The Flight of the Intellectuals

Paul Berman, The Flight of the Intellectuals (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2010). $26.00, 304 pages.

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa—or legal ruling—against Salman Rushdie, sentencing him to death in absentia for the crime of writing a novel that slandered the Prophet Muhammad. The issuance of the fatwa was taken seriously enough by Rushdie himself and by British authorities that he went into hiding under their protection for several years afterward. The ayatollah has since died, but his fatwa remains in force.

In the years since then, as Paul Berman points out in The Flight of the Intellectuals, Salman Rushdie “has metastasized into an entire social class” who live under protection of police or private security because they have in some way offended Muslims with their words. The class includes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Bassam Tibi, Magdi Allam, Fiamma Nierenstein, Caroline Fourest, Robert Redeker, Flemming Rose, Kurt Westergaard, and Boualem Sansal, among many others.

Intellectuals rushed to Rushdie’s defense in 1989. Some, like Berman himself, do the same for today’s Rushdie class. But others—particularly liberal intellectuals with whose politics Berman agrees and from whom he expects greater resistance to Islamic fascism—find themselves cooing over Islamic “moderates” who are anything but, even as they insinuate the worst about Islamism’s greatest critiques, writers such as Hirsi Ali. The Flight of the Intellectuals is a case study in liberal tergiversation, focusing on the disparate treatment Tariq Ramadan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have received at the hands of Ian Buruma and other liberal intellectuals.

Tariq Ramadan is the best-known face of moderate Islam in the West. Raised in Geneva and a philosopher, Ramadan has written several books seeking a rapprochement between Islam and the West. He is also the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Relying on the work of Jeffrey Herf and other historians, Berman demonstrates the deep connections between al-Banna, his allies, and Nazism in World War II. Moreover, he points out that the Brotherhood’s chief ideologues—al-Banna himself and Sayyid Qutb—were vicious anti-Semites, not to mention complicit in providing theological warrants for Nazi acts of political violence. In other words, objectively speaking, Islamism has fascist streams flowing into it.

Is this history important? Is Ramadan guilty of the sins of his grandfather? Yes, and no. Berman critiques Ramadan because he consistently and persistently elides and obfuscates the very past in which his own family plays such an important role. Not only that, and history aside, he consistently and persistently supports the theological writings of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whom Berman dubs “the mufti of martyrdom operations,” i.e., suicide bombings. Berman wonders whether Ramadan, with his elision, obfuscation, and unwavering support of Qaradawi, can be justifiably considered a moderate.

Throughout the book, Berman rightly distinguishes Islam and Islamism. The former is a global religion. The latter is a particular interpretation of it. He does not attempt to answer the question of how authentic the interpretation of the religion is, again, rightly so. What Islam is is for Muslims to decide. And there are Muslim liberals, people who would like to see Islamic tradition develop in conversation with modern trends

What Berman wonders is why intellectuals such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash—men whose liberal bona fides are unquestioned—give cover to Ramadan, even as they critique Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of the brutal treatment meted out to women by the ideologues and practitioners of Islamism. Truth be told, Hirsi Ali believes the fault lies with Islam itself, not just modern political permutations of it. Ash referred to Hirsi Ali as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” because of atheistic rationalism and searing critique of Islam, a description he later retracted. But who in their right mind, Berman asks, would equate Muslim fundamentalism, which in its political form issues death sentences against writers, with political liberals who wish to see freedom of choice in religion and other matters extend globally to all individuals? Issuing death threats and receiving death threats are not morally equivalent acts, but that seems to be what they have become in the eyes of some liberal intellectuals.

Why? Berman’s answer seems to be cowardice. “Two developments account for it…,” he writes in the book’s concluding paragraph. “The first of those developments is the spectacular and intimidating growth of the Islamist movement since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second development is terrorism.”

And thus the book ends, prompting a question: How shall we, its readers, respond to the challenge of Islamism? With clarity and courage, or with obfuscation and compromise? The flight of the intellectuals results from choosing the latter response.

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