Jewish Journal


April 28, 2010

An ‘Intellectual’ Pursuit

Paul Berman’s new book a controversial polemic on religious fundamentalism


Clockwise from top left: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Tariq Ramadan,  author Paul Berman, Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Clockwise from top left: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Tariq Ramadan, author Paul Berman, Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

It might have been a grotesque scene out of a Dan Brown thriller: In the middle of the day, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a 26-year-old Moroccan Dutchman named Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri shot Van Gogh, then slit his throat with a machete. After the murder, he affixed a five-page note to his victim by plunging a smaller knife into his chest.

Except this was real, and the note was not a novelist’s contrivance but a fanatic’s chilling rant, rife with Islamic triumphalism, threatening the Jews (of course) and also targeting Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch parliament and author of the screenplay for Van Gogh’s work. Van Gogh was targeted because he had produced a film about the subjugation of Muslim women.

The cultural conflict between Western values and religious fundamentalism claimed yet another victim and spawned another story. Hirsi Ali, already becoming a celebrity, applied for and received asylum. To this day, she travels with bodyguards in a manner reminiscent of novelist Salman Rushdie, whose book “The Satanic Verses” provoked a fatwa 21 years ago.

The Rushdie book became a litmus test of Western intellectuals’ attitudes toward religious fundamentalism, in particular, Islamic fundamentalism. Some disgraced themselves, such as the British novelist John Le Carré, who took to lecturing Rushdie (then in hiding), “There is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” The only decent stance was to cry “foul” and to denounce the fatwa with all one’s powers.  No one need read a novel; it may be condemned or even execrated.  Calling for the death of the author is not censorship but terrorism.

This is the briefest of backgrounds to a continuing struggle among intellectuals in the West. As the Muslim population grows in Europe, as war in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, as Iran threatens to obtain a nuclear bomb and fundamentalist ideology spreads, what is the proper reaction of the Western thinker? For, along with political responses, there is a community of intellectuals who seek to rise above politics, to take a longer view, at least in theory.  Have they succeeded in creating a thoughtful response to Islam, or are they once again fulfilling the tart words of George Orwell, that there are some propositions so stupid that “only an intellectual could believe them”?

The German Web site signandsight.com has been an important forum, hosting a sometimes snarky debate between Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma and Pascal Bruckner.  These formidable thinkers, along with Hirsi Ali, play a significant part in Paul Berman’s probing and important book “The Flight of the Intellectuals.”

Berman’s title recalls the famous book written between World War I and II by Jewish intellectual Julien Benda, “La Trahison des Clercs” (“The Betrayal of the Intellectuals”). Benda, and now Berman, see those who think and read and write for a living as abdicating their crucial role in maintaining the standards of civilization in an increasingly divided and passionate age.  Most of Berman’s book is devoted to the evaluation of the roots and thought of one of the world’s most important Islamic intellectuals, Tariq Ramadan.

You may not know much of Ramadan, but he matters. He teaches at Oxford and was ranked eighth in a poll of the world’s most important intellectuals in American Prospect magazine; he has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine; and an earlier refusal to permit him to travel to the United States was just overturned by the Secretary of State. Ramadan is one of the few Muslim scholars who remains faithful to traditional teaching and practice who nonetheless speak to the larger Western world. How one approaches Ramadan (and as we shall see, by contrast, how one approaches Hirsi Ali) is of crucial importance.

Berman begins by tracing Ramadan’s background.  He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.  (The Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza is today called Hamas.)  Berman meticulously documents al-Banna’s extremism. Ramadan has said that his grandfather is being smeared by the “Zionist lobby,” according to the well-researched “Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan” by Caroline Fourest. When one finishes with Berman’s indictment, it is clear the defense will have an uphill battle.

The alliance between al-Banna and the Mufti of Jerusalem is paramount.  One of the propaganda lines heard in the past decades is that the Arabs are paying for the crime of Europe. Anyone who reads Berman (or the brilliant, chilling book he refers to, Matthias Kuntzel’s “Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11”) will see how implicated the Arab world was in the Nazi propaganda and planning during World War II. The Mufti of Jerusalem was one of the most vile, persistent and consequential anti-Semites of the 20th century.  There is little doubt that a Nazi victory would have led to massacres of Jews on a grand scale in the Middle East. We should not forget that the blood libel may have been born in Europe, but the late 1800s saw it in the Islamic world, alongside the many persecutions and prejudices Kuntzel and others have documented.

Ramadan, who has consistently denounced terrorism, is trying to carve out a space for an Islam that can be true to its roots and to the Western values we hold dear. Berman does not doubt his desire to do this; he rejects the idea that Ramadan is secretly conspiratorial or violent; though Ramadan condemns terrorism, he “understands terrorism so tenderly he ends up justifying it.” Berman notes omissions in Ramadan’s recounting of his grandfather and culture’s views, yet when it comes to Ramadan’s own view, what is important then is to see those views when some intellectual pressure is exerted on them.

The morning I am writing these words, the newspaper reported that the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proposed a bill to ban the full veil. Sarkozy and Ramadan have an interesting history. The larger question is not the views of Ramadan or Buruma. Nor is the question tolerance of Islamic fundamentalism, which all Western intellectuals condemn. Rather it is a question of the scope of empathy. Here is a famous exchange, seen on television by 6 million Frenchmen, between Ramadan and Sarkozy, who was then France’s interior minister. In it, Ramadan refuses to categorically condemn the stoning of adulteresses. This exchange was first reported by Berman in The New Republic, then again in “Flight of the Intellectuals.” Read this carefully:

Sarkozy: A moratorium ... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?

Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.

Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?

Ramadan: No, no, wait ... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community ... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, ‘Me, my own position.’ But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr.. Sarkozy. It’s necessary that you understand ...

Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan ...

Ramadan: Let me finish.

Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good. ... But that’s monstrous — to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It’s necessary to condemn it!

Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable — that’s clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world, and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world ... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That’s too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, ‘We should stop.’

Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.

‘You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things’ such as stoning women, Ramadan insisted.”

Ramadan’s point is that if he condemned the stoning outright, he would lose the possibility of speaking credibly within the Islamic community. For Islam has to go through its process — legal, juridical, deliberative — before a statement can be definitely issued that stoning is forbidden.

Berman documents that some people, incredibly enough, thought Ramadan came off well in that exchange. But on the face of it, this position puts Ramadan outside the circle of the West.  More important, it makes clear that in order to speak “credibly” inside the Islamic world, one must renounce certain fundamental Western principles.  Deliberation in the face of atrocity is atrocious.  Relevant in this context is Ramadan’s explanation that, as Berman writes, “he favors an Islamic state in the Muslim-majority world.”

Hirsi Ali is uncompromising in her opposition to Islam. In this she is not alone: Ibn Warraq (a pseudonym, for fear of being targeted) and Wafa Sultan, Brigitte Gabriel and others take the same anti-Islamic position. But can someone speak in Western accents and still have a credible position in the European Muslim community? That may be the decisive cultural question in the first part of the 21st century.

As Berman records, both Buruma and Garton Ash have spoken slightingly of Hirsi Ali. Garton Ash dismissively commented that if the statuesque Hirsi Ali “had been short, squat and squinting, her story and her views might not have been so closely attended to.” Of course it is Hirsi Ali’s uncompromising rejection of Islam that troubles Garton Ash.

The reception of Islam in Europe has been a controversial question. On the one side are those such as Bat Yeor, who insists that Europe has effectively lost its cultural patrimony and become “Eurabia” — as referenced in the title of her book. This is also the argument, although more nuanced and careful, of Christopher Caldwell in his recent book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.”  Others, such as Garton Ash, Buruma, Tony Judt and Kenan Malik, argue that Europe can retain its patrimony by staying true to its principles.

The proposed ban on a veil will highlight these issues even more powerfully in France. How much scope ought one give in a free society to religious practices that seem discriminatory, noxious, dangerous, degrading or simply wrong? What are the societal impacts in France, for example, where 10 percent of the population is Muslim?

Berman’s book is not about the veil but is about how intellectuals seek to untangle these issues. Again and again in international affairs, the question arises:  Does tolerance breed tolerance, or is it a sucker’s game where extremists take advantage of the open society’s allowances to grab more power and influence? Should we, in short, allow speech and practice up to the point where the speech and practice are such that they will ultimately curtail other speech and practice?

The temptation is to pick one side or the other.  That is almost certainly wrong. Not every conflict should be seen with Churchillian eyes. Not every question is a question of mobilization alone. A strategy of confrontation is important, but it must be allied to embrace; not every Muslim nation is the same, and to assume that Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are identical, or that all the Muslims of France or England hold the same views, is to fall into a laziness the urgency of the hour cannot afford.

Intellectuals are trained to see differences, arguments, and not bright, clear lines. But there are times, as Harry Truman famously said, when you have to put aside your principles and do what is right.  The West has standards, values and foundations that are the best hope the world has known.  To abdicate them is cultural and intellectual suicide. Bruckner, a notable combatant in these cultural wars, has written a book about the powerful effects of guilt in Western societies, “The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism.”  His point is not that the West has not done terrible things — undoubtedly it has. But the West has also created mechanisms for correction, repentance and renewal.

We should not negate the reality of enlisting those in the Muslim world who wish to live in a pluralistic, peaceful society.  They are the most important allies we have.  Neither should we deceive ourselves that speaking in the accents of the West means fidelity to the principles of the West. Islam, it has often been said, awaits its reformation. Some Islamic teaching and practice is simply incompatible with a free, uncensored, pluralistic, critical society. This is a serious civilizational struggle. Berman’s book reminds us what is at stake.

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings on facebook.com/rabbiwolpe.

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