Bonfire of the Intellectuals
Paul Berman's outraged attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's attackers.
Return with me now to the lusty days of yore, when engagé public intellectuals battled it out over Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, and just who betrayed whom in the bloody streets of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War—and later in the savage pages of The Partisan Review, where those battles were refought. Sometimes the intense seriousness of the intellectual combat can sound overstrained in retrospect (cf. the Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery). But in fact these were foundational postwar arguments, waged by some of the sharpest thinkers in print as they clashed over urgent questions about the future of totalitarianism and democracy.
The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman's new 300-page polemic (to be published this spring), recalls these heady days in a book that is likely to provoke an intense controversy among public intellectuals. The most contentious assertion in Berman's book is that some of the most prominent of these—people who rushed to the defense of Salman Rushdie when he was threatened with death for a novel deemed blasphemously irreverent to Islam—have failed to offer wholehearted support to Muslim dissidents today, people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and Muslim apostate, whose lives are similarly threatened. This failure, this "flight of the intellectuals," Berman argues, represents a deeply troubling abandonment of Enlightenment values in the face of recurrent threats to freedom of expression.
Berman's book will likely provoke bouts of rage, praise, and condemnation in print and online. In doing so, his book will remind us that those old Partisan Review smack-downs raised questions that have evolved and mutated but remain unresolved: Is there a paradox at the heart of Enlightenment values? Should a belief in "tolerance" extend to the intolerant? Must Enlightenment values stop short of challenging multicultural values? Or do multicultural values sometimes entail moral relativism? One key issue, for instance, is whether Ayaan Hirsi Ali's campaign against female genital mutilation makes her—as the intellectuals Berman attacks have called her—an "Enlightenment fundamentalist," the flashpoint buzz phrase of the controversy. (Although my favorite buzz phrase is the one the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner devised for those who have sneered at Ayaan Hirsi Ali: "The racism of the anti-racists.")
Berman's new book exhibits the same dedication to moral clarity on these questions demonstrated in his earlier Terror and Liberalism.He gives earnestness a good name! He has the knack for seeing and saying not just the subtle but often the obvious things that so many soi-disant intellectuals blind themselves to in the search for self-congratulatory comlplexification. I'm thinking of Berman's review of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which was long and digressive (but rewarding for both reasons) and had the radical effrontery to say what so many intellectual reviewers couldn't find the words for, because, perhaps, it would mark their response as too tribal, too "ethnic"—that Roth's book about an anti-Semitic presidential candidate (Charles Lindbergh) might have something to do with anti-Semitism! (It was really about Bush, they rushed to tell us. Despite Roth's own disclaimer, of course; they knew better.)
In any case, Berman's portrait of the behavior of today's intellectuals when confronting the plight of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is devastating. I was going to say his portrait of certain intellectuals, because he singles out the well-respected writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their aggressive sniping and snarking at Hirsi Ali when she was (and still is) under threat of death. But in fact the relative silence of the rest of the intelligentsia, when confronted with the threats against her, is almost more scandalous. (An exception is my colleague here at Slate Christopher Hitchens.)
Hirsi Ali, who described her decision to leave Islam in 2007's Infidel, was subsequently driven from her refuge in Holland by death threats that followed her from Somalia. And by the murder of her friend and supporter, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose slashed and bleeding body was found with a note that called Hirsi Ali next to die.
In The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman contrasts the way intellectuals have treated Hirsi Ali—with ostensible support, in the abstract, but condescension, disdain, and nitpicking criticism in all the best intellectual venues—with the way they and others rallied unequivocally to the support of Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the Satanic Verses fatwa.
And so Buruma snipes at "her attitude, her style." Snarks at what he interprets as a snobbish wave of her hand in a TV clip. All but calls her "uppity." ("The racism of the anti-racists.") As Berman puts it, "[T]he Hirsi Ali who emerges from Buruma's portrait"—in his book Murder in Amsterdam—is "animated by crude ideas" that evidently lack Oxbridge sophistication, of course. Berman continues, "She's zealous, strident … arrogant, aristocratic." Doesn't know her place among Buruma and his peers. And Timothy Garton Ash chivalrically tells us that if Hirsi Ali "had been short, squat and squinting, her story and her views might not have been so closely attended to." (Note the tone of donnish disdain—the sexism of the anti-racists.)
It would almost be as if a Rushdie supporter back then had said, "Sure, I'm for his not having his life threatened and all, but I'm tired of all this magic realism stuff, and he seemed arrogant when I saw him interviewed on TV. Maybe he was too contemptuous of the culture of the people who want to murder him."
Hirsi Ali's critics argue that she represents a simpleminded allegiance to the tolerant and libertarian values of the Enlightenment, that she's an "Enlightenment fundamentalist," pretty much the moral equivalent of an Islamic fundamentalist who supports suicide bombing. Presumably because she doesn't believe in tolerating an intolerance that kills, maims, and shackles women. It was Ian Buruma who coined the oxymoronic phrase "Enlightenment fundamentalism," which was then picked up by Timothy Garton Ash. * To his credit, Garton Ash eventually publically apologized for applying the phrase to Hirsi Ali at a London debate, although he didn't seem to withdraw from a belief that the phrase might have some residual legitimacy.
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.
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.
Not as an exemplum of it but because I wanted to have an Islamic voice in the book and Ramadan was one of the rare Islamic intellectuals who had publicly disclaimed anti-Semitism—though not anti-Semites, as Berman copiously demonstrates. In the excerpt I published, Ramadan expresses a desire to share the world with other faiths, which, even if Berman believes that Ramadan speaks with a forked tongue, is not a bad message to spread around. Some might take it as sincere. I'm still not convinced that this view, or reprinting the essay, was a mistake.
In the original essay and the book, Berman meticulously dissects both Ramadan's claim to be a voice of moderation and the Western intellectuals' little love affair with Ramadan. For Western intellectuals, Berman explains, Ramadan solves a problem. His views allow them to believe both in Enlightenment values and a multiculturalism that can embrace an Islam that is open to the reformation of such practices as the honor killing of women.
The problematic nature of Ramadan's moderation can perhaps best be illustrated by his call for a "moratorium" on the stoning of women to death in Islamic societies for "honor" violations. The fact that he called for a "moratorium" at all has been hailed by Western, particularly European, intellectuals as a comforting sign for those concerned about women's rights in the growing Muslim communities of the West.
The fact that he did not condemn the practice outright or call for its outlawing, and instead only called for "debate" with Islamic scholars and theologians on the matter during the "moratorium," is not entirely reassuring to others.
For Berman, Ramadan has become a White Whale. Berman is infuriated by the blindness of intellectuals to what he believes is Ramadan's true and sinister purpose: to shield the growth of anti-Enlightenment political Islam behind a facade of modernization. Berman is particularly infuriated by an admiring profile of Ramadan that calls him a bridge to Euro-Islam modernity by Ian Buruma in the New York Times Magazine. I think Berman has a case that the effect if not the intent of Buruma's article was to whitewash Ramadan, but again it's a subjective matter. Did Buruma deliberately play down Ramadan's connections with alleged terrorist sympathizers in the article? Or was he genuinely convinced that Ramadan's more modernizing tendencies ought to be taken seriously, perhaps even on opportunistic grounds. If we in the non-Muslim West respond to this ostensibly reformist aspect of him—the fact that he's not dogmatically single-minded—it will be re-enforced. For Berman, he is single-minded but two-faced, a wolf in sheep's clothing who was using Buruma.
But it is Berman's final section—especially Chapter 9, the title chapter, "The Flight of the Intellectuals"—that will make this an old-fashioned "event" in the intellectual history of the question that is at the heart of so much contention: the question of whether Islamists can coexist pluralistically in Western societies.
By the "flight of the intellectuals," Berman means their flight from the values they espoused when defending Salman Rushdie in 1989, and their sniping, snarking, and subverting Ayaan Hirsi Ali this century. Is it just that she's not one of the boys? Berman suggests that a combination of colonial guilt and colonial superiority is at work here, that Western intellectuals fear the direct criticism of other cultures, which Hirsi does in a more direct and literal way than Rushdie's literary excursions.
But I think another kind of fear is at work. What made the difference between the wholehearted response to Rushdie and the cold-hearted response to Hirsi Ali? Berman may disclaim it, but I think the subtext of his critique of Ali's nitpickers is that, in the two decades since the Rushdie affair, standing up against Islamist death threats requires more physical courage than the intellectuals are willing to muster. They would rather allow pettifogging criticism to be a fig leaf, a way to distance themselves from danger.
But now the threat of murder, the attempted murder, and the actual murder of dissidents from Islam have all become a regular feature of the intellectual landscape of Europe. The most shocking and dramatic passages in Berman's book are those in which he recounts, often casually, his encounters with the harried and hunted figures who have offended some radical mullah or other.
One of the most powerful sections of the book is Berman's roll call of those dissidents—both Islamic and non—who have been threatened with death and may have to live with 24/7 security for the rest of their lives because of these threats.
It was not healthy for Theo van Gogh to get too close to Hirsi Ali. The Danish cartoonists are still under constant death threats, Berman reports. And Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym of another apostate, reads death threats against himself online *, while Bassam Tibi, who, Berman tells us, "pioneered the concept of Islamism as a modern totalitarianism and pioneered the concept of a liberal 'Euro-Islam' [as well] ... spent two years under twenty four hour police protection in Germany. ... [T]he Egyptian and Italian journalist Magdi Allam ...was travelling with a full complement of five bodyguards. ... The Italian journalist Fiamma Nienstein … was accompanied by her own bodyguard. … Caroline Fourest in France, the author of the first and most important extended criticism of Ramadan, had to go under police protection. ... [T]he French history professor Robert Redkeker had to go into hiding. In 2008 the police in Belgium broke up a terrorist group that had planned on assassinating, among other people Bernard Henri Levy."
He spends an evening in New York "... with Flemming Rose the culture editor of the Danish newspaper who was visiting New York only because at that particular moment it was too dangerous for him to remain in Denmark."
The list continues. Kurt Westergaard, Boulem Sansal. This is cumulatively (and individually) scandalous. The fact that we so rarely hear a peep about the cumulative terror experienced by these writers and artists from the likes of these intellectuals while they find time to sneer at Hirsi Ali is the real scandal to me. The fact that theological censorship backed by death threats has been installed on the continent of Europe with just about everyone deciding it would be wiser to keep silent about it is once again burying the lede. But to my mind, printing it at all is a service.
A certain kind of irreverent speech once valued in Europe since the time of Chaucer and Rabelais has been, it seems, powerfully threatened if not silenced, and the heirs to that intellectual tradition are too scared to speak out about that silence. Maybe Berman's book will start intellectuals talking, and not just about each other. Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets.
Correction, March 26, 2010: This piece originally stated that Timothy Garton Ash coined the phrase "Enlightenment fundamentalism." Ian Buruma coined that phrase. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) It also stated that Ibn Warraq travels with security guards. In fact, Warraq reads death threats against himself online. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images.