Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals may only recapitulate much of what's been said and screamed over the Western intelligentsia's embrace of the charismatic Islamist Tariq Ramadan and and its wincing alienation of the atheist feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but if that's all it does, it'll be enough. Friendships and intellectual alliances are still being broken over which side a certain novelist or poet or essayist took during the Cold War. Ours is nothing if not a century of acceleration that, not a decade in, we're already tallying up the scorecard for les clercs when it comes to the new ideological struggle.
Anthony Julius has favorably reviewedFlight of the Intellectuals in this weekend's New York Times Book Review and Berman has given a characteristically shrewd interview to Michael Totten on that ever fruitful subject of the great abandonment of liberal principles.
Paul Berman: [Ramadan is] against bigotry, he's against anti-Semitism, he's against terrorism, he's for the rights of women, he's in favor of democratic liberties, he's for a tolerant and multi-religious society ruled ultimately by secular values. He's for science, learning, and enlightenment. He's in favor of every possible good thing. There isn't a single objectionable point in the first fifteen minutes of his presentation.
Paul Berman: Unfortunately, the sixteenth minute arrives, and, if you are still paying attention, you learn that he wants us to revere the most vicious and reactionary of Islamist sheikhs -- the people who promote violence, bigotry, totalitarianism, and terror. The sixteenth minute is not good. The liberal quality of his thinking falls apart entirely.
However, his liberal admirers in the Western press stop paying attention in the fifteenth minute, and they rush to acclaim him. They do it by mistake. That's one reason.
But they are motivated also by something else. I think a lot of people without Muslim backgrounds have a hard time imagining how vast and complex and huge and finally ordinary the Muslim world is. There are a billion and a half Muslims, and they do have more than one opinion. But I think a lot of journalists and intellectuals whose experiences are mostly European or Western somehow end up imagining that the whole of Islam constitutes a single thing. They imagine that some single terrible error has occurred within Islam. And they imagine that the single terrible error is going to be undone and corrected by a single messianic figure. So they go about surveying the horizon looking for the grand good guy, the single person who is going to rescue us from the single terrible error.
On this basis, we have ended up with a lot of liberal-minded journalists who proclaim themselves to be the enemies of racism and bigotry, and who engage, even so, in the worst sort of stereotyping of a vast portion of mankind, in their enthusiastic quest for the great Muslim hope. These people hear the first fifteen minutes of Tariq Ramadan's presentation, they leap from their seats and they say, "There he is. We found him." And they rush into print to proclaim the good news.
These points are well taken but there's another motivating force in the sleazy cozying up to Ramadan by people who ought to know better.
If Berman's book has a complementary volume this publishing season, it is Pascal Bruckner's brilliant The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, which poses the question of Western deference to enemies of the West as both an expiation of past sins as well as a coping mechanism for present decline. Though this may seem unbearably French of him, Bruckner argues that postcolonial self-abnegation is just colonial triumphalism turned on its head:
Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West, that passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves. By issuing their anathemas, the high priests of defamation only signal their membership in the universe they reject. The suspicion that hovers over our most brilliant successes always threatens to degenerate into facile defeatism. The critical spirit rises up against itself and consumes its form. But instead of coming out of this process greater and purified, it devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism and takes a morose pleasure in annihilating itself. Hyper-criticism eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins. A new dogma of demolition is born out of the rejection of dogmas.
Thus we Euro-Americans are supposed to have only one obligation: endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity. How can we fail to see that this leads us to live off self-denunciation while taking a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification. Evil can come from us; other people are motivated by sympathy, good will, candor. This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history. Since Freud we know that masochism is only a reversed sadism, a passion for domination turned against oneself. Europe is still messianic in a minor key, campaigning for its own weakness, exporting humility and wisdom. Its obvious scorn for itself does not conceal a very great infatuation. Barbarity is Europe's great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility).
And by way of projection, anything said or done by a Muslim who rejects the West is intrinsically better than anything said or done by a Muslim who accepts the West, a condition that Bruckner has previously diagnosed the "racism of the anti-racists." So when Ramadan was caught live on French television saying in plain French that he only believed in a "moratorium" on stoning women to death, he knew that he'd be excused for certifying barbarity because his pedigree as the heir to one of the founders of Islamic liberation theology would be all the excuse that he needed. Indeed, one of Julius's more prosaic moments in his review is to express surprise that Ramadan needn't deploy the shabby patois of postmodernism when ventilating his most noxious views; for instance, he's quite open about his anti-Semitism. Well, of course he is. He can be.
What Berman and Bruckner elegantly expose is what I would call the "ought/is" distinction in evaluating Islamist politics. Everyone ought to be for the emancipation of women, the promotion of liberal democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion, equality and so on; but everyone is not really for these things beyond the realm of rhetoric--and sometimes not even then. As Orwell intuited long before Al Qaeda came along, the easiest way for the Western intellectual to indulge a cryptic or unselfconscious pleasure in totalitarianism is to make apologies for the actions of totalitarians. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali wanted to really ingratiate herself with Ian Buruma and Tim Garton Ash, she'd have said that Theo van Gogh had it coming and then personally begged forgiveness for causing any emotional distress to his killer.
In my experience, there is only one way to scandalize a left-wing apologist of Islamism, although the returns diminish as soon as the exchange is concluded and the apologist regains his moorings, safely rationalized out of an alien moral quandary. The way to do this is to ask him which side Hamas take in the genocide in Darfur. If ever there were a prime time atrocity that unites in outrage all sane people, progressive and apolitical alike, no doubt reaffirmed by the knowledge that nothing substantive will be done to stop it, it's the systematic murder, rape and dispossession of black African Muslims by Arab Muslims. Hamas take the side of the murders, rapists and dispossessors: the janjaweed and their masters in Khartoum. But just as quickly as this obvious yet jarring discovery is transmitted so is the memory of British colonialism in Sudan recalled in one's interlocutor as a convenient laxative for moral condemnation and before you realize what's happened, Hamas aren't all that bad again.