning of the piece. 

"And I could not help thinking about this as I landed in Tel Aviv, Syria in the wings, Ahmadinejad's Iran maneuvering, Hezbollah, which everyone knows is a little Iran or a little tyrant taking Lebanon and its people hostage, and behind the scenes a fascism with an Islamic face, a third fascism which is, to our generation, what the other fascism and then Communist totalitarianism were to our elders." 

So the Lebanon war, fought in the south of Lebanon, is the Cold War.  It's the war against fascism.  And I would submit that you have an administration in power now that is going to regard these things rather differently.  It's going to say Hezbollah is despicable, Hamas is despicable, but can we, indeed, make some kind of peace agreement in the Middle East.  Who knows whether they will be able to.  Many more have failed before them.  But I submit that if you regard Hezbollah and Hamas as simply ultimate evil, as a representative of the third fascist wave in the world, then you are guilty of what might be called essentialism. 

You are taking political disagreements, however disgustingly fought, with terrorism, with acts that we all deplore, and making them into a twilight struggle between good and evil.  And this sort of rhetorical magnification, it seems to me, makes it very difficult to come to any sort of pragmatic solutions, and it leads to a kind of crusade and a kind of rhetoric that we've experienced, I think, very vividly in this country.  So I don't say there's no evil.  I don't say there's no evil ideology.  I say that making evil, making everything into evil and the great evil fascist enemy has done us a lot of damage, and I hope that damage is coming to an end.  [Applause.]

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  A few confusions, I'm sorry.  Number one, I think it is honest to say that there is no confusion possible between, I quote you, Neoconservatism and Nouveaux Philosophes.  Again you see things from maybe a too American centric point of view.  It's two really different things. 

MR. DANNER:  I certainly give you that.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  As for myself, I feel nothing in common with the Neoconservative, should it be in terms of internal affairs, should it be in terms of foreign policy.  I express that so many times, months before the beginning of the war in Iraq, which was, as your new President said, a stupid war, unthought war, and criminal war.  This is completely clear, and you cannot make this sort of confusion.

Number two, Hezbollah, Israel, what can I tell you?  This quote, yes, I wrote absolutely that, and I'm very proud to have written that.  I am a pro-Israel intellectual, and I am a pro-peace intellectual.  Since 40 years I fight for a double state solution.  Since 40 years I say again and again that the right, the justice and the security of the area goes through two states in this area. 

When I see, in two years ago, a party, Hezbollah, who after the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation, who without any territorial claim, with no political target, just says, as Nasrallah said a few weeks before the beginning of the war, that should all the Jews of the world come in Israel, it will make his task more easy because he could kill them once in a time, I cannot prevent myself from thinking that you have, on one side, a democratic state with many problems, with many faults, with sometimes a very bad policy which has to be condemned, and which is condemned by its own citizens, and on the other side, some claims, some target, a form of hatred, pure hatred which cannot prevent one from thinking to some very old echoes. 

Fascist, not fascist, the question is not to say that everybody is fascist.  Of course not.  The question is to follow some very simple rules.  One rule, for example.  When one says that he is a fascist, when one claims to be the inheritor of fascist values of fascist period, you have to take him seriously. You spoke about Iraq, for example.  It's a fact that Iraq, the roots of the two Ba'ath parties, the Syrian one and the Iraqi one, Anton Saadeh and Michel Aflaq, it is a fact that they built their two Ba'ath parties on an ideological basis which was clearly, plainly, officially self-regarding as fascist.  It is a fact, so of course not to see everybody as fascist, but to deny that you had, in the first part of the 20th century, a world movement coming from Germany, having its starting point, its stemming in Germany, but parading all over the world, also in the Arab world, and having its Arab wing, denying that is just denying the real history. 

To deny that, for example, the Palestinian people today and the Palestinian establishment, you have a real political battle inside it.  You have some great guy, secular, democrat, truly willing the peace in Palestine West Bank and still in Gaza, and you have some people who regard themselves as true inheritors of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who were the uncle of Yasser Arafat, who was the godfather of a lot of leaders of the Fatah, not all of them, and who spent his life, his years of war in Berlin, who claimed to be, in his memoir, in his diary, an admirer of the führer, and who said after visiting Auschwitz that he could go to the grave with a light heart because he knew that a few millions of Jews had been killed there and in other similar places. 

So the point today is of course not to create the confusion and to say that fascism is everywhere.  And when I hear, for example, some say that, for example, that Bush is a fascist or that Sarkozy is a fascist, it is just laughable. They can be enemies.  You can combat their policy.  But to turn them into fascists is just an obscurantist way of thinking. 

But in the case I'm evoking, Hezbollah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you treat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with a sort of despise which is right and wrong. Right because he is a butcher, obviously.  He has to be despised for that.  But one can admit, again, that before when he was in Manila, at the end of the '80s, beginning of the '90s, building the plan of the World Trade Center attack, building the network and the ideological framework of Al Qaeda, he was a sort of intellectual, no more, no less than other intellectuals with whom we strongly disagree. 

So not over ideologization, of course, but to refuse bluntly the presence, the fact that you have some ideologies and the worst in some places today just prevents us to see clearly what is happening and to support, to defend, to those who are their primary, their first victims, for example in the Muslim countries.  And I know so many representatives of the civilian society in Palestine, in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Iran who know that what they have to face is not just people seeking for power, is not just some remnants of I don't know what.  They believe that they have to face a real totalitarian will which has part of its roots in the darkest moments of the history of the modernity.  [Applause.]

MS. WEBER:  May I just intervene to say that let's try to hold the rest of the applause until the end, because times a wasting.  So thank you for your kind thoughts for both of them, and we'll applaud extra loud at the end.  MD.

MR. DANNER:  Well, let me just thank you.  I like that MD thing very much, but I think it needs a French accent.  Well, first let me reiterate — we've gone back and forth on this — that the history of the Ba'ath Party in Iraq is very well known, as it is in Syria.  I wouldn't deny, by any means, and not for one moment the fascist strains in the ideology of the Ba'athists.  The question is the significance of this, and whether it should have led, indeed, whether it did lead the United States to invade Iraq in 2003.  I would say no.  Neither did it prevent the United States from collaborating with Saddam throughout the '80s in his war against Iran. 

It did serve as a kind of ideological cloak that let the Bush Administration conflate Iraq and Al Qaeda, which is frequently did, right up until the last press conference before the war, when President Bush said the country has been attacked and I have to respond.  There was a consistent elision of the fact that the attack didn't come from the Iraqis, and part of the reason, a large part of the reason that that could be done successfully rhetorically in the country was because of this ideological canopy that all of these people are fascists, that they're totalitarians, that the United States is facing a new totalitarian threat, it must strike back, it must strike back against Saddam because of that. 

The Iraqi regime was an absolutely horrible regime, the worst of the worst.  On two occasions, in '88 and '91, it arguably committed genocide, first against the Kurds, later against the Shia and the Kurds in '91.  On both occasions, the U.S. was allied with the country and essentially covered it up.  On the second occasion, the United States could have intervened, it had forces in the area. The Shia rose up in reaction to a plea by the first George Bush to rise up against Saddam.  They did, they were massacred, about 200,000 were killed by this fascist state. 

So I have no quarrel with the ideological characterization.  My problem is what's done with it, the rhetorical uses to which it's put and the policies to which it leads, that's all.  And I think the passage I read about Hezbollah, that this is the third fascist wave, and seeing Hamas the same way, and then quoting Nasrallah saying, goodness, we have to get all the Jews in one place so we can kill them all, you could read statements like that from Arafat as well.  And Arafat, when he died, of course, and Fatah, his organization, is now the best great hope for Middle East peace.  They are the moderate Palestinians.  Many of us in this room are old enough to know when he was demonized in precisely the same way, and he said things equally deplorable. Andrew White, the UN representative at the time, had to be fired by Jimmy Carter for meeting with Arafat even in secret. 

And the fact is that at the end of the day, if you're going to have a peace — Hamas was elected in the only democratic election the Palestinians have known.  It was elected.  Is it a deplorable ideology?  Is it a deplorable movement?  Absolutely, no question about it.  Is it fascist, representing the third wave of fascism against which the United States must do battle with its ally Israel?  I would say that's not the case. 

You're right, Israel is a democracy.  Also half its population under its control don't have any rights at all.  That may not make it not a democracy, but it certainly gives one pause.  And I think that the political struggle in the Middle East over Palestine is, if one simply says, well, this is a battle of fascists against this poor democracy, I think you do violence to the history that you know very well, part of which is an occupation that's now lasted for 42 years. Any Palestinian who's 42 or younger has lived only under Israeli occupation. A settlement movement that now accounts for 400,000 Israelis living in West Bank land. 

So the entire time that you have backed, eloquently, a two state solution, that two state solution has been steadily disappearing with every settlement that's been built.  And many people now would argue that it's become impossible because of the interpenetration of the populations.  Now, is this all Israel's fault?  Of course it isn't.  Does it say that this isn't a case of good versus evil?  I would argue it does.  This is a political problem over land, not over Hitlerite ideology versus democrats. 

And I think the proclivity for seeing it as good versus evil serves certain political interests, which is to say those who don't want to give up land and wouldn't like to have a solution there, which are amply represented in the Israeli political spectrum and on the Palestinian political spectrum, by the way, who don't want a solution.  Both sides, the extremists on both sides, are served by seeing it this way. 

But I would say that as writers, intellectuals, we have a duty to try to look at the facts.  And one of these facts is you came very close to an actual solution of land trading at Camp David in 2000, and that there is a solution on the table. This isn't fascism versus democracy.  And Hezbollah, again, it's deplorable, they are terrorists.  But it's also a political movement that has representation in the Lebanese parliament.  It is not simply a representative of pure evil.  And when I argue this, I simply think it's a fact. 

So we're really talking here, and I agree, we're from different perspectives, and those perspectives mean something very different, I think, after the last eight years.  We see things in different ways.  And I'm simply trying to point out not the...I'm not arguing that these ideologies don't exist.  I'm saying that fighting a crusade against them all clumped together, which is what we have done, and I take, by the way, I should respond to the point about Neoconservatives.  I understand why one would want to distinguish oneself.  But the fact is that on the matters we're discussing, the views of the people identified that way, whether they like it or not in this country, many of whom were in power over the last eight years, in some very significant positions of power, and the views of yourself and others identified that way, whether they like it or not, in France, are virtually identical.  And I'm talking about the view of fascism in the Middle East, etc., what we've been talking about. 

I make one last point, which is that the situation in the Middle East, when you look at Egypt, when you look at Saudi Arabia, you have countries that have deeply unpopular, autocratic rulers which are supported by the United States, that is, regimes that would not survive without U.S. support.  Egypt gets roughly 2.5 billion American dollars a year.  They are deeply unpopular, these regimes, at home, so you have leaderships that are allied to the U.S. and publics that are, partly for that reason, very anti-American.  And it's one of the reasons that if you had an election in Egypt today, or in Saudi Arabia, you would have Islamic fundamentalists elected to power. 

So the political problem here isn't one simply of fascism.  It has to do with a political arrangement, a geopolitical arrangement, that dates of longstanding, that goes back to the Second World War, by which the United States secures its oil supply in the Middle East.  And none of that, of course is present — I'm not saying it shouldn't do it, I'm saying we have a problem of political modernization that the U.S. has seen in the '60s in Latin America as well. Yes, I'm sorry.  So to me this argument makes things much too simple, and that is its danger.

MS. WEBER:  Thank you, Mark.  Thanks for the no applause.  Bernard, you have ten minutes left.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  Oh, my dear MD.  MD, MD, MD.

MR. DANNER:  [Laughs.]  Oh, BH, BH.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  I did not know — no, no.  But I did not know that a debate would concentrate as much on the Israel-Palestinian topic. 

MR. DANNER:  I didn't either.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  Okay, but there we are now. 

MR. DANNER:  We can stray if you like.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  No, no, because I want to make clear a few points nevertheless.  Number one, you can...maybe I heard badly, but my English is so terrible.  Did you really say that in Israel you had under control of Israel 50% of people deprived of any rights?  This is not...just untrue.  You have some occupied territories after war in '67 which are still in disputation, the status of which is not defined, which could be annexed, but nobody wants that in Israel, which could be given back to Jordan and which could be, which we hope both the ___ of a Palestinian state.

MR. DANNER:  But it's been 42 years.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  Yes, I know, but 40 years with the will of peace in front of Israel and inside Israel, of course, which is not always as obvious as it should be.  So you cannot say that there is 50% of citizens deprived of rights.  You have 20% of Arabs in Israel, which are far from being deprived of rights, who have all civil rights, including 12 MPs at the parliament, which we don't have, for example, in France.  You have in Israel an example of multi ethnicity, which is, for me, as a French man, very proud to be French and of my country, which is an example. 

Number two, I don't believe that because of the settlements, and nobody seriously believes that the peace, the two state solution, has become impossible.  I'm sure you know Israel and Palestinian territories as well as I do, and maybe better, and you know, as myself, that for all the reasonable people of the area, Palestinian side, Israeli side, and Arab world in general, the peace is close to reach, the peace is very close, very near.  One cannot say that the settlements has made it, did make it impossible.  It is just...it would be despairing and it is rather contrary of what all the moderate people of the area believe.

Now, my point, fascism, not fascism.  Let's phrase it in another way, if you prefer.  My point is what to do.  We are intellectuals.  We are not fighting soldiers in [Georgia] or in Lebanon.  What can intellectuals do in order to help and to support those who, at the expense of their own life, are on the front line of the fights we are speaking about? 

And about that I would make two recommendations.  In order to support the victims of Darfur, for example, the millions of dead of the forgotten wars of Africa, in order to support the cause of the women buried alive which I quoted before, the first thing we should have to do as intellectuals, if we want to be accountable and responsible, is to forget one minute Israel.  Israel is not the center of the world.  Israel or Palestinian conflict is not the only conflict of the world. 

And this way of focusing all the attention on that is the best way to overshadow, to forget, to put a sort of dark ink on so many other conflicts, generally much more making hugely more victims than this one, and which are really overshadowed by this insistence and this obsession of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  And again, I do believe, I am more than believe, I militate in Israel, in France, for the two state solution.  But it is not the only question of the world.

And second point, in the Islamic world, in the world if Islam say it, in the world of what some call the ummah, what is the debate, what is the question.  There is, for us again, because we cannot speak on the name of the Palestinians, we cannot speak, we are not Pakistani intellectuals.  You are an American intellectual, I am a French intellectual. 

What we can do is two possible things.  There is two possible wars.  First one we say the problem is in Koran, the problem is inside Islam.  In other words, the problem of these countries is fundamentalism.  The other school of thought in America, in France, who speak about fundamentalism as being the real problem, the true danger and the responsible of all these damages on the civilian society of these countries, they make this situation, they transform it into a religious quarrel and a religious battle.  This is one way. 

I think it is false and I think it is terribly dangerous.  It is false for many reasons.  Never the Koran, for example, said that the veil was an obligation for the women.  Never the Koran said, even in a fundamentalist way, that the depiction of the Prophet was an obligation.  And it is terribly dangerous because in this case, we fall into the worst trap, which is putting the despise on the whole community. 

The other way, which I think is obviously better, is to treat this situation politically, not in a religious way, with a religious grasp, but with a political concern.  Not to treat this, the debates, for example, which take place inside the Palestinian society, inside Pakistan, as an old religious crusade, but as a political battle.  Political battle means what?  A battle between, on one side, people who believe in a secular Islam, compatible with democratic values, able to cohabit, to live with human rights, an assumption of individual personality, and in the other side, people who believe in death, people who believe in martyrdom, people who believe that Western values are evil, people who believe that Jews and crusaders are the [same], are this part of their society, of the ummah and of the world which has to be eradicated. 

One minute, yes?  I don't even need one minute.  I just want to say that our task is really to transform all these religious battles and so on into political concerns.  Samuel Huntington spoke about a clash of civilization between the West and the rest.  What I knew from my few trips in these sort of areas is that there is only one real clash of civilization, which is, for example, inside Islam between the democratic values and those who are the last followers of the old totalitarian, and in particular, fascist, though in a new way, of course, of the thought, the worst thought of the 20th century, political battle.

MR. DANNER:  Can I just say I agree with that completely, and it's nice to, if we're getting near the end, to end on a point of agreement.  The only thing I would add is that if you look at the politics, we then have a certain problem, which is the autocracies which eliminate the political space for the kind of politics you're talking about to exist are in fact in power in Egypt, in power in Saudi Arabia and other states in large part thanks to their alliances with the West, and at this point with the United Sates, which is why you get the forces of death, as you've called them, forming the only opportunity in those countries, the only political opportunity, often clandestine, always murderous, so that you have a much larger political problem here which has to do with geopolitics, which has to do with oil, which has to do with other things beyond, I completely agree, religion.  And there is the great danger, which I've tried to point to, is when religion...when ideology essentially becomes religion.  And I'm glad that we both, thanks to NYU and Caroline here, both agree entirely on that, so thank you.

MS. WEBER:  Thank you.  And Bernard, anything to say in reply?  I promised him the last word.

MR. DANNER:  Oh, I'm sorry.

MS. WEBER:  Because you had the first word.

MR. DANNER:  Yes, of course.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  Nothing to reply.  We finish with—

MR. DANNER:  It's agreement.

MS. HENRI-LEVY:  We finish to agree.  That's the best we could do.

MS. WEBER:  Peace in the Middle East.  Thank you so much for your attention.  Thank you both.  [Applause.]




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A debate with Mark Danner and Bernard Henry-Lévy, moderated by Caroline Weber. The Festival of New French Writing, New York University, New York. 

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