ArticleIntellectual Flights and Narrative Wars
But Berman’s effort to paint Ramadan as an apologist for terrorism is quite unpersuasive. Berman overstates his case when he cites Ramadan’s judgment that, for Palestinians, “armed resistance was incumbent” and concludes that this amounts to a justification for terrorism, as if the two were necessarily synonymous. They might, but need not, be. And it is a stretch to say that Ramadan “understands terrorism so tenderly that he ends up justifying it” and that he “justifies [terrorism] so thoroughly that he ends up defending it.” Defending terrorism is a charge that ought to be reserved for a case that can be made less indirectly.
Indeed, Berman misreads the Palestinian national movement rather badly. He seems to think, quite wrongly, that from its outset Islamism and the legacy of al-Banna’s ideas largely guided it. Some of his passages would lead an unversed reader to conclude that the Palestinian movement has been an Islamist one for most of its history. On the contrary, after the reformation in the late 1960s of Palestinian national institutions following the 1947–48 Nakba (“catastrophe,” the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel), most Palestinian discourse was anything but Islamist. It was decidedly secular—in parts, third worldist, socialist, and nationalist. Most Palestinian nationalists from the 1960s until the late 1980s would have regarded Islamists as retrograde, reactionary, ridiculous, and probably agents of the West. Political culture has obviously changed since then, not only among the Palestinians but also in the entire Muslim world, and as the mantle of nationalism in the eyes of many has passed from secular nationalists to Islamists, a disturbing amount of political discourse has reversed the order of things, with Islamists now all too often considered the nationalist vanguard and secularist nationalists consigned to the category of retrograde, reactionary, and probably agents of the West. Even so, the Islamist tendency does not yet dominate the Palestinian movement (although if all efforts to negotiate an end to the occupation fail, it eventually may).
Berman complains that Palestinian leaders “might have noticed after several decades that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were advancing the struggle not one whit, and counterproductive tactics ought to be jettisoned in favor of actions better calculated to succeed at building a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, if need be—as could probably have been achieved at various moments over the years.” Apparently, he has never heard of President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 with a 63 percent majority after running on a strictly nonviolent—indeed, antiviolent— platform, or of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is busy building the basic institutional, infrastructural, economic, and administrative framework of the Palestinian state. He doesn’t acknowledge the paradigm shift that has taken place in the secular nationalist, which is to say mainstream, Palestinian leadership regarding violence and how to achieve statehood and independence.
Berman’s critique of Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash (and by implication an entire class of other intellectuals) centers on their attitudes toward the former Dutch Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on the one hand, and Ramadan, on the other. He argues that Buruma and Garton Ash are two examples, presumably among many, of liberal Western intellectuals who fail to defend the values of the West and the Enlightenment by implicitly or explicitly endorsing the likes of Ramadan, who Berman argues (persuasively, in my view) does not uphold those traditions, and by implicitly or explicitly criticizing Hirsi Ali, who he argues (unpersuasively, in my view) does uphold them.
Berman makes two essentially contradictory arguments in attempting to explain why Western liberal intellectuals would engage in such an allegedly craven betrayal. The first is that they embody internalized Western guilt and white racism masquerading as compassion for the non-Western world, a case of fetishizing the “authenticity” they imagine Ramadan to possess. It is highly debatable whether this is really what has been going on in this case, but the phenomenon Berman describes does exist. His second explanation is that, since the Rushdie affair, the threat of potential and in some cases real violence against strong critics of Islam and Islamists has become so widespread that Western intellectuals are driven by fear—“mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology.” That such fear legitimately exists in many quarters, especially in the Middle East but also in Europe, there is no doubt. But why it would infect the work of people like Buruma and Garton Ash, who could just as easily write about something else, rather than seriously trying to engage with Ramadan and Hirsi Ali and coming to conclusions strikingly different from Berman’s about both, does not follow in the least. And Berman does not seem to experience any mortal fear despite his criticisms of Ramadan.
Berman views their negative evaluation of Hirsi Ali as symptomatic of a kind of Western liberal self-hatred, because he sees her as a champion of humanist and Western values, and more important, of the Enlightenment and its values. But Hirsi Ali is, alas, an anti-Muslim bigot. She insists that the worst actions of any Muslims represent “true Islam” and that all believing Muslims must support the actions of the most brutal extremists. In her book Infidel, she recounts that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, her Dutch colleagues were insisting that, even if the attacks were the work of Muslim extremists, they were not a reflection on Islam as a faith or on Muslims in general. Hirsi Ali thought to herself, “But it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam.” Then, she reports, she did some “research” to check this preexisting conclusion. Not surprisingly, she found that her alleged research vindicated her assumption. She concluded, “Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam . . . must have at least approved of [the attacks].” “True Islam,” she adds, is by definition, and in apparent contrast with all other religions, “totalitarianism” and “leads to cruelty.” Hirsi Ali and many other anti-Muslim ideologues explicitly hold that all of these traditional, moderate, or liberal Muslims are simply wrong and their ideas invalid, and that the worst extremists are right in their interpretation of the faith. More benign interpretations are foreclosed, and moderation and reform invalidated. On this point she agrees, ironically, with the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.