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The Flight of the Intellectuals Hardcover – April 27, 2010
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—Ron Rosenbaum, Slate
"Fascinating... This bracing and volatile book is an important one and devastating in its conclusions."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Paul Berman is, just like me and I think many others, surprised—and that’s an understatement—that some liberals choose to defend ideas that are very illiberal and choose to look away from practices that are even more illiberal. Why are they excusing radical Islam? That fascinates Berman and it also fascinates me, what the presence of Islam does to the liberal psyche in the West."
—Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maclean's
"It has been quite astonishing to see how far and how fast there has been a capitulation to the believable threat of violence.... I join with Paul Berman in expressing utter astonishment at this phenomenon, or rather at the way that it is not a phenomenon."
“Berman… has a fair claim to being regarded as the Benda of our time. In The Flight of the Intellectuals he continues his work of redeeming the good name of intellectuals by exposing the corrupt among them.”
—Anthony Julius, New York Times Book Review
“How do you distinguish a jihadist from a ‘moderate’ Muslim? Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals brilliantly dissects the moral confusion and cowardice that contrives to sway some brave men and women. Must reading for our times.”
—Harold Evans, Daily Beast
—Michael Young, Slate
Praise for Paul Berman
“One of our most gifted essayists, a deeply pensive writer with a lyrical talent for imaginative synthesis.”
—The Boston Globe
“One of America’ s best exponents of recent intellectual history.”
About the Author
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Berman, to his great credit, has waded his way through this morass of two faces, and he has his written his report with tremendous intellectual verve. It is a cautionary tale. Berman rightfully points to the deadly danger we face from the terrorist Islamists, but also, and perhaps even more deadly, from their sophisticated, leftist, voguish fellow-travelers. He gives due credit to some European writers who have preceded him in this -- Pascal Bruckner and Caroline Fourest in France and Ulrike Achermann in Germany -- but it is Berman's book that is immediately accessible to the American reader. Berman has been rewarded by an appreciative reception from thoughtful people. And he has also been rewarded, as were the pioneers of anti-Stalinism some sixty years ago, by sneers and hostility from fellow-travelers and their apologists.
The book is not an easy read, he does go into a fair amount of detail and cover a fair number of writers. But it is well worth the moderate effort required to follow the details.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the state of relations between "Islam and the West" and the state of western intellectuals-- who really have become a pretty spineless bunch.
"And so, Salman Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class. It is a subset of the European intelligentsia--its Muslim free-thinking and liberal wing especially, but including other people, too, who survive only because of bodyguards and police investigations and because of their own precautions. This is unprecedented in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis. Fear--mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology--has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life. And yet, if someone like Pascal Bruckner intones a few words about the need for courage under these circumstances, the sneers begin--"Now where have we heard that kind of thing before?"--and onward to the litany about fascism. In The New York Times Magazine Ian Buruma held back from hinting even obliquely at the genuinely fascist influences on Ramadan's grandfather, the founder of the modern cult of artistic death--Hassan al-Banna, who spoke highly of Adolf Hitler and helped the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem escape from getting tried at Nuremburg. Yet Pascal Bruckner, the liberal--here is somebody, Buruma would have us think, on the brink of fascism" (Location 3713)!
This book was a joy to read.
Top international reviews
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.
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.