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The Flight of the Intellectuals

October 19, 2011

Another book I read recently is Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals: The Controversy Over Islamism and the Press. A worthy book, mostly for the service he has done by researching it.

It is next to impossible to understand a culture without speaking its language.  Which is why approximately 99% of what gets said about the Muslim world needn’t be taken too seriously. Serious observers can look in from the outside while doing their best to understand, but without the language you know they can’t be seeing the entire picture or even most of it. Berman doesn’t speak Arabic, but to his credit he has at least gone to the effort of reading reams of translated volumes, unlike many of the Western intellectuals he gently criticises; he also knows a lot about fascism, far more than your run-of-the-mill pundit or politician. When he combines these two abilities the result is persuasive – and of course, well written and interesting.

He starts by telling about European fascism, and how the Arab world had its own contemporary versions. This, in itself, shouldn’t be surprising nor controversial. Fascism was a popular political movement between the 1920s and 1940s. Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers, was an important Arab fascist.

Berman then tells about an aspect of European influence on the Arab world which has been known for years, but largely unnoticed: the purposeful inculcation of Nazi antisemitism in the Arab world, largely through the channels of Nazi propaganda in Arabic. He leans heavily here on Jeffrey Herf’s important book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World: With a New Preface. The lasting result of the Nazi efforts were to convince large numbers of Arabs that hatred of the Jews was an important Muslim idea – and idea which is still alive and well in the early 21st century.

Having laid these foundations, Berman spends much of his book looking at Tariq Ramadan, a Geneva-based professor of philosophy who is regarded by many in the West as a builder of fine bridges between a moderate Islam and Western values – i.e. something of a hero. Ramadan is the grandson of al-Banna, and one might say that folks shouldn’t be judged by the identity of their grandparents, were it not for the fact, well demonstrated by Berman, that Ramadan holds his grandfather in high esteem and no-where tries to repudiate any of his teachings. Worse: the grandfather was assassinated in 1949, but there are still people around who regarded him as their teacher and leader, none more prominent than Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a popular Egyptian cleric who has repeatedly and publicly supported suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, holds problematic ideas about the treatment of women, and has been banned from various countries such as the USA and UK. As Berman documents carefully, Ramadan holds Qaradawi in the highest esteem, cites him reverentially throughout his own books, and only occasionally musters the courage to differ from him on minor matters. (You can read more about Qaradawi here).

As I said, for those of us who don’t know Arabic and won’t have the time to learn, Berman has done lots of helpful reading and research, and he presents lots of detailed findings. This isn’t an op-ed or a blog post with conjecture or ideological spin. Which is doubly important as the book nears its crescendo, in which Berman takes a hard look at too many of the Western intellectuals who know very little about the subject, and very much about their pet understanding of the world, and blithely tell about how positive and constructive Tariq Ramadan is, how harmless his intellectual heroes, and generally how nasty it is of anyone to insinuate that these Muslim Brotherhood fellow travelers are problematic.

Anyone who reads newspapers knows what these people think; Berman aims specifically at luminaries such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. Most peculiar of all is how such Western intellectuals disdain Muslims who are less sanguine than they, and above all Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who speaks prominently about the evil that can be found in some parts of contemporary Islam. Buruma and Garton Ash apparently seem to believe that Tariq Ramadan is a voice of Mulim moderation, while Hirsi Ali is a benighted fanatic. It’s a very odd position for left-wing humanists to be taking.

Only at one point does Berman shy away from saying explicitly what he seems to be saying. He notes that his Western intellectual adversaries are unfazed by the antisemitism and animosity towards Israel of people like Ramadan and Qaradawi. To me, it seems that this isn’t an oversight but rather the essence of the matter: too many left-wing Western intellectuals can’t see the fascist aspects of the Islamist animosity towards Jews, because they agree with it, especially when it’s directed at Israel. Why mark Ramadan as a dangerous reactionary when one shares his distaste of Israel?

That’s where we’re at,  at the moment. It’s not a good place to be.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. kzndr permalink
    October 19, 2011 3:32 am

    In light of your reading of the book, I’d be interested to hear your response to sharply critical reviews by Marc Lynch and Malise Ruthven.


    • October 19, 2011 4:01 pm

      They each deserve a closer inspection than I’m going to give, but here are a few immediate responses.

      1. They each fit exactly into the mold Berman is troubled by: Western intellectuals who see lots of nuance and detail, but not the large picture.

      2. The crucial difference not mentioned by either of them is between post-Enlightenment societies with diversity and disagreement within the confines of liberl democracy, and societies which never accepted the Enlightenment in the first place. if you’re a descendant of the Enlightenment, you’ll easily understand that one can’t be a racist some of the time, one can’t be against equality for women some of the time. You are or you aren’t. If one makes anti-women sttements some of the time, the other times are obfuscation, not nuance.

      3. Nowhere is this more true than with antisemitisim, the proverbial canary in the mine of the 20th century (and probably the 21st, too). If Ramadan and Qaradawi and all the others are antisemites – and there’s not the slightest doubt they are – they therefore can’t be partially on the way to liberal democracy. They may be nunaced and complex, surely, but they’re not liberal democrats, not even on a rainy day.

      4. The distinctions in (2-3) are what makes the moral equivalence they both express so silly. Sure, there are diversity and nuance in Western societies, too. But the ability to see past them to the fundamentals is what seperates the different types of intellectuals in Bermans telling (even if he doesn’t say it in these words).

      5. What does Israeli settlement policy have to do with any of this? Or American fundamentalists? You’d have to be a thoughtless intellectual to see that connection.

      • October 19, 2011 4:10 pm

        It occurs to me to add 2 additional points:

        1. The difference between Berman and his detractors might fit well into the Thomas Sowell template of constrained and unconstrained visions of society. Berman is of the constrained version.

        2. All this chatter about how the Islamists come in all sorts of flavors etc etc: well, it looks like we’re going to be able to watch them in action over the next decade (or more) in many parts of the Arab world. If Egypt is any indication, it will be somewhere between unpleasant and ghastly. But I expect the intellecuals will explain it all away none the less.

  2. October 19, 2011 8:34 am

    I read this book sometime earlier this year. I really appreciated it. It was a very disturbing, eye-opening read. I also read Bernard Henri Levy’s “Left in Dark Times” at around the same time. It covers much of the same ground and the 2 books are very merged in my memory. One of the books ends with the very chilling suggestion that fear plays a large role in why western liberals will not stand up to Islamism.

    I have a good friend who is completing her Ph.D. in 20th Century European History. She tells me that anti-semitism among the intellectual left is an old theme.

    At your suggestion, I picked up a used copy of Hourani this summer. I read the introduction where he talks about Ibn Khaldun. I already had “Strong Horse” out from the library, so I figured I should finish that first. I started “Strong Horse” from the beginning again and there it was! Lee Smith begins by talking about Ibn Khaldun! I liked “Strong Horse,” especially the parts where he writes about the people he meets.

    It was so interesting how they both talked about Khaldun’s theories on the importance of cohesion for a society. Something to think about.



  1. The Flight of the Intellectuals | Best Popular Books Picks

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