Paul Berman, Tariq Ramadan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Western liberals

FlightoftheIntellectuals Hussein Ibish over at his blog:

Paul Berman's important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed, new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” (Melville House, 2010) is an old-fashioned polemic that takes aim at two main targets. Berman's main subject, judging from the title and certainly the conclusion of the book, are his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who he accuses of a witches' brew of offenses involving white liberal guilt and displaced racism, abandoning Enlightenment values and craven cowardice in the face of Islamist bullying, and who he sees as emblematic of a widespread rot in the Western liberal intelligentsia. But to get to them, he has to go through Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim academic and activist who also happens to be the grandson of the founder of the original Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna, and the son of his second in command, Said Ramadan. So actually, the bulk of the book dwells on not only Ramadan but also al-Banna and, in great detail, his ally Amin al-Husseini, the one-time “grand mufti” of Jerusalem.

The book makes a series of loosely connected cases, some much stronger than others, and hits some very important points with extreme precision, but in other cases runs wildly off the mark and occasionally goes running down a rabbit hole of pointlessness. Even within each case, there are moments when Berman seems to lose the plot completely and inexplicably. In my first response to this very significant book I want to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the two main cases one by one.

Case one: Tariq Ramadan

Berman does a very good job of explicating Ramadan's highly problematic family background and his troubling, albeit perfectly natural, fealty to the frankly baneful legacies of his grandfather and, to a lesser extent, his father. I don't think Berman is exaggerating at all in his no holds barred description of al-Banna's extremism and the highly negative impact his thinking has had on contemporary Muslim political discourse. Describing him as the godfather of all practical applications of contemporary Islamism, especially in the Arab world, is exactly right. I also don't think he's exaggerating how problematic Ramadan's championing and soft-pedaling of his grandfather's ideas and legacy really is. But, he concedes, the son is not the father or the grandfather, and ultimately needs to be considered on his own terms. And, Berman is to be congratulated for, it is sad to say unusually, actually reading his Arab subjects' writings carefully, taking them seriously and taking them at their word.