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Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, Somali refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Paul Berman’s new ‘Flight of the Intellectuals’

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From left, Tariq Ramadan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Eric Molinsky)
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No Debate

Paul Berman challenges liberal intellectuals to take a stand against Tariq Ramadan

Everything in Immoderation

The fundamentalism of anti-fundamentalism books

“Look here upon this picture, and on this …” In the left frame, a privileged young Swiss-Egyptian academic, whose father and grandfather were pillars of the Muslim Brotherhood and who has expressed strong sympathy for the jihadist preachings—and social and moral precepts—of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, purveyor of fatwas and self-described “Mufti of martyrdom operations.” In the right frame, a young woman from Somalia who has endured genital mutilation and forced marriage, made her escape to Europe, spoken out for the rights of women, seen a colleague of hers murdered for the same advocacy, abandoned religion for the values of the European enlightenment, and now conducts her life under permanent police protection.

Which of these two individuals garners the most respectful attention from our liberal intellectuals? To phrase it more closely, which of them has attracted the sympathetic understanding, and which the contempt, of two of the contemporary writers who have best earned that title? I refer to Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma, who in the years during and after the Cold War did a great deal to enlarge our understanding of Eastern Europe and Asia, and to demonstrate the incompatibility of civilization with the principles of totalitarianism.

Ian Buruma has written a long profile of Tariq Ramadan (the picture in the left frame) and taken many of his claims to be a reformist and modernizer at their own face value. Timothy Garton Ash was helpful in getting Ramadan a position at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Both men have written disparagingly of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as if she were an intemperate extremist. Oh, and one more thing. Garton Ash has written that “It’s no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.” Perhaps that statement is indeed free from any hint of disrespect, but can the same be said of Garton Ash’s judgment that for all her courage she is no more than a “slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”? (The appellation “Enlightenment fundamentalist” is itself borrowed from Ian Buruma; I should perhaps declare at this stage that I find the ideas of the Enlightenment to be superb in their simplicity.) Meanwhile, it’s hardly possible to read of a media appearance with Tariq Ramadan that does not describe him as arrestingly handsome and charismatic. No disrespect, of course, but I’d be the first to agree that it can’t be his writing that draws the crowd. (His book, In The Footsteps of the Prophet, tells with admirable literal-mindedness the story of Mohammed undergoing two open-heart surgeries at the hands of angels and makes the assumption that djinns, or spirits, are all around us. This is something more than simplistic.)

I have the luck to count both Garton Ash and Buruma among my friends and to have been able to discuss all this with them. Garton Ash told me that he viewed the clash with militant Islamism in a way that is partly analogous to the Cold War. In that period, magazines like Encounter took the view that the most potent opponents of Stalinism were those intellectuals and writers who had cured themselves of it, or quarreled with it, but who were still of the “Left.” He meant people of the stature of George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Ignazio Silone, and Richard Wright. It followed, therefore, that Islamic extremism is best countered by Islamic “moderates.” (We simply must evolve a better term than that; nobody wants to claim such a tepid and condescending title for themselves.)

A problem presents itself at once: If you are looking for Islamic “moderates” you will certainly find them. “Seek and ye shall find” is, in fact, part of the problem to begin with. On numberless occasions, well-meaning governments in Western Europe and the United States have appointed, as interlocutors with Islam, men who have turned out to have a not-so-hidden sympathy with clerical violence. One might instance, in Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, who said that murder was too good for Salman Rushdie and was later knighted by Tony Blair. In the United States, Abdurahman Alamoudi, the man invited to the White House and given the job of appointing Muslim imams in the U.S. armed forces, was later imprisoned for a variety of undesirable associations and activities.

Ian Buruma’s objections are of a slightly different kind. He sometimes seems to think that where Islamism is concerned, we have little to fear except the fear of it itself. This widely shared attitude has condensed into one word—the neologism “Islamophobia.” A phobic is a person suffering from irrational or uncontrollable dread. I don’t choose to regard my own apprehensiveness about Muslim violence as groundless or illusory. Buruma may have the ghost of a point when he says that alarmism about Muslim demographic growth in Europe, say, has been overdone. But just to take the professional areas in which he and I and Garton Ash toil—the areas of journalism, publishing, and the academy—it has been quite astonishing to see how far and how fast there has been a capitulation to the believable threat of violence.

Not a single mainstream American media outlet, for example, would show the actual cartoons that had been used as a well-choreographed pretext for a sabotage of the Danish economy and society. When a small magazine for which I write (the secular Free Inquiry) did print the images, we were at once removed from the shelves by a major bookstore chain. Yale University Press excised the cartoons from a book about the cartoons. Comedy Central has twice bleeped out references to the prophet Muhammed in response to violent rhetoric from fringe Muslim groups. What would there be left to surrender if the pressure was more organized and more intense, or based on the supposed claims of a larger demographic minority? As it is, the New York Times already speaks revealingly of countries like Iraq and Yemen as “Muslim soil.” Would it do this for “Christendom” or the Promised Land? One hopes not. So, here is defeat in the mind, making slow but sure progress.

This crisis does not make the appeal of nativist and xenophobic parties any more legitimate, though it is sometimes insinuated that expressions of misgiving about the calls for sharia courts in Europe somehow put one in the same camp as Jean-Marie Le Pen or the post-Nazi British National Party. Among a plethora of objections that I might make to this tactic of lumping-together, I shall here mention just one. Most of the fascist parties of Europe have much in common with their extreme Muslim antagonists. They are generally opposed to the Western resistance to al Qaeda and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are without exception grounded in the tradition of European anti-Semitism.

I join with Paul Berman in expressing utter astonishment at this phenomenon, or rather at the way that it is not a phenomenon. Anti-Jewish propaganda, paranoia, and even incitement are now commonplace, at events like anti-war demonstrations where one might expect liberals and intellectuals to take notice of them. The dregs of medieval Christian bigotry have been drained and then regurgitated on Muslim websites. In the memoir Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recalls how she was brought up in the mosque to fear and hate “the Jew” and of how she has left all this behind her, along with the fear of hell and the belief in holy books. How naive can you get? Surely far better to engage with someone like Tariq Ramadan, who can bring “nuance” and complexity to these subjects and distinguish sinuously between the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a car bomb left outside an Israeli restaurant.

As many readers will know, Ramadan has been the target of an excellent book by the French scholar Caroline Fourest, which tracked his movements and speeches through several venues in different countries and found that he tended to say less “moderate” things in front of certain audiences that were out of the earshot of St. Antony’s College, Oxford (and of Notre Dame University in Indiana, which at one point offered him a chair). Ramadan resents this allegation of two-facedness and double-dealing and once one has finished Paul Berman’s book one can almost sympathize with his complaint. Whether or not they are vented at different tempos for different crowds, his views, indeed, seem almost drearily, pedantically consistent. And, alas for Garton Ash, they do not show someone who is in flight from dogma or who has seen through it or developed disagreements with it. On the contrary, they are the opinions of somebody who feels that Islam should be spread and that non-Muslim societies ought to be making room for it.

The experience of trying to make Ramadan “come clean” has been a dispiriting one. In a famous debate with Nicolas Sarkozy he would go no further, on the question of stoning adulterous women, than to call for a “moratorium” on the practice. (His brother Hani will not even concede that much.) Concerning the events of September 11, 2001, he continued to say for a long time afterward that Islamic nihilism was only one among many possible suspects. And—Berman has him pinned down tightly here—he repeatedly cites the above-mentioned Qaradawi as his teacher and guide. A simple Google search will tell you all you need to know about this mentor.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali—who I should say is a friend of mine—has, in contrast to Ramadan, written a book of transparent honesty that declines to take refuge in euphemisms or obfuscations. When working in Holland—where she did have to stretch the truth a bit to claim refugee status and has been open about the fact—she saw the Twin Towers fall on TV and knew at once, and from experience, what kind of preaching and teaching had led to the atrocity. Her work ever since has been an effort to rouse the liberal West from its part-guilty and part-lazy attitude to the Muslim world, a torpor created by post-colonial superficiality and by the half-baked view of many on the Left that there must be something of value in any movement that hates Zionism and globalization. She is horrified by the denial of what stares us in the face, by the refusal of the authorities to understand Major Hassan’s rampage, for instance, or the growing number of crimes against women committed by Islamist immigrants. She joins a very honorable group of people—Salman Rushdie, Nadeem Aslam, Hanif Kureishi, Taslima Nasreen—who have tried to tell us that Islam has looked at our society and has other plans for it, plans which we can easily understand when we see what it has already done in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

“Look here upon this picture, and on this …” Which one needs police protection and which one is the darling of the PEN petitioners and the liberal academy? Which one is opposed to theocracy—the original form of totalitarianism—and which one is a stealth apologist for it? Most of all, perhaps, which one deserves the vague yet never quite neutral title of “fundamentalist”? The answers to these questions will help us to understand the impasse of cultural masochism to which we have brought ourselves, and perhaps also point the way out of it.

Christopher Hitchens’s new memoir, Hitch-22, will be published June 2.

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God may not be great, but Hitchens sure is.

I think it’s hard for some on the left to tell the difference between fear of hurting one’s religious beliefs (problematic in its own right), and fear of violent retribution for such actions.

I consider it ironic that, as a result of this particular brand of leftist Islamophobia, Mohammad is now a bleeped word on Comedy Central, an honor usually bestowed only upon the “dirtiest” of words.

Leah says:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
It’s interesting how the “liberal” world is so willing to throw away women’s rights in the name of multicultural ethnicity. Why does that trump the values we’ve worked so hard to realize — that women are people, too? Why are we accepting – nay – even supporting – the rectitude of a religion that so clearly discriminates against half the world’s population?
In short, where is the women’s league of voters now?

Dani Levi says:

Christopher Hitchens has in the past associated himself with David Irving, the worlds most prominent Holocaust denier, a man who made millions denying the shoa. Hitchens may be very good and very entertaining with the pen, but he has been discredited on many many levels. Why is this man writing for Tablet?

Here is a link to a little film by Max Blumenthal and the Southern Poverty Law Centre on David Irving, see what he has to say about C. Hitchens.

What’s the matter Tablet? Are you loosing it? Oy vey! Oy vey, OY VEY.

Lorraine fox says:

Timothy Garton ASh is way off base comparing militant Islam to the cold war.These journalists sit in their Ivory Tower denigrating Ayaan Hirsi Ali; this brave woman who suffered so much and wants basic human rights for women.Those radical muslim men who profess to speak for muslims speak one way to English speakers and another way to Arabic speakers.Arafat did that all the time. Nothing has changed with their strategy. Find me an Islamic moderate speaking out and you will find the radicals tearing them down. Naturally any moderate muslims are fearful of speaking out. It takes courageous people like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali who must fear for their lives to tell the truth about radical Islam and Sharia Law.

George says:

@Dani Levi: You clearly have not read Mr. Hitchens’ work closely. If finding what he has written proves too difficult (ha!), perhaps this video will suffice:

By the way, Hitchenswatch is run by a pack of bumbling morons. Mr. Hitchens could, in some obscure article in some forgotten country, confess to enjoying a Dominoes pizza from time to time and Hitchenswatch would make it seem anti-Semitic.

Hopefully Christopher Hitchens will appreciate my limerick appreciation of Ms. Hirsi Ali.

The New Hypatia

– for Ayaan Hirsi Ali
There once was a actress named Weisz
whose bashful, compassionate eyes
inspired us to rate
her Hypatia as great
and to weep when the heroine dies.


What little we know of her life
is bound up in trouble and strife
of an era in which
they thought her a witch
because she was nobody’s wife.


Neither Christian nor pagan nor Jew
she was one of the relative few
who today we would call
a freethinker, et al.
then degrade in the New York Review.*

* of Books

VHJM van Neerven says:

Dear editor,

Getting permanent residence in the Netherlands by lying about who you are and what African clan sends you and then railing against Islamic immigrants like yourself is more than a ‘gotspe’ (chutspah). I think we can all agree on that.

So I do not see why we should have any trust in a woman who lied, even about her name, to get herself a Dutch passport; who made her career thanks to the Labour Party and then stepped over to the conservatives for a seat in parliament and to rail against her own background. Yes, in parliament with an illegal passport.
I’d like to point out that the State Department revoked it under the leadership of an other staunch supporter of most anti-immigration laws in the Netherlands. No party politics there, just the law.

With that knowledge kept out of view in this article and even without the helpful comment of Dani Levi (Thanks, Dani! Good info!) I can clearly see that Hitchens’ writings have no place in Tablet magazine, so I, too, would like to know:

What’s the matter Tablet? Are you loosing it? Oy vey! Oy vey, OY VEY.

No Hitchens comment sections without the usual smears by the Hitchens haters (and a link to the very objective ‘christopher hitchens watch’, oy vey, what they do is usually called ‘trolling’), you guys are pathetic, get a life.
The beef between Blumenthal and Hitchens is personal, they were friends and than had a serious disagreement over how to handle a case by a rape-victim allegedly committed by Clinton. Blumenthal worked for the Clinton admin, Hitchens hated them. I’d only expect poison from both of them in this case.
About Hitchens and Irving: Hitchens defends Irvings right (as everybodies) to free speech against attempts to self-censorship of the publishing industry but not leaves any doubt about his contempt for Irvings opinions. Already Kissinger btw. tried to smear Hitchens as holocaust-denier but wisely recalled that allegation via his lawyers to not have to go to court for it.
Thanks tablet for this article, a necessary opinion by a worthy writer, delivered in good prose. I hope to see more of the like!

Just for the record, AHA advocates modifying the First Amendment so that Islamic schools can be outlawed – so much for freedom of speech!

Mr. Definitely says:

Actually Dani the “worlds most prominent holocaust denier” isn’t David Irving, but the so-called President of Iran Ahmadinejad.

Dani Levi says:

Hitchens feeds of this nations fascination of the educated eloquent European. Hitchens is no doubt a very colourful character who entertains very well, where ever he goes. However, what he tells us is hardly new. He changes horses and ideas like only few dare in public ( Iraq yes? no? W. yes? no? ). The man has no academic integrity as he amuses the above average educated masses this side of the pond. Name bombing through his talk show appearances like only very few can. I wish Tablet would brake the mould and introduce us to something truly fresh, as to have this man serve more us of his great collection of present and former friends. I realize he is no anti-semite. But he fails in adding anything substantial to the Ramadan discussion which deserves better than this mans book plug. How about having Ramadan write an answer or interviewing the man? We all trash the fellow but nobody has actually heard or read him ( I have, he has a website, scary ) . I am no Hitchens hater, I just find him rather trivial. A sort of mental masturbator, something I can do rather well myself! Tallyho.

Dani Levi says:

Hitchenswatch lays bare the mans lust for publicity and his polemics. It is always tres amusing to have the clown in the class, but when discussing wars, free speech and failures like W. I’d rather have somebody sober at the pulpit. If you know what I mean. But the again for some this is just the entertainment one looks for. Titillating and awfully witty yet only reenforcing ones own little world which one is sadly not able to articulate in that Oxford je ne sais quoi, nes pas? Bud light, mate?

Laker says:

George says: “By the way, Hitchenswatch is run by a pack of bumbling morons.”

I have never read Hitchenswatch and don’t need them to tell me that Hitchens has a big problem with Jews. Of course not everything he says is antisemitic and I even agree with his views of Islamic Fascism.

However, let’s not forget that Hitchens was a friend of David Irving at one time (he had also insulted Elie Wiesel at that time) and when he was about to be confronted about it he discovered a “Jewish mother.” He was raised as a Christian and not as a Jew and his claiming to be a Jew not is merely an alibi to cover for his former overt antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

He is still an anti-Zionist who hates the Jewish State and to me that speaks volumes about it.

They guy is self serving insincere and an antisemitic bore.

J. Arnon says:

Paul Berman’s book is superb. I recommend it highly.

Mark G says:

I don’t think anyone at Hitchens Watch believes Hitch has a problem with Jews. That’s one thing we don’t criticize him on. Then again, we’re not exactly big fans of Israel ourselves.

Yair says:

Hitchens is a Jew, his maternal grandmother was a Jew. Someone isn’t an anti-Semite because they despise religion, even the Jewish one… plenty of the Chalutzim did. And Hitchens doesn’t say anything that leftists in Israel aren’t saying. While one can disagree with them, one can hardly lump everyone left of Kadima as an anti-Semite…

Charges of anti-Semitism make pretty lame responses in an argument. That can’t be the constant silver bullet when one runs out of things to say. “Well, we’ll never win this one, so he’s ANTI-SEMITIC!” Come on people…

Phil T. says:

“Actually Dani the “worlds most prominent holocaust denier” isn’t David Irving, but the so-called President of Iran Ahmadinejad.”

I thought it was Mel Gibson. ;-)

I actually came here simply because this particular web site has been tweeted by a guy I had been following and am delighted I made it here.

Obie R. Silverwood says:

Today I heard Peter and Christopher Hitchens interviewed on National Public Radio in the USA, regarding the subject of atheism. Citing the human conscience as being evidence of the existence of “God,” Peter said that it could only have come from a higher power. Here is why he is mistaken: The human conscience is a form of instinct, which has developed phylogenetically over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Like other phylogenetic behaviors, such as hunting or mating patterns (which do not have to be learned), we also have certain phylogenetic moral behavior. Though based in fallacy, even religious belief is phylogenetic. As primitive Man’s intellect progressed he developed the ability to contemplate the eventuality of his own death, which set up a psychological conflict with his basic survival instinct not to die. In resolution of the psychological discomfort caused by the dilemma, Man created the “afterlife” scenario – along with gods (usually fashioned in Man’s likeness with similar human behavioral flaws) and spirits as explanations for natural phenomenon Man was unable to understand. Though we have progressed beyond many primitive ignorances, religious belief still resides in our psyche as a phylogenetic behavior pattern.

Obie R. Silverwood

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Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, Somali refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Paul Berman’s new ‘Flight of the Intellectuals’

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