Paul Berman may be our most romantic public intellectual. His prose, febrile and epigrammatic, can be intoxicatingly lyrical. He doesn’t so much make arguments as launch crusades. He is a careful scholar, building his cases with close reading and creative exegesis, but the cool erudition barely conceals the hot idealism. “Let us be for the freedom of others,” read the last line of Terror and Liberalism, his most widely read book. Details, word choices and footnotes matter, but it is the sweeping idea that animates his work.
It’s fitting that the cover design for his latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, features a Minimalist array of lines, black and white. For those are the terms in which Berman thinks. It’s what makes the arrival of each new Berman book an event – you expect lines to be drawn, challenges issued. It’s also what can get him in trouble.
The Flight of the Intellectuals is a book-length elaboration of a long essay Berman wrote for The New Republic in 2007 about the Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan. What’s gotten Berman riled up is the admiring reception Western intelligentsia has given Ramadan, who is viewed by many as the leading reformist voice for Muslims today. Ramadan has urged Muslims in the West to participate in the social and cultural life of their new homes instead of turning inward. But to Berman, the attention he has won is undeserved, even odious. For beneath the veneer of moderation Berman spies ghosts of extremism past and present.
The first third of The Flight of the Intellectuals is vintage Berman, as he traces Ramadan’s genealogical and ideological roots. What he finds is a questionable birthright. “Tariq Ramadan is nothing if not a son, a brother, a grandson and even a great-grandson – family relations that appear to shape everything he writes and does, and that certainly shape how other people perceive what he writes and does,” he opens the second chapter. Ramadan’s grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. His father, Said Ramadan, was al-Banna’s secretary, also a major figure in the Brotherhood. In the Brotherhood, Berman sees a wellspring of dangerous ideas: the imposition of Islamic law, the utopian restoration of the Caliphate, the cult of jihad, the veneration of martyrdom.
In Tariq Ramadan, Berman sees that strain of Islamism. He hears Ramadan’s calls for rationalism, universal values and a more modern Islam, but picks out discordant notes in the background of Ramadan’s thought. Take women’s rights. Berman homes in on Ramadan’s refusal, in a televised debate with then-French Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, to condemn the Islamist practice of stoning women who commit adultery, calling instead for a more modest “moratorium.” Berman also flags Ramadan for his past statements on Jews: For instance, Ramadan in 2003 published an essay accusing six “French Jewish intellectuals” (one, in fact, was not Jewish) of abandoning their universalist principles in championing Israel – a thesis that Berman rightly lashes him for. No less troublesome for Berman is Ramadan’s whitewashing of his forefathers’ record. In Ramadan’s telling, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood is a “man of democratic temperament…committed to rational judgment and scientific truth…a peaceful man, patient and practical,” Berman recounts with raised brow.
The Lonely Rebel
Berman contrasts the adulation of Ramadan by Western intellectuals with their shabby treatment of another controversial voice: Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Somali-born writer’s story has been rehearsed countless times: flight from a forced marriage, asylum in the Netherlands, renunciation of Islam, death threats from Muslim fanatics. Along the way, Hirsi Ali has established a reputation as a scorched-earth critic of Islam. It has earned her the adoration of the American right – and suspicion from the left, which sees her Islam-or-enlightenment stand as unhelpful.
Berman is at his most indignant here. Dubbing Hirsi Ali a “rebel soul,” he denounces the left for turning its back on someone whom he considers a true liberal voice emerged from the Islamist wasteland. Berman is appalled that Hirsi Ali, who has to travel with bodyguards because she has been marked for death by Islamists, cannot find succor in the same intelligentsia that once circled their wagons for Salman Rushdie. And it’s not just Hirsi Ali: Berman ends his book with a litany of liberals who have dared to challenge Islamist fascism and have seen their lives threatened for it. “Salman Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class,” he writes. Where are the liberal intellectuals to defend them?
That, as the title suggests, is what Berman’s book is really about. Joining Ramadan in the crosshairs are Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, two champions of Ramadan, both critics of Hirsi Ali. But they also stand in for an entire intellectual cohort, one that Berman now finds suffering from a loss of nerve. “[I]n recounting these quarrels, I have, by the logic of my own narrative, ended up trotting out the dread word courage. This may be the heart of the matter,” he writes.
The particulars of Berman’s case against Ramadan seem, at times, to be a stretch. He gets across the point that Ramadan is a slippery figure – but others have already noted that. Upgrading the charge from slippery to sinister requires some heavy lifting and much hair-splitting on Berman’s part. All too often, Berman mistakes telling footnotes, vague wordings and conspicuous omissions for smoking guns. It’s an impressive prosecutorial performance, but it’s not enough to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Berman’s book amounts to something else: a radical’s attack on a squishy moderate. For Berman, Ramadan, who modulates his rhetoric depending on his audience, is the kind of ally we don’t need. Pick a side, stand your ground – the ambiguous, the pragmatic, the double-talkers need not apply. Berman dismisses the defense of Ramadan by intellectuals: that he is a valuable critic of Islam from within. And indeed, his indignation at Ramadan’s hedging about Islam’s problems can be contagious – you occasionally find yourself shaking your head (if not quite your fist).
Berman and Liberalism
But Berman’s exacting outlook is ultimately problematic. Hirsi Ali, strident and surrounded by bodyguards, is the model warrior in his war of ideas. It’s a needlessly steep standard – and a counterproductive one. Living under fatwa may be testimony to a critic’s courage, but that’s not the same as a critic’s effectiveness. If the true goal is to modernize Islam and promote liberalism, an effective critique, not just an angry one, is necessary. Berman’s impatience and his insistence on choosing sides get in the way of a clear-eyed assessment of what we need to win the war of ideas: courage, yes, and anger even, but also reason, canniness and humility.
In the years since 9/11, Berman has emerged as one of our foremost liberal hawks. He has been frequently lumped with Peter Beinart (The Good Fight), and Beinart in turn has harked back to the liberals of the Americans for Democratic Action and the anti-Communist left – Niebuhr’s liberals – as his and his intellectual allies’ forebears. But that’s not quite where Berman’s thought takes you. All you need is a minute with Berman’s urgent and certain prose to realize that there is little skepticism here and none of the ironic disposition. He is less a liberal of the Niebuhr variety than a lefty in the mold of an Irving Howe. In his words one feels the force of conviction of the Old Left, the romance of the battle, the thrill of the lonely stand. Indeed, The Flight of the Intellectuals recalls a similar challenge to the intellectual class: Howe’s “The Age of Conformity.” Like Howe, Berman sees himself as an observer and critic of the liberal intellectuals. Replace “conformity” with “cowardice,” and you have Berman’s updated critique of liberalism gone soft.
Berman’s is a necessary voice, but it’s a voice that can only be fruitful in equipoise with the skeptical one of Niebuhrian liberalism. Berman’s untrammeled moralism can leave us stranded (literally) in the dunes of endless desert. But liberal doubt can also lead us down an equally dangerous path of moral complacency and atrophy. What is Berman to liberalism and liberalism to Berman? Each in the end keeps the other honest.