By Ian Buruma, the author of Murder in Amsterdam: the Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, and a professor of human rights at Bard College, New York (THE GUARDIAN, 26/06/07):
Bernard Kouchner, France's new foreign minister, has a distinguished record as an advocate of intervention in countries where human rights are abused. As a co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières he stated that "we were establishing the moral right to interfere inside someone else's country". Saddam Hussein's mass murder of Iraqi citizens is why Kouchner supported the war in Iraq, and he has often said that the murder of his Russian-Jewish grandparents in Auschwitz inspired his humanitarian interventionism.
Whatever one thinks of Kouchner's policies, his motives are surely impeccable. The fact that many prominent Jewish intellectuals in Europe and the US - often, like Kouchner, with a leftist past - are sympathetic to the idea of using American armed force to further the cause of human rights and democracy may derive from the same wellspring. Any force is justified to avoid another Shoah, and those who shirk their duty to support such force are regarded as no better than collaborators with evil.
If we were less haunted by memories of appeasing the Nazi regime people might not be so concerned about human rights. And by no means do all those who work to protect the rights of others invoke the Third Reich to justify Anglo-American armed intervention. But the term "Islamofascism" was not coined for nothing. It invites us to see a big part of the Islamic world as a natural extension of nazism. Saddam, hardly an Islamist, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran are often described as natural successors to Hitler. And European weakness - not to mention the "treason" of its liberal scribes, paving the way to an Islamist conquest of Europe ("Eurabia") - is seen as a ghastly echo of the appeasement of the Nazi threat.
Revolutionary Islamism is undoubtedly dangerous and bloody. Yet analogies with the Third Reich, though highly effective as a way of denouncing people whose views one disagrees with, are usually false. No Islamist armies are about to march into Europe - indeed, most victims of revolutionary Islamism live in the Middle East - and Ahmadinejad, his rhetoric notwithstanding, does not have a fraction of Hitler's power.
The refusal of many Muslims to integrate into western societies, as well as high unemployment and ready access to revolutionary propaganda, can easily explode in acts of violence. But the prospect of an Islamised Europe is remote. We are not living a replay of 1938.
So why the alarm about European appeasement, especially among the neoconservatives? Why the easy equation of Islamism with nazism? Israel is often cited. But Israel can mean different things to different people: to certain evangelical Christians, it is the holy site of the second coming of the messiah; to many Jews, it is the one state that will always offer refuge; to neoconservative ideologues, it is the democratic oasis in a desert of tyrannies.
Defending Israel against its Islamic enemies may indeed be a factor in the existential alarmism that underlies the war on terror. A nuclear-armed Iran would certainly make Israel feel more vulnerable. But it is probably overstated as an explanation. Kouchner did not advocate western intervention in Bosnia or Kosovo because of Israel. If concern for Israel played a part in Paul Wolfowitz's advocacy of war in Iraq, it was probably a minor one. Both men were motivated by common concerns for human rights and democracy, as well as perhaps by geopolitical considerations.
Still, Islamist rhetoric, adopted by Ahmadinejad among others, is designed to stir up memories of the Shoah. So perhaps the existential fear of some western intellectuals is easier to explain than their remarkable, sometimes fawning, trust in the US government.
The explanation of this mysterious trust may lie elsewhere. Many neocons emerged from a leftist past, in which a belief in revolution from above was commonplace: "people's democracies" yesterday, "liberal democracies" today. Among Jews and other minorities, another historical memory may also play a part: the protection of the imperial state. Jews were among the most loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, because he shielded them from the violent nationalism of majority populations. Polish and Russian Jews, at least at the beginning of the communist era, were often loyal subjects of the communist state, because it promised (falsely, as it turned out) to protect them from anti-semitic nationalists.
If it were true that our democratic world were about to be destroyed by an Islamist revolution, it would only make sense to seek protection in the full force of the US. But if one sees our problems in less apocalyptic terms, another kind of trahison des clercs comes into view: the blind cheering on of a sometimes foolish power embarked on unnecessary wars that cost more lives than they were intended to save.