Chomsky, Apologist for Bin Laden

9-11, by Noam Chomsky. New York
Seven Stories Press, 2001, 125 pp., $8.95.

A leftist is not a liberal. It is true that there is no clear line separating liberals from leftists, just as there is no definite boundary between young and old. Nevertheless, the distinction is vital. Nadine Gordimer, when asked how white liberals in South Africa were feeling, answered, "I happen to be white, but I'm not a liberal. I'm a leftist."1

Leftists and liberals are generally in favor of the right to be different; are concerned about the plight of the poor; and support civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights. Liberals, typically, work within the system and recognize that their goals can be achieved within a democratic system. Leftists, on the other hand, doubt that democracy exists. The world's largest democracy, the United States, is their chief enemy. Another enemy is Israel, a small country but a major obsession as far as leftists are concerned. When leftists write about those who wish to destroy the United States and Israel, they forget all the other issues they care about.

Noam Chomsky, in his book 9-11, is always comparing the United States with dictatorships. He concludes that the United States is worse. He recognizes that al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization, but he insists that "in much of the world, the U.S. is regarded as a leading terrorist state, and with good reason" (p. 23). As for Bin Laden, here is what Chomsky says: "His call for the overthrow of corrupt and brutal regimes of gangsters resonates quite widely, as does his indignation against the atrocities that he and others attribute to the United States, hardly without reason" (p. 61).

What are the good reasons, according to Chomsky? "The most obvious example, though far from the most extreme case," he tells us, "is Nicaragua" (p. 43). Chomsky maintains that the damage America caused in Nicaragua was "more severe even than the tragedies in New York [on September 11]" (p. 25). The Sandinista government went to the World Court, the Security Council, and the General Assembly. America vetoed a resolution in the Security Council, but the World Court and the General Assembly voted in favor of the government of Nicaragua. "That's the way a state should proceed," says Chomsky (p. 25). If the United States had followed similar tactics, the Taliban would still be in power and al-Qaeda would still have its military bases in Afghanistan.

America's strength forced the Sandinistas to allow elections. The Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, was defeated in 1990 and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected. Elections were held again in 2001, and once again Daniel Ortega was defeated. It took American power to overthrow the dictatorship of the Sandinistas, but once there was democracy, the Nicaraguans voted to stay democratic. The second election took place after Chomsky wrote 9-11; as for the first, Chomsky presumably doesn't understand its importance. Or maybe he understands only too well. In any event, he doesn't mention it.

An even greater American sin, according to Chomsky, was the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998. He cites various writers who state that the plant was the only affordable source of medicine and that perhaps tens of thousands of people have died because they can't get drugs (p. 48). He says that America is as guilty of the deaths in Sudan as Chairman Mao was guilty of the famine of 1958-61 in China (p. 47).

Mao's famine killed between 30 and 60 million people; it was the worst famine in history. China continued to export wheat during the famine. When in 1959 Peng Dehuai, an officer in the Chinese army, wrote a letter to Chairman Mao about the famine, Mao dismissed Peng from the army.2 Chairman Mao knew about the famine and didn't care. Devastating famines have struck other Communist countries as well. Stalin engineered a famine in his war against the rich peasants--the kulaks. North Korea has been suffering from famine for years. Totalitarian states--Marxist, Islamic, or non-ideological--are prone to famines and similar catastrophes, but democracies are not.

If the people of Sudan are indeed dying because they can't get drugs, that is the fault of the Sudanese government, an insane regime that allows slavery and is waging a war against non-Muslims. If countries like Sudan, Iraq, and North Korea opened their doors to the world, the world would bring food and medicine. Aid was offered to China after the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, which killed 242,000 people. China, however, "declined foreign and UN offers of humanitarian aid."3 Despots are more committed to their oppressive systems than they are to their own people--a fact that Chomsky does not seem to understand.

No one knows to what extent the bombing of Sudan's Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant caused a disaster. We can be sure, however, that the medical problems that women in Afghanistan faced under the Taliban were worse. The Taliban did not allow women to practice medicine, nor did it permit male doctors to treat female patients. If that weren't bad enough, women were not permitted to work by the Taliban, and widows had no way to earn a living.4

Chomsky, as we have seen, forgets all the issues he cares about when it comes to Islamic states. To be sure, he will make exceptions and condemn countries allied with the United States, like Saudi Arabia. But Chomsky hates Israel more than he hates bin Laden. He accuses the United States of "supporting Israeli atrocities" (p. 44). He opposes the attacks of 9-11 because they killed people, but also because he feels they helped Israel: "The Palestinians are unlikely to gain anything. On the contrary, the terrorist attack of September 11 was a crushing blow to them, as they and Israel recognized immediately" (p. 112).

Chomsky frequently cites British journalist Robert Fisk, who interviewed bin Laden. Fisk has argued that the American press was trying to protect Israel from being blamed for an act that was Israel's fault: "And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September--the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and state-sponsored execution--all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for the mass savagery on September 11."5 Fisk actually believes that the 9-11 attacks against America were justified, to some extent, because America supported Israel. Chomsky himself never goes quite that far, but he does not distance himself from Fisk. When Chomsky claims the bin Laden network originated from "the practices that lead to anger, fear, and desperation throughout the region, and provide a reservoir from which radical Islamic terrorist cells can sometimes draw," he seems to be agreeing with Fisk (p. 78).

Religious zealots in Afghanistan supported by the United States defeated the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Chomsky associates bin Laden with "the forces established by the United States and its allies for their own purposes and supported as long as they served those purposes" (p. 37). At least the United States had purposes; the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the threat of nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union, and the growth of freedom and prosperity in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and perhaps even in Russia itself. Do these results excuse America for supporting fanatics? Maybe yes, maybe no. But when Chomsky writes with sympathy and understanding of bin Laden's motivations, nothing good can possibly come from his efforts. Bin Laden is a crazy fanatic. He is not linked with any worthy cause. Chomsky himself states that 9-11 was good for Israel. If the United States is to be condemned for supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, why is Chomsky falling into the same trap by describing bin Laden's terrorism as reasonable and justified?

Chomsky points out that the "U.S. is one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist cultures in the world; not the state, but the popular culture" (p. 21). He writes "not the state," but he doesn't understand what he has written. There is freedom of religion in America; bin Laden, however, is explicitly opposed to freedom of any kind. In any case, the most fundamentalist of Americans does not believe in executing women who have been raped, although such things happen in Islamic states.6 Nor do American fundamentalists believe in sentencing people to death for blasphemy, although a man was sentenced to death in Pakistan for saying that Arabs did not practice circumcision or shave their armpits before the advent of Islam.7

This is the great mystery of the left. Leftists are totally silent about the excesses of radical Islam. They are equally silent about the fact that Israel allows dissent over its policies, elected a woman to be Prime Minister decades ago, and has an annual gay pride parade. They are totally unsympathetic to the plight of Israeli citizens, who are subject to suicide bombings. They are silent about attacks on synagogues in Europe, Tunisia, and elsewhere. What's wrong with the left? What's wrong with Chomsky? Why have they allowed themselves to become the de facto apologists for Islamic terrorism?8


1. "A Vibrant Battler of Apartheid Keeps Her Vibrancy," The New York Times,
May 10, 2002.

2. Jonathan D. Spence, The Origins of Modern China, New York and London: Norton, 1990. pp. 581-83.

3. Ibid., p. 649.

4. "Citing Islamic Law, Taliban Shut Bakeries That Aided Women," The New York Times, August 17, 2000.

5. The Nation, October 1, 2001.

6. See "In Pakistan, Rape Victims are the 'Criminals,'" The New York Times, May 17, 2002.

7. See "Death to Blasphemers: Islam's Grip on Pakistan," The New York Times,
May 12, 2001.

8. See my "Marx and Islam," Partisan Review, 1988, pp. 437--44.

This review appeared in Midstream, Volume XXXXVIII, Number 6,
September/October 2002.