Two Visions of Democracy: Letter 2

Two Visions of Democracy: Letter 2


Dear Nadia,

Many thanks for your generous reply. Of course, I know that you don’t intend to launch a dialogue with terrorists and their supporters, and you know that I don’t exclude Islam from my view of multiculturalism – nor do any of my friends: the fiercest opponents of jihadi radicalism recognize that there are anti-jihadi versions of Islam. There may be block thinking on the far right; I just don’t find it among Dissent leftists. So we are not so far apart. But perhaps we have a different view of the value of dialogue. Let me use for a moment another analogy. I have participated (as a partial but fairly well-connected outsider) in a number of Israeli-Palestinian dialogues. These discussions are sometimes very sweet, sometimes difficult, always interesting, but they are not, in my view, very important. Or, perhaps better, the participants in these dialogues, who are generally leftist Israelis and moderate Palestinians (since the Palestinian left has been captured by nationalist and religious zealots), have more important things to do than talk with one another. The Israelis need to work in their own community, to create a political climate that will permit withdrawal from the occupied territories and Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinians need to work in their own community, to create a political climate that will permit a two state solution and a full acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy. This is hard work, on both sides, and compared to it dialogue is easy, too easy.

Now, I worry that the dialogues that you propose will turn out to be a substitute for the hard work that both sides, but most importantly right now the Muslim side, have to do in their own communities. I know that there are Muslim dissidents in Europe and the Arab countries today, but they are not at this moment a significant force. Think about the critical sharpness, the intellectual creativity, the moral achievement of Soviet and East European dissidents only a few decades ago: there is nothing like that in Islam today – except, perhaps, in Iran.

I was in Turkey recently, where I met some Iranian tourists (at a tourist site; this was not a political meeting), who were quite hostile to their government and willing to talk about it. They were strongly pro-American and enthusiastic about George Bush. They were also sharply critical of the Europeans (they wouldn’t travel in Europe, they said) who were too ready to deal with their oppressors. That is, I am afraid, the same sort of thing that I heard years ago from the anti-communist dissidents of the East.

Dissidents have work to do in their own countries – and they can do it: the legitimacy of the communist regimes was pretty much destroyed by internal dissidence. But it may be that we help them best by a tough hostility to their opponents – and by doing the work that we have to do in our own communities, which is, right now, to develop a politics of difference and to look for ways of accommodating, but also of integrating, Muslim immigrants. It really doesn’t help the dissidents to dialogue with people like you and me. That’s just rest and recreation. And those individuals who seek a lot of rest and recreation are probably not doing the work they have to do.

But maybe that’s dangerous work in parts of Islam today, and maybe we owe them rest and recreation. Well, ok, but then let’s call it that. And let’s not pretend that the people we are talking to are the Miloszs, the Solzhenitsyns, the Sinyavskys, and the Daniels of the Muslim world. I would be willing to bet that those people, if they exist, secretly admire the work of Paul Berman. Anyway, if they exist, they are doing their own work, and we should do ours. And if I am wrong, and they think that dialogue with us would help them, I will happily join in. But I would want to know how it is helping them, and what they are accomplishing.

With best wishes,

Nadia—a footnote to my letter. I should have said that I think I would have been entirely sympathetic to Bobbio’s effort to promote dialogue with Italy’s communists. You can never tell, of course, how you would have behaved in another time and place, but your arguments about that sound right to me now. This was a real party, with a mass base, and a history of anti-fascist struggle – and, perhaps most important, a potent intellectual tradition. By contrast, I would have opposed a dialogue with US communists, who weren’t a real party, had no base at all, were puppets of and apologists for the Soviets – and had no serious intellectual tradition. A dialogue with American communists would have given them some shreds of respectability, which they didn’t deserve.

Read Nadia Urbinati’s “Two Visions of Democracy”
Read Michael Walzer’s Response

Read Urbinati’s letter to Walzer (1)
Read Walzer’s letter to Urbinati (2)
Read Urbinati’s letter to Walzer (3)
Read Walzer’s letter to Urbinati (4)

This debate originally appeared in the Italian political journal Reset and Reset: Dialogues on Civilization. ©ResetDOC