January 22, 2007

Michael Gove: The Left against Islamism

Michael Gove addressed tonight the New Culture Forum and your scribe was invited. Gove addressed the meeting on the subject of the intellectuals of the left and Islamism. Gove really addressed the fact that there were intellectuals upon the left who opposed Islamism- he mentioned the fact that there were intellectuals in the Arab world as well who opposed Islamism. He enjoined his largely (but not exclusively) rightwing audience to recognise the courage of those on the left who had stood up to another left (the left of Pilger and Chomsky) and had condemned Islamism. He quoted approvingly the words of such luminaries as Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and plenty of others. Gove simply made that point and defended that point: he argued that this leftwing resistance to what he deemed a new totalitarianism was a positive step forwards.

As far as it goes the analysis is true- but Gove merely stated facts- he didn't attempt to suggest why the left might have split on the issue and he didn't discuss the nature of what the left and right were. One might argue for instance that within the work of most of the leftwing intellectuals he cited were two sentiments- on the one hand an ideal of universal values and on the other hand the idea of the defence of the weak from the strong. Some thinkers like Hitchens have emphasized the first, some like John Pilger the second. Gove's analysis would have made more sense with this extra dimension. It would have been interesting too to hear about the idea that a neo-conservative is a Trotskyite mugged by reality. The left's attitudes to Islamic extremism might well be more interesting than Mr Gove has allowed.

The other dimension that Gove neglected was the discussion of what exactly an intellectual was. Gove presumed that an intellectual was a media figure who wrote books and subscribed to a political doctrine- intellectuals divided into groups on the left and the right for Gove. But that isn't exactly true. Most people who are involved with the mind work on subjects which aren't political or are political and historical but aren't partisan. Gove didn't really discuss at all the views of British and American scholars of Islam, philosophers or political thinkers. His galaxy of intellectual stars comprises of those familiar to the media- not those more profound thinkers working out of the media spotlight- Quentin Skinner, Ronald Dworkin or any others. Indeed such people are less easy than the Hitchens's to classify as left or right- they have political persuasions- but is for instance a description of the Middle East aptly described as right or left wing. The history of the Middle East and religion effect the way that we describe what we face but left wing and right wing obstruct rather than help our understanding of the interpretations. It would have been nice to hear more about the more complicated and interesting thinkers and less about the columnists and press people.

The last area where I think Gove's discussion needs moving on is when he discusses Islamism. Islamism is a very difficult term to define and it would have been nice to know what Gove meant by it. To take an example he argued at one point that Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, was not an Islamist though Olivier Roy, one of the world's leading experts on whatever Islamism is, thinks that Erdogan is part of a new nationalist trend within Islamism. Having said that the talk was more about Western attitudes to Islamism than Islamism itself and in the questions Gove was keen to make clear that Islamism and Islam weren't the same thing.

We shouldn't judge Mr Gove too harshly- this was a political speech rather than a seminar but it is worrying that political speeches are now so far away from seminars, that politicians don't need to define their terms adequately. No doubt Gove understands that the left has more complexity in its attitudes to Islam than that which he suggested. No doubt that Gove understands that there are intellectuals who don't write for the papers and are not easily distinguished into factions of left and right, but are still vastly important. But he was speaking to a fairly partisan audience and the paper was political not intellectual. The shame is that there is now such a distance between a political paper and something that can stand up to criticism- Mr Gove's paper needed much more nuance, subtlety and tighter definitions to be intellectually coherent but that might well have made it uninteresting to its audience.

Michael Gove is an articulate speaker- the flaws of this talk may well have lied in the fact that he adjusted his talk for his audience- the speech and his responses to questions showed that he wanted an extensive alliance against Islamic extremism- such Catholicity was the central strength of his speech. As an analysis of the left's preoccupation with militant Islam and the different ways it has played out in the works of columnists and authors, the talk failed, as a rallying cry to the Amises of the world that they had found an ally on the right, it was more successful.

LATER An interesting point on Bloggingheads TV right at the beginning of the discussion about the fact that we respect pundits more than experts- people who opine on the basis of a broad but basic knowledge of stuff as opposed to people who actually know about what they talk about- in the context of what Gove is talking about and the way he defines intellectual its an interesting thought.


james higham said...

Now who was the other blogger who was going to that forum? I know - Croydonian. Did you meet him?

Gracchi said...

No I didn't- they didn't give out name badges which made it difficult to know who was who. I hope he writes a review of it though it'll be interesting to compare notes- I'll go and have a look.

pappusrif said...

Great post, as almost all the Westminter Wisdom. It's obvious, terms used by the media and/or politicians are confusing for the the majority. You're right to point out that politicians dont need to define their terms adequately. Most of the time, they do it on purpose, especially about islam and islamism.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Pappusrif- great name by the way- yeah I agree with you. I'm not sure about the on purpose bit though I do think that politicians manipulate the way that their definitions slide around a lot- I always think of the Iraq war where if you opposed it for whatever reason you became John Pilger and if you proposed it you became Bill Kristol. Personally I don't like it because I think it gets in the way of real discussion- the whole way that we discuss Islamism to use Gove's term is a vast problem. Fundamentalism doesn't really work- the original Christian Fundamentalists (the first to claim the word) were apolitical, Islamofascism is very dodgy for reasons I've gone on about before, I'm still queasy about Islamism, it doesn't quite work for me and Wahabism or Salafism obviously are more correct but isolate the phenomenon from Iran but that might what we need to do. I've got no good alternative- but its a minefield and its very difficult to write precisely about these groups.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you'll read this, but I think you went a bit easy on Gove, going by the stuff he writes. (Obviously, I wasn't at the talk.)

In particular, he purposefully (as Nick Cohen does on his bad days) attempts to lump those on the left who had practical objections to the Iraq invasion (or have practical objections to the way Gove wants a "war on Islamism") with those ideologically opposed.

He also never seems to engage with the practical criticism that half of the actions he advocates have historically only bred increased resistance and rebellion.

I'd also pick up on your point about Salafism and the status of Iran. I don't know if you've read Reza Aslan's book, but he makes a reasonable case for treating Iran differently. One of the biggest weaknesses of Gove is that he falls into the "Power of Nightmares" trap in seeing a number of disparate Islamic groups, who have some loose links as a large scale movement that can be fought with generalised action.

Finally, I find it a bit sad that the "British right" is always so uncritical in accepting assertions based on an American view of the world, complete with American prejudices and interests at heart. Gove is a prime example of this. I think it'd be very instructive if more people in the "British right" at least tried to sketch out an entirely British approach to the problem, rather than relying on so much American shorthand.

Gracchi said...

Anonymous I think I agree with all your points- especially the one about Gove not understanding the subtleties of the issue. Personally I was just giving him the benefit of the doubt- like you I'm not impressed by his Times Columns or by his moral maze interventions- however he has got this reputation and I'm not sure on what evidence its based but...

Anonymous said...

It's an odd phenomenon and interesting question. Why do people put so much weight on Michael Gove's opinion?

Of course, part of it is that every newspaper commentator's output is pretty shallow, probably a consequence of the medium.

Still, there must be more to it than that. My own first guess was that he is more impressive in person, although this lecture seems to put that open to question. The next guess is that he's part of "the right set" (if you'll forgive the pun.) He talks a lot to influential people on the right (and these days is even quite senior amongst the new ones.) Hence, he has a reputation.

The other thing that occurs is that in his earlier years he talked a lot more about dometic/economic matters, where he fitted the Thatcherite consensus fairly well and that may be where his reputation came from.

I'll note that a number of his think-tank credentials come directly out of money from foundations like the one set up by Richard Perle to spread the US neo-con gospel in Europe. Money always seems to help the reputation in all these spheres. Maybe the blogs will fix that, but it's doubtful.