Sunday, June 17, 2007

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan: Part 11

Noting our failure of nerve?
(Image from Wikipedia)

The last 15 pages of Paul Berman's long article contrast the gentleness with which many Western intellectuals such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash have treated Tariq Ramadan the reformist defender of Islam to the harshness with which these same intellectuals have treated Ayaan Hirsi Ali the reformist critic of Islam.

For an analysis of this, Berman turns to the French writer Pascal Bruckner, one of the French intellectuals, along with figures such as André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard Henri-Lévy known as the New Philosophers, famous for their critique of communism and totalitarianism nearly 30 ago. Bruckner was known for his critique of "Third Worldism," a romanticized leftist view that looked to the postcolonial world as a source of authentic revolution because it was not Western. "This was the doctrine," Berman notes, "that venerated revolutionary leaders such as Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro not because they were communists but because they were the leaders of the Third World revolution" (page 58). Leftist veneration for such 'leaders' has a way of turning to leftist denigration of those who criticized them, especially those who came from the same Third World places where these 'leaders' ruled. Such critics were seen as traitors, lackeys of the West. More recently, as the left has shifted toward a multicultural postmodernism, the leftist critics of people like Hirsi Ali have accused her of being just as fundamentalistic as those Muslims whom she criticizes. Bruckner thinks that this leftist critique is nonsense but that Buruma and Ash have fallen for it. Berman summarizes:
Buruma and Garton Ash, Bruckner concluded, had fallen for the intellectual miasmas of the postmodern sensibility, and the miasmas had led, via the errors of relativism and an indiscriminate multiculturalism, to the simplest of philosophical mistakes. This was the inability to draw even the most elementary of distinctions. In the postmodern idea, the Enlightenment has come to be looked upon as merely one more set of cultural prejudices, no better and very likely rather worse than other sets of cultural prejudices -- a zealotry that is unable to control its own excesses. From this point of view, someone like Hirsi Ali, who grew up in an atmosphere of Islamist radicalism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Africa and has taken up a new outlook committed to rationalism and individual freedom, has merely gone from one fundamentalism to another -- not much different, seen in this light, from [Theo] van Gogh's murderer[, i.e., Mohammed Bouyeri]. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 59)
This means, argues Berman, "that Hirsi Ali's critics have lost the ability to distinguish between a fanatical murderer and a rational debater" (page 59). And Berman contrasts this response to a rather different response that he saw in the case of Salman Rushdie:
Eighteen years ago, when Rushdie came under threat, and one of his translators was killed and another was knifed and a couple of Norwegian bookstores were bombed and a British hotel was attacked by a suicide bomber, not to mention the more than fifty people killed in anti-Rushdie rioting around the world--at that terrible moment, when the dangers were obvious, a good many intellectuals in Western countries, people without any sort of Arab or Muslim background, rallied instinctively in Rushdie's defense. A good many reached out to their endangered Arab and Muslim counterparts and colleagues, and celebrated the courage of everyone who declined to be intimidated. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 64)
Berman is correct to note that far more people of the left spoke out clearly in defense of Rusdie's right to free expression. There was more of that back then. But I was living in Berkeley at the time, and I recall a different reaction among some on the left. In speaking with one of my housemates, who placed herself on the left, I discovered an argument more critical of Rushdie for making waves and less vigorous in defending free speech because it incited violence. I specifically recall my housemate faltering in a defense of free expression by couching her position as a defense of the "workers" in bookstores who might suffer violence if those stores carried Rushdie's book.

I doubt that she would have made the same argument against women's choice to abort because some radically fundamentalist Christians had threatened to bomb abortion clinics. In that case, free choice would surely have trumped.

As an aside, let me add that she happened to have a pair of shoes with Arabic writing on them, the cursive script as decoration being in fashion at that time, and as she was waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk, an Arabic man pointed to her shoes and commented, "You realize that those are verses from the Qur'an, don't you?" She never wore the shoes again, which I could understand. I could even understand her concerns about endangering the lives of the people who worked in bookstores.

And yet, if we fail to stand up for free expression, where are we headed? The issue is not merely academic, as Berman shows:
When I met Hirsi Ali at a conference in Sweden last year, she was protected by no less than five bodyguards. Even in the United States she is protected by bodyguards. But this is no longer unusual. Buruma himself mentions in Murder in Amsterdam that the Dutch Social Democratic politician Ahmed Aboutaleb requires full-time bodyguards. At that same Swedish conference I happened to meet the British writer of immigrant background who has been obliged to adopt the pseudonym Ibn Warraq, out of fear that, in his case because of his Bertrand Russell-influenced philosophical convictions, he might be singled out for assassination. I happened to attend a different conference in Italy a few days earlier and met the very brave Egyptian-Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who writes scathing criticisms of the new totalitarian wave in Il Corriere della Sera -- and I discovered that Allam, too, was traveling with a full complement of five bodyguards. The Italian journalist Fiamma Nierenstein [sic: Nirenstein], because of her well-known sympathies for Israel, was accompanied by her own bodyguards. Caroline Fourest, the author of the most important extended criticism of Ramadan, had to go under police protection for a while. The French philosophy professor Robert Redeker has had to go into hiding. I have no idea what security precautions have been taken by Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published the Muhammad cartoons. And van Gogh.... ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," pages 63-64)
And what of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh? Why, he went about the Amsterdam streets on bicycle, without bodyguards, and died a particularly brutal death: shot, stabbed, nearly decapitated.
And yet if someone like Pascal Bruckner mumbles a few words about the need for courage under these circumstances, the sneers begin -- "Now where have we heard that kind of thing before?" -- and onward to the litany about fascism. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 64)
Really? The F-word? Yes, really. It begins -- as Berman reports -- when Bruckner remarks that:
"A culture of courage is perhaps what is most lacking among today's directors of conscience." This sort of remark is not Buruma's cup of tea. The word "courage" leads him into thoughts of fascism. In reply to Bruckner's call for a bit of courage, Buruma tut-tutted, "Now where have we heard that kind of thing before? The need to defend Europe against alien threats; the fatigued, self-doubting, weak-kneed intellectuals...." Buruma wanted his readers to recognize the fascist rhetoric of Europe from seventy years ago, the kinds of phrases that used to pour from the mouths of Nazi intellectuals. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 63)
Why are anti-fascist being accused of fascism? Why the current need for this "culture of courage"? Why the silence on so much of the left only 18 years after the Rushdie affair? "Two developments," says Berman, "account for it. The first development is the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism" (page 65).

On this note, and with these words, Berman's article ends.

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2 Comments:

At 8:45 PM, Anonymous michael reidy said...

I read the essay. On the whole I would have to say that I found it tendentious with a good deal of guilt by association. I presume that he could not get a direct interview so that he was left at the mercy of secondary sources. There was a certain amount of the modern preening of 'journalist as story' in the poring over the Buruma piece. Maybe there's history between them. If one wished one could dilute the credentials of Berman by saying that he's a N.Y.jew. On could further add that his grandfather was a labour activist in the trade union movement not untypical of early Zionists in Israel. One might even find some relations that were prominent in the battle to rid the Homeland of squatters. Etc, etc. all of which would prove nothing about Berman himself. So what more do we know about T.R. after this essay? Not much except that he was naïve politically to be caught out by Sarkozy. Any public Muslim must have a very complete set of responses on the 'woman' question.

Looking at his web site I find him to be generally light weight and really not a serious thinker, no Fanon he. As a philosopher he ought to be asking whether a once and for all time revelation means that there can be no development in doctrine. If there is only jurisprudence where is the room for Theology or Philosophy. That was the fulcrum of the earlier abandonement of speculation.

I think he's a bit of a waffler and not much of a bridge builder unless jelly has replaced the traditional materials of plain speech, honesty and scholarship. Not afraid of him, bored by him.

 
At 4:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Michael Reidy, for your comment. I'm assuming that you're a different Michael than the one who posted a comment earlier:

why Paul Berman gets it wrong

Or was this yours as well? The literary style sounds different.

Anyway, let me respond to your comment above. I disagree that Berman's article was tendentious, but I do understand why one might think so.

I think that it's not tendentious because Tariq Ramadan himself explicitly links his views with those of his father and his grandfather, making the question of his connection more than 'familial'.

As for Ramadan being "naive" in his remarks about a "moratorium" on stoning, I disagree. This was his complete response on this part to the woman question in Islam. His response won't get any better, and with good reason. He has to think of two audiences -- the Western one and the Muslim one. The best that he can do is call for a moratorium because the West would be satisfied with nothing less, and the Muslims with nothing more.

Not that his attempt at compromise works, for neither side -- in large part -- is willing to accept his suggestion anyway.

As for Ramadan's intellectual class, I don't offer an opinion on that, for I've not read enough of his writings. Your view, however, sounds reasonable to me. My only concern would be whether or not he speaks for many European Muslims, for he might be influential without being profound.

Jeffery Hodges

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