The recent controversy over Ayaan Hirsi Ali's speech at Yale reminded me of a review I published back in 2011 of Paul Berman's book The Flight of the Intellectuals. I'm posting the review here:
Two criticisms lie at the heart of Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals. First, Berman criticizes the work of prominent Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan. Second, he criticizes the generally favorable reception of Ramadan by the non-Western press. Throughout the book, Berman tends to move back and forth between these two issues. He clearly regards Ramadan as an attractive but troubling figure. Ramadan, according to Berman, rose to public prominence in 1993 during controversy over the performance in Geneva of a play about the Prophet Mohammad written by Voltaire. Since then, Berman maintains, Ramadan has managed to present himself as a moderate reformer to non-Muslims while retaining support among many Muslims from a range of ideological perspectives. Berman’s main objection to Ramadan is that the philosopher maintains a highly flexible program, supporting moderation or radicalism depending on the audience. Berman sees the central event in the reception of Ramadan by non-Muslim intellectuals as an article by Ian Buruma, published in the February 4, 2007, issue of The New York Times Magazine.
The British-Dutch author Buruma had recently published a book on the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical incensed by a short film Van Gogh had made about the treatment of women in Islam. Despite this background, Buruma treated Ramadan too favorably in the magazine article, in Berman’s view. The magazine did present Ramadan as a complex individual, combining a leftist perspective on issues such as globalization with social conservatism. Still, Buruma found Ramadan to be a sympathetic and moderate spokesman for Islam. Berman asks whether Ramadan is really a moderate, though. If he is not, then Berman wants to consider why Buruma and other intellectuals are so eager to see the Swiss-Egyptian thinker in this way.
The investigation into Ramadan’s supposed moderation leads Berman to Ramadan’s maternal grandfather, Ḥasan al-Bannā՚. He was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization long at odds with the Egyptian government and one of the most influential groups in the rise of Islam as a modern social movement. Ramadan wrote his doctoral dissertation and a later book on the reformism of al-Bannā՚. In these works, he portrays his grandfather as a champion of anticolonialism and as the humane, visionary leader of a social-reform movement. Ramadan also treats other leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably Sayyid Qụtb, a Muslim writer who became an intellectual inspiration for the radicals of al-Qaeda. In Ramadan’s version, Qụtb is also much more moderate than generally portrayed and has been misinterpreted by Osama bin Laden and his followers.
Berman argues that Ramadan’s presentation of al-Bannā՚ and other prominent Muslim leaders is inaccurate and plays to European and American wishes for a moderate Islam. Berman points out actions and statements made by al-Bannā՚ that were utterly inconsistent with Western ideas of liberal democracy and that many of the influences on Ramadan, including al-Bannā՚, have held political values and ideals dramatically at variance with those generally accepted in North America and Europe. In questioning the implications of Ramadan’s intellectual heritage, Berman considers the connections between al-Bannā՚ and Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini. This last individual opposed Jewish settlement in Palestine, as well as British colonial policy in the area, and allied himself with Nazi Germany. This alliance was not simply tactical, but shared an anti-Jewish ideology with the Nazis. Al-Husseini collaborated in forming troops under the Nazis and in encouraging the mass killing of Jews.
Even apart from a misleading reinterpretation of his own intellectual background, Ramadan has offered questionable views on current international events according to Berman. In his responses to allegations of the mistreatment of women and the denial of women’s rights under Islamic law he has failed to take any definite moral positions. His criticisms of the defenders of Israel have unreasonably dismissed anti-Jewish prejudices, in Berman’s view, and he has been too ready to accuse those defenders of raising anti-Judaism as a false issue. Ramadan’s views of Israel are especially troubling to the author. These views are almost uniformly negative and they tend to lay all responsibility for problems of terrorism and violence in the region at Israel’s door. Ramadan does express disapproval of Palestinian bombings and acts of violence. However, he describes these types of actions as those of an oppressed people who have no other way to strike back at their oppressor. Thus, even when Palestinians kill Israeli civilians the killings have ultimately been produced by Israeli state terror.
The flight referred to in the title of the book is one from the clear position on terrorism of intellectuals in an earlier time. When the Iranian religious authorities issued a death sentence against author Salman Rushdie, Western intellectuals largely rallied to Rushdie’s defense, according to Berman. Later, however, the support for Ramadan by Buruma and others represents desperate efforts to come to terms with radical Islam by looking for someone who can present radical ideas in a mild and moderate form. Berman contrasts the support for Ramadan with the hostility of many intellectuals for the writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is in some respects a version of Rushdie. Hirsi Ali, the daughter of a prominent Somali political opposition leader, fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to avoid being forced into an arranged marriage. There, she became a prominent feminist and an outspoken critic of Islam and of the treatment of women within Muslim cultures. Hirsi Ali began receiving death threats for her statements of her views. She worked with Dutch filmmaker Van Gogh on the controversial film Submission, which condemned what Hirsi Ali and Van Gogh saw as the oppressed status of women within Islam.
On November 2, 2004, the Moroccan-Dutch Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri murdered Van Gogh and stuck a letter to the filmmaker’s body with a knife. The letter was addressed to Hirsi Ali and threatened her and other supposed enemies of Islam. Since then, Hirsi Ali has had to live under constant guard. Her situation became worse when the Dutch government threatened to take away her citizenship on the grounds that she had given false information when she first applied for asylum. Although she retained her Dutch passport, she left the country for the United States.
Despite Buruma’s book on the Van Gogh assassination, Buruma has been consistently unsympathetic toward Hirsi Ali, even while he has portrayed Ramadan in a highly favorable light. Buruma’s fellow intellectual, the political writer Timothy Garton Ash, joined Buruma in a series of disparaging statements about the Somali-born feminist. In Berman’s view, the persecution of Hirsi Ali has been a clear case of a public figure threatened with death for exercising the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Therefore, Berman believes that all supporters of liberal democratic values should support her, whether they agree with her views on Islam and feminism or not. He argues that modern Western intellectuals have fled to a relativistic multiculturalism.
In accepting the differences of cultural and religious groups, writers such as Buruma have concluded that they must not judge other cultures in universal moral terms. Individuals such as Ramadan, who offer the appearance of moderation, give Buruma and his colleagues a way of avoiding the aspects of Islam that may contradict liberal democracy. Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, presents them with a stark choice: They can either support her and the right to free speech or they can oppose her and abandon liberal democratic values. They avoid doing this, in Berman’s opinion, by describing Hirsi Ali as too strident or too outspoken about her own ideas. In this way, the supposed enemy of Islam becomes the opponent of the intellectuals who are reluctant to criticize Islam.
The Flight of the Intellectuals is clearly a polarizing book and one that will evoke both strong agreement and intense disagreement from readers. This response may depend largely on the preexisting views of readers on relations among cultures and world religions. The book sometimes comes across as a ramble, moving from meditations on Ramadan to more general thoughts on the roots of Islamic radicalism to criticisms of the responses of Western intellectuals. It therefore often falls short of a completely coherent organization or a clear line of argument. In his objections to Ramadan, Berman may obscure the very real differences between this philosopher and more radical advocates of a militant Islam. If there are genuine distinctions between Ramadan and exponents of European and American liberal democracy, there are also distinctions between Ramadan and various other Muslim thinkers and activists. Ramadan’s ambiguity is not necessarily a result of being two-faced or of showing different sides of himself to different audiences but could be the consequence of attempts to tread carefully through sensitive and complicated issues. Readers may also wonder at times whether Berman makes too much out of the single 2007 article by Buruma and a few other published pieces, since in several places Berman also refers to other intellectuals who have been quite critical of Ramadan. Even if the reader accepts the argument that Buruma has let his own reason become tainted by excessive multiculturalism, it does not necessarily follow that this represents a more general flight from liberal democratic principles by twenty-first century writers and thinkers.
While Berman should be read critically, he makes valuable contributions. He brings the work of Ramadan, an influential thinker about the direction of Islam and about the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, to wide public attention. He raises the general question of the problematic relation between a religiously inspired view of human society and secular political values, as well as the more specific question about the consistency between modern Islam as it is practiced and liberal democratic values. Perhaps most important, he causes the reader to ask whether the eagerness to be open and tolerant toward religions and cultures may have led to acceptance of intolerance and persecution. The failure of many intellectuals to protest the persecution of Hirsi Ali and to defend her right to free speech may strike readers as one of Berman’s most significant points.