In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, then a professor of political science at Harvard, published a book entitled “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”
The book’s angry and passionate tone, its outright dismissal of decades of Holocaust research and theory and its central argument — that most Germans were not unwitting bystanders in the Nazi genocide but instead were “willing executioners” — made it destined for controversy.
Magazines The New Republic and Foreign Affairs published reviews by prominent historians panning Mr. Goldhagen’s book for, among other things, its “indictment of a people” based on the actions of a small segment of the German population.
Other equally prominent scholars were quick to jump to Goldhagen’s defense. Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher and veteran of the “Historikerstreik” of the ’80s (which pitted those who wished to put the Holocaust “in context” against those who asserted the uniquely German nature of the genocide), wrote the following:
The question of the rootedness of anti-Semitism in German culture during this period transcends the boundaries of any case study. Goldhagen is obliged to expand the scope of his analysis, from the already considerable number of perpetrators to the vast number of those who were indirectly involved. From 1933 onward the Jewish population was systematically excluded from every sphere of German society, a process that was carried out in full public view. This would not have been possible without the silent complicity of broader strata of the German population.
According to Habermas, Goldhagen’s conclusions are justified not because of the actions of the few but because of the complicit inaction of the many.
The Goldhagen controversy, as it is known, hints at a much broader question — namely, when can a segment of a group of people be said to represent that group as a whole?
As America prepares to embark further in the war against terrorism, I think it would do us well to consider the people we are fighting against and ask ourselves what exactly they represent — a fanatical subset of Islam or Islam itself.
I am inclined to say the former, though I admit this is based more on my perhaps naíve faith in humankind than on any fact about the Islamic world. The fact is, the facts are more than my bleeding liberal heart can bear.
I know, for example, that Palestinians were dancing in the streets Sept. 11 (much to the chagrin of Yasser Arafat and his increasingly pathetic champions in the United States and Europe). I know that putatively moderate states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia sentence homosexuals to prison for their “crime.”
I know Pakistan punishes men who violate sharia (Islamic law) by having their sisters gang-raped. I know the Syrian defense minister authored a book entitled “The Matzah of Zion,” in which he alleged that Jews murder Arab children to knead their blood into matzahs. The book is currently being turned into a movie.
But I also know that much of what I just described is the result of decades of dictatorship and authoritarian rule; that is, I do not assume Islamic thugocracies like Syria and Saudi Arabia speak for all Islamic people. I can certainly imagine, for example, a similarly politically and socially backward America if the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were ever to take hold of government.
This summer, Lou Dobbs, the host of a CNN talk show, stirred up quite a bit of controversy, particularly within liberal circles, when he announced on his show that he would no longer refer to our current war as one against terrorism, but as one against politicized Islam, or Islamism.
“The enemies in this war,” Dobbs said, “are radical Islamists who argue all nonbelievers in their faith must be killed. They are called Islamists. That’s why we are abandoning the phrase ‘war against terror.'”
Perhaps it is a symptom of our postmodern times that such an unequivocal statement would evoke so much controversy, but I for one think Mr. Dobbs has it exactly right. Our enemy is clear, and we should not hesitate to identify it.
That said, we must also make sure that we are not too quick, àla Goldhagen, to lump all followers of Islam together. Our enemy is not Islam, our enemy is Islamism — the propagator of the most virulent form of homophobia, misogyny, religious intolerance and ethnocentrism the world has ever known.
Islamism represents the antithesis of the multicultural and pluralistic values Americans hold so dear, and it also, as we all learned last September, represents a very real threat to the people of the United States.
Mr. Dobbs, in announcing his switch from the phrase “war on terrorism” to “war against Islamism,” said, “If ever there were a time for clarity, it is now.” Indeed.
— Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.