The polemicist discusses Tariq Ramadan’s love of extremist sheikhs, Islamism’s ties to Hitler, and the intellectual confusion of liberal journalists.
In 2006, Paul Berman attended a seminar in Sweden which featured the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, just-resigned Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Bassam Tibi, the critic of Islamism. Berman was meeting both Ramadan and Hirsi Ali for the first time, and their fame preceded them. “He and I sat together, talking,” Berman says of the former, “then he made his presentation. I listened to Ramadan speak, and had a very strong reaction to his presentation. I felt that it was manipulative and a little demagogic and very unpleasant. On the other hand, I was impressed by Hirsi Ali.”
What puzzled Berman was how his impression of Ramadan clashed markedly with Ramadan’s reception in the media. Berman began to read Ramadan closely, which he describes as his métier. French writer Caroline Fourest had cited Ramadan’s double talk, a habit of saying something moderate to non-Muslim audiences and something different to Muslims. But this wasn’t exactly what Berman found.
Rather, Ramadan had the habit of openly revering figures like Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (and Ramadan’s grandfather). Al-Banna was closely associated in the forties with the Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of “the most violent wing of the Arab Revolt.” As Berman would learn, the anti-Semitic and Fascist strain used by these figures, that extremist organizations like al-Qaeda are heir to, was not merely rhetorical.
In fact, the Mufti had been a star in the Nazi propaganda war during World War II. The Mufti’s appeal to the Nazis was partly a result of his adopting the Nazi idea of a demonic worldwide conspiracy of Jews, which, during the war, he broadcast on Nazi shortwave radio programs across the Arab world. But Nazi awe of the Mufti also had plenty to do with the support graced by al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood, as it went through its growth spurt. While other war criminals were facing trials after the war, the Mufti, who had called for eradication of the Jews, received a hero’s welcome in Eqypt. This was thanks to al-Banna.
Berman would doggedly trace the influence of these two figures through the ideologies of extremists like Sayyid Qutb and Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi. But Berman also found that Ramadan never criticized extremist views in these figures (their militant antisemitism, approval of terrorism, endorsement of a Nazi doctrine which saw Hitler as sent by God). He never even mentioned these views. In his book in praise of his grandfather, The Roots of the Muslim Renewal, Ramadan suppressed his and the Mufti’s Fascist ties. While claiming to be a moderate seeking to forge an attractive, modern Islam, here was someone who was obfuscating a key tie between Islam and Nazism, which spawned Islamism. This was Muslim reform, Ramadan-style.
Of course, Ramadan doesn’t do it alone. As Berman controversially claims in his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, he has a class of prominent, though intellectually confused journalist-enablers, figures like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, whose tendency to favor style over substance has spurred them to get it absolutely backwards: they deal with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, truly a heroic dissident figure in Berman’s reading, like a pariah, and fawn over the double-talk of the charismatic Ramadan.
The author of nine books, including the best-selling Terror and Liberalism, Berman was born in the early nineteen fifties, and “grew up a little north of New York,” he told me, “with parents who were both from the Bronx. And I grew up with a keen sense of the Bronx. My grandparents were typical Jewish immigrants to New York of a century ago, each of the four of them from a different part of Eastern Europe. So I think I’m a very typical product of the classic Jewish immigration to New York of a century ago.” He was educated at Columbia University and is a contributing editor to The New Republic, where an article on Tariq Ramadan, from which his new book is drawn, appeared in 2007.
I spoke to Berman in his Brooklyn apartment where stacks of books and papers piled on coffee tables and the floor. A large map of Nicaragua and a photograph of Emma Goldman graced the walls. Slouching in a rocking chair, he had a habit of twisting his fingers or drumming on his knee as he spoke. If he mentioned a book in our discussion, he would consistently point to it on the shelves, as if to assure me, or himself, it really was there, hadn’t been lost, and could be easily examined for its provocations and truths.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: Who is Tariq Ramadan and why should we care?
Paul Berman: Ramadan is very peculiar, not just a philosopher who happens to have these ideas and, like everyone, has parents and grandparents. He is on the contrary a kind of royalty in the Islamist world. His grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The Islamist movement was founded by two or three people of whom al-Banna is probably the most important. I began looking into al-Banna and his ideas and knew something about this from my studies in Qutb (for Terror and Liberalism) and it’s not so easy to learn about al-Banna for us in America. I think the only book largely devoted to al-Banna written by a writer who addresses a general readership in the Western countries is a book by Ramadan himself, Roots of the Muslim Renewal. So of course I read that and was struck by how close indeed were the relations between the Muslim Brotherhood as it arose and the Nazis. The Brotherhood was formed with something like 6 people in 1928. By 1936 I think it has something like 800 people.
A Palestinian Arab revolt got up against the Zionist movement, with various wings. The most militant of the wings was led by the Palestinian leader, the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose doctrine was Islamist, and Arabist. The Mufti supervised the assassination of quite a few of his rivals among the Palestinian Arabs. So he had just a dreadful effect on Palestinian political culture. And he himself was very attracted from the start to the Nazis. He approached them in 1933 or so. The Nazis began supplying aid to him. By the time an armed revolt had gotten started in 1936 it became one of the proxy wars that was going to lead to World War II. Two wars got started in 1936, one in Spain with the Fascists on one side—aided by Hitler and Mussolini—and the Spanish Republic on the other side—aided by the Soviet Union, Mexico, and a large national solidarity movement of the left. This should be home ground for a magazine called Guernica. Another proxy war was going on in Palestine. You had the Palestinian Arabs leading an anti-Zionist revolt, one wing of which, the most violent wing, was being supported by the Germans. And on the other side, you had the British. So already here was a kind of war between the British and the Germans, [mostly] through proxies. With the Zionists themselves as yet another factor, struggling for independence against the British even while trying to fend off the anti-Zionists of the Palestinian Arabs. So it was a complicated thing.
In Egypt, al-Banna had written to the Mufti pledging his loyalty, expressing his admiration; Ramadan puts great emphasis on this in his book on al-Banna. The Muslim Brotherhood was able to expand gigantically. It became truly a mass movement really in two years, [offering] solidarity for the Mufti’s wing of the Arab Revolt and at the same time obviously [it was] a movement that wanted to throw out the British from Egypt too. It was a [somewhat] violent movement in Egypt but not at the level of war. So there it was, actual support. What interests me is not so much tracing down where the weapons or funds came from. Those are interesting topics. But I’m more interested in the nature of the ideas that were emerging in the Islamist movement. Because the Islamist movement has proved to be powerful above all because of its ideas, which are immensely strong in themselves. Here was a movement which drew on some old nineteenth century and early-twentieth century roots, but is now in the nineteen thirties and forties developing a full ideology. And this development, I think is hugely important.
[In the transcripts] we see the actual creating of this mad doctrine, which I think was a sort of mishmash of Nazi ideas using Islamic rhetoric.
Guernica: How so?
Paul Berman: Qutb, for instance, refers to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This struck me as very curious. Why did it seem appropriate to Qutb to cite such a thing? It’s not Islamic. It doesn’t come out of any Arab or Muslim tradition. It’s actually originally a product of czarist propaganda which then got taken up by the Nazis. So it’s a product of old European Christian superstitions against the Jews which then got modernized. Hitler was keen on it. How did these ideas arrive there? When I read the German historians and looked more at the Mufti and looked at al-Banna himself, his writings from the nineteen thirties and forties, I began to see, ‘Oh that’s how it got there.’ One of the world’s super-powers was promoting these ideas. The Germans themselves, the SS, set about together with the Mufti and some other Arab exiles in Berlin during the war to recast the Nazi vision of the Jews in the worldwide struggle in language that was not Nazi but drawn from the Koran and other sacred scriptures of Islam; it was creating something new, something really horrific, which was Islamic and Nazi both. I realized, here was the source of Sayyid Qutb’s ideas. And at the same time here was the source of al-Banna’s ideas.
Guernica: This Islamist collaboration with the Nazis went astonishingly far. The Nazi scholars were seeking ways to cast Hitler as the newest prophet, or the twelfth Imam, in order to draw in Arabs and Muslims onto the Nazi side in the war.
Paul Berman: The Germans had a research center at the University of Tübingen of orientalists, looking for ways to present the Nazi project in Muslim terms. German theoreticians and scholars were coming up with all kinds of ideas of their own, like, couldn’t they present Hitler as somebody perhaps granted a new revelation beyond Mohammed; or in relation to Shiism, couldn’t Hitler be presented as the twelfth imam? Of course, the Mufti didn’t think there was going to be a new revelation because that would be against Islam; Mohammed is the final prophet. But he did go along with recasting some German ideas in Islamic terms, the most important of these was how to think about the Jews. In the Nazi idea, we sometimes forget what Nazi antisemitism was. There were two aspects: one was biological. The Nazis were racists on biological grounds and the Jews were inferior. And the Germans wanted to exterminate these and other inferior races for the genetic good of the future of Aryan mankind. But there was another strand, which was paranoid, based on a paranoid conspiracy theory.
Jeff Herf is a great historian on this topic. The Nazis pictured themselves as under assault from the Jews. There was a danger that the Aryans, the German race, was going to be exterminated by the Jews, so the Nazis were fighting a war of self-defense against this gigantic Jewish conspiracy to exterminate Germany. The war against the Soviet Union and communism was really a war against Jews because the Soviet Union and communism were controlled by the Jews. On the other front, the Nazis were at war against the British Empire. The British Empire was likewise controlled by the Jews. This was another element of the conspiracy. When America entered the war it turned out that America too was controlled by the Jews. So Nazis were fending off in their own minds this gigantic conspiracy. Of course, the meaning of this is that the Nazis were picturing Jews as a supernaturally powerful and demonic force. So the Nazis had to massacre the Jews simply out of self-defense. This is why, as the war went worse and worse for the Nazis and they needed more and more to send troops to go fight the Soviets or the Western allies invading from the West, instead they sent forces to exterminate the Jews. This was their doctrine. Now they, in collaboration with the Mufti and other exiles, began to present this whole series of ideas in Koranic and Islamic terms. Herf was able to turn up the actual transcripts of the broadcasts which had never been seen before.
Guernica: Via the State Department?
Paul Berman: Via the State Department. The Germans had a vast short-wave radio propaganda system going on throughout the Arab world and no one has ever found the tapes of those broadcasts. And no one has ever found a German transcript. But Herf had the brilliant idea of checking around to see what might be available in the State Department archives. And there he found it. The American embassy in Cairo, under its Ambassadors Alexander Kirk and “Kippy” Tuck (laughs)—you can’t make some of this up, it was just beyond fiction—had supervised the transcribing into English of the Nazi broadcasts and they were regularly sent to Washington for analysis and then went into storage. It’s odd to think that no one has gone into them in depth until Herf. So we see the actual creating of this mad doctrine which I think was a sort of mishmash of Nazi ideas using Islamic rhetoric. The most important of the ideas is that the Jews are a demonic and supernatural force. The goal of the Zionist project in this picture was to destroy the Arab world and replace it with a giant Zionist state.
Guernica: Now this is all laid out in radio broadcasts. But is this the Mufti himself speaking in these broadcasts?
Paul Berman: Sometimes.
Guernica: And he rises, you write, to inciting genocide.
Paul Berman: Yes, the Mufti calls on the Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews.
Guernica: This happened especially during key turning points in the war, as when Rommel was waging his campaign in the North African desert?
Paul Berman: Exactly. As the Nazis invaded various countries they called on their supporters to rise up in support of them. The best known instance of this is one of the smallest instances. When the Jews were arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz, they were arrested by French police. This was a relatively small number of Jews, only 76,000. But the really mass instances of this took place in Eastern Europe, where the Nazis called on Ukrainian volunteers and other people to round up the Jews and massacre them or to send them off to the extermination camps. Now the whole program was to do the same in the Middle East, where there was a large Jewish population, maybe a million people, a chunk in Palestine, but very large and ancient Jewish populations in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and throughout the region. So the Nazi propaganda, mostly radio, but also leaflets, called on Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews. And the Mufti was especially virulent in his calls for this and issued these calls in an ancient Islamic language, sometimes quoting some hadith or scriptural traditions from Islam.
It’s not that it’s an arcane dispute about the past. It’s that in suppressing this information, Ramadan is creating a false image of the Islamist ideology.
Guernica: Didn’t the Mufti even stop the Nazis from showing clemency to some children?
Paul Berman: Yes, the Mufti had a great prestige among the Nazi leaders and agitated forcefully and publicly in Europe to urge the Nazis to go further and kill still more people. There were a number of times when the Nazis were willing to allow some groups of Jews to leave Europe and escape to Palestine and a large number of children. The Nazis had wanted to do this as a kind of phony propaganda effort to show that they were nice (and anyway expected the Jews to be exterminated in Palestine by the Arabs, or by themselves when they eventually got there). And the Mufti agitated against this. The Mufti was calling successfully for the Nazis to show no clemency and instead send these Jews to Poland, which is to say to be murdered.
Guernica: So he’s a war criminal.
Paul Berman: Yes, he was a war criminal and you have to ask yourself, why was he so influential among the German leaders? When the Mufti spoke to the Nazis, the Nazis had reason to think that this is a man with real power potentially in the Arab world. The Nazis respected him, he was a genuine war criminal who was able to convince them to take a harder line. And one of the real reasons for the Mufti’s power and influence among Nazis was the support and fealty he was getting from the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna. So there were close connections and an ideological development.
Guernica: Ok, but that’s the past. I’m sure you’re not saying that because of who his family is, the Muslim moderate Tariq Ramadan is somehow tainted.
Paul Berman: Well, it does come from his family. And so I disagree with you. It comes from his family because he’s loyal to his family.
Guernica: But it’s not the freak accident of birth, which none of us has any say over.
Paul Berman: It’s not genetic. If it turned out that he was adopted, this would still be a problem. The problem is that he’s written about this. The first of his important books remains The Roots of the Muslim Renewal, which is a celebration of his grandfather. Once you’ve studied Ramadan, you see that his doctrine is his grandfather’s, adapted and modernized by himself. So he’s furthering his grandfather’s project as he understands it. Nothing that I’ve just mentioned is in his account of his grandfather. There isn’t a single criticism of his grandfather.
Guernica: I think you also write that al-Banna arranged it so that the Mufti got a hero’s welcome when he returned to Egypt after World War II, while other Nazi collaborators were facing war crimes charges.
Paul Berman: Yes.
Guernica: But in writing about his grandfather, Ramadan ignores all this, his grandfather’s relationship with the Nazis?
Paul Berman: I think I’m able and other writers in France have been able to show that he does know this, and he suppresses this information. What’s crucial about this is not that he has a mistaken or self-serving interpretation of the past like someone who might have some wrong understanding of what caused the Great Depression or something like that. It’s not that it’s an arcane dispute about the past. It’s that in suppressing this information, Ramadan is creating a false image of the Islamist ideology as a whole. Because once you’ve read these Nazi propaganda things and the Mufti’s speeches from the nineteen forties and then you turn and look at Sayyid Qutb from the nineteen fifties and sixties and then you turn and look at Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi from our own moment, you recognize that Qaradawi is repeating almost word for word the Mufti’s Islamic Nazi propaganda from the nineteen forties calling for extermination of the Jews, interpreting Hitler as sent to do God’s work, which was a major theme of Nazi propaganda. And then you look at Ramadan’s writings; you realize that if Ramadan has a single great hero, it is Sheik Qaradawi. It’s in one book after another. Now his relationship to Qaradawi is a little complicated. And in recent years he’s gotten into quarrels with Qaradawi, although not over these issues. He’s remained to the present absolutely reverential.
So one of Ramadan’s crucial lessons is that we should look on Sheik Qaradawi and people like him with admiration and reverence today. And yet today Qaradawi continues to repeat these horrendous genocidal and superstitious speeches from the nineteen forties. So, we’ve got an authentically bizarre situation in which Ramadan is presenting himself as an attractively progressive liberal modernizer of old ideas that are Islamic but at the same time he’s presenting himself as the continuation of his grandfather’s project which he likewise presents as a democratic and liberal project. So he ends up giving a double message. His ostensible message, which he’ll articulate openly, is that he wants to liberalize old Islamic ideas and wants to create an attractive version of Islam for the modern world, ideas which in themselves I would be absolutely in favor of and would cheer on.
Guernica: And you cite others who authentically do that, like Bassam Tibi.
Paul Berman: Tibi has the honest version of this.
Guernica: Ramadan is the dishonest version?
Paul Berman: Yes, because there’s another side to [Ramadan’s] program which is to tell us to revere Sheik Qaradawi, to look back with reverence on al-Banna himself.
Guernica: But the problematic fork of Ramadan’s double-rhetoric is his reverence for Qaradawi. Alongside the Jew-hatred which you’ve discussed, what are some of the other problems with Qaradawi?
Paul Berman: Well, let’s hold on to the Jew-hatred a moment. It’s not just hating the Jews. It’s picturing the Jews as a supernatural demonic force and calling for their extermination.
When the Israelis have done something terrible we should condemn it. But I don’t think the Israelis have created the Palestinian political culture.
Guernica: Yes, but Ramadan himself has denounced antisemitism.
Paul Berman: Yes, so Ramadan himself is on both sides of this. Ramadan says he is against antisemitism and is against terrorism, and at the same time he tells us to revere Sheik Qaradawi, and he has some ambiguities as well on whether he is for or against terrorism.
Guernica: Ramadan has ambiguities on terrorism?
Paul Berman: Yes. Qaradawi has none. Qaradawi thinks the Palestinians should go kill themselves in the course of murdering as many Jews as possible. Let me emphasize here that if these people have committed a really terrible crime, it’s above all against the Palestinians. People don’t talk about this. These are the kinds of ideas and the kinds of leadership that have done so much damage to the Palestinian people, who have legitimate grievances, legitimate rights, whose human rights must be respected, who need a state, who stand in need of actually everything.
Guernica: How has this cohort victimized the Palestinians?
Paul Berman: First of all, the Mufti has victimized the Palestinians by murdering all their best people. But the whole political project that comes out of him and out of al-Banna has victimized the Palestinians by instructing the Palestinians that they are in a supernatural struggle against demonic enemies. If you think that you are in a struggle with human beings and recognize that while you have needs other people also have needs, then you’re in a political situation. And the natural thing to do when you’re in a political situation is to strike a compromise. But this has not been the line that has come out of the Mufti and al-Banna. The line has been that it’s a religious struggle of Islam trying to prevent satanic Jews from exterminating Islam and that the only way to deal with it is to exterminate the supernaturally evil Jews. So the struggle is a religious and supernatural struggle. It becomes impossible to compromise, and becomes possible to think one’s own suicide might be an appropriate response because we’re in the realm of the eternal and the supernatural. So it prevents people from being able to make compromises and leads them to think that murder and suicide are principles that must never be yielded. The Hamas charter is the perfect example. It begins with a little quotation from the Koran, a quotation from al-Banna calling for the elimination or obliteration of Israel (it’s translated in different ways) then it goes on to cite the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a fundamentally Nazi document, then in Article 7 it draws a quotation from one of the scriptural traditions which would seem to call for extermination of the Jews.
Really, he wants the decisions to be left to Qaradawi. If he didn’t, it’d be the easiest thing in the world just to get up and say, ‘You must think for yourself.’
Guernica: Doesn’t Israeli state violence against Palestine and civilians there give the extremists you describe something real to point to, and doesn’t this play a role in marginalizing Palestine’s moderates?
Paul Berman: The Israelis have committed all kinds of crimes and have done all kinds of terrible things. And when the Israelis have done something terrible we should condemn it. I condemn it. But I don’t think that the Israelis have created the Palestinian political culture. The rise of these Islamist ideas among the Palestinians owes to the power of the ideas themselves, to the leaders who have promoted them, and to the support that other people around the world have given to these ideas. One of those terrible people is Tariq Ramadan, because here’s Sheik Qaradawi going on television urging Palestinians to commit suicide and here’s Tariq Ramadan in one book after another (including one book published in the last few months) telling his readers that Sheik Qaradawi is a man to be revered.
Guernica: One of the defenses I keep hearing of Tariq Ramadan’s approach is the suggestion that as soon as he levels a direct criticism at some of the more ancient and barbaric traditions, say, honor killings, first of all it’s anticlerical to do that, because he’s not a cleric, he’s a scholar. And so, second of all, he marginalizes himself, and can’t criticize these practices with as much influence, sort of along the same lines as how Ayaan Hirsi Ali has allegedly lost influence by renouncing Islam.
Paul Berman: I think that is just preposterous, because what everybody in the world needs to do, Muslims included, is the same. Which is that everybody in the world needs to learn to think for himself or herself, and not accept anything just on authority. So what needs to be said to everybody in the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is ‘You must think for yourself. You must think ethically. You must think morally. You must be able to make judgments.’ And Ramadan is someone who says, ‘No, you must not. You must instead turn to authority.’ In the case of stoning women to death he wants to have a moratorium, so there can be a discussion and then in one of his recent books he outlines what the discussion will be. He wants to set up fatwa committees and have serious discussions. But if you read him closely, as I have, you see that he wants to put on the fatwa committees people like Sheik Qaradawi, which means that ultimately…
Guernica: It won’t change.
Paul Berman: Nothing will change. The whole idea is a sham. Really, he wants decisions to be left to people like Qaradawi. If he didn’t, it’d be the easiest thing in the world just to say, ‘You must think for yourself. You must not listen to people like Qaradawi.’ But he won’t because he doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t believe in doing it. It’s very easy for him to say that he himself would never stone a woman to death, and he himself does not want to lead a mob attack on Jews. So he can condemn antisemitism. But it’s always in the abstract. He will never direct it against Qaradawi. He will never direct it against al-Banna. Yes, he calls for ethical thinking. Some of his followers have deluded themselves into thinking he’s actually made an advance in his own thinking. That he used to rely more on law and he’s regarded as relying more on ethical thinking. But his ethical thinking continues to lead him to speak about people like the worst sorts of violent sheiks with total reverence. So he is giving a double message. I understand that Caroline Fourest and Paul Landau in France have documented instances in which they say Ramadan says one thing to one audience and another to another audience. But I don’t base my criticism on that. I base my criticism on reading closely what he says openly. And what he says openly has a double message.
Guernica: Isn’t his position on terror that he denounces it clearly?
Paul Berman: As I say in the book, he has four or five positions on terror. One, he condemns terror. Two, he seeks to understand terrorism but not to justify it. Three, he understands terrorism so tenderly he justifies it. Four, he justifies it so intensely he defends it. Five, he turns to you, who is questioning him about this, and says, _Who are you to question Tariq Ramadan? Are you a notorious Zionist? Are you an enemy of Islam? Are you a racist, a bigot?_ Those are his five points on terrorism. It’s clear that he also thinks that terrorism against Israelis is not really to be condemned. He quotes his father and grandfather on this. And in his own book on jihad, which is in French and hasn’t been translated, he explains that the Palestinians have no alternative but to commit terrorist acts.
Guernica: The title of your book refers not just to the inexplicable support liberal intellectuals have offered Ramadan but also a failure to support Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has been exceedingly clear on terror and antisemitism. Why haven’t the intellectuals you look at, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, supported Hirsi Ali?
Paul Berman: Despite the many different opinions in the Muslim world and a virtual civil war in the Muslim world, there’s a fantasy among a good many people in the West to think of the Muslim world as a single place, where it has a single problem and that some messianic figure is going to rise and straighten it out. And if you’re looking for that great messianic figure, the Great Muslim Hope, then Ramadan seems kind of plausible if you don’t listen to him too carefully. He has this royal lineage. He has a very marvelous and impressive demeanor. He claims to speak in the name of the religion itself. And so you can place this sort of fantastical hope on him. Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t want to have this role, doesn’t believe in this concept, and nobody could possibly attribute such a role to her. She takes a variety of positions, some of them very provocative, some at a glance bound to be unpopular; she turns against the whole religion of Islam. She prefers to stand in an atheist tradition, which, by the way, is not exactly a dishonorable position. And she’s not afraid to be forceful and decisive. So people look at that and see at a glance that this person could not possibly be the great messianic Muslim figure, which she doesn’t want to be. And so they get very upset. And then they see that instead she is criticizing the Islamists. Leave aside the religion of Islam as a whole. Who she’s really criticizing are the Islamists, as I read her. Those are the people who murdered her colleague Van Gogh, and those are the people she’s in hiding from now, protected by bodyguards. And there are a lot of people who look at this and think, ‘Oh, she’s not arguing against the Islamists; she is persecuting the Muslim world,’ which is just a crazy thing to say.
Guernica: Let’s talk about Ian Buruma who you suggest has written superficially though admiringly on Ramadan, and equally superficially, but much more harshly, on Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Paul Berman: I write about Buruma, because I’ve picked him as a representative of a larger phenomenon. Buruma is somebody who by and large I have admired. I think he’s written many excellent books. I think he’s written one great book, Occidentalism, which he wrote with the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. And so I’ve written about him precisely because I find him to be an admirable figure. I haven’t wanted to go against somebody who’s obviously a bigot, I wanted to go against people who are sort of well intentioned, who want to be friendly to the Muslim immigrants and who want to advance liberal ideas, and who have ended up by intellectual confusion selecting Ramadan as their hero and disdaining Hirsi Ali.
As I say in the book, [Ramadan] has four or five positions on terror.
Guernica: You say intellectual confusion. But you also bring in this idea of Pascal Bruckner’s, called “third worldism,” and so…
Paul Berman: Because there’s a long tradition of the Western intellectuals getting it all wrong about other parts of the world, where they cannot imagine that people in other parts of the world are just like us, capable of thinking rationally the way we are, or the way we try to be (with mixed success) and who instead think of other people in other parts of the world as basically inferior, basically not capable of rational thought and therefore in need of gobbledygook or babytalk or false slogans. So there’s a long tradition of this and Pascal Bruckner, who I think is a really great writer, has written eloquently about this for thirty-five years now beginning with Tears of the White Man and up through his most recent book, Tyranny of Guilt.
Guernica: What does Buruma actually write or say to suggest that he is an embodiment of third worldism? What has he actually said that makes him clearly the embodiment of these ideas? Some writers who read your New Republic piece but not the book found this sort of close reading with a hostile intent distasteful.
Paul Berman: Hirsi Ali is a classic case of a persecuted dissident intellectual and she’s been railed at invidiously, compared, denigrated, patronized, denounced, in one journal after another, repeatedly, sometimes in the same journal by a whole group of people. But of course the principle person who’s done this to her is Ian Buruma, I don’t know why. Mostly what I’ve done to Ian Buruma is quote him. And the reason I’ve gone after… looked closely at his journalism is because it’s so prominent. There are a million journalists I could have gone after. Someone asked me why I didn’t go after _The Nation_ magazine. And I thought, everybody knows The Nation is kind of marginal. The problem that we’re facing is not opinions of people who are kind of marginal to the debate who have found a kind of perverse backwards way of looking at Muslims with disdain. So I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what’s happening in the mainstream press, among people I myself think are really admirable.
Guernica: Yes, you quote him. But when you bring in third worldism…
Paul Berman: I’m trying to interpret it. There are a lot of journalists and intellectuals I could have written about. I just selected a very few. Buruma’s only one. But I selected a few because their writings have been in very prominent places. I think they’re representative of a large body of opinion and I think I’ve gone about it in a very straightforward and respectful way. I hope readers will agree with that.
Guernica: Something happens when you shift from Buruma’s take on Ramadan to his take on Hirsi Ali. One thing that struck me was my own ambivalence to Hirsi Ali, not because of any of these tendencies you accuse Buruma of, but because of her militant statements, because of her support for the Iraq war. My own default position is anti-war. And that wasn’t hers. She said in the interview I did with her that the neoconservatives had (in early 2007) the moral high ground and that their mistake was their choice of a target. Instead of Iraq they should have started in Saudi Arabia. Killing people sounded fun to her. And she didn’t limit her venom to Islamism, but also doled it out to Islam and to multiculturalists, the multiculturalists who made her entry into Holland possible. And when I read you on the Islamists you consistently hold their feet to the fire on their violence. But there is some of that here in Hirsi Ali. I noticed at our recent PEN event where you were on the panel, when our moderator introduced you and called you “the philosopher-king of the liberal hawks” you winced. But all of this prescription for violence from “us” seems to rub some people the wrong way and I’m afraid that’s largely part of why it will be hard for certain important constituents, marginal though they may be, to read you, in what I consider an important, even indispensable book. So this all seemed missing from your interpretation, the Iraq war. I mean, Hirsi Ali ended up with the American Enterprise Institute.
Paul Berman: People who come from very poor and oppressed backgrounds and who come to a place like the United States or Western Europe often surprise the rest of us who come from privileged backgrounds with how black and white they see things. You know in America there’s no one more patriotic than the immigrants. If you want to see the family which will fly the flag and has the photo of the son in his military uniform on the wall, that’s gonna be an immigrant family. And the people who will swear by George Washington, often this will be the immigrants. My grandfather was like this. My grandfather came from Europe. When anybody from younger generations contemplated going on vacation in Europe, he was horrified. He would say, “Why don’t you want to go see the Grand Canyon?”
Guernica: Are you saying that as an immigrant that’s where Hirsi Ali stands on things like the war?
Paul Berman: I’m saying that reality will look differently from someone with a poor and oppressed background.
Guernica: But that strikes me as a little bit as its own kind of third worldism, if ‘they’ can’t see…
Paul Berman: No, I’m saying they see reality. It’s a reality. Buruma has a passage in which he mocks Hirsi Ali, quoting her in Germany or someplace, noticing how lovely and perfect all these little German towns seemed. And of course from a sophisticated European point of view, you look at the towns and say, “Those are places with serious social problems.” And her first response was to look at them and see that they were perfect and clean. But that’s not because she was missing something; she was seeing something. From her background in Somalia and Kenya. And it was Buruma who failed to see that she was seeing something. I think she’s reflecting her reality. And her reality is a reality.
Guernica: On the war?
Paul Berman: On many things.
Guernica: You’re very consistent when you see double talk about terror, about violence or racism. You keep hammering that throughout the book, as you should. But again, from the point of view of the anti-war left, it may seem inconsistent that you can sanction violence against the populations who have no say while pointing back to it so consistently and unfailingly in your own work.
Paul Berman: Well, my position on the Iraq War was I was in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, I was critical of how the Bush administration was going about it, I warned against it before the war, I did it at some length as eloquently as I could in The New Republic in February 2003. I said that the lack of principle in how the Bush administration was going about it was going to be costly. In Power and the Idealists in 2005 I laid down an alternative way, citing the ideas of Bernard Kouchner how there could have been a way to do it which might not have even involved a full-scale war; Kuchner thinks there were possibilities of doing that. That’s what I would have preferred. The way the Bush administration did go about it was calamitous. So what can I say? I still think the notion of overthrowing this dreadful tyrant was a good one. There was a logic of it in the aftermath of 9/11 and there was a humanitarian logic, and then it was done very badly.
I follow the main thing [that she says]. I follow that totally. The main thing is that she is saying to people, “I, Hirsi Ali, am thinking for myself and I want you to think for yourself.”
Guernica: But getting back to Hirsi Ali, I’m wondering if you think it’s possible her hawkishness could explain some of the ambivalence people on the left have felt toward her. I think there’s scar tissue there.
Paul Berman: Well, you know she has an angry tone. When you go around and look at one dissident intellectual after another who has come from a background dominated by Islamism, quite a few of them have an angry tone. And they don’t sound very moderate. They sound furious and they sound frightened and I think this is to their merit, because they are expressing their actual reality. What I wonder about is why others don’t sympathize with this, with this anger. And it was the same kind of thing that was said about the Soviet dissidents. They would escape from the Soviet Union and they would not say, “Oh, it’s necessary to have some reforms introduced into the Soviet Union.” Rather, they would say, “Communism is really bad and ought to be overthrown.”
Guernica: And in that anger doesn’t she herself conflate Islam with Islamism? Didn’t her angry tone (she called Mohammed a pedophile) in effect get someone killed, many have asked…
Paul Berman: Her angry tone didn’t get someone killed. Now I’m angry at you. What got someone killed was the Islamists. She made a movie with Van Gogh about extreme oppression of women that’s committed in the name of Islam by fanatics, and then a fanatic came and killed him. This fanatic, if you look carefully at what he said, appears to come from a political tradition which Buruma looks at a little bit in his book Murder in Amsterdam, but doesn’t explore deeply. As I read it, the guy seems to come from a political tradition influenced either directly by Qutb or by the likes of Qutb. Antisemitism is at the top of the doctrines because the statement, the death threat to Ayaan Hirsi Ali that was pinned to the murdered Van Gogh was an anti-Semitic document [about] how the New World is controlled by the Jews and Holland is controlled by the Jews and Hirsi Ali is an unbelieving fundamentalist, or an infidel fundamentalist, which then some journalists hurled at her… [including] Buruma himself. So the murderer descends from a political tradition that comes from Qutb or people like Qutb, which is a political tradition whose real origin is in the Muslim Brotherhood in Eqypt, the same Muslim Brotherhood that was influenced in anti-Semitic European-style ways by the Nazis. So here’s something which traces back in some ways to the political tradition of Hassan al-Banna. And here’s a guy, the murderer who comes from a splinter of a splinter of that movement, and Ramadan’s champions in the Western press blame it on Hirsi Ali.
Guernica: I agree with you. We must blame, and arrest, the criminals, not the victims. I’ve written about Hirsi Ali and praised her courage, and I prize her freedom to speak her mind, and admire her. But knowing the climate, knowing the culture…
Paul Berman: Knowing it all, Hirsi Ali is doing a really great thing because…
Guernica: In the short term, don’t we want to avoid triggering something like that with incendiary language? Isn’t it mere prudence?
Paul Berman: She didn’t trigger it. They triggered it. What she did and what she continues to do is to go to those people and people who might sympathize with them, and rebuke them. The whole meaning of her career is to say, “There’s a serious problem. I’m gonna deal with it by speaking to it directly. And I’m not gonna mince my words, I’m gonna make an argument.” I think this is great. Some of the arguments that she makes are not my arguments, some of them I would disagree with; my impression is that if I were Dutch I’d be in the Labor Party. I wouldn’t have moved to the other party. And so it’s not that I’m following everything that Ayaan Hirsi Ali says. But I follow the main thing. I follow that totally. The main thing is [that] she is saying to people, “I, Hirsi Ali, am thinking for myself and I want you to think for yourself.” And the way to think for yourself is not to revere authority, the way is not necessarily to guard your tongue. The way is to speak your mind.
Guernica: So to put scriptures on a naked woman’s body in her film was not incendiary or reckless, in your reading, it was merely direct.
Paul Berman: That film is not even one millimeter a violent film. And the purpose of the film is to make the viewer recognize that violence against women is being committed by fanatics in the name of Islam. This should be opposed. And she’s done a brilliant job of opposing that. As a politician, she brought to the Dutch Parliament the issue of honor killings. She proposed to Parliament that the police make records of honor killings, which is the first thing the police department had to do to recognize and solve the problem. She brought about a significant reform. And I’m guessing that quite a few women are alive today as a result of this reform.
Guernica: So she’s not only not responsible for Van Gogh’s death, but she’s saved uncounted lives.
Paul Berman: Yes! And surely she’s making people think. People with backgrounds like her own. Meanwhile we have a bunch of Western journalists running around saying, “Oh, don’t listen to her. She is the one responsible for bringing the violence.” She’s not. She’s the one making people think for themselves, sometimes more skillfully, sometimes less skillfully. Ramadan is telling people, “Don’t think. I’ll say all the nice-sounding blather that you want to hear against bigotry, against violence, and on the other side of my mouth I’ll tell you to revere these terrible sheiks and look to them for guidance, and finally I’ll say we can’t even discuss these issues like stoning women in public.” I hope liberal-minded journalists and intellectuals, of which I am one and Ian Buruma is another, will become more alert to these issues and become aware of how easy it is to fall into old patterns that we saw with the Soviet dissidents, and commitment to a kind of solidarity with the people who are persecuted and not their persecutors.
Infidel, an Interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Nomad, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman
Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman
The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal
Portrait by Matt Carr.