The Flight of the Intellectuals
By Paul Berman
Melville House, 304 pages, $26
Paul Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism was the first serious, and remains in some ways the best, intellectual history of Islamic violence and Western indifference and complicity. While the best-selling volume was critically acclaimed, Berman’s critics read it in retrospect as his case for the war in Iraq, a position for which he was ostracized by the liberal camp. How, they wondered, could he not see that the problem was Bush?
Berman did not entirely disagree on that count. As a liberal interventionist who believed that the United States had a responsibility to the subjects of Middle Eastern dictatorships it had aided, Berman defended the Iraq mission even while he rarely passed up the opportunity to ridicule, often reflexively (as Berman himself admitted in an interview with Michael Totten), a Republican president who not only subscribed to but actually implemented many of the policies that Berman promoted.
Why Berman chose to keep his distance from the neoconservatives rather than use his critical talents within the precincts of political power is partly due to the emotional attachments that are as much a part of politics as reason and discretion. Moreover, as Berman documents in his 2005 book about Joschka Fischer and Bernard Kouchner , Power and the Idealists, it is not a bad thing when liberal intellectuals get to put their talents and ideas to work. Of course, liberal intellectuals often come down on the wrong side of power, and this is the subject of his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, a vitally important cautionary tale—Berman’s J’accuse—about an intelligentsia that has effectively aligned itself with terror.
The Flight of the Intellectuals is thus perhaps best understood as the final installment, or synthesis, of a masterful three-part argument about terror, Western liberalism, and power. This latest volume expands Berman’s 2007 New Republic article on Tariq Ramadan and the wide support given the Swiss academic by Western journalists and academics, especially Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash.
Ramadan first came to fame, or notoriety, with his attack on a group of French intellectuals—the ones whose support of the Iraq war and failure to condemn sufficiently Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon showed, Ramadan argued, that they had exchanged their Enlightenment principles for communitarian belonging. In other words, they weren’t thinking as objective intellectuals, but acting like narrow-minded Jews.
Then there was Ramadan’s famous televised debate with France’s then–interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who tried to get Ramadan to denounce the Islamic practice of stoning women for adultery but could manage only to get this proclaimed Islamic modernist to call for a moratorium on the practice. In the United States, Ramadan became a cause cÈlËbre (among other things, he was profiled by Buruma in the Sunday New York Times Magazine) when the Bush administration rejected his application for a visa, and he was consequently seen as the victim of an ideological White House that was silencing an important voice in opposition to Bush policies.
In reality, Ramadan was denied a visa because his name was flagged by U.S. intelligence for donating to a Swiss-based charity with ties to Hamas. After the Obama State Department granted his visa request this spring, Ramadan’s U.S. premiere at PEN American Center proved just how unserious Ramadan’s defenders were about engaging with his ideas. Among those not invited by PEN to serve as Ramadan’s onstage interlocutors was the man who now has devoted more prose to Ramadan’s work and life than anyone else besides Ramadan himself—Paul Berman.
As Berman explains, Ramadan calls himself a Salafi reformer, which presumably is meant to distinguish his variety of Salafism from the sort motivating the bearded gangs of Islamic terrorist outfits, such as Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Otherwise the phrase Salafi reformer is something of a redundancy, since Salafism is another name for Islam’s modern reform movement. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such activists and intellectuals as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his star pupil Muhammad Abduh (who, Berman notes, are Ramadan’s favorite Muslim thinkers) recognized the threat the West represented. The infidels had overrun the lands of Islam because the faith itself had become brittle. But the umma could renovate itself by shedding hundreds of years of tired tradition that had led to superstition and fatalism and by returning to the original principles of Islam.
Afghani and Abduh, among others, counseled that Muslims should adopt Western science and technology but forswear the values that had made science possible, values that the Salafis associated with Western morals and ideas, especially secularism. Western progress, the Salafis believed, had come at the expense of Christendom’s faith in revealed religion, and the umma must not suffer the same fate.
Muslims have been living under Salafi reformism for about two hundred years now, buying and consuming Western goods—everything from weapons platforms to consumer electronics, modern medicine, and information technology—while disdaining the intellectual and moral values and principles without which none of those items could have been made.
In truth, then, Tariq Ramadan is a symptom, among many other hundreds of millions of symptoms, of a society that has played no part in the construction of modernity and does not even understand how it was built. Why does Ramadan seem to hold two separate, even opposing, beliefs at the same time? Why can’t he get his story straight? Because that is how much, if not most, of the Muslim world copes with modernity.
The excellence of Berman’s book is in its using Ramadan to elucidate this representative schizophrenia. Ramadan situates himself in an intellectual tradition that starts with the twelfth-century Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali, who, Berman writes, contributed to the larger project of rescuing the forgotten ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans that eventually led to the Renaissance, which in turn, according to Ramadan, gradually changed the outlook of the world, which was seen as a space to be deciphered, interpreted, and understood: a horizon open to reason, learning and science.
Ramadan, Berman says, has skipped over a crucial point. Science progressed when the scientists abandoned the notion of a two-tiered, symbolic-and-spiritual universe. It was not the Renaissance, but the Enlightenment, that led to the modern age. In Ramadan’s version, writes Berman, the old ideas have reemerged as crackpot ideas. They are a medieval contraption, presented as a modern gadget.
Berman is not the first to call out Ramadan for his handling of the legacy of his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna: Where does Ramadan stand on the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood’s ideas, and, more to the point, its history of violence? But I think there is no mystery here. Ramadan is cagey when it comes to Banna because he is at least vaguely aware that his family tree is the only thing that distinguishes him from thousands of journalists who write for the Arabic press and hold precisely the same ideas he does. Among the umma, his lineage makes him royalty of a sort; among the Westerners, it makes him authentic, while his facile references to Western texts and writers convince an easily impressed intellectual class that here’s a man who shops at all the right places.
With writers such as Buruma and Garton Ash as his primary targets, Berman reminds us of what liberal intellectuals once were expected to do: conduct a dispassionate and thorough review of the facts and make a case that sticks. Berman’s authorial talent and extraordinary range distinguish this book from several in the same genre. Berman is equally at home with the philosophical problems of medieval Islam and with archival research on the intimate ties between Nazi Germany’s foreign ministry and the seminal figures of Islamism. Berman has a point to make, but he knows how to narrate rather than hector. He also gives full benefit of the doubt to other interpretations, the better to show why, after full consideration, they fail.
Berman shows by patient accumulation of evidence that Tariq Ramadan is a deceiver, not a scholar. Ramadan airbrushes the portrait of his grandfather, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, to erase evidence of Banna’s deep ties to the Nazi state. Since Berman’s 2007 essay appeared, historians have brought to light a mass of archival material supporting his conclusions. Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland, for example, has uncovered thousands of pages of transcripts of wartime broadcasts from Berlin by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, and his associates. Still, academics toiling in the archives need a public intellectual of Berman’s writerly talent to turn their research into a J’accuse. Islamist Jew-hatred in its modern form was, as Berman shows, the invention of Nazi propagandists, even as Berman might be faulted for dancing a bit too delicately around the fact that Nazi ideas dovetailed perfectly with 1300 years of Muslim anti-Semitism. The practical effect of these chapters on the circle of Ramadan’s grandfather is to illuminate for Western intellectuals such as Buruma and Garton Ash the intellectual genealogy of the man they’ve chosen to champion.
Worse than their ignorance, however, are Buruma and Garton Ash’s attacks on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born feminist and outspoken critic of Islam, whom they describe as an Enlightenment fundamentalist. How did it happen that the intellectuals lost their way—that they turned on the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa and championed Ramadan instead? How, Berman asks, to account for their timidities, slanders, miscomprehensions and silences?
Berman assembles his case with such reluctance to draw easy conclusions that, when he lets the hammer fall, it falls hard. It is fear, he concludes, that drives intelligent journalists to defend the indefensible and believe the unbelievable. Islamist terrorism has achieved its goal to the extent that it has terrorized intellectuals such as Ian Buruma. They have internalized the Islamist worldview and concluded that the enemies of the West surely must have a point. The violence is such that its perpetrators must have a point; it can’t just be about destruction.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.