Dinesh D’Souza takes hits left and right

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Mar 02, 2007 12:00 AM

It's no surprise that conservative author Dinesh D'Souza is receiving criticism from the liberal left for his new book, "The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11."

After all, D'Souza charges that "the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector and the universities" are "responsible for causing 9/11" and "are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world."

But D'Souza, a former Reagan administration policy analyst whose previous books include "Illiberal Education" and "What's so Great About America," has also taken a lot of flak from conservatives who argue that he fails to prove his case and offers an ultra-PC view of Islam. I talked to D'Souza Feb. 27 by phone from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Q: Are you still alive? You've been beat up pretty good by the left and the right for this book.
A: No, no. I'm very much alive. In a way this sort of reaction is not totally a surprise to me. It's true this is the first book in which I have had conservative criticism. Normally I just drive the left insane. Sure, any book that is going to point a finger at the left and say, “Look, you’ve got a role. You’re responsible for 9/11” is going to cause a furor on the left. I expected that.

The conservative criticism is little more of a surprise. Not because of its existence -- my first chapter in the book is called "What do conservatives 'know' about 9/11 and why it's wrong." And the book is a critique of the conservative and liberal assumptions about 9/11. But what I've been struck by is how vehement some of the conservative critics have been -- not all or even most, but some.

Q: What's the most stinging critique -- the charge of political correctness?
A: I think the political correctness runs the other way. Since 9/11, the right has had a single understanding of this event. It's basically a clash of civilizations. It's us against them. The way you fight it is that the conservatives go to the liberals in America and show them how illiberal the Muslims are. Once the liberals realize this, they supposedly will wake up and join our side. I think this strategy has totally failed. How many liberals have come on board? Not one.

Moreover, the very idea that conservatives could win a war against 1 billion Muslims on the other side when our country is divided on this side is absurd. So I think this has been a losing strategy. As the strategy fails, conservatives have been willing to pull away from (President) Bush but they're not willing to blame themselves. They're not willing to say, "Hey, let's look at our own assumptions and see if we're maybe understanding this a little bit wrong."

Q: What's the biggest incorrect assumption for the conservatives?
A: I think there are two big whoppers that have both led to mistaken strategies. One is the idea that the left is not joining our side because it doesn't understand the threat posed by the radical Muslims. In reality, the left understands the threat extremely well. But it's not that the left likes a bin Laden or likes the insurgents in Iraq, but in a way they hate Bush more. The left realizes that the real threat to liberal values in this country does not come from the radical Muslims but comes in a way from Bush and his allies on the conservative side and on the religious right.

The left has made a calculated decision, one may say, to find a way for Bush to lose in Iraq -- embarrass him in the war on terror. The real objective is to run Bush and the conservatives out of town. Conservatives have been totally blind to this threat until it has now literally kicked us in the face. Ironically, some of us are still not aware that we have been totally out-maneuvered.

Q: Who or what is the cultural left and how is it responsible for Islamic and other anti-Americanism around the world?
A: First of all, it should be clear what I mean. There is a caricature of my book that implies that I am sort of blaming the left for doing 9/11. I’m certainly not doing that. Bin Laden and his co-conspirators did it. But the intelligent question to ask is: “Radical Islam began 80 years ago and it was a small radical movement that had no power. How did it get to a position that it could carry out 9/11?”

Number one, I argue, it got into that position in 1979 by first grabbing a hold of a major state, Iran. It was liberal foreign policy, the liberal advisors of Jimmy Carter, who ... convinced Carter to start pulling back from the Shah. So Carter’s foreign policy -- in trying to get rid of the bad guy, the Shah -- gave us the worse guy, Khomeini. So that’s the first concrete way in which liberal policy paved the way for radical Islam to get a hold of major state. The second point is, How did the radical Muslims become convinced that they could get away with striking us? This happened in the 1990s, in the Clinton years. I argue that the radical Muslims who were for a long time preoccupied in fighting in their own countries -- what they called “their near enemy.” Then they made a very fateful decision to shift strategy and attack us -- the far enemy. Why? Bin Laden says it’s because he got the idea that America was very weak. But think about it: If you can not overthrow the royal family in Saudi Arabia or Mubarak in Egypt, what makes you think you can attack the United States? The radical Muslims had a bunch of test strikes in the 1990s that we know about -- Khobar Towers, the bombing of our embassies, the attack on the Cole -- and when the Clinton people did little or nothing in every case, bin Laden himself said, “We became confirmed in our belief that this America is cowardly and we began to conceive of a grander strike, which happened on 9/11.

Q: Some on the left and right argue that it is American foreign policy that is the source of Muslim rage against the U.S. Others say the rage is a result of the nature of Islam, the religion itself, or the backward, patriarchal traditional Muslim society -- and that those societies are threatened just by modern Western values. What’s your explanation?
A: The liberal explanation or even the Pat Buchanan explanation, which attributes it solely to U.S. foreign policy, has a grain of truth but is very incomplete. If you look at bin Laden’s own letter to America, which he issued right after 9/11, you see that he has foreign policy complaints. But he also has lots of religious and cultural complaints. He calls America “the global head of the unbelievers.” He says Islam is under threat. He says that America is threatening the Muslim religion, undermining the Muslim family, corrupting the innocence of Muslim children. He blames us for gambling, fornication, adultery and so on. My point is that if you read the literature of radical Islam, the thinkers who shape minds over there, their big theme is that Islam is under attack.

Even if you think of the idea that America is the Great Satan, the historian Bernard Lewis points out that Satan, in the Abrahamic tradition, is never a warrior or a conqueror, he’s a tempter. The point I’m making here is that if you look at what the radical Muslims themselves say, they do not confine their complaints solely to foreign policy. That’s simply wrong. If you turn to the conservative side, it is true that the Muslims are making a complaint against the West. But there are two types of Muslims and their complaints are different. You have the radical Muslims and the traditional Muslims. The radical Muslims, I would agree, oppose many fundamental features of our society; we can not convince them, we have to fight them. The traditional Muslims, on the other hand -- and I can give you an overwhelming amount of evidence to prove this -- support liberalism of the classical kind but reject liberalism of the modern kind; they support the liberalism of the Founders, they reject the liberalism of Hillary Clinton.

These are people who are totally in favor of democracy. They like the idea of being able to live wherever you want, to speak your mind. They believe in religious toleration. However, they don’t believe in the right of blasphemy. Or they don’t want their daughters to be given condoms before they get married. They don’t believe in the social permissive liberalism of modern day America. So that’s my point: that the cultural left, by pushing this liberalism on the rest of the world, is producing a backlash from traditional Muslims that is making those Muslims more vulnerable to the appeal of radical Islam.

Q: So it’s sort of an indictment of the meddling -- on all fronts -- by the West in Muslim societies.
A: I would agree. In that sense, I’m sympathetic to the strain that says, “Listen, let these people run their own societies.” Even in Iraq, I support the idea of the Iraqi people controlling their own future, but my point is -- let 'em. If the men and women of Iraq vote for a government that wants to have some form of Sharia or holy law, I wouldn’t vote for it and you probably wouldn’t vote for it, but it’s not our country. I think conservatives have been too drawn into this idea that we should meddle in -- and liberals agree with it too. They just meddle in different ways (laughs).

Q: What's your battle plan for how you'd want conservatives at home to use the culture war to win the war against Islamic radicalism?
A: First of all, conservatives need to do their best to block the project of liberal cultural imperialism that is trying to promote secularism, feminism, gay rights and all the rest of it, on the traditional world. This is already producing a huge backlash, not just in the Muslim world, but even in South America, Africa and Asia. I came back recently from a trip to Singapore and India, and the big slogan in Asia today is "Modernization yes, Americanization no," reflecting that these are traditional cultures. Yes, they are kind of patriarchal and they abide by traditional values. So what the left is doing abroad is seen as a real assault on the values that the ordinary people live by.

Radical Islam has exploited this. The ordinary Muslim on the streets of Islamabad or Riyadh -- are you telling me that the guy is willing to go to his death because the Palestinians don't have a state? I don't believe it. I think the guy is mobilized because some mullah is telling him, "Your religion is in danger. These Americans want to corrupt your religion and destroy your family and erode the innocence of your daughter." This is the kind of thing that hits the ordinary fellow in the gut and gives him a motive to strike back and fight back. I think this dimension of why they hate us, if you will, has gone totally ignored.

Conservatives are sort of taken by surprise and so I think they are reacting in a very foolish and irrational way to my book, which actually is just making a novel conservative argument. I agree it’s different than the prevailing orthodoxy, but there’s no reason to be jumping out of windows.

Q: What about this idea that there is an affinity between red state Christian American traditional conservatives and traditional Muslims.
A: It's absolutely true. In other words, you can say traditional Muslims are somewhat to the right of red state conservatives. I agree there are some areas of difference. For example, the idea of religious toleration is not alien to Islam. But in Islam, while there is freedom to convert in, Islam prohibits freedom to concert out. Now that is totally inconsistent with what conservatives believe about religious freedom, so that’s a problem area. I'm not saying that we are all on the same wavelength, but what I am saying is that there is a lot of common ground.

You can build coalitions on traditional morality to block things like the assertion of abortion as an international right, which is being promoted right now by groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups. So the traditional Muslims, by seeing this, will realize right away that we are not trying to interfere with them governing their own societies and living by their own values. And it undermines bin Laden's idea that we are some sort of an atheist, immoral society.