It’s an act.
This isn’t my usual fare of columnists and many of you may not read more than the first few paragraphs. I urge you to read more. It brings to light the fallacies of liberal thought and speaks to another liberal fantasy.
May 11, 2010
Not long after September 11, 2001, Paul Berman wrote a masterful little book called Terror and Liberalism that electrified me the first time I read it. Later it served as a philosophical and political anchor for me as I ventured out on long and sometimes dangerous journeys in the Middle East to uncover things for myself.
He returns now with a new book called The Flight of the Intellectuals, which is your required reading this month. It picks up, in some ways, where Terror and Liberalism left off. While we haven’t had a repeat of the apocalyptic terrorist attacks on September 11, what we do have is an entirely new class of people in the Western democracies who live in hiding and under armed guard from the same sorts of killers. Salman Rushdie was but the first, and Somalia-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one-time collaborator with the butchered Theo Van Gogh, is now but the most famous.
Something terrible has happened to the intellectual class during the interim period. The killers’ would-be victims have been excoriated in the press, and even, in some cases, blamed for their predicament. Berman won’t stand for it. As Ron Rosenbaum put it hopefully in a recent review of Berman’s new book in Slate, “Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets.”
The Flight of the Intellectuals begins and ends with Tariq Ramadan, a troubling Swiss-born Islamist who has been praised to the heavens by some of the very same intellectuals who carp nastily about Hirsi Ali. Paul and I spent a recent afternoon talking about his book and some of the questions it raises.
MJT: You’ve spent a great deal of time reading and criticizing Tariq Ramadan, and reading and criticizing others who have written about Tariq Ramadan. What is it that drew you to him in particular?
Paul Berman: I stumbled onto him by accident. I had seen his name mentioned as an admirable young reforming moderate in the world of Islamic religious thinkers, and I thought of him as a good guy based on that reputation. Then by chance I came across a book of his in an Islamic bookstore in New York. I read it, and I was struck by the contrast between what I read by him and what I had read about him.
I touched on this in passing in a book I wrote some years ago, Terror and Liberalism. And then I became ever more fascinated by the contrast. Also a little indignant about it. And the more I poked at the contrast, the more central it seemed to me to some of our debates and dilemmas regarding the Muslim religious world and how we should look at our own journalism. I became seriously interested in Ramadan himself. He is truly an interesting personality, almost someone out of Shakespeare or some great novel that hasn’t been written.
He is fated by his family heritage to stand for certain things. But he is fated by his own personal temper and the time in which he lives to stand for other things. He upholds every possible position and its opposite, which did seem to me kind of interesting.
So I plunged into a mad campaign of reading. I read works by Tariq Ramadan, by his family, and sometimes by people around him. I read works written about him. And I marveled at the contrasts and confusions.
MJT: He has his defenders, and they’re aware of you and some of the others whom you quote in your book who are critical of him, but they don’t see what the big deal is. They don’t seem to think there’s much there there. Can you give us the short version of your argument?
Paul Berman: He has different kinds of defenders. Some of those people are his own fans or followers. But he also has defenders in the Western liberal press who are not themselves Muslims and certainly have no relation to the Islamist political movement.
The Western liberals, some of them, defend Ramadan for two reasons. If you listen to Ramadan for fifteen minutes, you will learn that he says all the right things, whatever a liberal-minded person would want such a man to say.
MJT: He does.
Paul Berman: He’s against bigotry, he’s against anti-Semitism, he’s against terrorism, he’s for the rights of women, he’s in favor of democratic liberties, he’s for a tolerant and multi-religious society ruled ultimately by secular values. He’s for science, learning, and enlightenment. He’s in favor of every possible good thing. There isn’t a single objectionable point in the first fifteen minutes of his presentation.
Paul Berman: Unfortunately, the sixteenth minute arrives, and, if you are still paying attention, you learn that he wants us to revere the most vicious and reactionary of Islamist sheikhs — the people who promote violence, bigotry, totalitarianism, and terror. The sixteenth minute is not good. The liberal quality of his thinking falls apart entirely.
However, his liberal admirers in the Western press stop paying attention in the fifteenth minute, and they rush to acclaim him. They do it by mistake. That’s one reason.
But they are motivated also by something else. I think a lot of people without Muslim backgrounds have a hard time imagining how vast and complex and huge and finally ordinary the Muslim world is. There are a billion and a half Muslims, and they do have more than one opinion. But I think a lot of journalists and intellectuals whose experiences are mostly European or Western somehow end up imagining that the whole of Islam constitutes a single thing. They imagine that some single terrible error has occurred within Islam. And they imagine that the single terrible error is going to be undone and corrected by a single messianic figure. So they go about surveying the horizon looking for the grand good guy, the single person who is going to rescue us from the single terrible error.
On this basis, we have ended up with a lot of liberal-minded journalists who proclaim themselves to be the enemies of racism and bigotry, and who engage, even so, in the worst sort of stereotyping of a vast portion of mankind, in their enthusiastic quest for the great Muslim hope. These people hear the first fifteen minutes of Tariq Ramadan’s presentation, they leap from their seats and they say, “There he is. We found him.” And they rush into print to proclaim the good news.
MJT: I think you’re right. I know a number of Arab and Muslim liberals and moderates. Some of them are my friends, and I’ve interviewed countless more. I’ve caught myself looking for something like that from time to time myself, although I realize it’s more than a little ridiculous, especially after hearing you describe it that way.
It’s interesting that so many Western journalists who have written about Tariq Ramadan can’t digest the sixteenth minute.
Paul Berman: No, they can’t. Partly it’s sloppiness, but mostly it’s fear of discovering what they’re going to hear in the sixteenth minute. They don’t really want to take him seriously. He demands to be taken seriously, yet his admirers are precisely the types who, out of fear of the sixteenth minute, don’t wish to do so.
What you discover in the sixteenth minute is that Tariq Ramadan is his grandfather’s grandson. And his grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 and played a huge role in introducing all kinds of horrendous modern ideas into the world of Sunni Muslim religious thinking, which then spread also into other zones of Islam. Ramadan is someone—if you pay attention to the sixteenth minute—who wants to remain loyal, as best he can, to that family tradition. And he does remain loyal, though sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in ways that are far from obvious.