Paul Berman: Treason of Western Intellectuals?
Paul Berman has a new book out, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which I've not yet read but intend to. Meanwhile, I have read a review of it by Anthony Julius, "The Pretender," in the International Herald Tribune (May 16, 2010), so I can report on that. Mr. Julius reminds us that:
Over the past 10 years, Paul Berman has been exploring a theme: the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their values and ideals. The theme has been elaborated in several books -- "Terror and Liberalism," "Power and the Idealists" and now "The Flight of the Intellectuals." Berman himself is a man who identifies "with the liberal left."I've read Terror and Liberalism. I recall reading it in 2003, the year that it was published -- reading it on long bus and subway trips as I commuted to Seoul and back while I was living in Osan and teaching at Hanshin University, which has campuses in both places.
A year before, I had given a talk on 9/11 that was well attended at the Osan campus but that had also raised some controversy. I was branded a right-wing ideologue because I went against the grain of the times and the spirit of Hanshin University in arguing that Al Qaeda had attacked the US on 9/11 not just because they didn't like American foreign policy but also because they were radically opposed to democratic principles. Much of my audience held only to the former reason and blamed the US for provoking Bin Laden. I showed that this was not true by quoting Bin Laden himself on his anti-democratic reasons for the attack, but the quotes had little effect. Al Qaeda was seen as the victim. I knew that I needed to learn more about this mindset, so I turned to Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which had been recommended to me and was precisely what I needed to read, for as Mr. Julius notes:
For Berman, the contemporary intellectual's temptation . . . . consists of the following elements: the false identification of liberal values with an oppressive West, and of political Islamism with an oppressed third world; an unreflective, unqualified opposition to every exercise of American power; a certain blindness regarding, or even tenderness toward, contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism.In the current book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, Mr. Julius informs us that:
Berman has two targets. First, he takes on the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, whom he contrasts with the admirable and courageous secularist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Ramadan, a professor at Oxford, was recently permitted to enter the United States after being barred for six years under the Patriot Act.) And second, Berman challenges the commentators Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their qualified endorsements of Ramadan and their disparagements of Hirsi Ali, noting the "tone of contempt that so frequently creeps across discussions" about her, the "sneering masculine put-downs of the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa."Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while one can't ever choose one's pedigree, one could repudiate what a grandfather stood for. Mr. Ramadan doesn't clearly do so:
Berman identifies duplicity as part of the problem with Ramadan, that is, his tendency both to say different things to different audiences and to speak with such equivocality as to be understood in different ways by those audiences. There is "a dark smudge of ambiguity" that "runs across everything he writes on the topic of terror and violence." In consequence, Ramadan cannot be trusted to know his own mind, and therefore cannot be trusted when he claims to speak it. Further, his language of accommodation, his project of defining a minority Islam at peace within liberal democracy, emerges as somewhat phony, the more hard-line stance that he advocates from time to time more accurately reflecting his true views.Ambiguity is not a particularly admirable virtue at a time when:
. . . intimidation and violence [is being] directed at that "subset of the European intelligentsia -- its Muslim free-thinking and liberal wing especially" -- who "survive only because of bodyguards." This, Berman concludes, has been unheard of in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis. "Fear -- mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology -- has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life."Against such intimidation, one must speak out, so Mr. Berman does, and so should we.