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Backbone, Berman, and Buruma: A Debate that Actually Matters

Timothy Garton Ash, a well-regarded professor of European studies at Oxford University and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, explored the term “Islamofascism” in a recent column for the Guardian. After considering the parallels between the 1930s and the present, he decided that Islamofascism didn’t quite fit. What about “Islamism,” then? This wasn’t exactly right, either; not all fundamentalists craved holy war. To summarize the creed of those who would kill Americans in the name of religion, Garton Ash finally settled on the more anodyne term “jihadism.” What cinched the deal? “Muslim opinion leaders I have consulted,” he wrote, “seem ready to accept that usage.”

I have admired Garton Ash’s writing, particularly his dispatches from Eastern Europe. But in this little linguistic exercise I thought I caught sight of someone too eager not to offend. I also thought I caught a glimpse of the high-stakes political debate in which Garton Ash has found himself entangled for the past year or so, about whom can be trusted to ensure that jihadism, or whatever he calls it, doesn’t become yet another European affliction. In this debate, Garton Ash has functioned as a second to Ian Buruma, another well-regarded European intellectual. Opposed to them have been a variety of continental thinkers and especially the American writer Paul Berman. Although they have not actually taken part in the debate, the Somali-born Dutch dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an implacable critic of Islam, and Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, chief theorist for a “European Islam,” have been conscripted as protagonists of its drama.

Although it has taken a turn toward the personal, with each side questioning the other’s moxie and morality and entertaining readers with a certain amount of score-settling, the debate has not gotten sidetracked by the usual narcissism of small differences; nor have the participants descended quite to the pettiness that makes some political-literary arguments resemble the struggle of fierce microbes devouring each other in a drop of water. Despite the often hasty nature of some of the exchanges, the controversy not only has gotten to the essentials; it has re-awakened the tranquilized conviction that ideas have consequences. The participants have argued as if something rises or falls on the outcome. And, indeed, something does: the future of Europe, among other things. What they have written shows, by comparison, how anti-intellectual many contemporary intellectuals have become in their self-reflective ironies; how little most of their giddy and morally vacuous talking points have to do with genuine intellectual engagement; how encounters that create clarity have been supplanted by outbursts that create only noise; and how reckless it is to put ideas into play simply because of pique or party interest, and regardless of consequence.

For all their differences, the participants in this debate believe that the world is intelligible, that wrong choices bring catastrophe, and that the West may be in peril. As a result, their argument has summoned up in one way or another many of the crucial issues now on the table: how and whether traditional Islam plays a role in the world of ideas; how to regard Muslim dissidents; whether the tremors of the demographic and cultural earthquake shaking Europe have made its prize achievement, the Enlightenment, obsolete; and finally, whether some liberal intellectuals have lost confidence in the West’s ability to combat illiberalism, even its homicidal strains.

The debate began with Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam, his 2006 book about the background and implications of the daylight butchery of Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist named Mohammed Bouyeri. The assassin’s final act, after gunning down Van Gogh and slashing his throat down to the spinal cord, was to stab a note into his chest. The letter contained a threat against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali anti-Islamist who had recently collaborated with Van Gogh on Submission, a film about the oppression of Muslim women. Bouyeri’s letter called her “a soldier of evil” in the service of a Jewish cabal, which, he claimed, controlled the Netherlands.

Buruma uses the event as the launching point for a meditation about “Dutch exceptionalism.” Just beneath the surface of the country’s fabled tolerance he finds smugness, hypocrisy, and denial, all of it coming from Holland’s conception of itself as the most open and liberal society in Europe and all of it bearing down heavily on the country’s alienated and often invisible Muslim minority. Buruma casts Holland’s as an insincere multiculturalism, lacking any pretense of genuine engagement and therefore powerless to cope with the conflict between the competing visions of the universal that he discerns in contemporary Europe—one radically secular and the other radically religious. Buruma doesn’t go so far as to say that the Dutch created Mohammed Bouyeri. But neither, he suggests, did they do much to prevent him.

The book is erudite and eloquently written. It was generally well received as a sensitive and sensible rumination about an unyielding dilemma. But some readers were disturbed at Buruma’s implication that a Europe they believed had already bent over backward to accommodate its Muslim minority should contort itself even more. Others stickled particularly at his criticism of Hirsi Ali. To be sure, Buruma acknowledges the power of her personal narrative—her escape from a dark past of genital mutilation, forced marriage, and religious fanaticism in Somalia; and then a flight to the Netherlands, where she was reborn a self-made intellectual, a member of Parliament, and a champion of the women of Europe’s Muslim diaspora.

The arc of this story and the distinctive personal voice Hirsi Ali discovered in living and telling it elevated her to the status of liberal icon. But while others might hear in her secular enthusiasms truths that dare not speak their name, Buruma heard “echoes of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood.” Although Hirsi Ali’s involvement with the Brotherhood was actually brief and superficial, the charge of exchanging one form of extremism for another was given a new variation: From her alleged radical background in Islam, Hirsi Ali had embraced a “radical version” of the Enlightenment. She was, in fact, an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” whose descriptions of life in the West (as Buruma would charge later on when he reviewed her memoir Infidel) had “an idealized, almost comic book quality . . . a caricature of sweetness
and light.”

This view of Hirsi Ali was immediately supported by Garton Ash in a review of Murder in Amsterdam that appeared in the New York Review of Books. Garton Ash agreed with Buruma that the hands on the clock of the coming European apocalypse were perilously close to midnight: “If things continue to go as badly as they are at this moment, their [Muslims’] alienation could turn against the fabrics of Europe’s most established democracies.” And he saw little from which to choose between the European demand that Muslims “adopt their faith of secular humanism” and Muslim demands “that we should adopt their faith.” In the perilous situation now facing the West, someone like Hirsi Ali had little to offer by way of solutions and much to offer by way of obstacles. Garton Ash added the descriptive phrase “slightly simplistic” to the charge of Enlightenment fundamentalism.

Over the next year, the two writers would repeatedly attack Hirsi Ali in a series of op-eds, articles, and reviews, along with replies to those who criticized their growing catalogue. Their comments on Hirsi Ali always began with ritualized stipulations about her bravery. But this was typically prelude to the accusation that she was playing a zero-sum game, and that anyone who uncritically supported her denunciations of Islamic extremism was giving up on reconciliation and therefore on the future. So even if they felt a bit uneasy about disparaging her, at least in the beginning, they could nonetheless assure themselves that history itself demanded no less. Eventually they warmed to the task, and Hirsi Ali became something of a fetish object, not only to be repeatedly criticized, but to be subtly, almost subliminally, degraded as well.

In his review of Murder in Amsterdam, Garton Ash suggested that Hirsi Ali never would have gotten as far as she did were she born “short, squat, and squinting” rather than strikingly beautiful. While not denying Infidel’s stark power, Buruma referred to it as a “skillfully ghostwritten book” and noted pointedly that when Hirsi Ali was forced to flee from Amsterdam to America after Van Gogh’s murder, she quickly alighted at the American Enterprise Institute. A stereotype seemed to be emerging: this was an African version of the dumb blonde who decided to become a neoconservative.

The critique of Hirsi Ali sparked a furious reaction in European intellectual circles, which played out for all to see on the Web site signandsight.com early in 2007. Some of the participants supported Buruma and Garton Ash, but the sharpest ripostes came from individuals who argued that the two men had gotten lost somewhere on the road to the third way, confused in their desperate search for a bridge between a dying Europe and the Europe with an Islamic face struggling to be born.

Turkish-born writer Necla Kelek took Buruma to task for his flip comment that the Muslim demand for Muslim beaches and Muslim hospitals was really no different from the liberated European demand for nude beaches and Catholic hospitals. “Whether it is headscarves or gender specific separation of public space,” she wrote, “political Islam is trying to establish apartheid of the sexes in free European societies. . . . A Muslim hospital is fundamentally different from a Catholic hospital. . . . In Islamic hospitals the husbands decide whether a caesarian will be carried out, or whether their wives may have themselves sterilised after bearing four children.”

The Swedish intellectual Lars Gustafson was disturbed by the rancid implication that the Enlightenment was just another set of dogmas, in no way different from, and no more universal than, those of Islam. And German social scientist and democracy activist Ulrike Ackermann argued that Buruma and Garton Ash were so desperate for “change through rapprochement” that they recalled those intellectuals who a generation earlier had said that “Stalinism could be criticized but Communism [had to be] handled with kid gloves.”

But it was the French writer Pascal Bruckner who really got under their skin. Author of Tears of the White Man, an influential chronicle of the Western left’s sentimentalization of the third world and its political habits, Bruckner precisely identified what he thought were the stakes of the argument: “Today a fundamentalist wave is bearing down on Europe. . . . There is no reason why Islam, as soon as it enters the Occidental democratic sphere, should escape secularism and enjoy a favor that is denied other confessions.” He challenged the basic legitimacy of the multiculturalism that Buruma and Garton Ash believed had been insufficiently engaged: “It accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, limiting their freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. . . . They are thus denied what has always been our privilege—passing from one world to another, from tradition to modernity, from blind obedience to rational democracy.” And finally, he hit them for what he deemed to be a preposterous equivalence in their discussions of the respective claims of Western secularism and Islam: “In politics, as in philosophy, the equal sign is always an abdication.”

Soon a new question was in the air. Who exactly did concerned intellectuals like Buruma and Garton Ash think Europe ought to be talking with (and listening to)? As it worked out, Buruma and Garton Ash had long since identified their ideal negotiating partner—the Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. A religious traditionalist who moves easily in Western literary circles and appears beside robed Islamic scholars in custom-made suits, Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has a bloodline that gives his message—a convergence between the values of European Christians and the values of European Muslims, which, Ramadan asserts, are “as universal as the Enlightenment”—a shiver of authenticity. While Hirsi Ali admonished white liberals to put to rest their post-colonial guilt (“If you want to feel guilty, feel guilty that you didn’t bring John Stuart Mill and left us only with the Koran”), Ramadan comforted this same constituency with lectures on the evils of “neo-liberal global capitalism.”

Garton Ash calls Ramadan “exactly the kind of Muslim we should be engaging with.” In his profile of Ramadan that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in the spring of 2007, Buruma seemed to agree. He began the piece by acknowledging that there may indeed be a morsel of truth in Ramadan’s reputation for slipperiness. He says that Ramadan considers himself a “Salafi reformist,” but instead of trying to unpack the apparent oxymoron, he accepts Ramadan’s own artful definition from his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam: “To protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.” Even more peculiarly, Buruma allows Ramadan to claim that his grandfather resembled the liberation theologists of Latin America and that he founded the Muslim Brotherhood to push for a system that would resemble a sort of Islamocentric “British-style parliamentary system.”

But legacy issues were not at the top of Buruma’s agenda. Ramadan’s willingness and ability to engage were what mattered; the fact that Ramadan had undertaken as his life’s work to tell Muslims “to be citizens [even though they] are still treated as aliens.” That this message, however passionately delivered, does not appear to have gained much traction among Europe’s Muslims is not a concern to Buruma, although Hirsi Ali, in a joint television appearance with Ramadan in 2006, told him that if he really believed his own rhetoric about reconciliation, he would establish a “Ramadanist” movement and get on with it.

Buruma’s profile wanders into other matters—Ramadan’s views about Jewish tribalism and anti-Semitism, his contempt for the Zionist entity, his inability to conceive of such a thing as religious doubt. But the sharp eye he employed in Murder in Amsterdam often seems averted here. Buruma reports almost off-handedly that Ramadan regards the fact that European Muslim women wear the hijab not as an onerous sign of submission, but as a matter of minority “rights.” Nor does he pursue very strenuously Ramadan’s call for a moratorium, but not an abolition, of stoning for adultery. (“You can’t just say it has to stop,” Ramadan tells him, “ . . . You have to discuss it in a religious context.”) The piece ends with a sort of relief: “Ramadan’s values were neither secular, nor always liberal, but they are not part of a holy war against democracy either. His politics are an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically but without fear.”

Paul Berman was the right person to give this expanding and somewhat inchoate discussion a more definitive shape and substance. Well acquainted with Europe and its intellectual players, he had already staked out his own ground in the post-9/11 dialogue in Terror and Liberalism and other writings.

In the 1980s, Berman had been an opponent of the contra war, but was deemed to be insufficiently enthusiastic about some of the more hardline Sandinistas. In 1986, Michael Moore, then-editor of Mother Jones, had tried to throttle a piece Berman had written that was somewhat critical of the Sandinistas’ approach to human rights; this led to Moore’s dismissal and ultimately to a suit and a settlement for $58,000 that provided seed money for Moore’s first film, Roger and Me. Berman was also once picketed by former Lincoln Brigaders because he had produced a favorable piece on the anti-Stalinist Brigade dissident Bill Herrick. “Berman is Vermin,” the antique protestors chanted.

Twenty years later, this hostility toward Berman has continued, mostly in the form of seething attacks from bloggers punishing him for his early support for the war in Iraq. His response has been that, while he argued for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, he never argued for Bush or the doctrine that carried his name, and indeed had warned at each step about the very pitfalls into which the administration proceeded methodically to fall. This explanation has never appeased his critics, but Berman, intellectually durable and endowed with a well-founded ability to bear grudges (if he is reading this now, he is surely livid that someone like myself, with whom he once had a nasty exchange over the meanings of the New Left, might be on the verge of saying something complimentary), has stood his ground.

No matter what Berman said, his most rancorous critics felt that he had tripped over the party line one time too many. If he had merely gone over to the right, such a thing would still have been despicable, but at least it would have conformed to a familiar pattern of trading one orthodoxy for its opposite, something like what Buruma and Garton Ash had accused Hirsi Ali of doing. And, I should perhaps add here, Berman himself has in the past accused me and my former Ramparts co-editor, David Horowitz, of doing exactly this.

When I was “breaking ranks”—a long goodbye, rather than an epiphany on the road to Damascus—I always thought that I’d go only so far; that I would dig a defensible foundation under the point to which I had just skidded and stay there. But the foundations kept crumbling and soon I found myself in a place where it was possible to look back at what I’d been, but not be there again. After the leaving was complete, I thought of Dylan Thomas’ great line: “After the first death there is no other.” It seemed to me that there was a political paraphrase: after the first doubt there is no other.

But this transformation, such as it was, took place in the hothouse of the New Left, with all its histrionics and talk of violent change and other forms of political dada. Paul Berman was never part of this. Like Christopher Hitchens and a few others, Berman knew very well the political topography of the ground he stood on—expanded a bit over the years, perhaps, but otherwise pretty much the same ground he’d always occupied—and therefore could believe that he hadn’t left the left, whose fringes now saw him as the friend of its enemies; it had left him.

In a 28,000 word article in The New Republic, Berman gave some of the issues already on the table—multiculturalism and its discontents; the half-hearted defense of the Enlightenment; whether Europe would modernize Islam or Islam would Islamize modernity—only glancing blows. What really interested him was Tariq Ramadan, and, more specifically, the exalted and somewhat sanguine view of Ramadan that Buruma produced in his New York Times Magazine profile.

Basing his mammoth essay on an exhaustive reading of Ramadan’s books and books about him by others—works that he hints Buruma shirked in his piece—Berman begins with Ramadan’s unwavering fealty to his family and its history. Looking closely at that history makes him wonder, for instance, why Buruma wasn’t galvanized by Ramadan’s somewhat desperate attempts to square its circles and why he credulously acceded to a mischaracterization of Hassan al-Banna, who, far from being a fan of British parliamentarianism, was fascinated by Hitler and Mussolini and “founded the modern vogue for suicide terror and its cult of death as a political art form and attached this cult to Islam.” As for Sayyid Qutb, the major theorist and poet laureate of contemporary Islamism, Berman points out that, far from there being no relationship with the Ramadans, as Buruma allowed Ramadan to allege, Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, was actually “Qutb’s most important supporter in the world of Egyptian intellectuals.” Moreover, he believes that Buruma, an astute scholar of European fascism and other extremisms abroad, knew all this and let it get lost in the shuffle: “He must have arrived at the conclusion that in the Times magazine it was good to ask the question about Sayyid Qutb, but bad to answer the question.”

Ramadan is nothing if not a protean character, a rhetorical shape-shifter with one voice for European liberals and another for the converted. The more closely Berman examines him and his oeuvre, the less definitive Ramadan’s meanings become and the less likely it seems that he qualifies as a sort of Muslim Martin Luther (to whom he has been likened). Looking at the broadband of his “salafi reformism,” for instance, Berman detects “subcurrents” that do not comport well with the mainstream task Ramadan claims to have chosen as his life’s mission: modernizing Islam without wrenching it from its religious moorings.

Berman believes that Ramadan is authentically non-violent, but also notes that he reveres, among other Islamic scholars, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi for whose writings Ramadan has provided prefaces. It was this Sheik, Berman points out, who in 2003 “issued the most famous of the fatwas authorizing suicide terrorism by the Palestinians.” As for the question of Ramadan’s talk about “rights” and headscarves, (“Rights are rights. And to demand them is a right.”), it is one thing for Ramadan to present such ideas as those of a Muslim civil libertarian, Berman says, and quite another for Buruma to accept them uncritically. The notion of “rights” conceals the basic issue, all the more basic as Muslims gain critical mass in Europe: the right of Muslim women not to wear headscarves, particularly inside schools, which should be “a zone beyond Islamist control.”

But Ramadan’s birdwalking on headscarves is trivial compared with his take on stoning. Ramadan dissuaded Buruma from pursuing the matter very far by telling him that not only the weight of tradition but “texts” were involved, implying that change will require time and patience, as well as trust in the judgment of someone like himself.

In response to this, Berman reprints a lengthy excerpt from a transcript of a 2003 joint television appearance by Ramadan and Nicholas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, in which Sarkozy lured Ramadan into the subject by noting that Ramadan’s own brother, another grandson of Hassan al-Banna, had come out in favor of stoning adulteresses. Without time to manufacture one of his calibrated responses, Ramadan blurted out his proposal that there be a moratorium on stoning but no ban. “ . . . You have just said something particularly incredible,” Sarkozy replied, “which is that the stoning of women, yes the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium and then think about it to decide if it is good. But that’s monstrous . . .” Ramadan dithered in response: “What I say in my own position is that the law is not applicable. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world . . .” Berman delivers the kill shot: “The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights.”

Berman has a certain respect for Ramadan’s intellectual fecundity and for his vaunted capacity to bear contradictory propositions in his mind. But he is finally less interested in Ramadan than in the conviction so strongly held by Garton Ash, Buruma, and others that Ramadan “stands for more than himself.” How can this be when exhaustive inquiry shows that Ramadan’s meanings are at bare minimum ambiguous? Why are these intellectuals so willing to avert their gaze from his intricate contradictions, sandpaper the sharp questions, and refuse to explore the hidden corners of Ramadan’s thinking? Because they are afraid of what they might find. There is no other answer.

At the end of his mammoth piece, Berman turns his attention briefly to a piece by Garton Ash that appeared in the Guardian about the same time as Buruma’s profile in the Times magazine. It focused on the Egyptian intellectual Gamal al-Banna, youngest brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and, in Garton Ash’s view, a true Muslim moderate who operates as a dissident from within Islam rather than squandering his influence as a dissident from without.

After allowing Garton Ash to enthuse about Ramadan’s uncle—and to bash Hirsi Ali once more by comparison—Berman relays the bad news. In addition to delivering soothing sermons that seem to call for reconciliation, Gamal, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, has also praised the 9/11 hijackers, calling their attacks “dreadful and splendid” and “a new way of settling old accounts.” This same al-Banna has also gushed over “martydom operations in Palestine,” including those against civilian targets in Israel, because the enemy, after all, is “the entire Israeli people.”

Berman’s essay ends with a melancholy speculation, about how intellectuals like Garton Ash and Buruma, tracking the mirage of Ramadanism, could have turned their backs on the likes of Hirsi Ali (and she is not alone), who live surrounded by bodyguards because of comments made and positions taken, not about matters in the Middle East, but about those in the precariously enlightened West.

Two decades ago, when a similar writ threatened Salman Rushdie, these same intellectuals instinctively and unambiguously rallied to his cause. What accounts for their failure of nerve? Two things, according to Berman: the rise of Islamism in the years since the Rushdie fatwa, and the spread of terrorism. But there is plainly a third reason: the neocons and their war.

Neither Buruma nor Garton Ash have programmatically replied to Berman’s New Republic piece. But Buruma did use the occasion of his review of Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV (which he ravages, needless to say) in the New York Review of Books to take a carom shot at Berman, describing him as “a tub thumper for Bush’s war.” Worse yet, he is one of those “neo leftists” who secretly share the judgments of people like Podhoretz and by so doing, promote neoconservatisim by other means, thereby “betraying the liberal principles they claim to be defending.”

For Buruma, the war in Iraq is the solvent that dissolves all fine distinctions. “I see no difference between the neo cons and the neo left,” he writes. And while he’s at it, he has one more go at Hirsi Ali: “The problem with neo cons and neo leftists is that any disagreement with their idol is taken to be a hostile attack . . .” In other words, the problem with the Somali dissident all along was not so much what she had said or done, but rather the uses of what she had said or done—namely, granting aid and comfort to conservatives and to their malign project in Iraq and the Middle East generally.

While bashing Podhoretz and nicking Berman, Buruma says once again that we don’t face a juggernaut of “Islamo Fascism” but something like a loose conspiracy of jihadist affinity groups. Thus, “To assume that we are reliving 1938 and to put our trust in military invasion as the best way to defend ourselves is a dangerous form of hysteria.”

Buruma may be right, yet it is fitting that 1938 and Munich and appeasement should appear again at the end of this debate since they have been present, in the background, since the beginning. In Pascal Bruckner’s original criticism of Buruma and Garton Ash, the one thing he said that truly jangled a nerve was that in their willingness to placate Europe’s Muslim minority, as in their scourging of Hirsi Ali, the duo had failed to exhibit much in the way of courage. The word “courage,” like the term “Islamofascism,” set Buruma off. He shot back at Bruckner (and Berman, too, was struck by this), asking where have we heard such talk before: “The need to defend Europe against alien threats; the fatigued, self-doubting, weak-kneed intellectuals . . .”

The allusion, of course, was to the intellectuals who became excited by the rise of fascism in the 1930s and made themselves its fellow travelers and outriders. But it was possible to hear in Buruma’s words a parallel echo from that time—this one coming from a different part of the intellectual class that reacted to the threat of their lifetime by blinking: how, as part of their failure of nerve, they derided the indiscreet candor of those who raised warning flags; and how the peace they thought they had secured in their own time turned out to be anything but.

Peter Collier is a political commentaor, editor, and author of numerous books, including The Kennedys: An American Drama and The Roosevelts: An American Saga.

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