THE FLIGHT OF THE INTELLECTUALS by Paul Berman: Review

Tuesday, 23 November 2010 19:10 Angela Thorn Reviews - Books
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For a long time, "Islamophobes" eager to expand their knowledge had to rely on reading between the lines of news reports and scanning the internet in order to educate themselves. Such internet sites have grown in number and now originate in countries which only ten years or so ago a normal Australian would have had no idea suffered from a "Muslim problem". In the minds of many, the "Muslim problem" has become shockingly clarified very quickly.

But there are times when the Islam watcher cannot access a computer, such as on public transport, and wants to hold a book in his hands so he can Keep Finding Out. Again, the internet has been useful in locating these, and books by ex-Muslims, terrorist experts, political analysts, theologians, honest journalists and others have rapidly become available and have even reached best-seller lists and translated into modest fame (and, quite possibly, death threats) for the writers. 

So much so, that Islam is now often referred to as a "hot topic" and fewer people are thinking of "Islamophobia" as a wrong or shameful thing, even though societies targeted by Islam are still mostly paralysed into inaction by confusion, fear and their powerful fifth columns which confound the possibility of consensual or even majority decision-making. But "hot topic" it is, to the point where it seems any book critical of Islam can be cobbled together and receive rave reviews from respected critics of Islam.

Or so it seemed to me when I picked up Paul Berman's much-praised book, "The Flight of the Intellectuals", a surprise find in a Melbourne bookshop, Dymmock's - or perhaps not such a surprise find, as Dymmock's have begun to stock books of interest about Islam other than the Koran or Karen Armstrong's whitewashing of Mohammed, which are available in any bookshop.

The very title is evocatively self-flattering to the writer and reader alike. Judging one's society's intellectuals as wanting, as having wilfully absented themselves from their noble and time-honoured role as preservers and extenders of our glorious Western philosophical traditions, is to elevate oneself and claim a wee position in that vacated space, allowing one a slight frisson of belonging in an important project - for if our intellectuals take flight, who is to take their place and stop the rot? Paul Berman, perhaps? Perhaps oneself?

Alas, surely not Paul Berman. His reputation is high and his subject matter is timely, fascinating and an essential ingredient in the understanding of the twentieth-century and current "Islamist" mindset: Tariq Ramadan, his relation to the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and the influential Sayyid Qutb; their links with Nazism; the cowardly and disgraceful reaction of the Left in the West to what are incontravertible facts pertaining to these links. All of this subject matter can be found analysed on the internet, if one is inclined to pursue threads, join dots and spend a lot of time away from one's daily responsibilities. But Paul Berman's analysis of these links is considerably flawed, despite his excitement over his discoveries.

His loyalty to and sentimentality about his own background are disadvantages in coming to grips with what requires a cool head, a lot of research and an ability to thoroughly depart from the comfort zone of illusion. He remembers a book in his family home (and every similarly liberal Jewish home, as he says) about Islam by H Graetz, which presents a picture of Islam as benign and tolerant, respectful of Jews and "exercising a wonderful influence on the course of Jewish history and on the evolution of Judaism." Although he acknowledges this view to be incomplete, and indicates that he has read at least the foreward of Andrew Bostom's "The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism", he never lets go of thinking that Graetz's view has validity as presenting one side of the story, and that his optimism is ipso facto valid and commendable. It cannot, in his liberal mind, be ever simply wrong.

His years as a young man, when his loyalties were to the Left, to "don't touch my buddy" French activist warmth towards Muslim immigrants, likewise leave their mark on his Weltanshauung as an older man. The "anti-racism" he embraced in those halcyon days, which mistakenly conflated race with religion, remains as embedded in his mind as does Graetz's benign Islam, and has elevated wishful thinking into an argument which keeps colliding with the facts and weakening his hastily concocted thesis.

It appears hastily concocted because, as he says himself, he decided to run a well-received article he had written to the length of a book. To the theme of his article, "the debate over Islamist ideas in the Western countries and over the reluctance of journalists and intellectuals to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas" he added more detail, more characters, more history. But he does not mention reading basic Islamic texts, and makes no reference to them except by secondary sources, appearing to accept them without checking. This omission weakens every aspect of his thesis; indeed he appears to be not so much presenting a thesis as wafting his way to a conclusion even he is not sure of.

For instance, for all he is attempting to join others in exposing Ramadan as a fraud, he appears to swallow Ramadan's version of jihad as a "struggle against violence...a struggle against poverty, illiteracy, delinquency, social exclusion and other injustices", which probably comes across as unquestionable to a "progressive liberal" such as Berman. (Social justice? Of course! Enough said!) He accepts Ramadan's line of argument that political assassinations and the killing of tourists (and so on) "do not respect the Koranic message". In his response, Berman gives no indication that he has any inkling of Mohammed's caravan-raiding, terror-exploiting, critic-slaughtering career, instead focusing on Ramadan's family's dubious activities as the source of his controversial reputation.

When Ramadan repeats, to Berman's apparent satisfaction, that "in Islam it is forbidden to kill Jews, Christians or atheists merely because they are Jews, Christians or atheists", Berman's mind presumably wanders back to Graetz's book and to his former Muslim buddies in France and he finds himself prepared to believe that killings of non-Muslims have another reason, quite possibly political.

And like others - notably public-speaking Muslims, such as Maajid Nawas, who aim to convincingly deflect the blame for recent Islamic violence and for whose purposes the "colonial" argument has become outdated, he finds the answer in Nazism. Thus Hitler's famous meetings with and admiration for the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, did not signify that Hitler was influenced by the Mufti and by Islam itself, but instead the reverse, that Hitler influenced Muslims' post-war, post-colonial behaviour. Berman does not even become suspicious when he mentions a demonstration against Jews in Cairo (when the Jews' position could hardly be called threatening) after the war. Instead, he writes, the Mufti "twisted" Islam by "scour[ing] the Koran and the sacred scriptures for suitably hostile remarks [which were] scraped from the bottom...of the Islamic barrel.": "The calls by Amin al-Husseini to annihilate the Jews were some of the most shocking speeches of the Holocaust. They were the voice of the SS, hideously translated into the tones of Islamic scripture, preparing the Arab public to join the [Einsatzgruppe Aegypten] campaign..." The image of Islam as a barrel of contradictory ideas in which the more noble rise to the top and the worst sink to the dark, murky, hard-to-find depths is comically appealing, but despite Muslims' claims about the "weakness" of certain hadiths, the Koran, also containing plenty of anti-Semitism, is believed by the same people to be the immutable word of God.

But Berman saw this "infernal blurring" of Islam and Nazism, which did "draw on", as he finally admits, "authentic elements" within Islam, a "crime against Islam", which "offended and betrayed Islam's larger principles of tolerance and civility"..."a corruption of Islam, a grotesquerie"..."a spiritual crime". Berman is as outraged as the most ardent Islam apologist; Tariq Ramadan would surely approve. As for the question of whether Jew-hatred is worse in the Christian or Islamic "traditions", he mixes history with theology, considers that, after all, "Islam is as vast and liquid as the ocean, and so is Christianity", and lamely decides that a "generalized view" ("...after all, people do ask these questions...") is possible after musing thus:

"Does Islam, in its capacity to unleash hatred against the Jews, resemble in any large and telling fashion the historic Christianity of Europe? Anti-Jewish traditions on one side of the Mediterranean and on the other, the Muslim side and the Christian side - are they fundamentally the same? Or different? A large question. And an old question. People were already mulling over this question in the Middle Ages": this is stream-of-consciousness scholarship hardly worthy of the name. 

Elsewhere, he talks of American politicians inadvertently "insulting Islam", speaks of Britain"s "colonial subjects" as if he were a post-colonial studies undergraduate trawling for grades, expresses surprise at the idea of the Mufti of Jerusalem "merging into one" Arabism and Islamism in a speech, and says that Qutb "came up with" the idea of Muslim "hypocrites" meriting a "violent resistance". Appearing to have no idea of the Islamic allowance for lying to infidels, let alone knowing facts which would expose Islamic dissimulation, he quotes Muslims' "opinions" ("In Jamal al-Banna's opinion, stoning adulterers to death runs counter to anything the Prophet Mohammed could possibly have advocated"..."al-Banna specifies...that a proper civic state ought to be democratic, and this, too, is heartening to see") and makes many other blunders arising from ignorance, naivety, credulousness, unconscious political correctness and above all, it seems, from a desire to get his highly topical book on the shelves as quickly as possible with minimal research.

And this in a writing style (see above) which descends all too often into primary school sentence construction, with spelling howlers ("flairing nostrils"..."pouring through archives"), with shoddy, tacked-on adjectival phrases and sprinklings of "still...", "anyway...", "though..." "truth to tell..." (yes, indeed: "truth to tell"!) clumsily spilling out onto the pages. His style, seen as "gripping and stylish" by one reviewer and "lucid and elegant" by another, is consistent with the descent into linguistic chaos which was approved and even initiated by the post-war liberal progressives of which he claims membership. However, another reviewer said blandly that the writing was too ghastly for him to read the book to the end, and another said he "weeps for the trees". Berman's dismay regarding intellectuals is muddled by his lament that he always regarded intellectuals "until just yesterday" as "the best of the best", indicating that he did not start to wake up to the shenanagans of the likes of Sartre, Foucault and Chomsky when he had the opportunity; this lack of scepticism is demonstrated in the current book in which Berman trusts Graetz, takes Ramadan at his word and is uncritical of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But how can such diverse thinkers all be right?

"The Flight of the Intellectuals" indeed. The progressive Left have discovered that Islam is a bit of a vexation after all. But with all the authority they have abrogated to themselves since their successful "march through the institutions", they still have trouble pursuing or dealing with facts, retreating from fashionable optimism, and engaging with all the subtleties of Islam, including the markedly different meanings of key words and ideas (what does "social justice" mean to a man such as Ramadan?). This is a pity because by the time Berman reaches his last chapters, in which he criticizes writers such as Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Baruma, who have had the nerve to speak poorly of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he warms up to the theme of his book's title and his defence of Ms Ali is energetic and well-written, comparitively. His answer for the question of the cowardice of the intellectuals who once defended Salman Rushdie but have taken to biting attacks on critics of Islam is the rise of the Islamist movement and terrorism; that is, fear. Fear creates cowardice. Oh.

Could it be so simple? In reading about, for example, the trench warfare of World War 1, fear is a recurrent theme; the harrowing fear which came not only from danger but the close, daily observation of horrific injuries and experience of terrible conditions which had to be endured. This is just one example; men have volunteered to go to countless wars. What makes this new one different, and what is it about Islam that makes it so successful in exploiting fear to the point where societies capitulate and convert or accept dhimmi status? Is the fear Islam inspires different from the fear created by other adversaries? Is fear only an insurmountable problem when people believe that what they have is not worth fighting to keep? Is the West consumed by decadence, as Muslims believe? Does Islam's self-identification as a religion give rise to a different kind of fear which does not translate into action; do we actually believe they have God on their side? Or are intellectuals a weak class of people? But no: what about the French intellectuals who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War? Or is it the Islamic beheadings which are so particularly frightening? Or political correctness, the fear of ostracization? In a study of this nature, some analysis of the quality of this "fear" can expect to be attempted, but it is not. Of course, it must be acknowledged that whereas Ayaan Hirsi Ali has bodyguards, few other writers do, and self-protection in a non-combat zone is a daunting prospect. Still, the "intellectuals" Berman is talking about have the option of saying nothing at all rather than defending the worst of Islam.

A final, perhaps churlish, criticism is the absence of dedication or acknowlegement pages in this book, leaving the reader little doubt about who pre-read, assisted, proofread, helpfully criticized, made the coffee or inspired Berman. Nobody, it seems, and it shows. This is a pity, for the topics he is taking on should be read about by many, including the unsophisticated reader his style, with some necessary alterations, might appeal to; Berman's "intellectuals" may have flown the coop but there are plenty of others, who see ourselves more prosaically but can feel our way tolerably well in the world of ideas, who are still here and can still read. All is not lost if a handful of individuals sully the idea of the "intellectual" and betray the values of the West.

After reading this book, the reader could be excused for thinking that if only Muslims could ditch the unfortunate influence of the Nazis and revert to the Jew-friendly benevolence of Graetz's Islam, and if only our intellectuals could be more tough-minded and encourage Muslims by applauding the liberals among them and upholding the best of Western philosophy, then all would, eventually, be fine. But one wonders why Muslims would want to change their tune, when Islam is doing so well with its current tactics and even the lowliest Muslim can expect some leverage in a Muslim-dominated society of jizya-paying infidels, a phenomenon we see constantly with the demands of immigrant Muslim welfare recipients.

The optimism so beloved of Paul Berman might have to be postponed until more work is done, by intellectuals - voluntary, un-named and unpaid, if necessary -, by law-makers and by many others, including the man on the street who cares little for the concerns of intellectuals, cowardly or otherwise.