21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 7 December 2010
I can't praise this too much. Although I have read Berman before and found him quite wonderful, this really took my breath away. I read it as one might read a thrilling novel. Although I am professionally familiar with most of the currents Berman discusses, I found this essay quite packed with observations and fresh angles. His dissection of Tariq Ramadan, that arch hypocrite of our times, is forensic. The book is worth reading for that alone. So too, his reading of Hasan al-Banna', Ramadan's grandfather. His analysis of the whole Islamist movement is compelling, as is his strongly-argued defence of the Somali reformer Ayaan Hirsi Ali. He is so well read in English and French that he finds pathways into his subject I had never come across in years of experience.
If you have glanced at the book here because of its title and been disappointed because so much of its subject matter concerns Islam and Islamism, pluck up a little courage and think again. This is, above all, a most pertinent discussion of the way in which modern intellectuals in Europe, almost all of them from the Left, have abandoned principle and betrayed the achievements of the Enlightenment. For that reason this is a haunting book. If you don't read it, you will lose something very precious. I haven't read anything quite like it since I first read Karl Popper.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 16 July 2010
Paul Berman, "Flight of the Intellectuals" (2010)
In earlier books, Paul Berman has made critical analyses of the new left of 68 ("Power and the Idealists") and political Islam and its connections to fascism and communism ("Terror and Liberalism"). These books are brilliant In his latest book, "Flight of the Intellectuals", he returns to the phenomenon of Islam.
The book starts (chapter 1) with observations on the muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, by many in he West regarded as a moderate muslim defending universal values. A bridge between the West and Islam, a champion of European Islam. But Berman doesn't trust Ramadans views of the history of Islam, especially the history of the connections between political Islam and nazism (chapter 2-5). Ramadans granddad, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Berman uses recent research to describe how the nazis planned to fuse nazi ideology with Islam, and how persons like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem became useful in this. Together with the nazis, the Mufti campaigned against the jews and "zionism", and Hitler was an admired ally. Because of this, anti-semitism in its most weird forms spread throughout the Middle East. After the 2nd world war, al Banna used his influence to get the Mufti released from prison in France, and he returned as a hero. Berman shows how while the rest of the world became anti-fascist/anti-nazist and condemned anti-semitism, this was not the case in the Middle East. Instead, conspiracy theories about the Holocaust, Israel and nazism won ground. A problem that is enormous today.
So, after 100 pages of history about the nazi-Islam connection, Berman returns to Tariq Ramadan and the question "What does he stand for?" (p 127). Ramadan obviously has tried to cover up the connection between al Banna and the Mufti, and thereby the nazi-Islam connection. Also: Ramadan likes to point out connections West-East, for example that universal values did exist in the muslim world. Maybe even before it came to the West. Berman asks if this means that there is a muslim version of univerasl values and rationality, and a western version. In other writings Ramadan makes the case that Muslim universalism is not the same as Western universalism. He seems to use a "double discourse" to deceive Western liberals, saying one thing to them and another to his Muslim audience. His "salafi reformism" turns out to be a variant of political Islamism. The result is a reformed Islam, matched to modernity; the "idea is to construct an Islamic counter-culture within the West" (p 148). (Berman puts a question mark about what this would mean in practice for secular Europe. Even today muslim immigration has made an impact on Europe, not only for the good, for example demands of religious censorship and gender-apartheid.)
Thereafter, in chapter 6, we get a recount of the 2003 confrontation between Ramadan and six Jewish intellectuals (Glucksmann, Lévy, Finkelkraut etc, (Berman likes the French 'New Philosophers'), with Ramadan accusing them for being defenders of Israel, and therefore of their narrow ethnic interest instead of universalism - and them accusing Ramadan for being anti-semitic. And some outlooks on the Islamist movements in France in the 1980s and 90s, and the crisis and confusion this meant for the liberal anti-racist Left (like Baathists and Trotskyists in Paris in a peace demonstration together with the liberal left, and physically attacking Jews...). The remainder of the chapter deals (after some interesting criticism of Ian Buruma) with Ramadans complex views on violence and resistance (in Afghanistan and Palestine, for example).
Chapter 7 deals with Ramadans stance on women rights, his "Islamic feminism". Veils and gender-apartheid is seen as equality, the difference between the sexes is important. Ramadan uses liberal arguments for womens "right" to use the veil, etc. That is: without problematizing women being forced to wear veils, or the problem of islamism (and the use of veils) growing stronger in Europe. A political movement making demands uncompatible with democracy, liberalism and secularism. And demands that women, women under Islam, should have limited access to education. And more demands: limited (female) access to health care, refusal to take part in certain classes... And Muslim women and girls being pressured to accept these limitations. This led to the law against religious symbols, and veils and burqas, in France - a law criticised by Ramadan among others. It became a question of womens rights not to wear a veil. Worse still: Ramadan have refused to clearly condemn the practise of stoning unfaithful women. He had the chance to make a forceful statement in French TV in 2003, in a debate with Sarkozy, but didn't take the chance (the whole exchange is transcribed, p 214-5).
In chapter 8 Berman presents Ayaan Hirsi-Ali and her detractors Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who denounce her as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist". Here, Berman makes a brilliant defense of Hirsi-Ali, and criticises Buruma's and Ash's campaign against Hirsi Ali, and admiration for Ramadan. Hirsi-Ali is the one with the true "insider" perspective on Islam (having experienced actual repression), while Ramadans' knowledge comes mainly from books. Berman concludes that such a "reactionary turn" is something new and deplorable.
(This "reactionary" and paradoxical turn is recognisable in Sweden, where I live. Here we now have "leftist" debaters arguing for insane things, for example the leader of the "Feminist" party (Fi) (former leader of the Left Party) who wants "more burqas" in Sweden.)
In the final chapter Berman goes on discussing the phenomenon of Western self-hatred and masochism among intellectuals (with Buruma and Garton Ash being the latest example). Here he refers Pascal Bruckners thesis about the tyranny of Western guilt to understand what is happening.
If you have the slightest interest in things like the ideological evolution of the Left in the West, since 68 and Islam in the West, you should read not just this book, but also Bermans earlier books.