What does it mean to be a liberal in the West and in the Arab world?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 13 2010 10:09 AM

Reading Paul Berman in Beirut

What does it mean to be a liberal in the West and in the Arab world?

Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals.

It's surprising, even a little disturbing, that Paul Berman, whose books have generally covered what we can call "foreign" topics, has thus far been kept the prisoner of a domestic American conversation.

Take Ron Rosenbaum's recent preview of Berman's latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. Berman's work is an expanded version of an essay he wrote for the New Republic about Muslim activist and writer Tariq Ramadan, who is seen by many people as an authoritative Muslim voice in Europe. Rosenbaum recalls that he advised Berman to reorganize his volume to place up front his denunciation of two Western authors, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. Berman eviscerated both for having cut Ramadan too much slack in articles for leading American publications and for having taken a sneering view of Dutch-Somali writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali because of her condemnations of Islam and what they referred to as her "Enlightenment fundamentalism."

Thank goodness Berman didn't listen. The unease felt by Western intellectuals toward their Enlightenment is an important theme in his book. However, Berman is more interested in moving beyond that parochial discussion to say something meaningful about the Middle East, political Islam, and the relationship of the two with liberalism—something addressed in no small degree to Arabs and Muslims. This he could only do by keeping Ramadan the focus of his narrative.

Arabs can derive much benefit from Berman. I remember my elation when reading his book Power and the Idealists, on how leading European figures from the 1968 generation, all men of the left, had over the years altered their views about Western intervention overseas—supporting it in selected places in the name of advancing liberal values and protecting human rights. This seemed a natural progression for some of us in the Middle East, surrounded as we were by illiberal regimes that routinely disregard human rights. As a consequence, a number of the individuals Berman wrote about, like Berman himself, approved of the Iraq war, earning the appellation "liberal hawks."

However, the term only had resonance in the West, an inside joke in some ways for failing to indicate how Arab liberals reacted to the removal of Saddam Hussein's barbaric regime. Many of these liberals were also from the generation of '68, but only a handful allowed their liberal yearnings to read an opportunity into Saddam's removal, to see it as something that might open a breach in the stifling autocracies governing them. Instead, most fell back on familiar anti-Americanism, denouncing Iraq as a manifestation of Washington's neo-imperialist calculations in hock to Israeli interests.

But for me and others in the Arab world, Berman's account of the European idealists posed an essential question deriving from our own experiences. This question Berman has posed again in the brilliant, uncompromising The Flight of the Intellectuals: What does it mean to be a liberal, and how does one uphold liberal values when politics, misshaped by passions and biases, self-righteousness and self-deception, can lead to the defense of thoroughly illiberal ideas?

Those readers solely seeking out the polemical in Berman's essay will miss his deeper objective. The protests have suggested that Tariq Ramadan doesn't rate a book. But in deconstructing Ramadan by reading the relevant literature, including translated original texts that most others have overlooked, Berman has shown how someone viewed in the West as a desirable interlocutor for supposedly representing a "modern" Islam in fact is heir to a salafist intellectual tradition, descending from his grandfather, Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, that at times has rationalized acts of violence, political and otherwise.

From Beirut, this seems to me to be the essence of our region's woes. Ramadan's hypocrisy and elisions are very much those of numerous Arab intellectuals today, who remain deliberately vague about the extremes that their ambiguities will quite frequently sanction.

For instance, the outrage that so many educated Arabs mustered against the overthrow of Iraq's Baath regime was absent when Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands of his own countrymen. Hezbollah and Hamas, whose life force is conflict and self-sacrifice, are popular among an Arab intelligentsia that has made a fetish of "resistance." The excuse offered is that Israel's abuse of the Palestinians is intolerable. It is, but how does liberal indignation with the Palestinians' fate square with support for fascist organizations engaged in a cult of death, that adhere to the totalistic injunctions of what Berman has called "the ideal of the one, instead of the many"?

In demanding clarification from Ramadan, Berman effectively demands that all Arabs and Muslims, particularly those purporting to be liberals, clarify where they stand on the major issues affecting the Middle East and Islam. It is not enough to hide behind Israeli brutality and denunciations of American imperialism. You cannot speak with forked tongue on violence, anti-Semitism, brutality toward women, and much else, and still claim to embrace humanistic values.

Paul Berman has not been offered a seat at the table of so-called specialists on the Middle East. For them, his fault is to take words at their value in a region where the truth is said to lie in the nuances. But his fault happens to be a liberal one; clarity alone can bring on genuine dialogue. Credit Berman with taking that step, by slicing through the adroit elusiveness of Tariq Ramadan.

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Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010.

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