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.
A while back I said I was optimistic about the way the centre right in Germany was becoming more tolerant and less xenophobic. So when I arrived in Berlin last weekend on a visit, I was interested to see the debate that had been sparked by the appointment of Aygül Özkan as minister for social affairs in the Christian Democrat government in Lower Saxony. Özkan, a 38 year-old lawyer from Hamburg (where the Christian Democrats are in a coalition with the Greens) and the daughter of a so-called Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, was yesterday sworn in as the first minister of Turkish origin (not to mention the first Muslim minister) in a state government in Germany. It seems extraordinary that it has taken until 2010 for a member of Germany’s biggest ethnic minority to reach such a position at even a state level – her appointment is having about the same impact here as that of Rachida Dati (who was a minister in the national government) did in France. Nevertheless, however late it is, this is progress.
The case of Zeca Schall, a 45 year-old black German politician, got a lot of publicity during the election campaign in the eastern German state of Thuringia last month. It all started when the Christian Democrats featured Schall – until then a little-known local party official – on an election billboard along with Dieter Althaus, the Christian Democrat prime minister of Thuringia. The far-right NPD called Schall a “Quotenneger” (which means either “token negro” or “token nigger”; the German word Neger is ambiguous) and Schall was given police protection. Most of the media coverage outside Germany (CNN even covered it) focused on the persistence of racism in the former East Germany, but I actually found two other aspects of the story interesting as well.