A Doubtful Genealogy
A Genealogy of Evil
Cambridge UP, 2010
David Patterson may well be right to bemoan contemporary academics for their “reluctance to use terms such as evil”. Many subjects are of deep moral importance, and removing all emotion or moral conviction from their study can enervate academia of its humanity. But few books can provide a more illustrative validation of academia’s conventional detachment than Patterson’s own A Genealogy of Evil: Anti-Semitism, from Nazism to Islamic Jihad. It advances the claim that modern Jihadism has its intellectual roots in Nazism, a link which has been provocatively drawn before, notably by Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland, and the American editor of Dissent magazine, Paul Berman. There may be some truths in this argument, but it remains deeply contentious, not just for flaws in the conceptualisations and claims involved, but also given the aggressive stance on fighting terrorism which self-styled liberal hawks like Berman wish it to advance. Both these concerns make Patterson’s misguided contribution to the debate, founded on an utterly absent methodology and frequently lapsing into mendacious and polemical tactics, all the more dangerous an intervention.
Patterson begins with an introduction on “The Essence of the Jihadist Evil”, a somewhat disconnected outline of the views of Jihadists: an undefined category of violent Islamists consumed with anti-Semitic beliefs and rhetoric. While some of this analysis is intriguing, the few substantiating arguments are worrying in their ambiguity and crudity. Patterson then presents the “Jihadist echoes” of Nazi ideology, an all too accurate label given the superficiality of the similarities listed, whose importance is left thoroughly unclear. It is in the subsequent history of sources and quotations, however, that Patterson really attempts to establish a “genealogy”, tracing a lineage from Jihadism’s early medieval foundations to various Nazi influences on modern Islamic “ideologues”, before finally considering both religious and secular offshoots of the Jihadist phenomenon.
This cursory synopsis betrays the first major problem with Genealogy of Evil: Patterson’s unwillingness to offer any theoretical or methodological foundation for his work. Despite writing explicitly in terms of “totalitarianism”, “evil”, and Nazi and Jihadist “ideology”, Patterson produces not a single definition, nor any engagement with the extensive literature, on what these terms mean. Yet plenty of his claims rest on these concepts, albeit sometimes unwisely, as when Patterson argues that Jihadism is even more “evil” than Nazism, because its assault on Jews is religious as well as political. What this distinction consists of, and why it is the criterion for evil, is left entirely unexplained.
But the more fundamental problem is Patterson’s choice to frame his analysis around confusing talk of “what Jihadism is about”, casually glossing a range of independent questions. Is Patterson concerned with what causes Jihadism? What its aims are? How it wins people to its cause? These issues are conflated, and this conflation underpins the claim, repeated with a frequency that betrays its political motivation, that because Jihadists proclaim to hate Jews as an inherent embodiment of evil, Jihadism therefore “has nothing to do with political or territorial issues surrounding the Jewish state; least of all does it have to do with check points or the security fence.” Patterson seems blind to the obvious fault in his inference; Jihadists’ belief that “Jews are evil irrespective of what they/Israel does” does not demonstrate that Israeli actions do not play a causal role in explaining Jihadists’ anti-Semitism, or in providing a narrative within which anti-Semitic rhetoric is persuasive for potential audiences. This is not to mention the numerous Jihadists cited elsewhere in the book who expound on the significance of Israel to their worldview, and whose words are reconciled to Patterson’s thesis with increasingly tortuous logic. Take the following quotation, from Haj Amin al-Husseini:
“Our fundamental condition for cooperating with [Hitler’s] Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world.”
Patterson infers from this that Jihadist anti-Semitism predated the founding of Israel, and therefore Israel must have no bearing on contemporary Jihadism. This clearly does not follow; a far more logical reading is that precisely because Jihadism was concerned with the presence of Jews in Palestine and the Arab World, the establishment of a territorially embodied Jewish state is relevant to Jihadism’s genealogy.
That contrived interpretations like these frequent Genealogy of Evil reflects on the flawed mentality associating Nazism and Jihadism. Patterson argues that an essential similarity between Jihadists and Nazis is that their anti-Semitism lies in Jews’ embodiment of the view “that…ready answers of the creed are not enough”. This dubious claim is given just two pages of discussion, with not a single reference to any Jihadist or Nazi text. Why is Patterson so keen to advance such an argument, in lieu of any evidence for it? A plethora of vague and meaningless resemblances through the book’s middle chapters ensure that intellectual links remain necessarily speculative, despite laboured assertions by Patterson that “there can be no doubt” about them. Indeed, the problem is not just individual acts of interpretation: something about Patterson’s whole argument seems contrived, perhaps because he never successfully addresses the quantity of evidence, much of it included in his section on medieval Islam, showing the extent to which Jihadist anti-Semitism predated Nazism entirely, as well as the substantial differences between them.
But Patterson’s “genealogy” is not just bedevilled by the persistency of poor interpretive method. As the book advances, increasingly unpleasant contrasts between the violence of Islam and the peacefulness of Judaism give the reader pause, as does Patterson’s occasional economy with the truth. He falsely claims that Islam has no distinction between just and unjust war, and berates “the nations of the world—with the admirable exception of the United States and Israel”—for applauding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic UN speech in 2008, failing to mention that representatives of all EU nations, plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica, staged a walkout. And despite an assurance that he is only concerned with Jihadism, Patterson frequently generalises about Islam as a whole: “Jihadist hatred of the Jews”, we are assured, “is woven into the fabric of Muslim culture.”
Such views are not only likely to offend and outrage many. They expose how thoroughly the content of Genealogy of Evil is actually dictated by Patterson’s prior political and religious convictions. These reach a peak in a truly bewildering final chapter, titled “Humanity’s Need for Israel”, in which the Jewish people’s responsibility for the “prohibition against murder” is counterpoised with the expansionist, totalitarian inclinations of Islam, Christianity, Hellenic Civilisation, and the West. While Patterson has repeatedly insisted that the Jewish people embody opposition to dogmatic creed, they are nevertheless “singled out” as “witnesses to an absolute, revealed truth” from the “same source that sanctifies humanity: the divine commandments of the Torah”. Patterson goes on:
“Beyond Israel’s lifesaving contributions and examples of aiding others [wherever disaster strikes] humanity’s need for Israel is a need for an alternative to nihilism, an alternative to the dictum that nothing is true and everything is permitted…”
“There is much for the world to atone for, starting with the countless UN resolutions against the Jewish state… [for] while Mecca signifies the truth of Islam, Jerusalem signifies the holiness of humanity – that is what makes it God’s dwelling place…Jerusalem is not only the capital of Israel, it is the centre of the world…hence humanity’s need for Israel.”
Readers hardly need assistance in evaluating these passages and the motivations behind them.
Ultimately, there is something more worrying here than just a biased polemic by a lone academic. The cadre of figures who are noisily trumpeting connections between Nazism and Jihadism, whether genealogical, rhetorical, or moral, link this argument to wider political projects with suspicious consistency. It is not that there is nothing to the argument; by far the most compelling section of Patterson’s book is his mention of Nazi Arab-language broadcasts, and former Nazis’ roles in the governments of Arab states, although both phenomena are detailed briefly and with insufficient criticality. But whether with Berman’s advocacy for humanitarian intervention, or Patterson’s deflection of criticism from Israel, prior political or religious projects are driving the production of supposedly empirical claims, rather than visa-versa. Political analysts are human. They hold preconceptions and are naturally reluctant to change or abandon their theories, but the least we should demand is that they acknowledge these dangers and work to counter them. That authors like Patterson eschew such efforts with so casual and complete a disregard is dangerous precisely because Jihadism is a phenomenon of such great moral and emotive significance. That it may legitimately be called evil only reinforces the damage that will be done by mystifying its nature and causes.
Indeed, the flaws of Genealogy of Evil are so extensive and visible that regrettably one cannot but ask serious questions as to how it possibly got through the Cambridge University Press vetting process. The limited truths—that some influence was wielded by Nazism over certain Islamic extremists, and that exterminationist anti-Semitism continues to motivate many of them—do not disguise the overwhelmingly propagandistic nature of this book. Its appalling abuse of interpretive method, and Patterson’s transparent promotion of an analytically blinkered political and religious agenda, have no place in anything with pretensions to academic work.
Jonathan Leader Maynard is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at University College, Oxford.