I have a modest proposal to help combat the appeal to ordinary or ‘moderate’ Muslims, especially the young, of what is variously called Islamism, Islamofascism or Islamic totalitarianism. My idea draws obviously on the story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom which did so much in the 1950s to combat the influence throughout the world of communist fellow-travellers. I outlined its history in my 1989 book The Liberal Conspiracy. The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. It was an international association of literary and political intellectuals. It organised international conferences and national committees to uphold liberal values. It published several literary magazines of which the most celebrated was the London Encounter. (Quadrant in Australia survives and flourishes today.) It kept in contact with writers and dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, supplying them where possible with books, magazines and even travel grants. It finally collapsed in the late 1960s with the ‘revelation’ that it had been largely financed all along by the CIA. Its defenders argued that the CIA should have been congratulated for aiding without strings a movement of free, anti-communist, anti-fascist intellectuals at the time of its urgent formation in the late 1940s period when no other funding was available or likely. The folly lay in maintaining this secret funding in a later period when private foundations and donors could have managed the funding. But the damage done by the publicity given to the secret funding was fatal. With the fading and ending of the Cold War the Congress for Cultural Freedom was largely forgotten (except for the CIA funding.) There were occasional calls for a new organisation untainted by any CIA association but nothing substantial came of it. Thirty years ago Roger Scruton complained that ‘the CIA is now utterly intimidated, refusing to engage in its most honourable occupation – the support of those publications which tell the truth about the modern world.’ But his complaint was ignored.There has recently been a revival of interest in the Congress for Cultural Freedom and support for it – especially given the comparative silence of the Muslim moderates over the atrocities of their fanatical co-religionists. Recently several American writers have recalled the achievements of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Sceptics and critics have referred dismissively to this revival as ‘nostalgia’, ‘fantasy’ or ‘Congress-for-Cultural-Freedom envy’. But the revival is too persistent to be ignored.
Earlier this year in her latest book Heretic. Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now the famous polemist Ayaan Hirsi Ali called for the creation of an organisation akin to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to combat the fundamentalist Islamism in which she was largely reared. She includes a list of liberal Muslim intellectuals who could lead it. Since their names are largely unknown in the wider world, let me quote from her list. They are intellectuals but not clerics. They now live mostly in Europe or the Americas. Her appendix details their works, qualifications and experience in the anti-fundamentalist cause. They include: Tawfiq Hamid, Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani, Maajid Nawaz, Zuhdi Jasser, Saleem, Ahmed, Yunis Qandil, Seyran Ates, Bassam Tibi and many others. The Sydney-based writer Ida Lichter adds to the list in her books The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular and Muslim Women Reformers. These are names which, as Hirsi Ali insists, should be as well known as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Havel in the ‘80s. The international organisation she envisages would make this possible. It would not be directed at the West but at the Islamic world. Its mission would be to help turn moderate Muslims away from Islamofascism. Imagine, she writes, ten reformist magazines for every one issue of IS’s Dibuq proclaiming the Caliphate or Al-Qaeda’s Inspire with bomb-making advice. ‘Imagine a platform for Muslim dissidents that communicated its message through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instgram.’ It could reach and create alliances with Muslim individuals and groups who actually share our liberal values and practices but who still find themselves ‘maligned and marginalised’ by nations, leaders and imams ‘whom we now embrace as allies.’ The audience is out there. But it needs ‘mobilising’.
This is where my modest proposal comes in. The Congress for Cultural Freedom grew out of an international conference of liberal anti-communist, anti-fascist intellectuals held in Berlin at the time of the outbreak of the Korean War. What we need today is an international conference of liberal anti-fundamentalist Muslims – the sort of men and women listed in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s manifesto -who would set up a continuing organisation to resist Islamofascism and advance the liberal cause. Why should such a conference not be called in Australia? Its natural organisers could be such think-tanks as the Institute for Public Affairs in Melbourne and the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. The IPA has sympathetically reviewed her books and the CIS has welcomed her to its platform. Other think-tanks, perhaps of more Labor party inclinations, might join in. All are experienced in fund-raising and the costs of such a conference would not be beyond them. It is up to us.
In his recent speeches Tony Abbott has rightly stressed the essential role of the military response to Islamofascism. But we cannot win this war with air strikes and drones alone. As Hirsi Ali put it : ‘We need to fight it with ideas – with an alternative vision, as we did in the Cold War.’ Here is Australia’s opportunity.
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