The Flight of the Intellectuals by Paul Berman

War divides. In American history the division caused by war is not just between one side and the other on the battlefield. It’s also between those who support in and believe in the war and its waging, and those who do not. In this sense, the two wars that flowed out of 9-11—Afghanistan and the Second Gulf War—were no different than any other war in American history. They divided.

Paul Berman wrote a book that touches on a single aspect of the divisiveness of 9-11. Berman is a liberal in the American political sense of the term. Loosely, for the purposes of this book review, I’ll translate that as a person who supports more government rather
than less and who generally is more favorable and sympathetic toward multi-national organizations and multi-culturalism. Crude definitions, I realize, but I need something quick and usable for this space.

Berman’s book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, seeks to explore the story of an Islamic scholar at the center of post-9-11 controversy in the United States and Western Europe. That scholar is Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan is an active and articulate expositor of Islamic religious
theory and practice. He is also touted by nearly everyone of Berman’s fellow American/Western European liberals as evidence of the happy negative—that radical Islamic religious theory had no role in the deeds of al-Qaeda and other anti-Western Islamic terrorist groups. The inference among many liberal intellectuals is that the source of attacks must be elsewhere—within American policy, American actions, and American mistakes, perhaps?

Berman lays out the case for Ramadan’s intellectual and scholarly connections to anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and anti-democratic beliefs. As the reader you follow Berman through a thicket of books, articles, interviews, and other musings from Arab and non-Arab
intellectuals of the 20th and early 21st centuries. You also look over Berman’s shoulder at the ways in which liberal intellectuals—people who write articles and essays in various New York-based publications—have chosen to overlook orminimize the importance of these attitudes.

In the hands of another author, such an effort would be mind-numbing. In the hands of a remarkably skilled writer like Berman, the effort is doable. Berman wields a pen like an artist wields a brush—in strokes that are bold, nuanced, and engaging. I found myself wishing
that more authors of non-fiction wrote as effectively as Berman.

Yet I also began to wonder if the writing style amounted to something else. By the end of this short book I suspected that Berman was essentially chatting with his political friends, much as he would at a cocktail party. With a drink in one hand he gesticulates with the other, trying to convince them why he has moved slightly apart in his willingness to criticize the violent and often irrational reality of radical Islam in the modern world. He employs all the dry wit, the
moving imagery, and the snappy phrasing he would naturally use at a social function with his closest intellectual friends. Or so it felt to me.

Knowing as I do about the liberal and Left’s response to 9-11, I fear he may have offended his fellow-travelers. They want nothing to do with anything that remotely smacks of criticism of radical Islam. Such a thing collides with the multi-culturalism of their world view and the
moral relativism of their professional output. And any honest hearing of views like Berman’s could lead them to make their ultimate damning accusation—“you must have supported Bush and Cheney.” You don’t get many party invitations after having that charge hurled at you.

Berman reveals information that isn’t part of the general treatment of radical Islam in the post-9-11 world. He traces in depth the linkage between particular Islamic scholars and support for the Axis of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s and 1940s. The defeat of Erwin Rommel in North Africa did much to kill the momentum of the radical Islamic agenda in the early 1940s. The implications of an Axis victory in North Africa would have changed world history just as much
as a similar victory in Europe or in the Pacific. The what-if’s are staggering to consider.

Perhaps most importantly, he shows the tendency of Ramadan to couch his apparent rejection of religious violence in slippery terms. There’s always seems to be a dark hatch left open—violence isn’t acceptable unless….harsh social methods are needless unless….Those authors, like Berman, who have noted this tendency have labeled it “double discourse.” A speaker tells one thing to one audience and then something quite different to another. (In the eastern Indiana farm country where I come from, we say it’s speaking out of both sides of your mouth) As Yasser Arafat did years before him, Tariq Ramadan speaks moderately to an American or Western audience. To a group of fellow Islamists in more private settings,
however, his tone and text can sound quite different, more menacing and explosive. This isn’t a crime, of course, but it’s uniquely disturbing when the issues at hand are terrorism, murder, and the political and social aspirations of an organized group.

I’ve made the point in some public sessions that I believe a key change for the better must be the emergence of an Islamic Martin Luther. Maybe I ought to amend that and say an Islamic Jonathan Edwards and James Madison. Tariq Ramadan is not any of these.

Berman’s book concludes on a puzzling and, I must admit, unsatisfying note. After all the explanations of Ramadan and his troublesome ideas, the final question in the next-to-last paragraph is this: “what can possible account for this string of bumbles, gaffes, timidities,
slanders, miscomprehensions and silences” on the part of intellectuals who accept Ramadan? The answer? The conclusion of the conclusion: “the spectacular and intimidating growth of the Islamist movement…(and)…terrorism.”

I’ve omitted just a few words with my elipses. But there you have it, that’s the grand answer–they’ve gotten stronger and they use terrorism.

That’s it? If so, then the folks at that imaginary cocktail party I referenced better hope and pray that they don’t have to deal with real threats in their own lives. And the rest of us better hope and pray as Americans that they never have positions of importance and responsibility to protect the nation. Or we’re all dead.

Mr.Berman, thanks for the small window into your world. I found it compelling though a road a bit too winding in parts. Nevertheless, the look is revealing, if not reassuring.