Paul Berman's outraged attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's attackers.

Scrutinizing culture.
March 25 2010 10:41 AM

Bonfire of the Intellectuals

Paul Berman's outraged attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's attackers.

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Apology or not, Berman believes that the phrase reflects a deeper misconception among a certain set of Western intellectuals. That although "the enlightenment is one of the great achievements of Western civilization," these intellectuals "have come to look at the enlightenment as merely a set of anthropological prejudices"—to view a belief in free expression, for example, as merely a parochial Western view.

Which leads him to the most damning moment in his attack: "Buruma and Garton Ash had lost the ability to make the most elementary of distinctions … they could no longer tell a fanatical murderer from a rational debater" like Hirsi Ali.

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I should note that I am not a neutral reviewer of this book. Think of this not as a review but a preview of the fireworks likely to ensue. And think of me not as a neutral observer but someone who has known Paul Berman off and on over the years and believes enough in the salience of his anger at "the flight of the intellectuals" to have urged him to restructure the 28,000-word essay from which this book grew. Indeed, I ran into Paul shortly after he published his terse 28,000-word essay, then called "Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?" And when he told me he was expanding it into a book, I presumptuously but sincerely told him I believed he had—as the journalist jargon has it—"buried the lede."

Most of the original essay was devoted to an almost interminable attempt to dissect the true views of the enigmatic Swiss-born Islamic scholar and spokesman Tariq Ramadan, who has become a kind of Rorschach for Western intellectuals, some of whom project on him a moderate, modernizing form of Islam.

Berman's essay sought to complicate this view, pointing out Ramadan's many, not very well-noticed connections to Islamic fundamentalists of the sort represented by Ramadan's grandfather Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood.

I told him I found this aspect of the essay bracing and enthralling, an intellectual thriller in the form of a polemic, with Inspector Berman hunting for clues inside the mind and work of Ramadan. Nonetheless I felt that he should have begun the essay with its final section, the one about Ash and Buruma and the flight of the intellectuals.

He didn't listen to me about restructuring the book. But he did title the book after that last section: "The Flight of the Intellectuals."

True, Ramadan is an important figure and has recently been the subject of an international controversy. The State Department had wanted to deny him a visa, apparently on the grounds that he had contributed to a charity that had transferred funds to Hamas nearly a decade ago. But the ban was rescinded (as I believe such bans should be) two months ago, so we are likely to be hearing more about him. (Indeed, Slate's Jacob Weisberg will moderate a panel in New York featuring Ramadan in April.)

Before speaking further about Tariq Ramadan, I should probably mention that I'm not sure I share Berman's sinister picture of him. Berman believes that Ramadan's self-created image as an Islamic moderate who believes Islam can coexist with Western values in Europe is a misleading mask. One that conceals an undiluted allegiance to his grandfather's fanaticism. I'm not sure I share his conviction that he knows Ramadan's mind for a certainty. (And perhaps Ramadan himself is conflicted.)

I should further disclose that I myself once transferred money to Ramadan. Well, a small three-figure amount I paid to his publisher, Oxford University Press, for rights to an excerpt from one of his books, which I reprinted in an anthology I edited, Those Who Forget the Past, on contemporary anti-Semitism.