Blaming Wagner

The enemy Mary Habeck knows is not a religion.

It was the recollection of journalist and historian William Shirer that Adolf Hitler maintained "Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner." Footnoted in any appreciation of Richard Wagner is the composer's suspicion of modernity and his inveterate anti-Semitism, faults shared by the German dictator. But rather Wagner, Shirer believed, provided with his "towering operas, recalling so vividly the world of German antiquity with its heroic myths" endemic grandeur that the Third Reich could and would restore — as dictated by Hitler's expository Mein Kampf.

The Nazi manifesto could be called a product of intellectual convenience. Shirer was more descriptive. In a chapter of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich titled "The Mind of Hitler and the Roots of the Third Reich," Shirer wrote how Hitler's beliefs were dictated from Lansberg prison "in all their appalling crudeness," derived from "a weird mixture of irresponsible, megalomaniacal ideas which erupted from German thinkers during the nineteenth century." Establishing the reality of Germany after the Great War — only shallowly democratic and pluralist — Shirer contended Hitler's activation was typical among the Germanic but for "the means of applying" these things, and that the fulminant Reich embodied a primeval which "always fascinated the German mind."

It wasn't that Teutonic myth and Shirer's "odd assortment of erudite but unbalanced" intellectuals, when combined, led one to conquest. Hitler did appeal through common culture. The rudiment of his Weltanschauung, however, was simplistically dominative — the sum of concepts from Georg Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, H.S. Chamberlain and others in Hitler's "littered mind," by any reckoning, a totalist empire.

Mary Habeck, professor at John Hopkins University, has written a book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. "What were the reasons," Habeck asks of the nineteen September 11th hijackers, "that they gave for the attack?" Reaching back eight hundred years, Habeck traces forward in time the lineage of exegetes who interpreted Islam rigidly and with increasing resistance to a popularly mollified struggle — jihad. In the Koran, we learn, Mohammed would define observance as both aggrandizement and sublimation, the former "understood by present-day Muslims to refer to...a time that has come and gone." Over the last century, several radical intellectuals struck at Western moderation. Habeck names three who contributed directly to today's Islamist fascism, and follows them closely: Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Mawdudi.

All three men were certifiably out to lunch. As with Hitler's national socialism, to read Islamism is to wade through delirium. Habeck, like Shirer, is to be thanked for completing a transposition of conspiracist lunacy. Her book stands out on two points. First, it refutes any irredentist claims for this kind of terrorism by simply turning to the many mentions of a global caliphate. Second, it reveals the work of the three as only plausibly originalist or regressive. Al-Banna, Qutb and Mawdudi took extraordinary liberties with Islam itself, constructing sinuous arguments to arrive at very narrow, totalitarian conclusions — an "Islamic state," but one misnamed. Not only did the three authors sidestep history and geography, but lifted much from the world they contrived to destroy.

Al-Banna, for instance, "did not ignore modern European concepts like nationalism, patriotism, constitutionalism and socialism is his search for an answer. ...In a passage strangely reminiscent of communist and fascist discourse of the same time, he wrote that 'after having sown injustice, servitude and tyranny, [the West] is bewildered, and writhes in its contradictions.'" Mawdudi "envisioned the Islamic state that would be run by a small group of Koranically educated and pious clergy, somewhat like the Politburo of the Soviet state." Habeck repeatedly notes such a reliance: al-Banna "did not accept foreign ideas" but was eager to use them once they had been "transformed to conform with the Koran," while Mawdudi picked "foreign ideas and gave them an Islamic meaning and context, finding ways to justify his prescriptions from the sacred texts." These scholars and their modern equivalents have played so roughly with categories of jihad, the meaning of disbelief and its consequences, the compass of Islamic territory and even the relevance of Mohammed himself that "fundamentalist Islam" comes across to the reader as not resembling the religion much at all.

Of interest near the end of Habeck's book is the lack of effort among radicals to clarify an "Islamic state." One contemporary group tried, sketching a constitution "that envisions a totalitarian dictatorship without a legislature or formal judiciary that could check the unchallenged power of the ruler. Private behavior — and even secret thoughts — would be regulated by the state." Is it reductionism, at all, to find a parallel in a maxim of history's most flamboyant dictator, "absolute responsibility unconditionally combined with absolute authority"? Hitler — or any tyrant that was — hadn't come up with anything basically unique.

Professor Habeck draws prudent conclusions, more conservative than those here. In the last chapter of Knowing the Enemy, she writes that Islamism's "innovations" are deviant canon and the use of violence as good works. However alloyed, Islamism still qualifies, for Habeck, as a religious calling. Should it? Or is it common culture used as a transmitter? What, in this judgment, is exclusive to Islam but for the historical context and means of expression? If none of it is, the differences between, say, Islamist fascists and Chinese Communists are simply degrees of malignance; therein a potential for American strategic opposition, even military engagement, against dozens of countries for many years. It wouldn't be popular but under the circumstances more sensible than implicating Islam and supporting, as suggested by some, the placation of secular autocracy — as easily and fruitlessly as one might have had the Weimar Reichstag ban Tristan und Isolde.

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