AFT Blog # 28: Useful Idiots

Useful Idiots
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

Dagmar Gontard-Zelinkova

English translation: David Rand

Perhaps one day a curious historian with a taste for 20th century history will stop and take a close look at the film The Confession, a work considered essential for an understanding of the mechanism of totalitarian ideologies and the role of those involved in their operation.

The Confession by Costa-Gavras is based on the book of the same name and tells a story set in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, where a man is forced to develop his own prosecution for a political trial. When Costa-Gavras decided to make this film, the famous couple Simone Signoret and Yves Montand were assigned the leading roles. It was for them an opportunity to make their own personal mea culpa. Fervent advocates of communism, true friends of the Soviet Union, they had never made any secret of their solidly left-wing sympathies… until 21st of August 1968. In her book Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, Simone Signoret describes their change of heart as a thunderbolt. She and Montand were shocked to learn that they had been wrong. They had been played for fools. For Montand, his role in the film was a form of penance, fully inhabiting his character to the point of losing 16 kg in order to do so.

It was the Soviet Union’s draconian reaction to the Prague Spring, crushing all hope of freedom, which sounded the alarm for Signoret and Montand. But that raises the nagging question: Why 1968? Why not before? There had certainly been other alarming events previously: Budapest in 1956, for example, was a major stain on communist ideology. Those who escaped the worker’s paradise brought with them disturbing stories – rigged political trials, forced confessions, betrayals, summary executions, gulags, terror… Had the sycophants of Communist paradise understood nothing? How could their heedlessness be explained? It would be difficult to question their integrity.

Furthermore, another totalitarianism just as bloodthirsty as Communism – Nazism – had also received support from persons we could hardly qualify as dishonest or simple-minded. Artists, philosophers and writers were seduced by Nazi ideology. Consider the case – but other examples abound – of the famous French writer, Robert Brassillach. His admiration for the Hitler Youth, wise and disciplined, was boundless, as well as his fascination with the Führer. What explanation is possible other than that of faith? An ironclad and unquestionable faith. A faith that puts wax in the ears and cotton wool over the eyes. A blind faith that leads people to serve while unaware of intentions which they do not understand, people who would come to be known thereafter as useful idiots. According to some sources, it was Lenin who first used the term useful idiots. Whether he coined the term or not, his devoted, even mindless, servants were supremely useful to him.

Now that Communism and Nazism have been defeated, a third form of totalitarianism has taken over – Islamism. Heed the words of Salim Mansur: “In our time, Islamists are the ideological successors of Nazis and Communists, and similarly they oppose the freedom the West represents, Their ideology, Islamism, like Bolshevism, is disguised as religion – Islam – and this imperils the West from the inside.”

Indeed, Islam presents a new challenge. Although its growth is due to the taking of power by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, its roots go back to 1928 when Hassan Al-Banna elaborated the founding principles of the Muslim Brotherhood. Believing that underdevelopment and the decline of Islam could be blamed on increasing neglect for Islamic morality, the Brothers seek salvation in the fundamentalist thought of ibn Abd al-Wahab, which has now become the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia. The fanatical puritanism of the Islamists tolerates no deviation. The flourishing of humanity, expressed through freedom of thought and art, is considered haram, an absolute evil. Thus painting is forbidden. Dancing is forbidden. Singing is forbidden. Prayer is central! Alcohol too is haram and must of course be avoided, but above all women must be hidden from view because they represent a perpetual temptation. Thus, the veil, the burqa!

Ah, yes, the veil. So much ink has already flowed in discussions of this piece of fabric! So much verbal jousting between “pro” and “con!” How to explain this? Probably because we have a confrontation between diametrically opposed concepts: on the one hand, the concept of individual liberty, so dear to the humanism of the Enlightenment and, on the other, the concept of safeguarding morality which can be guaranteed only by enforcing archaic dogmas, essentially religious. While the West has largely freed itself of its past religious illusions, the East remains trapped. The clash between the two is obvious. And the veil is the ultimate marker of the degree of development of a society. Where women are free to control their own bodies and to flourish intellectually, society is in good health.

Now we must face the fact that the veil, symbol of archaic patriarchal oppression, is back. A walk through the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Ankara is all it takes. The veil is now compulsory. But tragically, the veil is also voluntarily chosen. What can we say to those women who adopt the veil in the belief that they are obeying religious regulations, except that their gesture is meaningless because the Koran says nothing about requiring the veil. Should we tell them that their action is retrograde? Should we remind them of the “unveiling” campaign, the feminist movement led by Hoda Cha’rawi which culminated in the famous event in Cairo in 1926, where women in a theatrical gesture tore off their veils and threw them into the sea? Need we remind them that in Tunisia in the sixties, women, encouraged by the forward-looking Bourguiba, rejected the veil too? And that in the Turkey of Atatürk, although women continued to wear a scarf resembling a “babushka,” the so-called “Islamic” veil was unknown?

And so, the veil. The movement to abandon it seemed irreversible. Nevertheless the veil is back in Islamic countries. Moreover, it has crossed the Bosporus and even the Atlantic to appear where it did not exist – in Europe and America. What we are witnessing today, far from being a simple expression of religiosity, is in fact a political action! “Veiled women, unmasked fundamentalism” in the words of Yolande Geadah in her 2001 book. Indeed, the veil is not a simple piece of cloth, it is a political symbol. And it is just the tip of the iceberg. It brings with it a litany of demands. Universities must now provide prayer rooms, and furthermore all activities must stop at prayer times. Then comes the demand for segregation of the sexes, boys on one side and girls on the other. Then gender segregation in swimming pools and gymnasiums. Then opposition to education because biology classes are haram to Muslims and should thus be banned, as they involve discussion of sexual reproduction. Music too is haram. Finally, all of these demands, can they be anything less than outright sabotage of secular activities?

Exhibiting a literal interpretation of the Koran and basing their ideology on a toxic mix of violence and religion, imposing the veil while insisting on women’s inferiority, Islamists advance their line of attack like trailblazers clearing the terrain before them. The ideology they seek to propagate is totalitarian and as such tolerates no criticism. Like any ideology it requires tools of transmission. Such as the veil! Indeed, what can be said of those feminists who, some thirty years ago, were incensed at the sight of ghost-like figures wrapped in burqas in Afghanistan but now fight for the right of women to choose this same outfit? What about those do-gooders who under the banner of pluralism pave the way for the most violent of fundamentalisms? Because – and let’s not forget – totalitarian ideologies thrive on terror. Unfortunately, due to the reign of political correctness – which in fact results from the attitude of deference towards Islam which the West imposes – criticism of Islamism is viewed with suspicion. To criticize Islamism is considered tantamount to criticizing Islam, and to criticize Islam means denigrating all Muslims and putting their lives in danger. And so the West censors itself.

This situation is tragic. Instead of rejecting Islamist terror categorically, useful idiots implicitly endorse it by obscuring the issue and looking for the causes of the “malaise” in a self-criticism of the West itself.

It is strange how history repeats itself. The most distressing aspect of the current crisis is that those who contribute to the spread of evil suffer from a pathological deafness equivalent that which prevailed at the time of Lenin and Stalin. Modern dupes do not hear the voices of thinkers, artists, musicians, Islamic thinkers who speak out against Islamism. These voices, far from being rare, show incredible courage, because – and we must not forget this – they are the voices of those in the first line of fire. Those voices transmit a very different message: far from the murderous fanaticism of the fundamentalists, they express the firm belief in a peaceful future. To paraphrase Abdelwahab Meddeb in his book Contre-Prêches (Counter Sermons), these voices tell us that the criticism which Islam so urgently needs is indeed taking place now, in the face of extreme resistance of all kinds, and it will continue to grow, despite that hostility. Sooner or later the criminals will have to answer for their crimes. But in the meantime, the voices of criticism must be heard without constraint, without taboos, in defiance of the death instincts of Islamism. Islam is currently at the crossroads between progress and archaism, between those who support the values of democracy, freedom and humanity on the one hand and, on the other hand, blind fanatics who put their faith in a mythical appeal to divine sovereignty.

May the useful Idiots unblock their ears and listen to these voices!


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