Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pankaj Mishra on "Islamism"?

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen
(Image from The New Yorker)

Pankaj Mishra, in an article for The New Yorker somewhat misdirectingly titled "Islamism" (June 7, 2010), reviews recent books by Hirsi Ali and Paul Berman -- respectively, Nomad: From Islam to America and The Flight of the Intellectuals -- and tells us that issues concerning Islam and such Muslim spokespersons as Tariq Ramadan are more complex than Ali and Berman imply.

That's true, of course, because issues are always more complex, and I could write a similar essay for The New Yorker demonstrating that the issues concerning Ali and Berman are more complex than Pankaj Mishra implies.

It's a fun game to play, as Mishra demonstrates:
In the nineteen-twenties, Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu and pacifist, vigorously campaigned for the restoration of the caliphate. And in 1941 an old colleague of his, Subhas Chandra Bose, travelled to Berlin and enlisted Indian P.O.W.s who later fought in the Waffen S.S.
But this complexity simply reveals the naiveté of Gandhi and Bose, if they thought that a caliphate or the Nazis would treat Indians with respect. Such complexity merely diminishes both men, as both Islam and Tariq Ramadan might be diminished by placing them in their respective complexities.

Mishra sums up his critique of Berman's 'activism' against Ramadan -- and perhaps also of Hirsi Ali's against Islam -- by turning to Leszek Kolakowski:
[T]he late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once pointed out that, however much intellectuals yearn to be both "prophets and heralds of reason," those roles cannot be reconciled. "The common human qualities of vanity and greed for power" are particularly dangerous among intellectuals, he observed, and their longing to identify with political causes often results in "an almost unbelievable loss of critical reasoning."
Wise words, and we would be wise to heed them, but do Kowlakowski's words apply specifically to Ali and Berman in their critiques of Islam and Ramadan?

Read the entire essay, and reflect on it, but don't stop there -- go on to read Hirsi and Berman . . . and even Ramadan.

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