Day By Day

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Radical Moderation in an Age of Extremism

It is in times like these that the mind is drawn irresistably to the work of the Twentieth Century's greatest poet, William Butler Yeats, and specifically to his most famous poem, "The Second Coming."

Consider the first stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Now turn on the news and watch what is happening throughout the Muslim world and on the streets of European cities.

Wretchard over at the Belmont Club makes the excellent point that the Bush/Blair strategy for dealing with the threat of Islamism has always been to strengthen the middle against the extremes -- to topple the despots and marginalize the radicals while promoting democracy and building ties to moderates and the middle-classes throughout the Islamic world. [read his analysis here]

This is a long-term strategy -- the work of generations -- and for it to succeed we must act responsibly and avoid taking actions that will strengthen radical elements both within Islam and in our own cultures. Unfortunately, responsibility is a concept alien to much of the journalistic establishment and to the blogosphere. They thrive on controversy.

The irresponsible actions of a few journalists in Denmark and Norway have presented Islamist radicals with an opportunity to stoke the fires of extremism. The rhetorical and physical violence we see played out on out TV screens is by no means a spontaneous upwelling of Islamic rage. These organized protests are the result of a carefully planned and well-financed operation conducted by radical Islamists with the purpose of promoting Islamist solidarity and striking the West at its weakest point.

Much of the belligerent defiance and deliberate denigation of Islam that has erupted throughout the blogosphere simply plays into the Islamists' hands. Certainly, a strident defense of press freedoms is entirely appropriate, but we must at the same time denounce those who would take advantage of this situation to promote exclusionary agendas. Already in Europe and Britain far right nationalist elements are being strengthened by the controversy and we must resist the temptation to join in their rhetorical attacks on Islam and on Muslim minorities. Barry Goldwater was wrong. Extremism is a vice, even in the defense of liberty, and it is a dangerous one.

We must recognize that Muslims, just like Christians and Jews, have every right to vigorously protest insults to their religion, but that recognition cannot extend to accepting extremist actions and statements that have become a part of that protest. And it cannot excuse silence in the face of such provocations. We must stridently denounce such provocations and stand firm in defense of our freedoms, but at the same time we must reach out to, and make common cause with, moderate Muslims in an effort to resist the radicalization of Islam.

It is only through a strong and stalwart repudiation of extremism, whatever its source, that we can win through to a satisfactory, if not exactly tidy, end in the war on terror. To fall prey to temptation, to allow our emotions free rein, and to engage in an extreme response to Islamist provocations is to bring us all closer to the real war of civilizations many anticipate and some ardently desire. In times like these, as the blood-dimmed tide rises, the center must hold.

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