We live in a time of categorical confusion. Regulation is presented as liberation. Debt is re-imagined as wealth. In the world, people who despise us and wish us ill are embraced, while others who promote liberal principles are rejected, sneered at, called traitors to their roots.
I have just read Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals, a profoundly depressing book. It describes the perverse escape from reality by the intellectual left in Europe and the US, which has made a culture hero of Tariq Ramadan, proud grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a pariah of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, advocate of Enlightenment ideas, particularly with regard to women in Islamic societies.
Berman is himself a member in good standing of the intellectual left, with a rare gift for unearthing the source materials of Islamist ideology. Prominent among these sources, Berman shows, is Nazi propaganda to the Arab world, which exported the most virulent strains of European anti-Semitism to a new and receptive audience. In this way, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fantasy concocted in tsarist Russia, entered the cultural mainstream in the Middle East – there to serve as plot for an Egyptian TV soap opera.
The voice of Nazi propaganda to the Arabs was that of the loathsome mufti of Jerusalem – a would-be Jew exterminator, and a man much admired by Ramadan’s grandfather. Hitler and the mufti bonded over a shared belief that Jews ran the world, and deserved to be slaughtered. The idea was absorbed into Islamist ideology and Arab society in general.
Discovery of the death camps never caused a moment’s moral doubt in this corner of the world – if anything, it increased the admiration of many Arabs for Hitler’s racial program. Yusuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s televangelist on Al Jazeera, still considers Hitler to have been an instrument of Allah, whose exterminating work, God willing, will be completed some day soon.
This is the ideological bog that begat Tariq Ramadan. This is his family and intellectual inheritance – which, Berman observes, he has never sought to escape.
He worships his grandfather, who in turn lionized the mufti. He heaps praise on Qaradawi, who thinks the Holocaust was God’s handiwork. Ramadan is no Jew exterminator. He was born in Switzerland, where his Egyptian father sought asylum. He teaches at European universities – though his academic credentials are, at best, mediocre. He writes books for a European audience.
Ramadan wishes to straddle the worlds of the suicide bomber and Western academia. He aims to look pure in doctrine to bearded bigots like Qaradawi, while remaining a force for reason to liberal professors and intellectuals. That this turns out to be not much of a stretch is one of Berman’s more fascinating insights.
On every question of Islamist doctrine, Ramadan has spoken out of both sides of his mouth. He doesn’t think amputating the limbs of thieves is the most enlightened practice, but he also won’t call for its outright abolition. He claims to be an “Islamic feminist,” but can’t bring himself to condemn, unequivocally, the stoning to death of adulterous women. He has proclaimed the need to reform Islam, but Berman demonstrates that by “reform” Ramadan means his own muted version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and political program. His views on holy war and political violence are, let us say, situational.
Yet Ramadan is looked to as a model modern Muslim by heavyweights of the intellectual left like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. Buruma, for example, has called him “one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism” – a complete invention by a usually meticulous writer. Meanwhile Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books, in glowing articles, have introduced Ramadan and his ideas to an American audience.
The admiration of the intellectuals stems in part from superficial causes: Ramadan speaks fluent multiculti, and he dresses (and shaves) like a fashion-conscious European. He was also denied a visa to the US by the Bush administration, which engaged the sympathies of the ACLU, the Association of American University Professors, and other right-thinking groups.
Something deeper and more sinister is also involved, however, and it emerges in the treatment of Hirsi Ali by the intellectual left.
Hirsi Ali’s history is well known. She endured the miseries of Somalian girlhood, escaped an arranged marriage, put herself through school, rose to become an elected official in the Netherlands. She embodies the triumph of liberal ideas, and – not surprisingly – she has campaigned to spread these ideas among immigrant Muslim women in Europe. She speaks out, insistently, against female mutilation, family violence, and honor killings.
None of this ingratiates her to hard-line Muslims. She doesn’t care: she has abandoned Islam for secularism. For this decision, she has paid a heavy price. In 2004, a Dutch Islamist murdered Theo van Gogh and, using a knife, stuck on his victim’s body a threat against Hirsi Ali’s life. The shadow of Muslim terror has darkened her steps ever since, chasing her from safe house to safe house, and from the Netherlands to the US.
Given the nature of her causes and her courage under persecution, Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be a heroine of the intellectual left. Her liberal, secular beliefs are theirs – only they seem to deny her right to hold them.
Intellectuals have criticized her on extraordinary grounds. Buruma describes her as haughtily dismissive of the immigrant women she’s working to rescue from medieval oppression. Garton Ash maintains that she’s taken seriously only because of her pretty face. Both clearly think Hirsi Ali has overstepped her place. By forsaking her Muslim roots, she has offended those – like Tariq Ramadan – whom Buruma, Garton Ash, and other well-meaning types desperately seek to please.
Most extraordinary of all, intellectuals often sound like they sympathize with, and possibly justify, the terror-mongers who have threatened to snuff Hirsi Ali out. Here’s Nicholas Kristof in the NYT:
“She has managed to outrage more people—in some cases to the point that they want to assassinate her—in more languages in more countries on more continents than almost any writer in the world today. Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir.”
Remember: the “people” Hirsi Ali has outraged and antagonized are those who rammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bombed the London tube, and ritually slit Theo van Gogh’s throat.
What is going on? Why have supposedly liberal thinkers embraced Tariq Ramadan, heir to a violently anti-Semitic and illiberal tradition, while condemning Hirsi Ali, who risks her life to promote Enlightenment – that is, liberal – ideals?
Berman offers a first-level answer: “It is because the Islamist movement, in prospering, has succeeded in imposing its own categories of analysis over how everyone else tends to think.” From the Muslim Brotherhood’s perspective, Qaradawi is a “moderate,” Ramadan a reformer “half-way lost to the vapors of Western liberalism,” and Hirsi Ali an infidel beyond the pale. And many intellectuals, in their confusion and to their shame, have accepted these skewed categorizations.
But the reasons go deeper and are more shameful still. Reading The Flight of the Intellectuals, one is overwhelmed by the evasions, amounting to moral blindness, of the dominant and most articulate groups in Arab society. Truth evokes their loathing and anger. Failure is someone else’s fault – the Jews’, the West’s, the infidel’s. All things are viewed through a squint, so that the ruling culture appears, in a certain light, glorious and triumphant. The bloodiest crimes meet with approval, if they feed this self-delusion.
One is overwhelmed, too, by the evasions, amounting to nihilism, of European and American intellectuals, whose self-abasement before the purveyors of terror and intolerance appears rooted in a disgusting mixture of vanity and fear. Citing Pascal Bruckner, Berman characterizes this group as a new “penitential caste,” interceding for us Eurocentric sinners to the god of multiculturalism. On this altar they would sacrifice the moral and political traditions of our way of life – the very ideals they claim to represent.
Multiculturalism trumps liberalism. That is the depressing lesson of Berman’s book. Hirsi Ali sounds too much like us: she must be attacked. Tariq Ramadan embodies a polite version of Islamist bigotry and looniness: he must be applauded, not only for his politeness but even more for his bigotry and looniness.
Self-loathing has taken possession of the soul of the intellectual, and we seem, in the realm of ideas at least, to be entering an illiberal age unmatched since the 1930’s, when fascists and Marxists battled over which of them owned the future.
Somehow liberal democracy emerged stronger than ever from those dark times. By 1991, it was the only game in town. We can take heart in that. But the tale told by Berman convinces me that the liberal ideals – the political principles and moral values on which democracy must rest – are up for grabs again.