The Polite Islamophobia of the Intellectual

The Flight of the Intellectuals
by Paul Berman
(Melville House, May 2010)

Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend
Andrew Shryock, ed.
(Indiana University Press, June 2010)

Lauded by Foreign Affairs as “one of America’s leading public intellectuals,” Paul Berman was recently identified in a flattering New York Times review as “a man who identifies ‘with the liberal left.’” If Berman inhabits and projects the liberal left, then the conservative right has lost its claim to being at the forefront of Islamophobia.

The huge mistake of the Times (and almost every outlet of mainstream media reporting) is to assume that Berman is a public intellectual who can speak about Islam, that his is an authoritative voice to be heeded, his insights accepted and thus, perhaps most importantly, his warnings followed. In fact, the message in Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman’s latest polemic which hit the bookstores last month, is so insidious, his knowledge of Islam so shallow, that it must be addressed through the one major category of public discourse into which it fits: Islamophobia/Islamophilia.

Since 9/11, the American and European publics have been assaulted by Islamophobic writing from those who know little or nothing about their subject yet claim to speak with authority. In August, for example, I wrote a review of Christopher Caldwell’s neoconservative lament for Europe’s growing Muslim population, in which he warns that the “innocent, naive, unsuspecting” West will find that the new wave of Muslims has “ended a way of life, Western civilization as we know—and were once taught to love—it.”

Caldwell’s work, in both its tone and message, is helpful to recall in addressing this latest siren on ‘the Islamic danger.’ Like Caldwell, Berman is a journalist whose fast-paced, breathless prose is meant to locate him as an omniscient authority; his innocence of Islam or knowledge about Muslims is worn as a badge of honor. Writing in a stream of consciousness, without footnotes or source citations, he speaks as an ‘enlightened’ and ‘outraged’ partisan, not of civilization (as did Caldwell), but of liberalism.

Islamophobia has already been arrayed in some of the more lucid analyses that followed the Danish cartoon crisis of 2005–2006. In Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (Rowan & Littlefield, 2008), Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg used political cartoons to show how Muslim difference was always portrayed as exceptional; Islam was not American, and Muslims could not fit into the American or Western way of life. That trajectory of irreducible difference has now been challenged in Andrew Shryock’s even more ambitious volume, Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend.

Berman’s book, with its hidden genealogy and flawed logic, fits rather neatly into the Islamophobia/Islamophilia construction. A veritable American strobe light of Islamophobic utterances, it stands forth as a notable specimen of Islam hatred, though that classification would be admitted neither by the author nor by most in the mainstream media. The single most salient point here is the pervasiveness of Islam hatred or Islamophobia. It is an ideological project and is not limited to cartoons. It is not the purview of the political right, nor is it a Zionist conspiracy, nor an evangelical polemic. It draws on, even as it enlarges, the specter of uncertainty about Islam and Muslims that continues to pervade the American public square and afflict many stakeholders in the American project since 9/11 (and, in no small part, because of 9/11).

Had Berman Read a Bit More Widely in al-Ghazali…

Berman’s book begins with an epigraph from the 11th century Iraqi doyen of religious sciences, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, arguably the most prominent premodern Muslim intellectual. Evoking the human search for the divine as “the quest for man’s chiefest bliss,” the quote sets the stage for his blistering, unrelenting excoriation of Tariq Ramadan which, as an earlier Times review put it, is “essentially a booklong polemic against one magazine article.” Here’s Berman on Ramadan from an interview with Guernica:

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.

Why does al-Ghazali loom so large in this effort to unmask Ramadan as the wannabe “Great Muslim Hope”? Because, in Berman’s eyes, al-Ghazali was the William James of his age, etching the importance of religious experience on two levels: the empirical domain called ‘this world’ and the mystical domain broaching the world beyond senses and time.

Berman does to al-Ghazali what he does to Ramadan: invokes him, quotes him, examines him, and then skewers him. There is no such thing as a convincing argument or a satisfying insight from either Muslim luminary. Berman assumes that his readers will trust his judgment as an amateur intellectual, one who can read in any field without expertise or experience, whether the figure is the premodern al-Ghazali, or his latter day successor, Ramadan.

What is not disclosed in the torrent of Berman’s ramblings, however, is his own genealogy. It is disguised because he offers no index of themes, topics, or places—just names. He cites two Muslim scholars whom he deems to be genuine liberals (Abdullahi an-Na’im and Bassam Tibi), yet they garner only a handful of references.

Al-Ghazali himself does enjoy several pages of exposition, though they’re exceeded by those accorded harsh critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and early Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi; the former is lauded, the latter berated in Berman’s needling sarcasm. Christopher Caldwell is the one name that we would expect to appear in the roll call, yet he never surfaces. Since there is no bibliography, the reader is left to imagine who or what Berman read in arriving at his fulminations.

Berman does note the several French journals and books extolling Ramadan. He even mentions the controversial critic of Islam, Daniel Pipes, but chiefly to scold him for having first praised one of Ramadan’s books before retracting those plaudits and replacing them with broadsides. None of the French authors, however, nor Pipes, hone in on the three figures central to Caldwell’s—and later Berman’s—diatribe against Islam: Sarkozy (the catalyst), Ramadan (the villain) and Hirsi Ali (the heroine).

It is Caldwell too who asks the question central to Berman’s entire exposé:

Since Ramadan is the most broadly listened to contemporary explainer—to both Muslims and non-Muslims—of Islam’s most troubling doctrines, it is important to figure out whether his reflections on Muslims’ role in the West are workable and sincere. Does he believe Muslims can be real European citizens or does he believe they will always remain somehow foreign? 

Caldwell answers the question emphatically: the otherness of Islam, the foreignness of Muslims, is irreducible, which is precisely why the ex-Muslim, now anti-Muslim Hirsi Ali is so attractive to both Caldwell and to Berman. When an interviewer dares to challenge some of Ali’s bona fides Berman hectors him:

Surely she (Hirsi Ali) is 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.’

It is on the issue of stoning women in public that Berman feels confident he has ‘caught’ Ramadan in his own verbal trap, though Berman, of course, is not the agent responsible for the snare. “Sarkozy caught Ramadan off guard [on the question of stoning women in public],” gloats Berman, “and he had no time to drape a discrete and modern curtain across his salafi convictions, and his thoughts came tumbling out undisguised and naked, for all to see.” 

Yet Ramadan’s actual statement conceals an element of Muslim juridical logic that eluded Berman as surely as the vision of al-Ghazali had eluded him earlier. After saying that he personally did not think the law that allowed stoning should be applicable, Ramadan argued that the law could not be delegitimated for most or, preferably, all Muslims unless and until “we arrive at a consensus among Muslims.”

In effect, Ramadan wanted to have a debate that would show the inadequacy of this practice from an Islamic perspective in order to reach a consensus among Muslims to ban it. What outraged first Sarkozy and then Berman is that Ramadan refused to agree with Western liberal thought and to disavow any connection to his own, or his contemporaries’, Muslim past.

Had Berman read a bit more widely in al-Ghazali, he might have discovered that the major Ghazalian tome, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam, addresses the same topic as Ramadan; namely, the diffuse nature of authority in Islam. Al-Ghazali argues that there is no such thing as orthodoxy or a single right view, only authority derived from consensus, which may be formal or informal. One informal way to reach consensus is to encourage debate about critical topics, though one cannot preempt that debate by declaring its outcome in advance. One must first invite others, no matter how divergent their outlook, to express their view on the debate topic—e.g., stoning of women for adultery.

And so Berman, in emulation of Sarkozy, has laid his own trap and insists on making him the Muslim Anti-Hero who stands in for all contemporary Muslims. It is a game that Muslims can never win. Berman’s agenda is not about ascertaining right and wrong or defending a liberal or conservative norm, but about preserving his own privileged podium as a critic who can hector other liberals, like Timothy Garton Ash or Ian Buruma, who wrote the article to which the book is a response. Berman uses Ramadan as a surrogate to denounce all Islamic discourse and to disavow any semblance of Muslim compatibility with Western ‘liberal’ norms and values. The real debate, never declared, is between Islamophobia and Islamophilia.

The Singular Islam that Must Be Evoked and then Defeated

Andrew Shryock, a cultural anthropologist specializing in religious ethnography, engages the debate about what Islam is and what it is not. His collection of essays attempts to move beyond the dichotomization of Islam into bashers (Islamophobes) and admirers (Islamophiles). The goal of Islamophobia/Islamophilia, in his own words, is:

to expose the tactical ignorance, malign and benign, that suffuses educated opinion on all things Muslim. Neither Islamophobia nor Islamophilia has cornered the market on mis/representation. [What is needed is] a deeper, more critical understanding of how patterns of anxiety and attraction are continually reinvented… and how they relate to prevailing ideas—of race, gender, citizenship, secularism, human rights, tolerance, and pluralism—that are important to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The essays range from North America to Lebanon to France to Germany; their authors are as intent about urban renewal as they are about ethnic comedy. It is a collection at once serious and sensible in its scope, ambitions and outcome.

Few readers will move from Berman’s diatribes to Shryock’s distilled insights without a jolt. Can there really be this many ways of thinking about Islam and Muslims? There are if you’re willing to shelve binaries and prejudgments long enough to consider the actual diversity within the Muslim community worldwide, as within the United States. Two essays in particular throw into sharp relief how flimsy and distortive Berman’s views of a singular Islam are, making him a bad faith Muslim spokesman.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is as much a product of her environment as Berman. Brooklyn College English professor, Moustafa Bayoumi’s “The God that Failed: The Neo-Orientalism of Today’s Muslim Commentators” situates Hirsi Ali within a cohort that more nearly matches our own experience and outlook than the arch proponent of Muslim difference, Tariq Ramadan. Bayoumi compares her to two figures like her: Irshad Manji and Reza Aslan. All are immigrant Muslims to the United States. All attempt to explain Islam to others from their own experience of its excesses. Each draws “a singular narrative account of Islam, where the faith is both a singular system and a singular force in the world.”

That Grand Narrative not only frames their life stories but more importantly, it is used to explain history. Hirsi Ali’s story, as recounted in her bestseller Infidel, and in the recently released Nomad [see Spencer Dew’s review, An Atheist’s Idealized Christianity—ed.], invokes the trope of the slave narrative, and “like the slave narrative, hers is also one about achieving consciousness under a system of oppression.” To achieve freedom she must escape slavery, not only her own but the slavery of all people ‘captivated’ by Islam. Bayoumi’s principal paragraph on Hirsi Ali reveals more about her motivation and quest than the 35-40 pages of uncritical adulation from Berman. Bayoumi writes:

Just as the Bible has the power to move the spirit in the slave narrative, so the Atheist Manifesto loaned to her by her boyfriend becomes Hirsi Ali’s path to emancipation. But the emancipation she details is not hers alone, for what would it matter if one Muslim gives up her faith? Hers is instead a broad prescription for all her co-religionists, and by the end of her narrative it is clear that she is lecturing to all the Muslims of the world. If they are to enter modernity, they must give up God within their creed, not just individually but theologically. According to Hirsi Ali, Islam’s salvation is atheism. 

Is that sound of Christopher Hitchens clapping somewhere, or are we just seeing the shadow, once again, of Paul Berman?

The notion of a singular Islam that must be invoked, and then defeated, permeates almost all the narratives and strategies of Islamophobia. The opposite stance informs Qasim Zaman’s contribution in which the Princeton Islamicist sees a diffuse Islam, one that both requires and enjoys a complex intellectual engagement with the modern world.

Among Zaman’s foremost subjects is no less a figure than Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a dark figure in Berman’s account. In the book by Ramadan (the one that Daniel Pipes had initially praised), Berman claims that Ramadan links his intellectual project to Qaradawi’s and that the connection runs far deeper: “Ramadan reveres Qaradawi. The veneration is unmistakable. Ramadan appears to hold Qaradawi in higher regard than any other present-day Islamic scholar.” 

So one might be surprised to find that Zaman imputes subtlety and ambiguity to Qaradawi’s thought. Indeed Zaman reviews Qaradawi’s endeavors with sympathetic nuance. Why the sympathy? Because of Qaradawi’s expansive effort to find a consensus (yes, that is the same term used by Ramadan) among Muslims, not just scholars trained in madrasas, but also journalists, lawyers, and even Islamist leaders.

The effort to find such an unprecedented consensus in modern Islam has been channeled through the International Union for Muslim Scholars that Qaradawi helped found in 2004; it operates out of both London and (since 2008) Cairo. The real divide among this huge array of voices and perspectives is not between those calling for reform and those opposing it, but “rather between different kinds of reform—one genuine, because it is anchored in Islam, the other insidious, for serving anti-Islamic interests.”

Though Qaradawi does strive for an Islamic religio-political order, he also projects “a global Muslim consciousness as an alternate globalization, one charted in the face of the Western neo-imperialist threat.” Should we then fear Qaradawi, as Berman implies we must? Not really, since many of those in the Muslim Scholars Union do not agree with Qaradawi about where and how the line between genuine and insidious reform is to be drawn. After examining all available evidence, Zaman concludes that:

there clearly is a broad and growing agreement within the ranks of the ulama [Muslim legal scholars] as well as between the ulama and other religious intellectuals that bridging the gulf between different intellectual traditions is desirable and, indeed, a matter of great urgency. Yet there is no unanimity on what precisely is the gulf that most needs to be bridged and why the effort to do so is worth making.

What does remain clear is “the evolving arena of debate and contestation which… extends well beyond any dichotomous constructions.”

It is this messiness at the heart of contemporary Islam that needs to be highlighted even if it is less rhetorically gripping than a slavery-freedom narrative or has a less visceral appeal than an account of fatwas for or against public stoning for adultery. All of us—not just academics and Islam watchers—need to recognize the real face (or faces, more accurately) of the 21st-century Muslim world, which is no less diverse and complex, nor less baffling, bemusing, and ennobling than its Abrahamic counterparts who happen to be, or choose to be, Christian, Jewish, or even secular.

One can opt for Islamophobia or Islamophilia, but either option misses the actual drama of today’s Muslim world, its enduring search for consensus and its multiple contestants for authority—both at home and abroad.