Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: The Flight of the Intellectuals

One of the most amazing transformations of our time is that a large block of important intellectuals, who still think of themselves as liberals, are supporting some monstrous reactionaries. This phenomenon was taken up by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Doubleday, 2007). He made a case for noting that whether they consider themselves leftist or rightist, these groups all descend from the same source: the French Revolution. They all believe in revolution, scapegoats to blame for everything, foot-soldiers ready to die for the cause, and ultimately an utopian philosophy that their particular revolution will provide a paradise on earth.

There has been little difference between Communist, Nazi, and Anarchist values--and today we are seeing this same revolutionary ideology in Militant Islam. Shouldn’t this be apparent to the western world’s intellectuals?

The problem seems to be that many of us still adhere to the notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. In such a case, if the predominant liberal view is that the United States is a capitalist bully and so is Israel, then they would have to believe that the Palestinians and even some Arab “philosophers” should have their support. It does not seem to matter that these Palestinians and Militant Muslims detest everything that we value: democracy, equality of men and women, and tolerance of differences.

Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, (Melville House, 2010) takes up this issue—but never really gets to it until the last chapter, where he states his case with passion (and unassailable logic). The rest of the book is about one person and the cult he represents—Professor Tariq Ramadan, who professes to be an Islamic moderate, but who is most certainly not, yet has been lionized by liberal academics who should know better.

Tariq Ramadan is a philosophy professor who has become an international spokesman for how Islam can and should be practiced in the West—in countries that are not Muslim-majority. He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the fascist-influenced Muslim Brotherhood, the ancestor of today’s Hamas and Hezbollah—and Al Qaeda. Ramadan had the good fortune to be born and educated in Switzerland, but for him, family loyalty and passionate belief in this particularly modern form of Islam trumps everything else. This modern version of Islam is not western, but is ultimately totalitarian, a cult working toward having a global Muslim dictatorship. Its most modern element is the use of western means of propaganda and the technologies of violence and destruction.

Berman seems to be talking almost exclusively to European intellectuals in this book—which overwhelms the reader with detailed accounts of whom they are and how they differ over Tariq Ramadan. But after wading through this academic accounting, I could see a complete case on why Tariq Ramadan is not a “moderate” Muslim and how shameful it was that he was not only supported, whereas a real heroine, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is attacked by those who should be her supporters.

Intellectuals almost uniformly supported novelist Salman Rushdie when a price was put on his head by the Ayatollah Khomeini 25 years ago for writing a book that “insulted” Islam. Now they support the likes of Tariq Ramadan and attack Ayann Hirsi Ali. Where has their intellectual courage gone?

How do these two Muslim authors and public intellectuals, Ramadan and Hirsi Ali, differ? Ramadan, who sounds like such a reasonable liberal man, got caught when in a debate with then Foreign Minister Nocolas Sarkozy a few years ago, Sarkozy asked him how he thought modern Islam should deal with stoning women for adultery. Ramadan, although protesting his personal distaste for stoning, suggested only that Muslims put a “moratorium” on it. Can we conclude that he would like to halt it for now—but if the Muslims decide to reinstate it in the future, that would be up to them?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has experienced Islam as a Muslim woman and she reasonably decided to abandon it as hopeless. Those who think that in doing so, she has not only “insulted” Islam, but has lost any ability to influence it from “inside.” These critics obviously do not know how many young Muslim women are reading her books and who envy her for saying what they think. Nor do they consider that her foundation (AHA Foundation) is a primary actor in informing and protecting American and European Muslim women from the abuse that comes from their cultures.

Berman sums up in his final chapter the real flaw in today’s intellectual stream: believing that somehow people who are poor or ignorant are really “noble savages” deserving of their praise. This love of the underdog is strengthened by their guilt about and hatred for Europe’s imperialist past, so that indeed, the enemy of their enemy (militant Islam) turns out to be their friend.

Finally, what kind of world is it that those who are critical of Muslim culture (think of Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali), must live surrounded by body guards or be moved from one safe-house to another for years on end? This should evoke the ire of western liberals, not just western conservatives, but it does not. Too many intellectual liberals believe that their duty is to protect Muslims from intolerance and attack all critics as right-wing Islamophobes. It is indeed a flight of intellectuals to the dark side.

By Laina Farhat-Holzman

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