Berman’s “Flight of the Intellectuals”: The Lastest Quack ‘Conservative’ History of ‘Islamo-Fascism’ Intended to Divert Attention from America’s Own Fascist Governance and Inflate Justifications for War
Mark Lynch in Foreign Affairs: " ... Many of the valuable debates that The Flight of the Intellectuals could have sparked are drowned out by Berman's ludicrous efforts to construct an intellectual and organizational genealogy linking Nazi Germany and contemporary Islamism. His insistence on the usefulness of the concept of 'Islamic fascism' ... is one of the surest clues to his indifference to Muslim reality in favor of intellectual gamesmanship. ... "
Righteous and Wrong
New York Review of Books | August 19, 2010
The Flight of the Intellectuals
Melville House, 299 pp., $26.00
Nomad: From Islam to America
Free Press, 277 pp., $27.00
Terror and Liberalism
Norton, 220 pp., $13.95 (paper)
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents
Princeton University Press, 132 pp., $19.95
Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name
Yale University Press, 464 pp., $35.00 (to be published in September)
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, stands an exhibit that is for some more unsettling than the replicas of the Warsaw Ghetto or the canisters of Zyklon B gas used at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Next to blown-up photographs of emaciated corpses from the death camps there is a picture of the grand mufti of Palestine, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, reviewing an honor guard of the Muslim division of the Waffen SS that fought the Serbs and antifascist partisans. The display includes a cable to Hajj Amin from Heinrich Himmler, dated November 2, 1943: “The National Socialist Party has inscribed on its flag ‘the extermination of world Jewry.’ Our party sympathizes with the fight of the Arabs, especially the Arabs of Palestine, against the foreign Jew.” There is also a quote from a broadcast the mufti gave over Berlin radio on March 1, 1944: “Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This is the command of God, history and religion.”
As the Israeli historian Tom Segev suggests, “the visitor is left to conclude that there is much in common between the Nazis’ plan to destroy the Jews and the Arabs’ enmity to Israel.” Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, makes the connection even more explicit. Although defeated in Europe, the virus of Nazism is, in his view, vigorously present in the Arab-Islamic world, with Hajj Amin the primary source of this infection. Instead of being tried as a war criminal, Hajj Amin was allowed to leave France in 1946, after escaping from Germany via Switzerland. A trial, Berman suggests, might have “sparked a little self-reflection about the confusions and self-contradictions within Islam” on matters Jewish, comparable to the postwar “self-reflections” that took place inside the Roman Catholic Church.
Hajj Amin received a hero’s welcome on his arrival in Egypt, where he renewed his connections with Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he had previously supplied with funds from Nazi Germany and ideas for SS-type military formations. The Brotherhood proved fertile soil for the Nazi bacillus. As a result of Hajj Amin’s return, Berman concludes, “the Arab zone ended up as the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue, to boot, returned home in glory, instead of in disgrace.” Planet Berman evidently excludes India, where Subhas Chandra Bose, who broadcast anti-British propaganda for the Nazis before creating the Indian National Army to fight with the Japanese, is now honored in the pantheon of national heroes in Delhi’s Red Fort. It also excludes Finland, where Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces that fought with the Germans against the Soviets and volunteered recruits for the Waffen SS, was elected by parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1944 to 1946. In 2005 he and his predecessor, Risto Ryti, who served a ten-year prison sentence for allying Finland with Nazi Germany, were voted the country’s top two national heroes in a survey by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Berman, however, is not to be bothered by inconvenient truths that might arrest the flow of his rhetoric.
His vision is crassly ideological: facts that might interfere with his argument—such as al-Banna’s stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam, as well as other complicating factors—are liable to be discarded or ignored. The thrust of his book lies in its title—a homage to La Trahison des clercs (1927), Julien Benda’s attack on the intellectual corruption of his contemporaries. In his famous essay Benda lamented the demise of philosophical universalism, accusing his peers of abandoning Enlightenment ideals in favor of nationalist particularisms and partisan ideologies. Published before Martin Heidegger joined the Nazis, and long before Jean-Paul Sartre “bit his tongue” about Stalin’s horrors to avoid discouraging the French working class, the book had a prophetic ring and is justly regarded as a manifesto for intellectual integrity. However, as his title suggests, Berman is less concerned with the betrayals or corruption of the intellectuals he excoriates than with what he claims to be their moral cowardice. One aspect of this is their “refusal to discuss or even acknowledge the Nazi influence that has turned out to be so weirdly venomous and enduring in the history of the Islamist movement.”
The charge is disturbing, but not without foundation. France and Belgium have seen an increase in anti-Semitic episodes, most of them laid at the door of Muslim immigrants or their descendants. Muslim polemics in Europe—reflecting the anti-Israeli rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah as well as traditional fulminations against Jews derived from the Koran and prophetic traditions—have long mixed anti-Semitic tropes derived from European sources in a toxic mix of diatribes. The most egregious example is a reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a notorious tsarist forgery adopted and circulated by the Nazis—in the charter of Hamas, the Islamist movement now controlling Gaza. Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading ideologue who was executed by Nasser in 1966, was an outspoken anti-Semite, with views as extreme as Hitler’s, an issue that Berman addressed with considerable insight in Terror and Liberalism (2003). As Berman sees it, the poison of European anti-Semitism was subsumed in the broader eddies of Muslim totalitarianisms—Nasserist, Baathist, and Islamist. The atrocities these movements inflicted on Muslim societies (in Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria) turned out to have been “fully as horrible as the fascism and Stalinism of Europe” with victims numbered in millions. Instead of facing reality, Western politicians and intellectuals have engaged in “ideological systems of denial.” The wake-up call came on September 11. The War on Terror that followed
was an event in the twentieth-century mode. It was the clash of ideologies. It was the war between liberalism and the apocalyptic and phantasmagorical movements that have risen up against liberal civilization ever since the calamities of the First World War.
The Flight of the Intellectuals elaborates on the theme of an embattled liberal civilization facing a totalitarian or fascist onslaught. Where Terror and Liberalism took a broad-brush approach toward the modern appeasers—heirs to the “useful idiots” on left and right who defended or ignored the dangers of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism—The Flight points an accusing finger at two particular writers—Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash—whom Berman regards as exemplifying liberal intellectual pusillanimity. The book—originally published as a lengthy article in The New Republic—tries to perform a detailed autopsy on Buruma’s New York Times profile of Hassan al-Banna’s Swiss-born grandson, Tariq Ramadan, whose work I have reviewed in these pages.1 This attack is oddly unbalanced, since the space Berman allows himself vastly exceeds the Times’s allotment to Buruma. Berman takes as his point of departure Buruma’s general assessment that “Ramadan’s values, although ‘neither secular, nor always liberal,’ offer ‘an alternative to violence, which is, in the end, reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.’” Without directly challenging this assessment, Berman explores the links between the grand mufti and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the latter is said to have revered.
Berman regards Ramadan’s attitude toward his grandfather as being unacceptably adulatory: “He is presented as a visionary, ahead of his own time. A man of democratic temperament. A man committed to rational judgement and scientific truth. A peaceful man, patient and practical.” This portrait, suggests Berman, is deeply flawed. “To read through Ramadan’s account of his grandfather you have to pick your way carefully past the omissions and gaps, as if tiptoeing down a potholed road.” In particular Berman accuses Ramadan of glossing over accusations that his grandfather was involved in violence or sanctioned assassinations. He writes that the Brotherhood’s current incarnation in the Hamas movement now ruling in Gaza remains “the world’s most famous celebrant of the cult of suicide bombings.” This is an astonishing statement considering that most of the suicide missions currently directed at security targets or Muslim worshipers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have little if any connection with the conflicts in Gaza or Palestine. Without even acknowledging the mass of studies now available that explore the different jihadist currents in South and Central Asia, Berman makes the preposterous claim that most of the Islamist organizations with terrorist reputations are descended from al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood, either directly, like Hamas, or schismatically, like al-Qaeda. Berman attacks Ramadan’s claim to represent nonviolent values—for not owning up to his grandfather’s engagement in violence, and for not addressing his admiration for Hitler and reverence for the grand mufti: “On the topics of the SS, the Holocaust, Hitler, and the Nuremberg trials, someone reading Ramadan’s account of the mufti and the mufti’s debt to al-Banna would learn nothing at all.” Warming to his theme, Berman accuses Ramadan—and, by extension, Buruma—of being “soft” on Sayyid Qutb, seen by many as the intellectual godfather of modern Islamist terror.
Berman glosses a lengthy section of Ramadan’s first book, based on his Ph.D. dissertation and published in French under the title Aux Sources du renouveau musulman (The Roots of Muslim Renewal), and presents what he claims is Ramadan’s central argument in summary: “Islamism’s violent strain got its start among Qutb’s followers, but…this was not because of anything that Qutb himself had written or done.” This is, however, a crude and tendentious rendition of Ramadan’s subtle analysis of differences between Qutb and Banna and between Qutb and his more radical and extremist disciples. The issue (a crucial one) revolves around Qutb’s use of the term jahiliyya, the period of “ignorance” classical writers associated with the era of paganism that preceded the coming of Islam, and that Qutb—following the Indo-Pakistani ideologue Sayyid Abu Ala al-Maududi—applied to the corruption and decadence of contemporary Muslim societies. Banna, Ramadan insists, never adopted the Manichaean or binary model (Islam versus the West, Muslim versus pagan, governance of God versus that of “idolatry”) that characterizes the vision of extremists, such as al-Qaeda or the Egyptian separatist group known as Takfir wa Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration); while Qutb never went so far as to declare Egyptian society a fully infidel one. Rather his view was that Muslims should recognize that their environment was non-Muslim in the broader Kirkegaardian sense that leaves space for activist commitment. As Leonard Binder, a leading American specialist puts it, the Egyptian writer urged the Muslim to “practice his faith as an expression of his being,” regardless of social consequences. Ignoring such nuances, Berman constructs his “totalitarian” model of the Islamist movement, in which al-Banna, Maududi, Qutb, Ramadan’s father Said (who married al-Banna’s daughter), and Tariq himself are all “stars in a single constellation.” Revisiting several well-known episodes in the Ramadan story, he dwells on the famous television debate with Nicolas Sarkozy (at that time France’s interior minister), when Ramadan refused to condemn outright the stoning of adulterous women, arguing instead for a “moratorium” on the practice followed by a comprehensive “debate.” Berman sees the episode as a pivotal moment in Ramadan’s career:
Some six million French people watched that exchange. A huge number of Muslim immigrants must have been among them—the very people who might have benefited from hearing a prestigious and articulate public figure speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan was not up to it…. The seventh century had suddenly appeared…. A moment of barbarism.
In his most recent book, Taming the Gods, Ian Buruma puts an entirely different gloss on the episode, following France’s leading scholar of modern Islamic movements, Olivier Roy, in suggesting that Ramadan’s position represents a stage toward secularization. By leaving a religious law for discussion without actually applying it, he is effectively dissociating religious doctrine from political or social practice. As Roy has suggested, a moratorium “maintains orthodoxy while enabling the believer to live in a society governed by laïcité.” Roy’s position is evidently based on the idea that consensus—one of four canonical “roots” of Islamic law—is a precondition for change, a view that Berman entirely fails to consider. Berman also exhumes an article (published on the Internet after it was refused by Le Monde and other newspapers) in which Ramadan launched a Benda-style assault on several intellectuals with Jewish backgrounds—including Bernard Kouchner (now France’s foreign minister), Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and André Glucksmann. All were accused of putting their “communal” sympathies for Israel before their duty to defend universal human rights in the case of the Palestinian victims of Israeli policies. The article misfired since one of those named, Pierre-André Taguieff, is not Jewish; but it produced rejoinders by Glucksmann and Lévy, who in effect accused Ramadan of anti-Semitism—a response that Buruma, much to Berman’s annoyance, described as “shrill” and “vastly over-blown.” It is worth noting that since Berman’s book went to press, both Finkielkraut and Lévy have signed a petition to the European Parliament, calling Israel’s occupation and settlements policy “morally and politically wrong” and a threat to Israel’s existence because they “feed the unacceptable delegitimization process” that Israel faces abroad.
In his discourse on Ramadan, Berman challenges Buruma’s statement that “Ramadan is in fact one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism.” However, Berman fails to provide details of Ramadan’s views on anti-Semitism, creating the impression that Ramadan’s opposition to it is vague and ambiguous. Berman avoids mentioning, for example, the landmark interview Ramadan gave to the Israeli daily Haaretz in May 2002 after Israeli troops had entered the Palestinian town of Jenin. After signing a joint statement with fifty-six other religious leaders, including the grand mufti of Marseilles, the chief rabbi of France, and the Catholic bishop of Ivry, warning against criminal attacks on synagogues, Ramadan criticized as inadequate statements by Muslim leaders who described anti-Semitic incidents as “deeds of a local nature.” “It is possible to be against Israel’s policy in Palestine,” he said,
but we must take into account the real memory of the Jews’ suffering in the twentieth century and evince special sensitivity to the Holocaust. This is an obligation of conscience and ethics….
Challenged by the Haaretz reporter to comment on the ideological legacy of his grandfather, including his attacks on Egyptian Jews, Ramadan stated:
It is necessary to present each of the positions, my grandfather’s and my own, in their political and historical context. Al-Banna lived at a time when the state of Israel was being formed and he, like others, defined its establishment as an act of colonization which in his opinion justified resistance. This was a very difficult period for the Palestinians. Clearly there is a difference between what he said in his day and what I am saying today…. There are some things of my grandfather’s with which I agree and others with which I don’t agree….
The Haaretz interview is not an outright condemnation of his grandfather’s views; but neither is it a wholehearted endorsement. The problem—as with so many of Ramadan’s comments—is its lack of specificity. While he condemns anti-Semitism in Europe unequivocally, he doesn’t deal explicitly with the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in attacking Jewish homes and shops in Cairo in the 1940s. Ramadan prefers to deal with generalities rather than to focus on particular events or acts. As Denis MacShane, a former British minister of state for Europe, has remarked, he “is a supreme finder of words that elide and hide meaning, that glide away sinuously from confrontation.”
His comments on Brotherhood violence, however, are not inconsistent with the accounts of leading Western historians such as Richard Mitchell, Brynjar Lia, and Gudrun Kramer, who have shown how the violence attributed to the Brotherhood’s military wing (the so-called “secret apparatus”)—held responsible for the assassinations of Egyptian government officials during the 1940s and 1950s (including a judge and a prime minister, an event for which al-Banna paid with his life in 1949, when he was killed by the state security apparatus)—arose during the anticolonial struggle against Britain and the conflict in Palestine.
In a bizarre riff on a statement by Said Ramadan (Tariq’s father) that it was “incumbent” on Muslims to resist Zion-ist settlement, Berman locates the “entire tragedy” of Palestinian Arabs, who have come to look upon their struggle with Zionism as a religious affair, in the idea of “violence as a sacred principle.” This development must indeed be seen as tragic, given that conflicts rooted in religious absolutisms tend to be less susceptible to negotiated settlements than conflicts defined in purely secular terms.
What is astonishing, however, is the absence of any recognition on the part of Berman that the same corrosive religious and ideological processes have been at work on the Israeli side, and that armed settlers, inspired by the Torah and funded in some cases by evangelical Christian sympathizers, have mounted terrorist actions against Palestinian civilians along with illegal appropriations of territory and water. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, claimed rabbinical sanction for his act; while Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in Hebron, is revered as a hero and martyr by Israeli zealots.
In his comments on the Palestine conflict Ramadan has unequivocally condemned terrorism (including suicide bombings) against civilians, but has argued that the situation of Palestinians can make such actions “understandable.” His position on suicide missions puts him at odds with Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim television preacher, based in Qatar, now widely regarded as the Brotherhood’s most eminent preacher, who issued a fatwa allowing qualified support for these actions. Berman, who claims that Ramadan reveres Qaradawi, makes no reference to Ramadan’s condemnation of terror. For him the Brotherhood’s violence is primordial, a manifestation of its totalitarian inclinations, although he chooses the word “fascist” for being more suggestively pungent.
Berman never suggests that this term can be sharply double-edged. After Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat in 1993, demonstrators belonging to the Likud party, currently governing in Israel, held up effigies of the prime minister dressed in Nazi uniform. In December 1948, after the massacre of some 240 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin by irregulars of the Irgun Zvi Leumi (IZL) led by Menahem Begin, a future Israeli prime minister, a number of prominent Jews, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, wrote to The New York Times protesting against Begin’s forthcoming visit to America and accusing his Herut party of having “the unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a ‘Leader State’ is the goal.”
In due course the IZL was absorbed into the Haganah (now the Israel Defense Forces) and Begin’s Freedom Party—Herut—now forms part of the Likud. While some of Israel’s more vociferous critics will argue that a “fascist” predisposition toward violence exists, a more generous reading would be that what Ramadan calls “state terror” (evidenced by a policy of disproportionality in response to Hamas provocations) is the outcome of calculations that are strategic, tactical, and rational (which does not mean to say that they are not dangerously misguided or counterproductive).
In the Israeli political process the extremist tendencies exhibited by the IZL and the Stern Gang—its irregular cobelligerents—have been subjected to the rigors of democratic politics. Berman, however, will not grant that the Brotherhood or its offshoots are capable of a comparable evolution in response to changing circumstances. He pours scorn on claims that al-Banna or his political heirs supported parliamentary systems of government. For him the fascist beast remains a constant and vibrant presence, fronted by the likes of Ramadan and the “useful idiots” who have taken him seriously, such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash.
The burden of this attack is not confined to anti-Semitism and its fascistic ramifications. The cowardly intellectuals are also accused of being less than assiduous in defending intellectual freedoms and women’s rights. Both Buruma and Garton Ash are condemned for raising questions (with less than fulsome praise) about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the prominent Somali-born member of the Dutch parliament who—following death threats and the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam—is now living, under the protection of bodyguards, in the United States. Hirsi Ali is a self-confessed atheist who has abandoned the faith of her ancestors. In Murder in Amsterdam (2006), Buruma’s superb account of the Van Gogh murder, Hirsi Ali suggested that her critics saw her as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” a phrase echoed by Garton Ash in these pages in his review of The Caged Virgin, a book of essays, where he described her as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist.”2
Garton Ash now avoids this term, which he sees as being open to misunderstanding and willful misrepresentation (although, as I have suggested, it offers a plausible summary of her position, and places her in the excellent company of the late Ernest Gellner, who described himself as an “Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalist”).3 Neither he nor Buruma have any quarrel with Hirsi Ali for abandoning her religion. Buruma, however, does describe her as being a little disdainful toward her fellow immigrants. He argues that as an avowed atheist she must have a limited influence on Muslim believers—a proposition that is borne out historically by the failure of Communist movements in the vast majority of Muslim countries.
Berman questions this view: a book can be a powerful solvent of entrenched social practices. Many young Muslim women may be taking furtive glances at chapters such as “Ten Tips for Muslim Women Who Want to Leave.” “A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist,” Berman writes of Ali. Berman’s comments on Garton Ash, who built a formidable reputation in the 1980s writing about East European dissidents under very difficult circumstances, are particularly, and quite unfairly, harsh:
His contribution to public understanding was immense, in those years. In 2006 and 2007, these historic journalistic achievements of his conferred a moral weight on his easy dismissal of Hirsi Ali as a foolish simple-minded woman and his cautious applause for Tariq Ramadan—a greater moral weight than Garton Ash may have recognized (which might account for how careless he was in adopting his positions, how flippant in his phrasing, how content he seemed to be with his paucity of research).
It is tempting to conclude that in mounting this intemperate attack on Garton Ash, Berman is really writing about himself. Despite his implied claim to be one of the few journalists or intellectuals from Western backgrounds “to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas,” phrases such as “carelessly adopted positions,” “flippant phrasing,” and “paucity of research” constantly spring to mind when reading his book.
In his attack on Garton Ash, Berman makes no reference to frequent and highly positive statements he has made about Hirsi Ali as a “thoughtful, calm, clear, almost pedantic spokeswoman for the fundamental liberal values of the Enlightenment” fully deserving of liberal support. Nor does Berman mention the qualifications Garton Ash applies to Tariq Ramadan as a “very problematic” spokesman for Islamic reform. Any such nuances would interfere with Berman’s purpose of representing these two influential European writers, in language borrowed from Pascal Bruckner, as “Western masochists” driven by “colonial guilt.”
Moreover, in his account of Tariq Ramadan and his work Berman avoids exploring the complex religious forces affecting contemporary Islam. He conveys little sense of the historical and political context behind the struggle between the reformist tendency in Sunni Islam going back to such nineteenth-century thinkers as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, who were strongly influenced by, though also resistant to, the West, and the myriad groups of modern Salafists (sometimes called “literalists”) funded by petrodollars from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.
Berman questions Ramadan’s self-designation as a “Salafi-Reformist,” hinting that it may conceal terrorist leanings; but he takes little trouble to explain the contradictory currents (some of them jihadist or terroristic, but most of them merely puritanical, judgmental, and inward-looking as well as sectarian and misogynistic) covered by this somewhat oxymoronic umbrella term.
A more illuminating analysis comes from Hirsi Ali herself in her latest book. Nomad covers some of the same ground as The Caged Virgin and her personal memoir, Infidel. Its special strength, like that of its predecessors, lies in the way that her arguments and perceptions are rooted in personal experience. Unlike Berman, Hirsi Ali is not an armchair observer or strategist. She is a battle-scarred fighter for rights that most women in the West take for granted, but that the vast majority of women in the developing world can only dream about. She sees how the culture of honor and ideas of male entitlement “drastically restrict women’s choices.”
She rages eloquently against the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (to which she herself was subjected by her own grandmother), at the scandal of small girls having their labia removed on kitchen tables in Rotterdam and Utrecht in order to provide them with “built-in chastity belts.” These alone can guarantee the “incontrovertible proof of the virginity” that safeguards family honor. She writes revealingly about the clash of cultures between the tribal values of her Somali background and those of the modern West.
In America, where she often appears as a celebrity speaker, she is especially annoyed by meeting young Muslims,
these confident young men and women…who had so manifestly benefited from every advantage of Western education yet were determined to ignore the profound differences between a theocratic mind-set and a democratic mind-set…. If they lived in Saudi Arabia, under Shari’a law, these college girls in their pretty scarves wouldn’t be free to study, to work, to drive, to walk around.
In sum, her fulminations against Islam are directed less at its theology than at the tyranny of patriarchal customs that she sees it as upholding. She is aware that this is delicate territory because of the legacy of colonialism; but she gives short shrift to the arguments about colonial feminism—that the colonial powers used women’s rights to further their imperial ambitions, for example:
Concern for the plight of Muslim women was not remotely related to the original European colonisation of what is now called the developing world. The scramble for Africa was a brazen competition openly motivated by gold, God, and glory, not a gracious attempt to emancipate little girls.
Many historians would challenge her here on grounds of historical accuracy. Britain’s scramble for Africa was intimately bound up with the suppression of the slave trade, much of it conducted by Muslims, and a substantial part of which included traffic in women.
As a work of impassioned zealotry, Nomad is an excellent read. It is a book that never hesitates to stand up for the Enlightenment and to proclaim that “West is Best.” As a manifesto for individual freedom it is powerfully subversive, appealing to wives, daughters, and sisters to abandon the tyranny of custom, to throw off the patriarchal yoke. But it offers no plausible avenues for religious reform within Islam (although, as a visitor to American churches, Hirsi Ali seems well disposed toward liberal versions of Christianity). With her knowledge largely confined to her own background in Somalia and Saudi Arabia (and among immigrant communities in Holland), she exhibits little interest in or understanding of the complex processes currently at work in the wider Muslim world.
The book’s most telling passages narrate encounters that are poignant, even tragic, between Hirsi Ali and her dying father, the pain of whose final illness may have been exacerbated by the knowledge of his daughter’s apostasy. She faces this dilemma squarely. Her story may resonate with many able and intelligent women from Europe’s immigrant communities who find themselves in similar situations. But it is not a path that all will wish to emulate. The power of clan and custom (as she herself ably demonstrates) is rooted in human affections as well as patriarchal authority.
Herein, I would suggest, lies the fallacy of treating the Islamist movements with all their complicated ramifications as a “totalitarian” ideology in the same category as Nazism and communism, with dissenters such as Hirsi Ali viewed as “persecuted intellectuals” comparable to the heroic refuseniks of the cold war era. Granted that Islamism contains fascistic elements (to which I myself have drawn attention), it is dangerously simplistic to assimilate the complexities of family power rooted in clan politics and kin patronage networks of a traditionally based society to a system comparable to that which operated in Russia from 1917 to 1991 or Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich.
The inadequacy of the ideological model of “Islamic fascism” that Berman adopts in both Terror and Liberalism and The Flight of the Intellectuals was revealed by Paul Bremer, George W. Bush’s viceroy in Iraq, when he made the disastrous decision to abolish the Baath Party in 2003, precipitating a sectarian war that wreaked an appalling human cost. Bremer was explicit in making a Berman-like comparison between Baathism and Nazism. “Just as in our occupation of Germany we had passed what were called ‘de-Nazification decrees,’” he told PBS’s Frontline, “the model for the de-Baathification was to look back at that de-Nazification.”
Berman is Bremer’s intellectual companion, his ideological fellow traveler. Despite a smooth delivery that gives an appearance of sophistication, he suffers from the same anthropological illiteracy that has proved catastrophic in Iraq and now—increasingly—in Afghanistan, where US and NATO policymakers seem to have difficulty in grasping the complex, clan-based nature of the insurgencies they face.
As for Hirsi Ali, a fiery rebel soul, she has fallen in love with Western culture: an epiphanic moment in Nomad comes on a visit to Las Vegas, of all places. Although she writes convincingly about her struggle with clan-based “family values,” she makes no practical suggestion about how the tight mesh of personal allegiances that make up European (or indeed much of global) Islam can be unraveled before a new, successful, individually based immigrant society can take root. As Garton Ash observed in his review of The Caged Virgin, “A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic.”
While the scandals that outrage European liberals and conservatives—the Rushdie affair, the Muhammad cartoons, the verbal attacks on Israelis and their supporters at campus meetings—call to mind some of the uglier episodes of the 1930s, they are not the logical outcome of “Islamo-fascism” or proto-Marxist ideologies, but of struggles around the contested symbols surrounding group identities and communal allegiances. The Islamist movement is not an ideological monolith backed by the power of an industrialized state—though there may be nasty underpinnings, as in the export from oil-rich countries of medieval prejudices about homosexuals, women, and Jews. All of the Islamist movements seek legitimacy by drawing on the symbolic capital sanctified by an ancient religious tradition. However, since—unlike in Christianity—there are no central organizing institutions able to manage and control this symbolic proliferation, a high level of anarchy—some of it with terrorist offshoots—persists.
Managing or “domesticating” Islam is a challenge for Western policymakers, as it was in the nineteenth century. A good beginning (now dawning in London and Washington) would be a new strategy for removing one of the principal catalysts for terrorism, which is the presence of Western troops in Muslim lands. On the domestication of Islam in Europe, Ian Buruma makes the useful suggestion that functioning democracies need not depend on shared values: the minimum requirement is, simply, that citizens abide by the law. Taking issue with the hysterical tone surrounding the debates over “banning the burqa” in France and Belgium, he argues that “a democratic state has no business being an arbiter in theological affairs.”
Fundamentalist enclaves—such as the Orthodox quarters of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem, Stamford Hill in London, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or the Amish villages in Pennsylvania—can coexist with democratic polities, although there will always be disputes about boundary maintenance. Religious fundamentalisms can be linked with political extremism, but they are not the same. Indeed, it is the task of good governance to keep them apart.
That process is already taking root inside developing Muslim polities. As the Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni demonstrates in L’Islam de marché: l’autre révolution conservatrice (2005), Islamist movements as far apart as Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia are giving ground to new types of “religious entrepreneurs” less interested in the grand design of acquiring state power than in developing Muslim lifestyles that can coexist with the status quo. Haenni sees this as part of the process of embourgeoisement occurring in Islamic societies, showing how the “cosmopolitan bourgeoisie and export-oriented manufacturers are making their pious ‘come-back’”(he uses the English term), bringing with them an agenda of religious reform that coincides with the attainment of worldly opulence.
Haenni’s model recalls the paradigm of Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic” and the suffocating picture of Methodist conformity in the novels of Arnold Bennet. This may not be hospitable to freethinkers, but it is a stage toward secularization. A good example is the city of Kayseri in central Turkey, currently one of the world’s largest exporters of denim, and sometimes described as the center of “Muslim Calvinism.” Kayseri is the Islamist equivalent of Bennet’s “Five Towns” where public piety rules the streets and affluence is equated with godliness.
Obsessed as they are with their model of a “totalitarian threat” to Enlightenment liberalism, both Berman and Hirsi Ali fail to take account of well-documented facts that would challenge their presuppositions. Berman muddles kin-patronage politics, a constant in Arab societies, with fascism. Hirsi Ali—oblivious of changes in gender roles that are occurring within more developed Muslim polities, and ignoring the way that traditional systems of authority tend to oppress women in cultures as different as China, Japan, and India—confuses Islam (a malleable religious tradition) with patriarchy (a specific set of social relationships built around masculine power). As Julien Benda himself might acknowledge, a failure to look at all the facts, however complex they may be, is a kind of intellectual betrayal, a trahison des clercs.
1.See "The Big Muslim Problem," The New York Review, December 17, 2009, and "The Islamic Optimist,"The New York Review, August 16, 2007.↩
2.The New York Review, October 5, 2006. ↩
3.In Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name, to be published in the US in September, Garton Ash spells out his views on these issues at greater length in the section "Islam, Terror, and Freedom."↩