Paul Berman Interview, The Flight of the Intellectuals

In his provocative new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman criticizes liberals for refusing to stand against Islamic extremism and defend Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Tunku Varadarajan speaks to him about why ideas still matter.

Paul Berman is agog. He has just received in the mail a long, type-written letter from Daniel Bell, the Harvard sociologist, now 91 years old, sent in appreciation of a recent piece by Berman in The New Republic. “I am inordinately, profoundly thrilled,” says Berman, “more thrilled to receive this letter than to receive glowing praise in some places that a million people read.”

We are seated in my backyard on a balmy late-May evening, sipping something cold and talking about The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman’s new book. Unapologetically high-brow and rivetingly polemical, it is a targeted assault on Tariq Ramadan, Europe’s foremost Islamist philosopher, as well as on Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, two prominent Western intellectuals whom Berman accuses of being willfully blind to the dangers that inhere in Ramadan’s Islamism.

“I’m not one of those people who believe that everything is doomed, because I think that the very thing that makes the Islamist movement so dangerous—which is its modernity—also allows us to argue with it. So it’s possible to engage in discussions, and actually to win them.”

Berman also accuses Buruma and Garton Ash of grave intellectual dereliction in their attacks on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch thinker who has, risking her life, taken a public stand against Islamists, and against the religiously sanctioned subjugation of Muslim women. The two men have sneered at Hirsi Ali in print, dismissing her as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist.” What a sad decline is this, Berman observes, from the days when Western intellectuals rose as one to the defense of Salman Rushdie, and an important theme of his book is an exploration of how our intellectuals have “taken flight” in the face of Islamism.

We are on the subject of Daniel Bell because—having learned from his book the names of two intellectuals he disparages—I have just asked him to tell me whom he admires. Ignoring his contemporaries, the fifty-something Berman goes for the nonagenarian: “I think Bell is a moral authority, an intellectual authority, a role model, somebody who has managed to be more or less right on more or less all of the issues since 1935 or so.”

Who among the intellectuals has been right, I ask, on the question of Islam, and its relationship with the West in particular? Here Berman names two scholars of Islam, Gilles Kepel and Malise Ruthven, the latter being someone with whom he doesn’t always agree. (“There’s no one I always agree with!”) What is most striking, however, Berman says, “is how few people in America who might be described as generalists, or ‘specialists in being non-specialists’—to use Irving Howe’s old phrase—have taken up the debate on Islam and Islamism. But I think in France there are quite a few: Andre Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Levi, Pascal Bruckner, and others.

“I do tend to think that the center of intellectual life used to be Paris, and I think, more than people realize, that it continues to be Paris, especially on this subject. But in the English-speaking countries, it’s surprising how few people have taken up this subject, or how awkwardly they’ve done it.”

Berman contrasts this state of mind with the way things used to be: “We used to have a zillion writers on the topic of communism, writers who were all over the map, politically speaking, but who made communism a real topic. It was a perfectly normal thing for American intellectuals to weigh in on the debate over the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. But it’s not normal for people to weigh in on debates on Islam.”

Why the disparity? I ask. “People are mostly concerned that they’re not seen as Islamophobes. And if your principal concern is to show that you’re not Islamophobe, one way to guarantee that is to say not one word on the subject! Besides, people are frightened by a million things: They’re frightened by the topic, by the controversy that surrounds the topic, and obviously there’s a degree of physical intimidation that goes with this. There are, in fact, topics that no one in his right mind is going to take up for reasons of physical fear.

“But beyond that, a great many people who are indignant at the idea of a clash of civilizations actually believe in a clash of civilizations! And they believe that they need to avoid it, and that they themselves could not possibly master this particular field, because they imagine the Muslim world as an altogether distant planet. So they don’t even make the effort to look at it, to read its writers.”

How many in the Muslim world might read Berman’s book? I wonder. “I know I have readers among the followers of Syed Qutb, about whom I have written—one of the great philosophers of the Muslim Brotherhood, hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. I see that they’re writing in response to me, and denouncing me on a variety of blogs. I’ve found myself described as someone ‘continuing the Zionist project to crush Islam that began in Medina in the 7th century.’ But my books have not been translated. As you know, very few things get translated into Arabic. That’s too bad.”

Wouldn’t it be remarkable, I suggest, if some enlightened moneybags were to put up the funds for a foundation that would translate Western works for a Muslim readership? “I think that would be a great idea,” Berman responds, animatedly. “And not just for my book! I think there ought to be a program to translate books both to and from Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu—and other languages, but those three in particular. Because there are a lot of writers who are very revealing but who are difficult for us to read.

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“For example, to get away from Islamism for a moment and move over, three inches away, to Baathism… I’m amazed to think that we have fought two wars against the Baath Party of Iraq but no one ever set out, systematically, to translate the writings of Saddam Hussein. And he wrote a lot! I read one of his novels which he wrote in the weeks before the Iraq War began. It’s a fabulous Quranic fantasy in which the hero of Iraq fights two sets of enemies, the Persians and the Roman Empire. Of course, they represent Iran and the U.S. And at the end the hero sees two burning towers in the distance. It’s actually an invocation of 9/11. And this wasn’t translated by us! What kind of country are we?!”

Berman is an indefatigable believer in the power of reason: “I’m not one of those people who believe that everything is doomed, because I think that the very thing that makes the Islamist movement so dangerous—which is its modernity—also allows us to argue with it. So it’s possible to engage in discussions, and actually to win them.” But Berman regrets that we, as a society, “don’t engage in argument with Islamists, and it’s because of our understanding of the word ‘engage.’ The most common definition is to say that to engage with people is to lie down like a carpet in front of them. You don’t criticize them, you don’t argue with them, you concede, and you turn yourself into Mr. Nice. That’s what we do with Islam.

“On the other hand, actually to engage with someone is to argue with them, to take them seriously, and if you’re an intellectual, it means read their books. But there’s a problem with doing that for a lot of people in all the Western countries. It’s as if to argue with someone is the first step toward going to war. If you’re arguing, they worry that’s going to lead to violence… so we shouldn’t even argue. They don’t see argument as an alternative to violence.”

Berman believes that communism was ultimately defeated by argument and debate, and that Islamism should be approached in the same spirit. But we haven’t shown a fraction of the forensic fortitude that the situation cries out for. In fact, as Berman’s invaluable book argues with passion, our intellectuals seem to have ducked the challenge altogether. “The very worst thing we can do is to surrender to the mystery of it all, and to say, as many say, that there’s no point in arguing.”

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Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)