Tolerating the Intolerable

28th Aug 2010

The Flight of the Intellectuals
By Paul Berman; Melville House; 304 pages; $26.00

In 2003, the Swiss-born Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan debated Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, on a television program called “One Hundred Minutes to Convince.” At issue was the condition of women in immigrant Muslim communities in Europe. Sarkozy wanted to know if Ramadan shared the view of his brother, Hani (himself a scholar of Islam of some repute), who held that female adulterers should be stoned to death, as prescribed in the Koran. Ramadan replied that he favored a “moratorium” on the practice. Vehemently challenged by the zealous future French president, Ramadan elaborated, “we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties in order to have a true debate.” As Paul Berman, one of the most perceptive chroniclers and interpreters of postwar intellectual currents writes in his new tour de force, The Flight of the Intellectuals, this moment was a failed opportunity of tragic proportions. Six million people watched the debate that evening, presumably many of them Muslims adhering to a strict interpretation of their holy book. And at a moment when “the very people who might have benefited from hearing a prestigious and articulate public figure speak with absolute clarity about violence against women” were listening, one of the world’s leading, supposedly reform-minded Islamic thinkers “was not up to it.”

Ramadan’s response to a rather straightforward question was indeed noxious. But what really shocked Berman was not Ramadan’s position on the lapidarian public murder of adulteresses, but that this pronouncement was not met with widespread condemnation by the European intellectual elite. First to defend Ramadan was Olivier Roy, perhaps France’s foremost expert on Islam. He wrote that not only was Ramadan’s position correct, it was downright progressive in its recognition of the fundamental French principle of secularism. Next was Stéphanie Giry, an editor at Foreign Affairs, who argued, in typical multiculturalist fashion, that Ramadan’s failure to issue an explicit condemnation of stoning was really “an expression of his view that each society must decide for itself how to put into practice the values of Islam.”

The most influential defense of Ramadan arrived some four years after the debate, in the form of a profile published in the New York Times Magazine by the Dutch academic and journalist Ian Buruma. In it, he praised Ramadan as offering a “reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam” predicated upon “values that are as universal as those of the European enlightenment.” In the period between his televised debate and the publication of the profile, Ramadan had become a bona fide international intellectual star. In 2004, Notre Dame offered him a professorship, which he was unable to assume after the United States government revoked his visa due to financial contributions he had made to charities with links to Hamas. The following year, Ramadan was invited to participate on an advisory commission convened by Tony Blair to investigate the London Tube bombings. He has become a widely quoted figure in the European media and a ubiquitous presence on the lecture circuit. In this capacity, he portrays himself as a man straddling two worlds: the Muslim ghettos and the European mainstream, between which he is earnestly trying to establish links of communication.

Buruma posited that Ramadan’s words should be understood in the context of his need to affirm a sort of street cred with immigrant Muslims living in Europe. Comparing Ramadan to Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the Somali-born, exiled-to-America-by-way-of-Holland, ex-Muslim writer, whose “mission, too, is to spread universal values” and who also, like Ramadan, “speaks of reform” — Buruma opined that, because she had renounced her faith in Islam, “she has had more success with secular non-Muslims than with the kind of people who shop in Brick Lane,” a London street heavily populated by Muslim immigrants. Astonished at the differing justifications offered for Ramadan’s winking defense of 7th-century barbarism, Berman finds “it is almost comic” that Roy, Giry, and Buruma “disagree entirely about why Ramadan was right to take the position that he did,” but agree that, “whatever the rationale, he was right.” This confused response to Ramadan hints at what would become Berman’s major problem with the Islamic intellectual, which is that he speaks in a code, or what Sarkozy referred to as a “double discourse.” Take, for instance, Ramadan’s writings on terrorism. “Their last recourse was operations against civilians,” he writes of the Palestinians. Elsewhere, Ramadan says that “armed resistance was incumbent” upon the Arabs in dealing with early Zionist settlers, which frames terrorism as a six-decades-long obligation.

In the summer of 2007, Berman issued a lengthy attack on Ramadan in the New Republic, and Flight of the Intellectuals is a book-length exegesis of the intellectual fracas that ensued. In addition to expanding upon his study of Ramadan’s intellectual history, he involves Hirsi Ali — more specifically, the reaction to Hirsi Ali — to illustrate how liberal Western intellectuals have abandoned their self-professed principles in a spasm of guilt and self-hatred. Whereas intellectuals the world over have embraced Ramadan (with Buruma, in Berman’s words, “anointing” him as “the grand interlocutor between the liberal societies of the West and Islam”) Hirsi Ali has been largely abandoned and ridiculed. Following the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, to whose chest a death threat to Hirsi Ali was impaled, she was put in a military barracks. Forced to leave Holland due to cynically motivated accusations that she lied on her immigration application (she claimed she was seeking political asylum when in reality it was an impending forced marriage to a distant cousin that convinced her to seek refuge), she continues to live under 24-hour armed guard. “A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist,” Berman writes, yet it is Tariq Ramadan’s quest for a visa that is painted as the true test of intellectual and physical mettle (Berman, for what it’s worth, opposes banning Ramadan from entering the United States).

This is berman’s second book about Islamist terrorism and the Western response. His first, Terror and Liberalism, drew out the connections between Islamism and 20th-century totalitarian movements of the extreme right. That book brought Sayyid Qutb, a leading figure in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (executed by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966) to the attention of Western readers. The Flight of the Intellectuals, while ultimately a cri de couer against the failings of a specific set of Western thinkers, is also a work of history. In it, Berman goes back further into the depths of Islamist intellectual tradition, all the way to the founding of the Brotherhood movement in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, an Islamist intellectual who, like Qutb, was killed by the Egyptian state. Al-Banna is relevant here in that he’s Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather.

The problem with writing about Ramadan is that the man is an expert dissembler, to the point that deciphering his views is akin to translating an ancient text written in a dead language. So protean and deceptive a figure is Ramadan that we learn his beliefs primarily through tracking what he writes about other thinkers who are less subtle about their views than he is about his own. For instance, Ramadan writes that his grandfather “was in favor of a British-style parliamentary system, which was not against Islam.” Hassan al-Banna favored nothing of the sort, advocating instead for the dominance of a panel of Islamic clerics, much like the system in present day Iran. He elaborates on this political arrangement in a pamphlet entitled “Toward the Light,” as bringing about “an end to party rivalry, and a channeling of the political forces of the nation into a common front and a single phalanx.” If this sounds vaguely fascist, that’s because it is. The link between this Muslim obscurantism and the 20th-century European nationalist movements, Berman writes, was their shared “vision of a utopian return to ancient times.”

Al-Banna was not content with the Islamization of Egypt. “The fatherland of the Muslim expands to encompass the entire world,” he wrote. And what fate would befall those standing in the way of this awesome task? “Do you not hear the words of God (Blessed and Almighty is He!): ‘And fight them till sedition is no more, and the faith is God’s!” Life under such a regime would not be pretty, entailing as it would “an end to the dichotomy between the private and the professional spheres,” “the prohibition of dancing and other such pastimes,” and the “expurgation of songs,” not to mention absolute state censorship. None of this comes up anywhere in the collected works of Tariq Ramadan.

Ramadan also doesn’t bother to address his grandfather’s close, collaborative relationship with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the notorious Haj Amin al-Husseini. In al-Husseini — who led the Palestinian Arabs from 1921 until 1948— one finds the same conspiratorial anti-Semitism and hatred of the West today articulated by Osama bin Laden and the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah. Al-Husseini articulated paranoid ideas about Jewish power, announcing that international Jewry would not be content with the mere sliver of land they possessed on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. “America, which now carries the Jewish flag,” he explained, “wants to create a second Jewish homeland in the Islamic Maghreb and in North Africa, one in which the Jews driven out of Europe and a part of the Jews and Negroes from North American would find refuge.”

Most ominously, al-Husseini allied the Palestinian Arabs with Nazi Germany, and he personally ingratiated himself into the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy. Reporting to Hitler’s second-in-command Heinrich Himmler, he organized a Muslim division of the Waffen ss in the Balkans. He produced a series of Arab language radio broadcasts, which spread messages like the following: “The world will never be at peace until the Jewish race is exterminated, otherwise wars will always exist. The Jews are germs which have caused all the trouble in the world.” At the Nuremberg trials, the Nazi ss captain responsible for implementation of the Final Solution testified, “The Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser of [Adolf] Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan.” (Berman’s excavation of this history, which owes much to the work of historian Jeffrey Herf’s recent book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, illuminates how this “Nazified Islam” existed long before 9/11 and even prior to the creation of Israel, which ought confound those who argue that Islamist terrorism is an understandable response to American foreign policy.)

The grand mufti of Jerusalem’s relevance today bears on the fact that he achieved “something monstrous,” in Berman’s words: “an infernal blurring of Islam and Nazism.” The Nazis’ failure in their task of global conquest did not mean the concomitant failure of this vicious form of the Muslim faith, for, as the decades since the end of World War II have shown, the Mufti and his intellectual kin won a “victory, within the world of rhetoric and radio, of one Islam over the other.” And one of these confreres was Hassan al-Banna, who, after the war, publicly advocated for the mufti’s release from an Allied prison, issuing a declaration in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood declaring “that great welcome should be extended to [al-Husseini] wherever he goes, as a sign of appreciation for his great services for the glory of Islam and the Arabs.” Berman notes that, around the world, “the champions of the Axis and especially of Nazi policies went down to defeat in the aftermath of the Second World War — a flat-out military defeat in some places, a political defeat elsewhere.” On the religious front, the Catholic Church eventually had to reconcile its connivance with fascist forces in Italy and Spain and underwent major theological reforms in the 1960s during which it also addressed historic errors. Yet in the Arab and Muslim world, there has been no such reckoning regarding the alliance with Nazism — the reception afforded the mufti serving as a chief example of that. “The Arab zone ended up as the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue to boot, returned home in glory, instead of disgrace,” Berman notes.

Ramadan’s role in all of this? It is, like most of the troubling aspects of his work, a sin of conscious omission rather than commission. In his intellectual biography of al-Banna, he includes just two cursory sentences (and two footnotes) on the subject of his grandfather’s relationship with the mufti. And there is nothing on Nazi Germany, Hitler, Himmler, or the Holocaust. He similarly omits al-Banna’s approving references to the “German Reich” and Mussolini’s dreams of restoring the Roman Empire. One has to assume that Ramadan is fully aware of this sordid history and has simply chosen to ignore it in an intellectual swindle amounting to what Berman calls “Holocaust avoidance.” Berman ponders whether Notre Dame “would offer a professorship to a certain kind of right-wing Catholic philosopher . . . whose scholarly work treated Catholic collaboration in a spirit even remotely similar to Ramadan’s treatment of Muslim collaboration.” The obvious answer to this question is itself a demonstration of the intellectual fecklessness Berman decries.

The other Islamic thinker to whom Ramadan routinely defers is the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Berman compiles an entire page of Ramadan’s flattering attributions to Qaradawi, lest there be any doubt about his influence upon the younger scholar. And so it’s important to know what Qaradawi thinks about, say, homosexuals (they should be put to death), Hamas and Hezbollah (they are heroic resistance movements), American and British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq (they should be killed), and suicide terrorism in general, (“the only thing I hope for is that as my life approaches its end, Allah will give me an opportunity to go to the land of Jihad and resistance, even if in a wheelchair”). He has publicly declared himself “the Mufti of martyrdom operations.” The only sense in which Qaradawi might be considered a liberal is that he once issued a fatwa allowing women to do away with their hijab in the commission of such acts.

You will never come across a reference to these abhorrent views in reading Ramadan’s voluminous commentary on, and effusive references to, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Which is the point. Ramadan’s reliance on other Islamic scholars is significant because Ramadan himself has very little original to say about Islam. “Ramadan’s opinions are op-eds,” Berman writes, “Qaradawi’s are fatwas.” Ramadan is not so much a thinker as he is a gatekeeper between the West and Islam, a self-appointed negotiator who carefully rationalizes the things that no liberal society should rationalize. He devotes himself to “devising ever more clever ways, book after book, to paint the iron bars of his ideological cage in cheerful colors that appear to be modern and progressive.”

These omissions, confusions and deceptions amount to something sinister. Collectively they put the lie to Ramadan’s pretensions — echoed by a raft of gullible intellectuals and journalists who act as his collective stenographic pool — to being an agent of elucidation and harmonization. “The people with sane and mild demeanors attest to the moral authority of the people with giddy demeanors and grotesque ideas,” Berman writes of the long tradition of pleasant-sounding advocates of unpleasant beliefs. “This has been Tariq Ramadan’s role.” Ramadan claims his intellectual project to be the investigation of the “universal values” linking the tradition of Western liberalism to classical Islam. “Everything I am doing now, speaking of connections, intersections, universal values we have in common,” he told Buruma for the latter’s Times Magazine article, “this was already there in history.” Yet a true proponent of these values would do more to grapple with the troubling and obvious influence of European fascism on contemporary Islamic thought. And he certainly wouldn’t hold up individuals who sought to form an alliance between Nazi Germany and the Islamic world as paragons of Islamic Enlightenment.

As to what Ramadan actually stands for, Berman believes it “amounts to a Rousseauism, Islamized,” with the world’s Muslims, “born free” yet “everywhere in chains.” His political views are not particularly sophisticated, essentially a watered-down Chomskyan analysis of American dominance. “The world needs other poles to be created against the American hyper-power: Europe should awaken itself and all the forces of resistance throughout the world, for the citizens of the world, their liberty and justice,” he writes in typically maudlin prose. His foreign policy analysis is of the sort that simultaneously denounces the Western powers’ hesitance in preventing Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims and the nato response to 9/11 for being “retaliation against the people of Afghanistan.” As for 9/11 itself, Ramadan believes that “definitive proofs are lacking” as to Osama bin Laden’s responsibility. This is the “dark smudge of ambiguity” which, Berman notes, “runs across everything [Ramadan] writes on the topic of terror and violence.”

As for his views on Israel and Jews, Ramadan is characteristically sly. He never degenerates into the coarse Jew-hatred expressed by his grandfather or his associates. Yet it is fair to say that Ramadan is a Jew-baiter. Simple statistics bear out the perception that Europe faces a rising problem in violent anti-Semitism. Yet to Ramadan, reports of it are merely a way to bludgeon critics of Israel and rationalize the war on the Muslim world. In a self-published 2003 essay entitled “Critique of the (New) Communitarian Intellectuals,” Ramadan attacked six famous French writers whom he specified as Jewish: Pierre-André Taguieff, Alexandre Adler, André Glucksmann, Bernard Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, and Bernard Kouchner. Ramadan accused them all, in Berman’s words, “of having abandoned their universal principles of reason and fairness in favor of militating for the narrow interest of their own ethnic or religious group, the Jews.” The essay made the familiar charge that the six men had supported the Iraq War out of deference to Israeli interests, along with the perfunctory crack at former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, “a notorious Zionist.” Like their French intellectual counterparts, Ramadan alleged, the American Jewish “lobby” had put aside the principles of “right, justice and ethics” in its parochial support of Israel.

Ramadan’s essay was as sloppy as it was hackneyed. For one, Lévy was not a supporter of the Iraq War. And Taguieff happens not to be Jewish. And Kouchner is only half Jewish. Indeed, to even get into the lineage of such men seems a bit unseemly, though it’s a testament to the debasement of our political debate that, in his obsession with the alleged Jewish background of his targets, Ramadan is hardly distinguishable from a host of leftist writers in the United States and around the world who have made a career out of drawing such nefarious linkages. And yet, in spite of this baggage, Buruma defends Ramadan as, “in fact one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism.” This leads Berman to ask why — out of all the Muslims in the world, many of whom have denounced anti-Semitism in terms far more meaningful than Ramadan’s superficial censure — Buruma would single out this particular intellectual for approbation.

And it is here where Ayaan Hirsi Ali enters the picture. It was Hirsi Ali whom Buruma held up in unfavorable contrast to Ramadan in his Times Magazine piece, and whom he later characterized in his book Murder in Amsterdam as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist.” Her repulsion towards Islam has “hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood,” Buruma wrote, as if steadfast devotion to individualism, secularism, and free speech is qualitatively equivalent to a devotion to the negation of those principles. On the matter of anti-Semitism, something which plagues the Muslim world and that any serious student of Islam would have to confront, Hirsi Ali has said and written so much, so substantively about the subject, that to single out Ramadan of all people as “one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against” this intellectual cancer is nothing short of laughable.

This was only the beginning of the effort to defame Hirsi Ali. In the midst of the debate over her immigration status, Buruma took to the New York Times op-ed page to offer the lady some advice, instructing her that “it would have been better if she had taken the opportunity to speak up for the people who face the same problem that she did,” rather than warn Dutch politicians about the prevalence of honor killings and vaginal cutting in immigrant Muslim communities. A few weeks later, he trashed her memoir Infidel in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, where he caricatured her “absolutist view of a perfectly enlightened West at war with the demonic world of Islam.” Upon her leaving Holland for the United States, he dismissed her growing popularity with audiences here, writing that “the reasons for her rise are not entirely salubrious,” and that “she lent respectability to bigotry of a different kind: the native resentment of foreigners, and Muslims in particular.”

How is it that Hirsi Ali is deemed irrelevant — indeed, injurious — to this debate while Ramadan is held up as the ecumenical equivalent of the missing link? According to Berman, the pervasiveness of this skewed analysis — which purports that a man who questions the culpability of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks is a more valuable proponent of liberalism than a woman who regularly cites Voltaire, Mill, and Locke — is attributable to the fact that “the Islamist movement, in prospering, has succeeded in imposing its own categories of analysis over how everyone else tends to think.” Because, for instance, Gamal al-Banna, Hassan al-Banna’s younger brother and Tariq Ramadan’s great uncle and the subject of a New York Times profile not long ago entitled, “Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates,” does not support the death penalty for apostates, the restoration of a Caliphate, nor the stoning of women, most Islamists consider him “a freethinking maverick.” But that does not make him a liberal. And it does not make him the sort of person whom liberal, Western intellectuals should be praising as the type to lead the Muslim world out of its present day morass. These Western intellectuals hold an “unstated superstitious belief,” according to Berman, “that Islam and the Muslim world will be rescued from their sins by a single messianic figure, a Supreme Guide.” And for them that guide is Tariq Ramadan.

Buruma’s enthusiasm for Ramadan over Hirsi Ali is ironic, given that it stems from a claim that Ramadan is a genuine authority on Islam, whose authenticity derives from nothing other than that he identifies as a believing Muslim, whereas Hirsi Ali has forsaken the faith. Yet how is Hirsi Ali — a childhood victim of clitorectomy, Koranic-inspired domestic abuse, and all of the other depredations that afflict women in the Muslim world — not an active participant in these debates? Ruling her views about Islam nugatory because she is no longer Muslim reeks of political correctness; it is a debating tactic that limits rather than expands the collective understanding of a problem. And doesn’t the fact that Hirsi Ali faces constant death threats, while the only impingement on Ramadan’s freedom of movement was the temporary denial of a visa to the United States, illustrate the real problem with Islam today? Berman astutely compares Hirsi Ali’s plight to that of Soviet dissidents who were attacked in the fellow traveling Western press.

Flabbergasted, Berman keeps returning to his initial observation that these debates — the slandering of Hirsi Ali, the “calm discussion in the New York Times of why it would be wrong to condemn with any vigor the stoning of women to death” — would not have happened 10 or 15 years ago. He attributes this “flight of the intellectuals,” the rejection of reason and defense of liberal values, to two phenomena. The first is the “intimidating” rise of Islamism in all of its forms, from the state level (witness Iran’s increasingly successful quest to become the Middle East’s hegemon) to the popular (the spread of conservative Islam among immigrant Muslim communities in Europe). And the second is the rise of terrorism, which an appreciable mass of mainstream, Western opinion continues to justify as a legitimate response to the “imperialistic” foreign policies of America and its allies. It all comes back to the perennial affliction of Western guilt, the worst outgrowth of which is the tendency to “look upon the Enlightenment as merely a set of anthropological prejudices,” and not the intellectual wellspring of fundamental, timeless truths affirming individual rights. In this trenchant and learned book, Paul Berman shows us just how far the intellectual flock has flown.

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