May 20, 2010 | Jerusalem Post

The Flight of the Intellectuals

Paul Berman is someone who takes ideas – especially pernicious and toxic ones – very seriously. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Berman wrote a penetrating work, Terror and Liberalism, which delved into the dark ideologies of the Arab world. His latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, further explores these ideas, their history and some of their proponents. He also unsparingly criticizes Western liberals for their inability to properly stand up to them.

Berman is a writer in residence at New York University who excels at intellectual history, and is a dogged critic of totalitarian and fascist ideologies of both the Left and the Right. He has a knack for precise and thorough research, with a sharp eye for detail. And despite his profound knowledge, Berman is a down-to-earth, affable guy, which makes talking to him an exceptional treat.

The main subject of his new book is Tariq Ramadan, the self-described “Salafi reformist” grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the intellectuals and journalists who have reacted to his ideas. Admirers view Ramadan as the embodiment of a reformed Islam; a bridge between Islam and modernity whose approach offers an “alternative to violence.” Critics see in him a deceptive obscurantist who engages in double discourse on issues such as violence, women's rights and so on.

In his book, Berman diligently chronicles this debate, and identifies the central problem with Ramadan: He can't and won't break with his grandfather's dark and violent legacy. Instead, he stands by it (when he's not evasive and ambiguous about it), or resorts to selective omission and revisionism when discussing it, and is highly defensive about it.

And yet, prominent liberal intellectuals and journalists in the West continue to give him a pass. In fact, they themselves indulge in similar evasion and willful blindness when faced with the violent legacy of the Islamist movement, which his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded, and the various offshoots that draw their inspiration from the ideas of Banna and his associates and disciples. Even more problematic, some of them, like journalists Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, wrote approving profiles of Ramadan while attacking critics of the obscurantism that he upholds. Specifically, they targeted author and former Dutch parliamentarian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose life is under constant threat by people whose doctrinal beliefs descend from the teachings of Ramadan's grandfather.

This lack of earnestness and injustice has left Berman frustrated and indignant. Writing the book, he tells me over the phone, was a yielding on his part to “the lure of annoyance” over the larger problem: “the refusal or inability of intellectuals and journalists in the US and the West to come to grips with the kinds of doctrines that are cropping up.” Instead, they prefer to “project fantasies onto what they're reading.”

Berman was also “shocked, or depressed, to observe how few American intellectuals, or intellectuals of Western backgrounds in general, have taken the trouble to read the various people with whom we've found ourselves in some kind of struggle.” And so, the book in fact has a “double theme: Ramadan on one hand but also the systematic way in which he's interpreted according to wish fulfillment.”

Berman detects in Ramadan's work what he calls “a system of vocabulary substitution.” Ramadan will use vocabulary that sounds palatable to Western liberal ears but which in fact carries a very different definition – indeed, an entirely different conceptual frame of reference. Berman quips that Western intellectuals hear “the first 15 minutes” of Ramadan and declare him the reformer they've been searching for. What interests Berman is the sixteenth minute and beyond.

And he dissects every last minute of it. He also presents his readers with the latest historical research on the relationship between Nazi foreign policy and two of Ramadan's heroes: his grandfather (Banna) and the Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hajj Amin al-Husseini, of whom Banna was an ardent supporter. This is the legacy that Ramadan cannot and does not wish to break from.

The chapter dealing with this, entitled “The Cairo Files,” is, to me, the most fascinating in Berman's book. It shows in detail why Berman does not shy away from the term “fascist” when dealing with the ideologies that have plagued the Arab world throughout the twentieth century into the present.

Similarly, he finds that the bulk of Ramadan's ideas are not only unoriginal, but also that his epistemology is based on a pre-modern premise. It recycles the thought of the twelfth century Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali. He concludes in his book that “in Ramadan's version, the old ideas have reemerged as crackpot ideas.”

This remark about crackpot ideas reminded me of a quote by the late American statesman and scholar Hume Horan, who studied Arabic at Harvard with the famed Sir Hamilton Gibb. The quote is found in Robert Kaplan's The Arabists, in the course of Horan's reminiscing about reading Arab nationalist and Baathist works under Gibb. “I remember being so disappointed,” Horan said. “Finally I was beginning to be able to penetrate this difficult language, and all I found was, well, half-baked philosophy and pseudo-intellectualism.” In the end, Ramadan is not much different.

If so, why should anyone care? For one, “engagement,” specifically with the so-called “Muslim world,” is the new buzzword in Washington these days. A corollary of this view is the enterprise of engaging Islamist groups, like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood. While al-Qaida is viewed as being beyond the pale, surely these groups who participate in political life are different. And certainly, then, Ramadan becomes a perfect interlocutor, in this framework.

“The Muslim Brothers are defined as ex-lunatics who've evolved into something reasonable,” Berman remarks when I raise this angle. “And then we have Ramadan who's presented as one of us – a liberal whose only difference with us is that he chooses to express his liberalism in an Islamically-derived language.” But Berman's idea of “engagement” is quite different. “I've insisted on my own definition of the word engagement,” he tells me. “There are two definitions of engagement: One is you take somebody's ideas seriously and you argue against them. The other is you lie down like a carpet in front of them.”

In the second conception of “engagement,” the view is, as Berman quips, “We must engage these people, so you invite them to participate with you in a love fest. I think there's an alternative: that's actually to argue with them and to put up the arguments.”

And this is Berman's critique of Western liberals. For him, “there is a war of ideas going on and liberals have to engage in this battle. Islamists are ideological movements. We have to come to grips with that.”

Reading Berman's book and talking to him, one comes away with two reasons why this hasn't happened: mediocrity and fear.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article first appeared on NOW Lebanon.

Read in Jerusalem Post