The clash of intellectuals

I’ve just finished reading Paul Berman’s brilliant new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which came out in April. Based on a 28,000-word essay that appeared in The New Republic in 2007, it’s a devastating critique of the Swiss Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan but also of liberal intellectuals like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash who, Berman argues, have wrongly seen Ramadan as a “progressive”. In the preface, Berman says he sees Ramadan – the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – as “a representative man of our age” on whom “half a dozen major conflicts and controversies converge”. The failure of writers such as Buruma to take him on is therefore for Berman a symptom of a bigger problem. The book thus develops the arguments Berman made in Terror and Liberalism about the recent failure of western liberals to recognise Islamism as a totalitarian movement and to confront it as they confronted other totalitarian movements in the twentieth century.

I’d already read the original essay, so I was familiar with Berman’s basic argument about Ramadan and his criticisms of Buruma’s profile of him that appeared in the New York Times magazine in 2007. Berman has also added a couple of new sections that give some extra context by discussing important new research that has been done since the essay was written. One, on the fascist roots of Islamism, discusses Jeffrey Herf’s book, Nazi propaganda for the Arab world, which I’ve previously mentioned. The other, on the intellectual developments in the Arab world after World War II, discusses Meir Litvak and Esther Webman’s book, From Empathy to Denial. Arab responses to the Holocaust, which was published last year by Hurst and Columbia University Press (my publishers). Berman puts it all together powerfully and elegantly in his idiosyncratic way – as I’ve said before, I love how he narrates intellectual history almost like a fairy tale.

However, there’s one part of the book that puzzles me. As well as criticising writers like Buruma and Garton Ash for defending Ramadan, Berman also criticises them for attacking Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch critic of Islam who now works for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. In fact, Berman sees their negative portrayal of her as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” as the flipside of their positive portrayal of Ramadan. Hirsi Ali herself just published a new book, Nomad, which I reviewed for the New Statesman. In my review, I criticised the book’s argument, which I thought was somewhat simplistic. So does that make me part of what Berman calls the “campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali” and therefore of the “reactionary turn in the intellectual world” that it exemplifies?

Berman sees Hirsi Ali as a “classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual” whom we should support, not attack. There is no doubt that she is an extraordinary, courageous woman who is right to speak out about the oppression of women in the Muslim world. In any case, it goes without saying that she should be able freely to express her opinions about Islam or anything else for that matter. I also think that, like Salman Rushdie, she should be given protection from the threats against her life for as long as she needs it. But if we are going to take her seriously as an intellectual, which I think we should, surely we also have to engage with her ideas themselves? In fact, Hirsi Ali has herself asked us to do this. “I would like to be judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim”, she wrote at the end of previous book, Infidel (which, incidentally, I think is a much better book than Nomad).

As Berman rightly stresses, Hirsi Ali is a liberal who, unlike Ramadan, is unambiguous in her rejection of anti-Semitism and terrorism. But beyond that, it seems to me that Hirsi Ali’s argument about Islam – and in particular about the relationship of Islamism to Islam and the West – is utterly at odds with Berman’s. The whole thrust of Berman’s argument about Islamism, both in Terror and Liberalism and The Flight of the Intellectuals, is that it is in part a product of the influence of western extremist movements. He thus rejects Samuel P. Huntington’s idea of a “clash of civilizations”. For Berman, the fault line is not a cultural one between Islam and the West but an ideological one between totalitarianism and liberalism (which is why it is wrong to accuse him of “Islamophobia”). On the other hand, as I said in my review of Nomad (which is subtitled “A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilisations”), Hirsi Ali sees Islam and the West as binary opposites. For her, the fault line is a cultural one. Berman seems to acknowledge this in passing when he admits that “she does condemn Islam” (i.e. as opposed to Islamism). But it seems to me that he stops short of examining Hirsi Ali’s ideas as closely and brilliantly as he does Ramadan’s.


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