Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Flight of the Intellectuals

Sis turned me onto this interesting book and I have been puzzled and fascinated by it.
At first it seemed all to be about Tariq Ramadan, who is an 'Islamic scholar' and hence someone I would not count remotely as an intellectual; it would seem to me he automatically denies the life of the mind.
Moreover, my first exposure to this guy was part of a channel-flipping exercise, where a few years ago I settled on TV5 because I saw Nicholas Sarkozy at a table and stopped, and I got to witness Ramadan's 'brilliant' response to Sarkozy's simple question about abolishing the stoning of women for adultery as a punishment - the ever-slippery Ramadan said he thought it was time for a 'moratorium' on that punishment.
At that point I realized that from the point of view of any reasonable human rights discussion, this boy was a buffoon; why was he even on TV? Only later did I learn that there are people who consider him a serious intellectual force.
In fact I attended an Oxford University Society of Toronto lunch at which Ramadan spoke; he spoke vacuities to a somewhat addled loving audience. In the Q&A there were a couple of challenging questions and he dealt with them with further vacuities. What was disturbing was the apparent adulation he got in some parts of the audience, parts that included some leading Toronto 'intellectuals'.
And Paul Berman in his book spends page after page documenting that Tariq Ramadan is a buffoon. And this takes about 90% of the book? I wonder where are the intellectuals from the title?
Then we get a chapter on Ayaan Hirsi Ali; she appears to me to be in fact an intellectual and decidedly not a buffoon, with compelling concerns about women's rights in large parts of the world.
And finally Berman gets to the point, citing and arguing with, various essays by Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, apparently praising Ramadan and belittling Hirsi Ali. And I am with him in utter astonishment that respectable Western 'intellectuals' can come even close to these positions.
The second-last paragraph of the book is compelling, as it befuddles and distresses me.
How did this happen? The equanimity on the part of some well-known Western intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the journalistic inability even to acknowledge that women's rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism; the inability to acknowledge how large has been the role of a massively reinvigorated anti-Semitism; the sneering masculine put-downs of the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa; the striking number of errors and even of fact that have entered into the journalistic applause for Tariq Ramadan and his ideas; the reluctance to discuss with any frankness the role of Ramadan's family over the years; the unwitting endorsement in The Guardian of a champion of martyrdom operations; the refusal to discuss or even acknowledge the Nazi influence that has turned out to be so weirdly venomous and enduring in the Islamist movement - what can possibly account for this string of bumbles, gaffes, timidities, slanders, miscomprehensions and silences?
Of course were it just Buruma nad Garton Ash who would care? But it is not. Scaramouche comments nicely on what I observed last week, Jian Ghomeishi's appalling performance interviewing Hirsi Ali. Would Ghomeishi's CBC producers prepare him to challenge Ramadan similarly? - maybe we will find out some day but I personally doubt it.
So the people called 'intellectuals' do matter as they influence the child-mind producers and interviewers on the CBC, and so I get Berman's point. And it is depressing. But read it, even though the focus on Tariq Ramadan makes that part of the book incredibly boring, except for pointing out that talking about Nazis in that context is not Godwin's Law; it is the underlying reality.


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