Michael Totten er en av de beste og mest spennende journalister som finnes. Han legger noe av seg selv i stoffet og er ikke redd for å ta stilling. Han gjør det på en åpen og ærlig måte. Han har integritet.
Han har gjort et langt intervju med Paul Berman i anledning hans nye bok:
The Flight of the Intellectuals
Not long after September 11, 2001, Paul Berman wrote a masterful little book called Terror and Liberalism that electrified me the first time I read it. Later it served as a philosophical and political anchor for me as I ventured out on long and sometimes dangerous journeys in the Middle East to uncover things for myself.
He returns now with a new book called The Flight of the Intellectuals, which is your required reading this month. It picks up, in some ways, where Terror and Liberalism left off. While we haven’t had a repeat of the apocalyptic terrorist attacks on September 11, what we do have is an entirely new class of people in the Western democracies who live in hiding and under armed guard from the same sorts of killers. Salman Rushdie was but the first, and Somalia-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one-time collaborator with the butchered Theo Van Gogh, is now but the most famous.
Something terrible has happened to the intellectual class during the interim period. The killers’ would-be victims have been excoriated in the press, and even, in some cases, blamed for their predicament. Berman won’t stand for it. As Ron Rosenbaum put it hopefully in a recent review of Berman’s new book in Slate, «Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets.»
The Flight of the Intellectuals begins and ends with Tariq Ramadan, a troubling Swiss-born Islamist who has been praised to the heavens by some of the very same intellectuals who carp nastily about Hirsi Ali. Paul and I spent a recent afternoon talking about his book and some of the questions it raises.
MJT: You’ve spent a great deal of time reading and criticizing Tariq Ramadan, and reading and criticizing others who have written about Tariq Ramadan. What is it that drew you to him in particular?
Paul Berman: I stumbled onto him by accident. I had seen his name mentioned as an admirable young reforming moderate in the world of Islamic religious thinkers, and I thought of him as a good guy based on that reputation. Then by chance I came across a book of his in an Islamic bookstore in New York. I read it, and I was struck by the contrast between what I read by him and what I had read about him.
I touched on this in passing in a book I wrote some years ago, Terror and Liberalism. And then I became ever more fascinated by the contrast. Also a little indignant about it. And the more I poked at the contrast, the more central it seemed to me to some of our debates and dilemmas regarding the Muslim religious world and how we should look at our own journalism. I became seriously interested in Ramadan himself. He is truly an interesting personality, almost someone out of Shakespeare or some great novel that hasn’t been written.
He is fated by his family heritage to stand for certain things. But he is fated by his own personal temper and the time in which he lives to stand for other things. He upholds every possible position and its opposite, which did seem to me kind of interesting.
So I plunged into a mad campaign of reading. I read works by Tariq Ramadan, by his family, and sometimes by people around him. I read works written about him. And I marveled at the contrasts and confusions.
MJT: He has his defenders, and they’re aware of you and some of the others whom you quote in your book who are critical of him, but they don’t see what the big deal is. They don’t seem to think there’s much there there. Can you give us the short version of your argument?
Paul Berman: He has different kinds of defenders. Some of those people are his own fans or followers. But he also has defenders in the Western liberal press who are not themselves Muslims and certainly have no relation to the Islamist political movement.
The Western liberals, some of them, defend Ramadan for two reasons. If you listen to Ramadan for fifteen minutes, you will learn that he says all the right things, whatever a liberal-minded person would want such a man to say.
MJT: He does.
Paul Berman: He’s 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.
MJT: I think you’re right. I know a number of Arab and Muslim liberals and moderates. Some of them are my friends, and I’ve interviewed countless more. I’ve caught myself looking for something like that from time to time myself, although I realize it’s more than a little ridiculous, especially after hearing you describe it that way.
It’s interesting that so many Western journalists who have written about Tariq Ramadan can’t digest the sixteenth minute.
Paul Berman: No, they can’t. Partly it’s sloppiness, but mostly it’s fear of discovering what they’re going to hear in the sixteenth minute. They don’t really want to take him seriously. He demands to be taken seriously, yet his admirers are precisely the types who, out of fear of the sixteenth minute, don’t wish to do so.
What you discover in the sixteenth minute is that Tariq Ramadan is his grandfather’s grandson. And his grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 and played a huge role in introducing all kinds of horrendous modern ideas into the world of Sunni Muslim religious thinking, which then spread also into other zones of Islam. Ramadan is someone—if you pay attention to the sixteenth minute—who wants to remain loyal, as best he can, to that family tradition. And he does remain loyal, though sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in ways that are far from obvious.
MJT: You wrote in your book that he must look to reactionary Islamists like he’s half lost to the vapors of Western liberalism. Do you think that makes him an improvement over his grandfather, or is he perhaps a bit more dangerous, from our point of view, because he still half belongs to the world of radical Islam yet comes across as though he does not?
Paul Berman: There is a half-a-cup debate to be had about Ramadan. In some ways he is, in fact, an improvement over his grandfather and his father, Said Ramadan, who was quite a case himself. On the other hand, he also argues that his grandfather was already perfect — that his grandfather was a kind of democrat, though his grandfather was in fact a charismatic demagogue with a plan for a totalitarian state. Tariq Ramadan tells his audiences: you must tread in the path of Hassan al-Banna. This means treading in the path of all kinds of terrible people. But Ramadan also says: the path of Hassan al-Banna is the path of democracy, tolerance, and rationalism. And so, Ramadan introduces a remarkable ambiguity into the debate, which ends up producing a sea of intellectual confusion.
This is what has drawn me to the topic. In the past I’ve written about bad-guy bad guys. I became interested in the most radical tendencies to come out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the tendencies that culminated in Al Qaeda and similar groups. I wrote at length about a philosopher from the Muslim Brotherhood named Sayyid Qutb, who composed his books in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and came up with some of the doctrines that, in a still more radicalized version posthumously, produced the doctrines that we see today in Al Qaeda and some other groups.
Ramadan is a completely different case. He’s not a bad-guy bad guy. Ramadan is in a gray zone. If the first fifteen minutes of his presentation were the whole of it, I would be his fan. But then he goes on into the sixteenth minute, and we’re back to the traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
MJT: What’s fascinating to me is how some Western intellectuals will praise this guy as a moderate when he is, at best, only half moderate, and yet at the same time they sneer at authentic Arab liberals.
Paul Berman: Yes.
MJT: You provided some examples in your book, and I’ve some experience with this myself. I was in Beirut when the Syrian military was finally thrown out by a million citizens taking to the streets, and the whole thing was dismissed by some people in the West as a right-wing Christian Gucci revolution.
Paul Berman: Yes.
MJT: It was absolutely appalling, and I will never forget it. To this day I get hate mail from these kinds of people when I write about Lebanon.
Paul Berman: It really is something remarkable. I can understand it intellectually, but not emotionally. It comes from some old and very unattractive currents in Western thought that we can see over the course of the 20th century.
Remember, a lot of people despised the Soviet dissidents, too.
MJT: Right. What do you think causes this? I think I have it mostly figured out, but I still feel like I’m missing something.
Paul Berman: Well, I don’t have it entirely figured out either. [Laughs.] But I note it. In regard to the Soviet dissidents of the past, at least nowadays there is a consensus of opinion that, yes, the dissidents were correct and we should have listened to them. So why didn’t we? When I say «we,» I mean the intellectual community as a whole in the Western countries. And it’s for a whole set of reasons.
An outright sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union itself was only one of those reasons. This only accounted for one set of people.
There were other people who dismissed the dissidents for what you might call conservative reasons. They wanted to assume the Slavic world was hopelessly steeped in traditions of autocracy and ignorance and habits of obedience and deference — the traditions of tsarism. They could see very well that communism in the Soviet Union had replicated the whole tsarist system, in a new version. There was a leader at the top whose rule was uncontestable. There were the masses at the bottom who had to proclaim the wisdom of the leader at the top. And a lot of people looked at this and said, yes, this is what the Slavic world is supposed to be. This is the authentic thing. Slavs are inherently inferior to Westerners. They aren’t capable of being free people. They aren’t capable of thinking for themselves.
So when the dissidents rushed out and told us that the Soviet Union is crushing individual liberty or doing other oppressive things, our response to them was to pat them on the head and say, well, it’s nice that you got out, and you are welcome to stay, but you’re not talking about the real world. The real world is one where Slavs are destined to remain forever victims of oppressive tyrants, and this is because Slavs enjoy being victims, so we’re not going to take people like you, the dissidents, all that seriously.
The logic behind that kind of thinking is very appealing, to some people. It pictures a world that is dominated by cultures that we like to regard as authentic — cultures with unchanging deep qualities that go back thousands of years, and may be rich with cultural jewels, but will never produce anything more progressive and will certainly never embrace the kinds of freedoms and advantages and dynamism that we celebrate in our own culture. So that’s one idea.
Then there’s another idea that appeals to many people, which is based not on our own feeling of superiority, but on our own inferiority. We look at ourselves in the Western countries and we say that, if we are rich, relatively speaking, as a society, it is because we have plundered our wealth from other people. Our wealth is a sign of our guilt. If we are powerful, compared with the rest of the world, it is because we treat people in other parts of the world in oppressive and morally objectionable ways. Our privileged position in the world is actually a sign of how racist we are and how imperialistic and exploitative we are. All the wonderful successes of our society are actually the signs of how morally inferior we are, and we have much to regret and feel guilty about. So when we look at the world, we should look at it in a spirit of humility and remorse, and we should recognize that other people have been unfairly treated.
We should recognize the superiority of those other people over ourselves. Money-wise, we may be richer. But, morally, the other people are richer. And so, we should despise ourselves, and we should love the other people — the people who possess qualities so superior to our own as barely to be human. And then, filled with those very peculiar ideas, we set about looking for messianic figures who might express the superior culture of the other people, and might lead the human race to a higher stage of development. And if someone objects to this analysis, we say, oh, we inferior Westerners are incapable of understanding the mysterious thought-patterns of those other people, so who are you to judge?