Paul Berman’s important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed, new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” (Melville House, 2010) is an old-fashioned polemic that takes aim at two main targets. Berman’s main subject, judging from the title and certainly the conclusion of the book, are his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who he accuses of a witches’ brew of offenses involving white liberal guilt and displaced racism, abandoning Enlightenment values and craven cowardice in the face of Islamist bullying, and who he sees as emblematic of a widespread rot in the Western liberal intelligentsia. But to get to them, he has to go through Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim academic and activist who also happens to be the grandson of the founder of the original Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna, and the son of his second in command, Said Ramadan. So actually, the bulk of the book dwells on not only Ramadan but also al-Banna and, in great detail, his ally Amin al-Husseini, the one-time “grand mufti” of Jerusalem.
The book makes a series of loosely connected cases, some much stronger than others, and hits some very important points with extreme precision, but in other cases runs wildly off the mark and occasionally goes running down a rabbit hole of pointlessness. Even within each case, there are moments when Berman seems to lose the plot completely and inexplicably. In my first response to this very significant book I want to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the two main cases one by one.
Case one: Tariq Ramadan
Berman does a very good job of explicating Ramadan’s highly problematic family background and his troubling, albeit perfectly natural, fealty to the frankly baneful legacies of his grandfather and, to a lesser extent, his father. I don’t think Berman is exaggerating at all in his no holds barred description of al-Banna’s extremism and the highly negative impact his thinking has had on contemporary Muslim political discourse. Describing him as the godfather of all practical applications of contemporary Islamism, especially in the Arab world, is exactly right. I also don’t think he’s exaggerating how problematic Ramadan’s championing and soft-pedaling of his grandfather’s ideas and legacy really is. But, he concedes, the son is not the father or the grandfather, and ultimately needs to be considered on his own terms. And, Berman is to be congratulated for, it is sad to say unusually, actually reading his Arab subjects’ writings carefully, taking them seriously and taking them at their word. In this sense, Berman has contributed a significant degree of clarity to several important debates, and one of the most important effects his book could have over the long run is to prompt more Western intellectuals who write about Arab and Muslim issues to read more thoroughly what people from the Middle East, both reactionary and liberal, are saying, and subjecting it to serious and critical analysis rather than assuming they already know.
I think Berman does a largely admirable and sometimes excellent job of critiquing Ramadan’s ambiguities, lacunae, and evasions. These actually do define his public persona, and while we didn’t really need Berman to call attention to them, he makes the case better than it’s been made before. I think any critically minded person has to have already been aware of the slippery nature of Ramadan’s discourse, the difficulty of pinning him down to any clear position. Obviously, and Berman is the umpteenth person to make this observation, the combination of his questionable heritage and the slippery, ambiguous quality of his thinking invites suspicions that he harbors more extreme views that he professes, and this probably informed the Bush administration’s decision to deny him entry into the United States. I strongly agree with Berman that this was a mistake, both because it’s not justified and there is no reason to cower before his rather flimsy and frequently vapid ideas, and also because it made him a cause célèbre more than he already was and certainly more than he deserves. On the other hand, I also agree with Berman that Ramadan basically seems to mean what he says, insofar as it can be clearly identified, and that his agenda to create what amounts to a right-wing Muslim counterculture in Western societies is basically what it appears to be. I, too, don’t think that, for all of his extraordinary evasions, he’s hiding his big-picture intentions and really I think all he has to offer in the end thus far seems to be only his own personality and persona, not a real agenda that can have ultimately either a major positive or negative impact. In my view, as a public intellectual he amounts to an empty shell that may appeal to some and repel others, both pointlessly.
Probably the most telling line in Berman’s insightful portrait of Ramadan is his observation, which I also picked up on many years ago, that “he wants to issue reassurances in every direction.” As with many Ramadan-skeptics, I was initially hopeful that he might prove a useful figure, and this gesture of continuously offering “reassurances in every direction” was part of what made me think he could be a positive influence. The hope raised by an initial reading of “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” (Oxford, 2004) was that this effort to combine innovation with reassurance was largely designed to assuage the fears of conservatives, traditionalists and even radicals in the Muslim community while engaging in some serious, substantive reform and modernization of thinking in Western, and possibly even international, Muslim religious circles.
Let me describe in a simple but important example how Ramadan tries to deploy this process of universal reassurances, and what I initially hoped was an elaborate dance of steps forward and backward in order to, eventually, leave one in an advanced position. First, Ramadan observes that all texts require interpretation (two steps forward), but that “if there is an explicit Qur’anic verse whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation, no ijtihad [independent interpretation] is possible” (two steps back and, of course, there is no such thing as a text whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation), and then finally that “the great majority of verses in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature” (one step forward, but only if the subsequent interpretations are genuinely reflective of universal human values and the enlightened interests of Western and other Muslims, and not reactionary).
I think this is a perfect microcosmic example of Berman’s observation that Ramadan is always issuing reassurances in every direction, even in his methodology. Modern minds are reassured that even religious texts require interpretation, traditionalists reassured that explicit texts do not allow for interpretation, and everybody reassured that there are, in fact, very few genuinely explicit texts, and that lots of interpretation will be necessary. The problem is that having described the process, Ramadan has almost always failed to play a positive role in shaping the interpretation in the right direction, which renders his contribution, at this point anyway, largely pointless if not negative. My hope, frankly, on first encountering his work was that what he was engaging in was a very canny and cagey effort to make modernization, reform and especially healthy assimilation into Western societies and cultures palatable to Muslim traditionalists and conservatives. Unfortunately, these processes can just as easily work in other, and indeed opposite, ways, and I haven’t seen any reason to conclude that this is how Ramadan is actually deploying this edifice of ambiguity. There are just as many reasons for thinking the contrary, unfortunately, since when all is said and done Ramadan is a self-proclaimed Salafist on at least the center-right of the Muslim political spectrum if not, indeed, the far right. In other words, whenever he finally does commit, he does so in a Salafist manner, which may be a kind of “reform” and revivalism, but it’s certainly not liberal, humanist or progressive in any conceivable senses of the terms. Unfortunately, both Salafist and liberal Muslim reformers would both have to rely on this kind of textual and doctrinal flexibility in order to overturn traditionally dominant interpretations that are, respectively, too permissive or too restrictive for their liking. So promising processes can just as easily turn out to be be alarming ones.
Another reason this tendency to issue reassurances in all directions prompted so much hopefulness from so many people on first glance at Ramadan is that, looking beyond the community itself, conciliation and mediation is ultimately extremely important in with navigating a minefield like the emergence of large, fixed Muslim populations in Western societies that have to assimilate, retain their own identity and create a new understanding of Islam in a new social context all at the same time. But ultimately Ramadan’s tendency to try to reassure everyone all the time that their bottom-line concerns are being addressed renders him incapable of taking strong, principled positions against what are perceived as traditions rooted in theology, except from a strongly Salafist perspective. Berman doesn’t seem to fully understand Ramadan’s argument justifying his call for a moratorium but not, for now, a ban on hudud practices such as stoning for adultery, but I do: his argument is that for a ban to be effective it has to in fact be a religious consensus among scholars based on fiqh and sharia and anything less will have little or no impact. The problem is, he’s wrong. Everything is connected to everything else, and even the supposedly and apparently closed circle of fiqh scholarship is in fact not only influenced but ultimately determined by its social context, just as the judicial branch of the American government, including the Supreme Court, is not above politics, but more typically reflects a refracted and attenuated version of the political process and evolving social consensus. Ramadan understands the virtue of a strong stance when there is no doctrinal barrier: he is dead set against any form of female genital mutilation, because there is no basis for it in any legitimate Islamic doctrine. What he’s missing, or possibly avoiding, is that perceptions of doctrine are strongly influenced by a social context of which he has become an important part.
In other words, it’s not true that a strong civil society stance against traditional understandings of hudud would have little or no impact on religious discourse. To the contrary they would have a major impact, and, if widespread, such worldly critiques could have a decisive impact, even on what is, mercifully, largely a theoretical religious conversation because such practices are in fact quite rare in the Islamic world. It seems to me this is a crucial argument that Berman missed due to his non-instrumental moral outrage on the subject, but which ultimately challenges Ramadan’s position much more effectively than a simple moralizing bottom line adopted by Berman, Sarkozy and others (although I’m very sympathetic to that as well). Berman thinks Ramadan is basically playing to the Muslim immigrant street, trying to preserve his credibility with ordinary, working-class European Muslim immigrants. That’s a complete misreading of what is driving him to take this stance, since it’s not about what these immigrants think (there’s no real reason to think they’re particularly enthusiastic about hudud, which isn’t practiced in most of their countries and societies anyway), but rather about how the ulemma and fiqh scholars will be dealing with this question which will have a long-term impact on religious doctrine, not public opinion or even public policy. My point is that Ramadan would be better off recognizing the power of public opinion, and I think Berman is totally wrong to think that this is what is driving him. He is either appealing to traditional and very conservative doctrinal positions or he is protecting them, and thanks to his carefully crafted ambiguity it’s impossible to know for certain which it is. But either way his intervention seems trapped in existing discourses, and is therefore less than helpful.
Berman has a good explanation for why this is the case. The very best part of the entire book is Berman’s dissection of Ramadan’s updating of medieval thought derived mainly from al-Ghazali, and on this I think he really has his number. Casting human reality as operating simultaneously between the twin and binary registers of the sacred and the profane does indeed seem to be the way Ramadan approaches philosophy and the whole question of knowledge, and Berman is right in casting this as a huge throwback to a pre-scientific, pre-modern mentality. The most powerful of his digs at Ramadan is Berman’s observation that, “In Ramadan’s version, the old ideas have reemerged as crackpot ideas. They are a medieval contraption, presented as a modern gadget.” In philosophical terms, the idea that true knowledge, even about worldly matters, is essentially textual and spiritual, and is best understood in gradations of mystical insight, has indeed been overturned in the West and elsewhere by an understanding that testable ideas subject to scientific inquiry and method, while they cannot answer the great existential questions of mankind, nonetheless are, in fact, a far superior mode of knowing than any form of mystical or symbolic divination. And, really, it’s impossible to regard a public intellectual who champions esoterica and mysticism in social, public and political policy conversations, when such an intervention is clearly understood for what it is, as anything other than an absurdity.
I do think that Berman makes the case quite powerfully, as even a casual reader of Ramadan’s writings can at least begin to glimpse, that he does, in fact, offer what amounts to a throwback to “the notion of viewing the world as a text,” as opposed to a testable, measurable reality that can be comprehended as knowable fact rather than interpreted symbol. Ramadan’s work cuts in both directions, as I described above, with two steps forward and two steps back in every direction, but, as I also already noted, in the end he is a committed Salafist. I’m afraid Berman is absolutely right when he concludes that Ramadan “is imprisoned in a cage made of his own doctrine about his grandfather and his grandfather’s ideology” and that he “wants to make his cage look like anything but a cage,” but “cannot figure out how to unlock the cage.” And, sadly, Ramadan has yet to provide us with any evidence to refute Berman’s damning conclusion that, “He cannot think for himself. He does not believe in thinking for himself.”
Berman’s efforts to paint Ramadan as an anti-Semite and an apologist for terrorism are somewhat weaker, and although there is no fire exactly, there certainly is some smoke. On anti-Semitism, the direct case against Ramadan is based on a fairly shoddy article he wrote about French supporters of Israel that casually and in some cases wrongly leveled the accusation of ethnic preference and tribalism. It was a bad article, and a bad argument, but hardly prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. If it is, the number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigots in the United States is infinitely greater than anything I’ve ever imagined or claimed, and the standard for such an accusation really ought to be a lot higher than that. Berman has a solid case to make regarding the views of people Ramadan plainly respects and defers to in what is undoubtedly a troubling fashion, most notably his grandfather and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, but this is a case based on what amounts to guilt by association. It’s not meaningless by any means, and certainly anyone, even if it is his grandson, who holds al-Banna, not to mention Qaradawi, in political and intellectual awe and deference needs to be regarded with a good deal of healthy skepticism and maybe even suspicion. But it doesn’t go directly to his own beliefs.
Berman overstates the case when he cites Ramadan’s judgment that for Palestinians “armed resistance was incumbent” and concludes that this amounts to a justification for terrorism, as if the two were necessarily synonymous. They might, but need not, be. And it’s a bit of a stretch, although not a wild one, to observe that Ramadan “understands terrorism so tenderly that he ends up justifying it” and that he “justifies [terrorism] so thoroughly that he ends up defending it.” Defending terrorism is a charge that ought to be reserved for a case that can be made a little less indirectly, a little less based on reading between the lines, a little bit less subjectively. Berman, and for that matter I, may have our suspicions about where exactly Ramadan would draw the moral line regarding political violence, but if he’s ever actually and explicitly endorsed any form of terrorism, I’m not aware of it, and unless and until he does, I don’t think it’s fair to describe Ramadan as having done so or impute it to him by implication. It would obviously be helpful if we had a clearer moral or political statement from Ramadan on this regard, but ambiguity is not the same as endorsement. However, Berman asks, “why, if Ramadan were sincere in his condemnations of terrorist violence, he doesn’t make his own positions more consistent,” and it’s really a damn good question, that only he can answer.
The additional problem is that Berman isn’t a very good judge of the relationship between terrorism and the Palestinian national movement, which is the only context in which he thinks Ramadan really does support or defend, or at least “understand tenderly,” terrorism. I’ve complained a lot in the past, and I will continue to complain, about people, especially Muslim clerics and others, who will condemn terrorism but make an exception for the Palestinians on the grounds that they supposedly don’t have any other options in fighting occupation. But I don’t really see Ramadan making that argument, or at least not explicitly enough to warrant Berman’s charges. More importantly, Berman seems to think, quite wrongly, that from its outset the Palestinian national movement was largely guided by Islamism and the legacy of al-Banna’s ideas. Particularly a series of passages on page 185 would lead any unversed reader to conclude that the Palestinian movement has been an Islamist one for most of its history. On the contrary, after the reformation in the late 1960s of Palestinian national institutions following the Nakba of 1948, most Palestinian discourse, political parties and collective thinking was anything but Islamist. It was revolutionary, Third Worldist, socialist, nationalist and even chauvinist, but filled with Marxist rhetoric and leftist ideas. Most Palestinian nationalists from the 60s until the late 1980s at the very earliest, would have regarded Islamists as retrograde, reactionary, ridiculous and probably agents of the West; in short, as contemptible and absurd figures. Obviously, political culture has changed not only among the Palestinians, but in the entire Muslim world, and as the mantle of nationalism in the eyes of many has passed from left-nationalists to Islamists, a disturbing amount of political discourse has reversed the order of things with Islamists now all too often seen as the nationalist vanguard and secularist nationalists consigned to the retrograde, reactionary and probably agents of the West category. Even so, the Palestinian movement is not yet dominated by the Islamist tendency, although if all efforts to negotiate an end to the occupation fail, it eventually may well be.
Berman complains that Palestinian “leaders might have noticed after several decades that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were advancing the struggle not one whit, and counterproductive tactics ought to be jettisoned in favor of actions better calculated to succeed at building a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, if need be — as could probably have been achieved at various moments over the years, again in 1947.” Apparently he’s never heard of Pres. Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 with a 63% majority running on a strictly anti-violence platform, or Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who is busy building the basic institutional, infrastructural, economic and administrative framework of the Palestinian state in spite of the occupation and significant obstacles and objections erected by Israel, as well as some forms of cooperation. In other words, Berman’s indictment centers on an assertion that the Palestinians supposedly haven’t realized something they quite plainly and palpably have. Nonetheless, Berman argues that “the Palestinian struggle… has not, in fact,… surrendered” the idea that “violence is obligatory,” a circumstance he blames on “the alliance of Amin al-Husseini and Hassan al-Banna.”
In other words, Berman writes as if the Palestinian national movement has historically and largely been defined by Hamas and other Islamist parties, when in fact they were virtually nonexistent until the late 80s, and still, in spite of everything, do not dominate the mainstream of the national movement. He doesn’t seem to be aware of, or at least doesn’t acknowledge, the paradigm shift that has taken place in the secular nationalist, which is to say mainstream, Palestinian leadership at the very least since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004 regarding violence and how to achieve statehood and independence. So, if it’s possible to say that Ramadan has an irrational and emotional degree of sympathy with the Palestinian movement that allows him to distort and oversimplify the issues to the point that he seems to be denying facts, tenderly understanding terrorism, or defending the indefensible, Berman certainly demonstrates a mirror-image antipathy to it that has rendered him blind to or incapable of acknowledging both the historical and the contemporary political and intellectual trends defining the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement. He is left instead suggesting that it was Islamist during most of its history, when it has never been defined by Islamism (at least not yet), and also suggesting that it has been and remains generally informed by a sense of “obligatory violence,” when that is most decidedly not the case at present and arguably never has been.
Were one to subject Berman to the same standards and processes he applies to Ramadan, one could immediately pivot back to the opening of his book and his dedication of it to the publisher of The New Republic, Marty Peretz (along with its literary editor Leon Weiseltier). One could then suggest that it is possible to read between the lines based on Berman’s “reverence” for Peretz and implicit endorsement of his attitudes, and explain his own distortions of the Palestinian national movement and political history as possibly the symptom of an embrace of Peretz’s shameless anti-Palestinian racism and support for all manner of Israeli atrocities. But I’ll spare him that, just as I will spare the readers needlessly making the case against Marty Peretz, which makes itself in a 15 minute scroll through his blog at The New Republic website. I’m not trying to compare Marty Peretz to Hassan al-Banna or even Yusuf Qaradawi (though how far he really is, in moral terms, from the attitudes of the latter, I’m not entirely sure), but simply to point out that if affiliation and association inform and condition our reception of Ramadan, and I think that’s entirely fair, Berman’s unfortunate dedication ironically renders him also quite vulnerable on this score, especially when it comes to his attitudes towards the Palestinian national movement that he has egregiously misunderstood and/or mischaracterized.
There are some other serious weaknesses with Berman’s largely very solid case against Ramadan, especially his effort to implicitly blame the murder of Theo van Gogh on Ramadan’s writings. It’s slightly elliptical, but the accusation is pretty clearly there at the top of page 204, and it’s exaggerated to say the least. Another instance in which Berman aims and misses badly is in citing Ramadan’s contributions to what at the time was a lawful and seemingly respectable charity later found to be associated with Hamas-related organizations in the occupied territories. He acknowledges that neither were such contributions illegal anywhere nor details about the organization’s associations publicly known at the time he made them. Indeed, many thousands of people donated in good faith over the years to Muslim and Palestinian-oriented charities that, in the post-9/11 aftermath, were discovered or alleged to have operational and political associations with Hamas-related charities and have been shut down. It’s one thing to hold the operators of those charities, who, assuming the allegations are correct in any specific case, knew exactly what they were doing, to account, and quite another to hold contributions to what at the time seemed to be respectable humanitarian organizations against people who simply wrote the checks, for all we can tell, in good faith.
Two thirds of the way through his argument, Berman, having acknowledged all of this either explicitly or implicitly, very unfairly refers to Ramadan’s “contributions to Hamas and the other little incongruities in his stand on violence and terrorism.” Gestures such as trying to implicate Ramadan in the van Gogh murder or accusing him of contributing funds to Hamas because he gave money to charities that seemed respectable to most observers at the time are deeply unfortunate, because, in grasping too far and appearing too eager to indict without proper evidence, they tarnish Berman’s otherwise powerful critique. Most of it stands up extremely well, but these moments in which he plainly goes too far for any informed and skeptical reader seriously weaken his argument by making it look like he’s not evaluating the evidence on a case-by-case basis, but is rushing to judgments, both sound and wild, simultaneously.
Case two: Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash
The second case that Berman is making, and judging from the title it’s his main subject of attack although you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from the bulk of the text itself, is aimed at his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, and by implication an entire class of others. It mainly centers around a critique of their treatment of former Dutch-Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the one hand and Tariq Ramadan on the other hand. His point is that here are two examples, presumably among many, of liberal Western intellectuals who fail to defend the values of the West and the Enlightenment by implicitly or explicitly endorsing the likes of Ramadan who Berman persuasively argues does not uphold these traditions, and implicitly or explicitly critiquing Hirsi Ali, who Berman argues does uphold them.
He makes two, I think essentially contradictory, arguments explaining why such Western liberal intellectuals, who he says he used to think were “the best of the best,” would perform such a craven betrayal. The first is that this is internalized Western guilt and white racism masquerading as compassion for the non-Western world and therefore fetishizing the “authenticity” they imagine Ramadan possesses. I find this a perfectly plausible argument. It can be debated as to whether this is really what has been going on in this case, but it’s obviously a phenomenon that does exist and has many analogues. His second explanation, however, is infinitely weaker, and it’s slipped in the right at the end of the book in order to explain this supposed “flight of the intellectuals.”
Berman argues that since the Rushdie affair, the threat of potential and in some cases real violence against strong critics of Islam and Islamists has become so widespread that “Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class.” The second argument is that these Western intellectuals are driven by “fear — mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology.” I find this almost entirely unconvincing. That such fear legitimately exists in many quarters especially in the Middle East but also Europe, there is no doubt. But why it would infect the work of people like Buruma and Garton Ash, who could just as easily start writing about something else, rather than seriously trying to engage with Ramadan and Hirsi Ali and coming to strikingly different conclusions about both of them than Berman does, does not follow in the least. Mortal fear would seem to dictate writing about another subject, something both of these liberal Western intellectuals are more than capable of doing, and neither has spent most of their carrier on this subject. So I find the idea that Western liberals are simply fleeing from a confrontation with soft Salafists like Ramadan because of “mortal fear” simply silly.
No doubt mortal fear is a rational affect for some people who want to challenge Islamists in many Middle Eastern societies, and also some in Europe who wish to approach the question using, for instance, certain forms of satire that are particularly goading to extremists. But I’m not aware of any reason for this kind of “mortal fear” in the United States, which has so far been free of this kind of repressive violence by Muslim extremists designed to inhibit speech (the insane handful of, apparently largely Jewish, self-proclaimed converts at Revolutionmuslim.com do not count because their threats are plainly fatuous). More to the point, Berman posits his own work as the antithesis of such fear and intimidation, and can anyone possibly imagine him coming under any kind of threat for this book? I certainly can’t. So it would have been perfectly possible for Buruma and Garton Ash to reach the same conclusions about Ramadan that Berman did, and indeed publish them in the same way Berman has, without any rational “mortal fear” or any other fear for that matter. Given the way Theo van Gogh approached his anti-Islam agitation and the brutal murder to which he was so foully subjected, moral fear in the present Western European climate under certain circumstances is, unfortunately, reasonable, and no one can be begrudge Hirsi Ali her bodyguards given the threats to her life, even though they were made on another continent and she’s now living in a society which has yet to be infected with this kind of brutality. But I don’t think these experiences are particularly relevant to the work and experiences of people like Buruma and Garton Ash, or Berman for that matter. The fear explanation for the alleged, and I think real, codling of Ramadan by these two writers just doesn’t hold up.
The other problem with the second case Berman is making is that it is predicated on his championing of Hirsi Ali, which I think is very difficult to justify. He makes the case against Ramadan quite well, and his critique of Buruma’s and Garton Ash’s illusions about him, or at least unwarranted positivity, is also quite powerful. Where it all starts to break down is in his contrast of their attenuated enthusiasm for Ramadan with their grave skepticism about Hirsi Ali, and Berman’s own profound enthusiasm for her views. He sees their negative evaluation of Hirsi Ali as symptomatic of a kind of Western liberal self-hatred, because he sees her as a champion of humanist and Western values, and, more importantly, of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values. That’s certainly how she presents herself. But I think Berman is profoundly blind to very serious problems with her positions and their implications, and why, therefore, any skeptical, intelligent person should be at least ambivalent about her contribution. Berman castigates Buruma for characterizing her as “a fanatic with silly and cartoonish views” because Buruma observed that what he called her “absolutist view of a perfectly enlightened West at war with the demonic world of Islam [might not] offer the best perspective.” Berman is appalled Buruma would suggest that “she lent respectability to bigotry of a different kind: the native resentment of foreigners, and Muslims in particular.” “What terrible thing has Hirsi Ali done,” Berman asks indignantly, “sufficient to merit this series of sneers in one magazine after another?” as if there were no good answer. Unfortunately for him, there is.
Hirsi Ali is, unfortunately, an anti-Muslim bigot, and this is hardly the hallmark of a “persecuted dissident intellectual” champing Enlightenment values. She insists that the worst actions of any Muslims (i.e., the 9/11 terrorist attacks) represent ?true Islam,” and that all believing Muslims must support the actions of the most brutal extremists. Hirsi Ali is a proponent of political secularism, as am I, but inexplicably she seems to feel the need to define Islam, but interestingly not any other religion, only in the terms of its most extreme adherents. In her otherwise unremarkable and inoffensive book Infidel (Free Press, 2007), which is essentially a rather boring memoir almost entirely free of analysis and uncluttered with reflection, the most revealing passage is her description of her reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Her Dutch colleagues were insisting, rightly, that even if this was the work of Muslim extremists, it was not a reflection on Islam as a faith or Muslims in general. Hirsi Ali was having none of it, as she thought to herself, ?But it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam.? Then, she reports, she did some “research” to check this preexisting conclusion (hardly a skeptical or properly secular, let alone intellectually respectable attitude) and not surprisingly found her assumption was vindicated by this alleged research (though we never learn what that might have consisted of). She concluded that, ?Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam? must have at least approved of [the 9/11 attacks].? ?True Islam,? she adds, is, by definition and in apparent contrast to all other religions, ?totalitarianism? and ?leads to cruelty.?
It?s a perfect example of one of the most damaging and pernicious genres in the present Islamophobic playbook, and has obvious and devastating implications for Muslim communities in Western societies. Logically, it can only lead to fear, hatred and discrimination against Western Muslims and Western Muslim communities. Any other reaction to these assertions, if accepted at all, would be completely irrational, since the most brutal, violent behavior by any Muslims anywhere, and the most extreme forms of doctrine and practice, are ?true Islam.? Anything else is false, diluted, or inauthentic. Obviously this stance leaves religious traditionalists, moderates, reformers, modernizers, liberals, mystics and anyone else not in the Salafist-Jihadist camp disempowered, dismissed and fresh out of luck. Hirsi Ali and many other anti-Muslim ideologues say that all of these traditional, moderate or liberal Muslims are simply wrong and their ideas invalid, and the worst extremists are right in their interpretation of the faith. More benign interpretations are foreclosed, and moderation and reform invalidated. Why, one wishes to ask, must these people insist on so passionately championing the views of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri? In terms of Islamic discourse, that is precisely what she is doing, whether she, or for that matter Berman, understand it or not.
Following her move to the United States after a scandal involving alleged fabrications she used to obtain asylum in the Netherlands and her subsequent resignation from the Dutch parliament (none of which Berman acknowledges), Hirsi Ali became even more strident about presenting Islam as such, in all its forms and as a faith, as an enemy of the West that need to be ?crushed.? In a November, 2007 interview with Reason magazine, she said that the faith could be socially and politically useful, ?Only if Islam is defeated.? Reason asked her, ?Don?t you mean defeating radical Islam?? She replied, ?No. Islam, period.? She explained, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there?s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they?re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, ‘This is a warning. We won?t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” She concludes, ?There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don?t all follow the rules of Islam, but there?s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There?s nothing moderate about it.? And, just to put the cherry on top of an interview that conclusively demonstrates that Hirsi Ali understands nothing at all about civil liberties, tolerance and the other values she purports to defend, she proclaims, echoing so many other Islamophobes, ?Islam is a political movement.?
Based on her books, her analysis, such as it is, seems entirely solipsistic and based on her own experiences in Somalia, Saudi Arabia or Holland. From these experiences she extrapolates “the truth” about Islam generally and the Muslims globally, in spite of the fact that she is thereby talking about approximately 1.2 billion people, 1/5 of humanity, not to mention countless schools of thought, philosophical traditions and denominations, based on a couple of decades of personal experiences by a single individual in three or four countries. Even if we allow that this can produce many interesting insights, the narcissism of it is pretty extraordinary. And it’s simply a fact that she doesn’t bring to bear a strong body of scholarship to back up these experiences, although she certainly has very strong opinions, many if not most of which I share (which is entirely beside the point), but some of which are not only bizarre but extremely dangerous. Berman seems to feel that these experiences entitle her to say things like “Islam must be crushed”, but in fact how can they? Isn’t this the first refuge of every peddler of intolerance? “Let me tell you about my experiences with fill in the blanks (Blacks, Jews, Arabs, Japanese, Americans, Christians, Muslims, Hutus, Tutsi, etc.).” As an argument, it’s particularly debased and unconvincing. Moreover, Berman doesn’t seem to reflect on the implications of Hirsi Ali’s comments, their probable effect, should they become influential, upon millions of Muslim immigrants to the West and their ability to construct healthy, well functioning lives in their new societies.
I can only imagine what Berman’s reaction would be to any Palestinian, or any Israeli Jew for that matter, who would say, to any audience, that because of their experiences in Israel that “we are at war with Judaism” or “we must crush Judaism.” Indeed, he spends much of his book rightly upbraiding Palestinians, Arabs and other Muslims who said exactly that. But why he is attracted to someone who says the same thing about Islam, albeit in the name of “liberal values,” or a misconstrued version of the Enlightenment, he never really explains. He soft-peddles Ali’s aggressive, intransigent and intolerant attitude towards Islam, and implicitly the Muslims (she’s never made any serious effort to draw the distinction and anyway one can’t, in practice, be drawn because Islam doesn’t exist except as a set of social texts embodied by the Muslims in all their diversity), in the same way that he accuses, with plausible justification, Buruma and Garton Ash of doing with Ramadan. Berman asks, “what if it were true [that Hirsi Ali has been] hurling a few high-spirited insults at her old religion?” suggesting such comments are reasonable, understandable or harmless. The comparison he makes between her and Salman Rushdie, who has never made any comments remotely resembling these, is utterly spurious. Hirsi Ali isn’t a radical internal, or external for that matter, critic pushing for severe reforms with powerful and learned critiques in order to save Islam or the Muslims from themselves. Instead, she’s someone who simply condemns both, tout court, hurls down totalizing, essentializing, reductive and collective excoriations, and calls for them to be violently “crushed” by others. In other words, she’s less Israel Shahak and more Israel Shamir.
Forgive me, but this desire to “crush,” whatever that might really mean in practice, the entirety of the world’s second-largest religion, which is also to be defined only by the most extreme fringe of its followers, does not reflect any Enlightenment values I am aware of, or at least not any that are worth preserving. Of course it’s true that, along with its more positive aspects, the Enlightenment gave rise to modern colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism, but I don’t think this is what anybody has in mind when we talk about preserving and defending the legacy of the Enlightenment. So in my view, it’s no surprise at all that Buruma and Garton Ash, along with a very great number of other people, myself included, have the gravest doubts about the value of Hirsi Ali’s contribution or the idea that she can be seen as a standardbearer for humanist or Enlightenment values or as a worthy proponent of liberalism and/or secularism. Indeed, this attitude of wanting to “crush” Islam generally (but not other faiths) and seeing it defined only by its most extreme adherents is distressingly reminiscent of comparable intolerant, paranoid and chauvinistic attitudes held by al-Banna, al-Husseini and Qaradawi, the disturbing and deeply bad influences on Ramadan that both Berman and I find extremely troubling.
So while Berman has seen through Ramadan with crystal clarity in most ways, and especially on the most important issues, he reveals a debilitating blindness when it comes to other crucial subjects, such as the nature and evolution of the Palestinian national movement, which he misrecognizes as an Islamist one even though it has never yet been dominated by Islamist thought and is currently undergoing a paradigm shift towards nonviolence, and, perhaps even more strongly, the substance of Hirsi Ali’s interventions which he indefensibly misreads as championing universal, humanist Enlightenment values. Berman is almost entirely right on Ramadan, and if he isn’t Ramadan has every opportunity and the bulliest pulpits around to prove both him and me foolish and wrong. But I’m not holding my breath. And, of course, Berman is right to take Buruma and Garton Ash to task for not seeing through these ambiguities and evasions. Most importantly, he may well have a good point about a certain type of Western liberal intellectual who fails to defend humanist and Enlightenment values in the face of presumed non-Western “authenticity.” However, when Berman takes up Hirsi Ali as his example of how to get it right, just like his antagonists he’s lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. He may have gotten the diagnosis right, but Berman’s prescription is no improvement on the disease.
Readers of the Ibishblog who have stuck with me until the bitter end of this posting have, I hope, not been unduly put off by the length of this response to Berman’s new book, and I hope it proved justified by its content. However, I will have more to say (I know, I know) about Berman’s discussion, and the broader issue, of Amin al-Husseini, the Arabs and the Muslims, and the Holocaust in the very near future. It’s a whole other argument. Stay tuned for that.