THE SPINE MAY 16, 2010
Twice in two years (once in 2007 and a second time in 2008), The New York Times puts its mantle of approval on Tariq Ramadan who almost everybody on the Upper West Side saw as an innocent victim of dictatorship because the Bush administration had barred him, under provisions of the Patriot Act, from entering the United States. After all, how could anything required by something called the Patriot Act be justified at all?
The esteem of the Times came to Ramadan first in a longish essay--which form its Sunday magazine has virtually given up using--on Ramadan by Ian Buruma who has, out of what one hesitates to speculate is a psychological compunction, tried to find common ground between Islamic jihad and liberalism. It would really be nice--wouldn't it?--if Muslim extremists could long sit in the same tent with members of the Harvard English department. Some of those professors actually think they could. But not a one of them has ever tried. (By the way, Damon Linker has published a respectful but devastating review of Buruma's recent book, Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents in "The Book," TNR's daily feature on its website.)
The second endorsement came by way of an also long essay, "Reading the Koran," this time by Ramadan himself. I've read for my sins the Koran myself, actually two and a half times. Of course, I also studied (and taught) the Communist Manifesto, and I suppose that some of my colleagues even saw in it a tract open to very soft interpretation. There are probably humane readings of Mein Kampf.
In any case, perhaps in contrition or to give belated "equal time," the Times has now twice in two weeks given what are truly rave and serious reviews to Paul Berman's intellectually exacting takedown of Ramadan, The Flight of the Intellectuals.
The first of these came from a deep thinking reviewer and a long-time former editor of the Times's own Book Review, Dwight Garner, writing in the daily paper. Garner especially admires Berman's critical agility, what Michael Foot once called in the old British left Labour weekly, Tribune, he edited an admixture of "sledgehammer and pickaxe." (Foot died two months ago at 96, was for a time leader of the Labour Party weekly and also wrote for TNR over several decades.)
Mr. Berman's book, portions of which first appeared in The New Republic, is a patient overturning of the rocks that, he argues, Mr. Buruma failed to look under. He writes about historical figures Mr. Ramadan professes to admire and notes the tiny degree of separation that link them to Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. He points out that Mr. Ramadan's ambiguous comments about things like 9/11, the stoning of women in Muslim countries against Jews. Mr. Berman detects a kind of seventh-century barbarism lurking behind Mr. Ramadan's genial smile.
And today there is the second weighty approval of Berman. It comes in a piece in the Times' Book Review by Anthony Julius, among the most sober and scintillating intellectuals I've ever encountered. (He has written for TNR and been reviewed in it.) Julius compares Berman to Julian Benda whose The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, a learned polemic written in 1927 and yet a standard for honesty right through
the fifties. (It was one of the first paperbacks that came into my hands.)
Here is Julius:
There is 'a dark smudge of ambiguity' that ' runs across everything (Ramadan) writes on the topic of terror and violence." In consequence, Ramadan cannot be trusted to know his own mind, and therefore cannot be trusted when he claims to speak it. Further, his language of accommodation, his project of defining a minority Islam at peace within liberal democracy, emerges as something phony, the more hard-line stance that he advocates from time to time more accurately reflecting his true views. This duplicity is now well documented. The French journalist Caroline Fourest has written a whole book one the subject, with a title that discloses its essential argument, "Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan." Berman contributes to this exposure of Ramadan ...
Then there is the whole question of anti-Semitism. Berman confronts it head-on. I know that most liberals and many Jewish liberals would prefer to avoid their eyes, saying that it is not anti-Semitism but admitting that the feelings may be anti-Zionist and certainly anti-Israel. Given the dreadful world in which we live and given the bloodlust in the Islamic orbit and in sub-Saharan Africa, it astounds that so much rage should be directed at the Jewish state. Yes, Israel engages in a sinewy defense, a very sinewy defense, perhaps even a too sinewy defense. But it does not even approach the ease in killing which every Arab society has as routine. The frenzy against Israel may be nothing more but is certainly nothing less than Judeophobia. This is a crime, a great crime against civilization. A crime in repeat.
On the question of anti-Semitism, Berman writes about Ramadan's 'brief and angry' essay of 2003 in which he attacked group of intellectuals he designated as Jewish, criticizing them for forsaking their vocation as intellectuals in favor of support for Israel, and of Zionism ... Berman demonstrates that the criticism is bogus...Ramadan went looking for Jews and made mistakes--not all the named intellectuals were in fact Jewish ...'What is surprising,' remarked one of the intellectuals Ramadan attacked, 'is not that Mr. Ramadan is anti Semitic, but that he dares to proclaim it openly.'
Garner, you will recall, observed that Berman's latest book has its origins--as did his previous one, Terror and Liberalism--in the pages of The New Republic. So it is with some pride and a little bit of embarrassment that I want to tell my readers the author has dedicated this work to Leon Wieseltier and me. We take this as a great gift, as we take all of Paul's writings.
But I want to quote a few of his own words:
... your magazine has stood for a great unwavering principle. This is the principle of complexity. It is the recognition that some things cannot be understood at all if they are not explained in full. Most magazines simplify. Your magazine elaborates.
And thinking about complexity, Berman has a truly luminescent review-essay of Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic. The book was written by the intellectual historian Michael Scammell, an elegant stylist besides. The "skeptic" in the title is Arthur Koestler who, though perhaps more than a bit mad, saw the essential truths of the twentieth century, mostly awful truths. He was the author of Darkness At Noon, a grim novel of the Stalin years before many people glimpsed how really grim things were. The essay, "The Prisoner Intellectuals" is in the current print edition of TNR and on our website now. I don't know how many words are there. But this is not an exercise in simplification.