Paving the Middle Path

In the East-West debate on Islam, who do Western Intellectuals want to talk to? Apostates or Believers?

Just how Islam fits into the Western social fabric is a contentious topic. FIORENZO MAFFIT/REUTERS
01 July, 2010

WAS THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD a pervert and a tyrant? Does Islam promote terrorism and enslave women? Does Islam oblige its followers to wage jihad on Westerners whose roots lie in the secular Enlightenment? Should Muslims consider converting to Christianity? For the Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes!” Hirsi Ali, who renounced Islam in her 30s, speaks from experience of bigotry and intolerance among her former co-religionists: she was genitally mutilated as a child in Somalia, briefly radicalised by a preacher of jihad in Kenya, nearly forced into a marriage, threatened with death in the Netherlands by the Muslim assassin of her collaborator, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and is still hounded by murderous fanatics in her new home, America. In her latest book, Nomad: From Islam to America (pubished this year by Free Press), she reminds her readers of the West’s tradition of intellectual revolt against clerical tyranny and warns of the insidious, intransigent enemies in their midst. “The Muslim mind today seems to be in the grip of jihad,” she writes.

She is not hopeful that Americans will heed her warning. Her initial job interviews in the United States were discouraging: the Brookings Institution, she writes, worried that she might offend Arab Muslims. (The conservative American Enterprise Institute, however, immediately appointed her as a fellow.) On college campuses, Muslim students accuse her of wanting to “trash” Islam, while Western feminists, convinced that white men are “the ultimate and only oppressors,” lack the “courage or clarity of vision” to help her knock down the mental “hovels” of the East. Pointing to Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s murderous rampage in Texas, last November, she deplores the “conspiracy to ignore the religious motivation for these killings” in America.

Muslims today, Hirsi Ali believes, must be forced to choose between the darkness of Islam and the light of the modern secular West. In her new book, which bears the additional subtitle A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, she takes an uncompromising line with her own relatives, who remain faithful to their benighted religion. The book opens with an account of her visit to her father’s deathbed, in Whitechapel, in London’s East End, in 2008. Her father, a highly respected political opponent of Somalia’s Soviet-backed military dictator, became more religious during exile and old age. Father and daughter hadn’t spoken since 2004, when Hirsi Ali and van Gogh made the film Submission, about the oppression of Muslim women, and she learned that he was fatally ill only a few weeks before his death. She didn’t want to visit him at his home, since it was in “a mostly immigrant area and overwhelmingly Muslim,” and had to be escorted by policemen to his hospital. In a brief but moving scene, she describes her father longing, but physically unable, to communicate with her.

A Moorish mosque, converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral in Cordoba, Spain. BETTMANN/CORBIS

The emotions of the moment dissipate soon after she leaves the hospital, when, driving down Whitechapel Road with her bodyguards, Hirsi Ali glimpses covered Muslim women on the pavement and long-bearded men outside a large mosque. Overcome by “an instant sense of panic and suffocation,” she felt as though she were “the only true nomad.” The Muslims in Whitechapel “had brought their web of values with them,” values of a culture that she has left behind. She deplores her “conflicted” half sister Sahra, who is interested in studying psychology in London while remaining a devout Muslim, and who has an annoying habit of saying “Inshallah” after every phrase. “How long will Western societies. . .continue to tolerate the spread of Sahra’s way of life?” Hirsi Ali asks. Considering her vain and financially needy brother, she laments, “This is the tragedy of the tribal Muslim man.” She writes a letter to a deceased grandmother in Africa, educating her about the enviable ways of the Western “infidel”: “He may take care of his parents but has no use for a memory filled with an endless chain of ancestors. All the seeds of his toil are spent on his own offspring, not those of his brothers or uncles.”

“The only difference between my relatives and me is that I opened my mind,” Hirsi Ali writes. The book ends with a letter to an imagined unborn daughter, which is also a tribute to her fellow anti-Islam agitator Oriana Fallaci, who memorably claimed that Muslims “breed like rats” in Europe. Hirsi Ali worries that her daughter will confront “the bleakness of having no challenges in life,” in “an America of many posts: post-civil rights, postfeminism, post-cold war.” She wonders, “What will you fight for? What will you fight against?” Yet there are plenty of dangers that remain, and she warns her child about being brainwashed by “Allah and his agents,” and by the “many isms” that she will be exposed to in America: “socialism and communism and all sorts of cults and collectivisms.”

Nomad is unlikely to earn Hirsi Ali many Muslim admirers. Neither will her recent support for the proposed French ban on face veils and the Swiss referendum outlawing minarets. In denouncing Islam unreservedly, she has claimed a precedent in Voltaire—though the 18th century scourge of the Catholic Church might have been perplexed by her proposal that Muslims embrace the “Christianity of love and tolerance.” In another respect, however, the invocation of Voltaire is more apt than Hirsi Ali seems to realise. Voltaire despised the faith and identity of Europe’s religious minority: the Jews, who, he declared, “are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts,” who had “surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism,” and who “deserve to be punished.” Voltaire’s denunciations remind us that the Enlightenment was a much more complex and multifaceted phenomenon than the dawn of reason and freedom that Hirsi Ali evokes. Many followed Voltaire in viewing the Jews as backward, an Oriental abscess in the heart of Europe. Hirsi Ali, recording her horror of ghettoised Muslim life in Whitechapel, seems unaware of the similarly contemptuous accounts of Jewish refugees who made the East End of London their home after fleeing the pogroms.


Whitechapel has much in its past—oppression, bigotry, poverty, radicalism—that would have helped Hirsi Ali understand not only the neighbourhood’s newest inhabitants but also her own family. But Nomad reveals that her life experiences have yet to ripen into a sense of history. The sad truth is that the problems she blames on Islam—fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism—are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity. Many more young women are killed in India for failing to bring sufficient dowry than perish in ‘honour killings’ across the Muslim world. Such social pathologies no more reveal the barbaric core of Hinduism or Islam than domestic violence in Europe and America defines the moral essence of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

Islamic fundamentalist groups have long terrorised many Muslim countries, especially those, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, that were ravaged by blowback from the Cold War and the war on terror. These extremists, who now assault the West as well, have always lacked popular support within their own countries. The anarchic vivacity of contemporary Muslim societies—featuring such figures as Ali Saleem, Pakistan’s cross-dressing television host, and Cairo’s hijab-wearing sex therapist Heba Kotb, whose talk show is beamed across the Arab world—does not quite match Hirsi Ali’s description of an incurably medieval people busy devising ever-harsher laws for themselves while plotting mayhem for the infidels. In recent years, Islamist movements, led or assisted by women activists, have helped democratise Indonesia and Turkey; innumerable Muslims, such as Asma Jahangir, in Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi, in Iran, fight to defend the rights of women against both Islamic fundamentalists and secular autocrats.

Nor do Hirsi Ali’s simple oppositions—traditional societies versus democracy, Islam versus Western secularism—sum up the experiences of Muslims in Europe, who are the Continent’s most globalised minority, with multilayered identities that are usually influenced less by the Koran or Sharia than by the politics, culture, and economy of various nations and transnational networks. Her praise for the United States, her new home, shows a growing familiarity with right-wing touchstones (self-reliance, distrust of government, family values, gun ownership, Christianity). But when she writes that a Muslim can be “an American patriot” only if he doesn’t “care very much about being a Muslim,” she seems suspicious of the country’s un-European traditions of cultural and religious pluralism. Eager to re-educate her “fellow nomads” in “the ways of the infidel,” Hirsi Ali is convinced that “lingering between the two value systems,” as her half sister does, “stunts the process of becoming one’s own person.” But those privileged enough to find refuge in the West rarely find it easy or desirable to abandon their ancestral culture and convert to the Randian individualism that she appears to uphold as the noblest form of human existence. The fate of the truly modern nomad is, rather, a ceaseless inner conflict between ways of life and value systems; this very quality has made the nomad an emblematic figure of the contemporary age.

If Hirsi Ali’s rhetoric has earned her critics among Western liberals, she has a fierce defender in Paul Berman, whose new polemic, The Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House), hails her as a “classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual.” He upbraids such writers as the Anglo-Dutch journalist Ian Buruma and the British academic Timothy Garton Ash, who, he says, “sneered at Ayaan Hirsi Ali for having taken up the ideas of Western liberalism.” Berman also condemns Buruma and Garton Ash for “grovelling” to Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim professor at Oxford University, whose work seeks to integrate observant Muslims into secular Western societies, and whom Berman sees as an apologist for extremism. For Berman, the spectacle of writers attacking Hirsi Ali while embracing Ramadan points to a dangerous “reactionary turn in the intellectual world” of Europe and America.


Berman, who started his intellectual career in the early 1970s, as an anthologist of anarchist quotations, has emerged as a prominent critic of liberal-left pieties. In A Tale of Two Utopias (1996), he reprimanded the American student radicals of the 60s for failing to recognise the evil of Communism. In Terror and Liberalism (2003), he scolded liberals too timid to join what he saw as America’s crusade for liberal democracy in Iraq. His recent writings call for unambiguous ideological commitment in what he describes as a worldwide clash between liberalism and totalitarianism (or “fascism,” which Berman prefers, since to hear the “pungent” word “is to flare your nostrils”).

There is no doubt that 9/11 announced a new enemy of liberal civilisation—an enemy far more obscure than, say, Prussian militarism, Nazism, or Communist totalitarianism, all of which were embodied by territorial states and standing armies. What was one to make of men who hid in caves and spoke in apocalyptic tones, mixing modern anti-imperialist rhetoric with invocations of a glorious Islamic past? Were they rootless and marginalised revolutionaries trying to realise an Islamic myth of community, or did they express a deeper pathology of backward tradition-bound societies? Had the Muslim world produced a modern totalitarian ideology called Islamism? Terror and Liberalism offered answers that could seem consolingly simple.

During the Vietnam War, Hannah Arendt noted that members of the Democratic Administration had frequent recourse to phrases like “monolithic communism,” and “second Munich,” and deduced from this an inability “to confront reality on its own terms because they had always some parallels in mind that ‘helped’ them to understand those terms.” Similarly, Berman, who wasn’t known previously for his expertise on modern political movements east of Europe, identified Islamism as a derivative version of the totalitarian enemies—Fascism and Communism—that liberalism had already fought throughout the 20th century. After “trolling the Islamic bookstores of Brooklyn,” he offered a genealogy of “Islamism” that rested almost entirely on his reading of Sayyid Qutb, an ideologue of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. According to Berman, liberal intellectuals were obliged to do battle with the new nihilistic Fascism, which included secular dictatorships like Iraq’s as well as pan-Islamist movements. “I’m happy to be a laptop general,” he wrote, and his work quickly united a variety of public figures, from Richard Holbrooke to Martin Amis, in the cause.

The book had its liberal critics. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma rejected Berman’s “radical vision of an American state, filled with revolutionary élan and military steel, battling heroically and alone with outside enemies,” and wrote, “There is something in the tone of Berman’s polemic that reminds me of the quiet American in Graham Greene’s novel, the man of principle who causes mayhem, without quite realizing why.” In 2007, when Buruma published a profile of Tariq Ramadan in the Times Magazine, Berman responded with a 28,000-word article in The New Republic that presented his own appalled discovery of the academic’s ideas and inspirations. He focussed on Ramadan’s “family relations that shape everything he writes and does,” particularly Ramadan’s grandfather Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman expands his original indictment, arguing that Ramadan makes the right noises but is actually quite vague about women’s rights, and his reinterpretations of Islamic texts do not sound very liberal or moderate. In Berman’s account, the modern Islamic thinkers whom Ramadan is related to or admires turn out to be promoters of jihadi violence against Israel and the West. Ramadan’s grandfather, for instance, was an early supporter of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, who tried to create an Arab-Nazi alliance. Berman concedes that Ramadan himself doesn’t advocate terrorism or anti-Semitism, but says he is soft on those who do, which makes it more inexplicable that liberal intellectuals should depict Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the “admirer of the West,” as a loose cannon while hailing Ramadan as “a long-awaited Islamic hero—the religious thinker who was going, at last, to adapt Islam to the modern world.” According to Berman, intellectuals like Buruma and Garton Ash have helped Ramadan “become a representative man of our age.”

Author Tariq Ramadan during an interview in New York. MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

Ramadan, a prolific author who has preached a ‘European’ Islam in the heart of secular France, has certainly attracted the attention of journalists and academics, along with those uncompromising secularists who use him as a foil. But Berman, assessing Ramadan from within this echo chamber, is prone to overestimate his resonance in the wider world. “In the eyes of a vast number of European Muslims a more glorious ancestry than Tariq Ramadan’s does not exist,” he writes. It is more likely that the majority of European Muslims worry more about unemployment, discrimination, and inequality than about setting up an Islamic caliphate, and have never heard of Hasan al-Banna. Ramadan himself is virtually unknown among many of Europe’s Muslim communities, not least the South Asian Muslims in Britain, who, in the age of the Internet and satellite television, have their own transnational reformist thinkers, Urdu-speaking pop preachers, and charismatic evangelists. Ramadan’s overall reputation in Europe and West Asia can’t begin to compare with that of a reformist “satellite sheikh” like Egypt’s Amr Khaled, or, for that matter, a figure like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based theologian who justifies suicide attacks on Israel and whose programme on Al Jazeera reaches tens of millions of people.

It seems irrational to fear, as Berman does, that a lukewarm profile in the Times Magazine, a favourable mention or two in The New York Review of Books, and a teaching job at Oxford would help Ramadan “break into . . . the American conversation,” not to mention force a “reactionary turn” in the country’s intellectual life. Sooner or later, just about every writer of non-Western background finds himself taken to be a representative of, or spokesperson for, his community, nation, race, or religion. Ramadan, who has solemnly, even pompously, embraced this role, seems no more than one of the many academics struggling to fulfill the West’s post-9/11 demand for ‘moderate’ Islam. Berman clearly wants him to prove his credentials by unconditionally repudiating various Islamist grandees. Ramadan is evidently fearful of losing credibility in the very community of conservative Muslims that he wishes to reconcile with the West. But Berman reads volumes into Ramadan’s silences and pursues him with inquisitorial zeal. He suggests that Ramadan supports the Taliban, even while admitting that Ramadan never mentions the Taliban. He says that Ramadan not just “admires” but “worships” Qaradawi, although the citations of Ramadan that he produces to illustrate this claim reveal nothing more fervent than the standard lexicon of scholarly attribution: “Yusuf al-Qaradawi aptly notes that. . .”; “For details, see Yusuf al-Qaradawi.. . .” Berman’s fulminations against Ramadan—“He is imprisoned in a cage. . .He cannot think for himself. He does not believe in thinking for himself ”—cause his usually sprightly prose, finally, to crack. What is he trying to accomplish?

It’s possible that, by building Ramadan up as a treacherous enemy of liberal civilisation, Berman hopes to vindicate his own earlier role as a laptop general. After nearly a decade, the Bush Administration’s global war on terror, which Berman saw as a crusade for liberal democracy, seems a fiasco. In addition to destroying innumerable lives, it has helped an initially small band of fanatics multiply and mutate (Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Pakistani Taliban) in new locations (Waziristan, Connecticut). Of course, the proliferation of extremists could be taken as further evidence of a worldwide Fascist conspiracy, and this, it seems, may be Berman’s larger project. In rummaging through the “hidden corners” of Ramadan’s thought, he seems less interested in describing a “new twist. . .in the history of the Western intellectuals” (a melodramatic and unconvincing move) than in finding as many examples of Muslim extremism as possible—the “murk,” as he described it in Terror and Liberalism, of people “drunk on the idea of slaughter.” This sets him off on a long exploration of the virulent hatred of Jews manifested by Ramadan’s grandfather and his Islamist allies.

Certainly, this malignity does still fester in the proclamations of Hamas and Hezbollah; and Berman deftly summarises a revisionist history that emphasises “centuries of Muslim cruelty toward the Jews,” challenging the conventional view that European-style anti-Semitism was unknown under the Ottoman Empire. But he misses an opportunity to enrich his genealogy of hate by setting it within the modern history of West Asia and the entire continent. For instance, he makes a passing reference to Rashid Rida, a prominent Islamist thinker at the turn of the 20th century and al-Banna’s revered teacher, expressing curiosity about his praise for early Zionist settlers, but doesn’t explore the matter further. Although, ultimately, Rida turned against Zionism as Jewish immigration to Palestine surged in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, he had been an outspoken critic of European anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus trial and made early attempts, including an exchange with Chaim Weizmann, regarding an agreement between “the Arabs and their Hebrew cousins.” Berman rightly points out that the mufti of Jerusalem showed an obscene eagerness to help extend the Final Solution to the West Asia, and hatred of British colonialists and Zionist settlers certainly provoked Naziphilia among many Arabs of the 1930s and 40s. But it is worth noting that, by 1941, when the mufti sidled up to Hitler and, soon afterward, began to air his anti-Semitic rants on the radio, reactionary pan-Islamists like him had to contend with overlapping groups of liberal Westernisers, Marxists, and secular Arab nationalists; far from being representative of the larger Arab world, the mufti was a fast-diminishing figure even in his own small sphere of influence—forced out of Palestine by the British in 1937 and blamed for a series of political debacles there. Berman himself relates that Arabs comprehensively failed to respond to the mufti’s exhortations to kill the Jews.

Hitler greeting Subhas Chandra Bose circa 1940. THE CARAVAN ARCHIVES

What you wouldn’t guess from Berman’s account is how common it was for anti-colonialist leaders to stumble into such unlikely alliances. In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu and pacifist, vigorously campaigned for the restoration of the caliphate. And in 1941 an old colleague of his, Subhas Chandra Bose, travelled to Berlin and enlisted Indian POWs who later fought in the Waffen SS. The expedient notion that my enemy’s enemy is my friend even motivated the Jewish militant leader Avraham Stern to try, in 1940, to enlist Nazi support against the British rulers of Palestine.

Bose, who went on to collaborate with Japanese militarists against the British in the Japanese invasion of India, remains a great nationalist icon, while Winston Churchill, the resolute anti-Fascist so admired in the West, is reviled as a crudely racist imperialist who delayed Indian independence as long as he could and inflicted death on millions with his callous policies during the Great Famine of Bengal, in 1943. These Janus reputations should remind us that what Berman casts as an epic moral struggle between liberalism and Fascism in the West has been experienced and remembered very differently in the East.

In Terror and Liberalism, Berman invoked Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalist intervention in the First World War, rebuking weak-kneed liberals unwilling to join what he saw as a new American crusade for liberal democracy beginning in Iraq. Wilson had asserted, “Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos,” even after he led the United States into the bloodbath that inaugurated the extraordinary violence of the 20th century. Declaring his support for national self-determination, Wilson briefly enjoyed unqualified reverence, from Cairo to Peking. At home, he had his most vociferous supporters among the liberal intelligentsia, then a new force in American life, which believed that America’s entry into the war would make not only Prussia and Europe but also the world safe for democracy. But war, which follows its own grim illogic, is rarely subservient to virtuous intentions; and peacemaking can be an even dirtier business. Outwitted by his French and British allies at the postwar peace conference in Paris, Wilson ended up surrendering his immense moral prestige among colonised peoples to European imperialists. By 1919, the presumed beneficiaries of liberal internationalism—India, China, and West Asia—instead felt betrayed. As the Harvard historian Erez Manela explains in a recent book, The Wilsonian Moment, to many leaders and thinkers of the colonised world who had viewed Wilson as their saviour, Western liberalism now appeared synonymous with imperialism.

In light of these alternative histories, The Flight of the Intellectuals seems to be labouring merely to underline the obvious: that a Muslim with a political subjectivity shaped by decades of imperial conquest, humiliation, and postcolonial failure does not share the world view of a liberal from Brooklyn. Yet there has long been such a chasm between Western intellectuals and their counterparts in formerly subordinate countries, an incompatibility of historical memories. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror have hardened prejudice and suspicion on all sides; now more than ever it is necessary for Western intellectuals to find real interlocutors among Muslim thinkers and activists. Tariq Ramadan may not be ideal, but the impulse to engage with him seems to exemplify the best kind of liberalism—un-self-righteous and aware of its own inadequacies.

Certainly, Berman’s hopes for delivering reason and freedom at gunpoint have proved calamitous. Lamenting many similar flights of the intellectuals in the long 20th century—their noisy ideological identifications and terrible political choices—the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once pointed out that, however much intellectuals yearn to be both “prophets and heralds of reason,” those roles cannot be reconciled. “The common human qualities of vanity and greed for power” are particularly dangerous among intellectuals, he observed, and their longing to identify with political causes often results in “an almost unbelievable loss of critical reasoning.”

Philosopher Leszek Kolakowski at the opening of the Academie Universelle des Cultures. MICHELINE PELLETIER/ SYGMA/ CORBIS

This was never a risk for Kolakowski’s model thinker-activist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, a “peace-loving incendiary,” who was at once engaged in the major conflicts of his day and “withdrawn and careful, unwilling to go to extremes”—the great promoter of religious reform who declined to join the Reformation. Those wishing to stage worldwide revolution and force open Muslim and Western minds may not see the appeal of Erasmus’s 16th-century decorum. But, in these volatile times, intellectuals would do well to reacquaint themselves with what Kolakowski described as the “history of many deceitful hopes”—the crimes of ideological passion in which even liberals have been complicit.