Paul Berman’s hidden agenda

Israel/PalestineMiddle East
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Paul Berman thinks he is smarter than other people, or braver, or both. His latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, indicts a number of Western writers for being too dumb, or too cowardly, to confront what he considers the great and growing threat of “Islamic fascism.” His targets are Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born, modernizing Muslim philosopher, and Westerners like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who cannot see that Ramadan’s reasonable public stances conceal sinister truths that he, Berman, will courageously spend 299 pages unveiling.

Berman’s pursuit of Ramadan, and his contempt for those in the West he says Ramadan is duping, is pathological. But he nowhere answers what should be his most important question: what actually is Tariq Ramadan’s hidden aim? Is Ramadan simply biding his time, pretending to be moderate until he amasses more Muslim followers, fools even more fellow travelers, and then pops out like a jack-in-the-box to reveal his true views and help establish the Muslim Caliphate across vast stretches of Europe and even America?

It is a commonplace in psychology that people often scrutinize others for the very flaws or weaknesses they fear in themselves. Berman’s curious animus toward Ramadan may actually be motivated by his own agenda, which he quite possibly hides from even himself: his passion, in this and previous works, to defend the state of Israel at any cost. 

Berman has a problem with Ramadan, because, as he admits, most of what the man says and writes is calm and rational. So Berman is boxed into an unpleasant line of argument: Guilt by Genealogy. Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather was the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna, who back in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the leading nonviolent Islamic movement in Egypt today and almost certainly that country’s strongest single political force. Berman searches Al-Banna’s own writings, but he cannot come up with quite enough incendiary material. So he turns to that old standby, Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. He discovers that in the 1930s Al-Banna spoke sympathetically of the Mufti, who did go on to ally with the Nazis, including making anti-Semitic broadcasts over Radio Berlin.

So here is the biggest strand of Berman’s argument: Ignore nearly everything that Tariq Ramadan says and does today. Instead, note that his grandfather, 75 years ago, praised another Arab nationalist who was similarly resisting British colonialism. Ergo, Tariq Ramadan has inherited anti-Semitism in his bloodstream, which he conceals so he can seduce the Muslims of Europe and trick Western intellectuals. Further proof of Ramadan’s secret guilt is that when he is asked to criticize his own grandfather, he waffles.

(The Mufti was not the only anti-colonial figure to promote German or Japanese fascism during World War 2 to strike back at the British or Dutch; nationalists with genuine followings in India [Chandra Bose] and Indonesia [Sukarno] made the same mistake. But Berman could have found an another example even closer at hand. Anwar Sadat was jailed for 2 years by the British in Egypt in 1942 for actually plotting with German spies, but his sins were conveniently forgotten after he signed the 1978 peace treaty with Israel.)

Genuine experts like Professor Marc Lynch have already shown that Berman’s view of Tariq Ramadan is warped, “based on a narrow selection of sources read in translation and only a sliver of the vast scholarship on the subject,” and that Ramadan is a genuine reformer. But Ramadan, for Berman, is in fact more of a useful distraction than a real target.

There are two vital subjects missing from a book that purports to be about Islamism and violence. The American war in Iraq, in which at least 100,000 and possibly 600,000 people have already died, is scarcely mentioned. And Israel also barely appears – and only as a victim, of the Palestinian suicide bombings of the early 2000s (which Tariq Ramadan and other moderate Islamists are blamed for not denouncing).

Berman snickers at the antiwar demonstrations in the West in early 2003 against the impending invasion of Iraq. But he nowhere admits that he supported the war. He is quick to suggest that certain other writers are cowards. But he does not have enough intellectual courage to either admit he was wrong, or to try and argue that the human and material cost of the war – now in its eighth year – has been worth it. And because he tiptoes around the Iraq war, he makes the absurd implication that Muslims are turning against the West partly because Tariq Ramadan was indirectly influenced by the Grand Mufti’s anti-Semitism, instead of because Muslims know about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and many, many tens of thousands of dead Muslims.

Berman’s silence on Israel is just as glaring. His “Index of Names” (there are no footnotes or references in what purports to be a scholarly work) finds room for Plato and Plotinus, but there is no mention of Ariel Sharon, Avigdor Lieberman, or Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli “settler” who in February 1994 entered a mosque in Hebron carrying his assault rifle and murdered 29 Palestinians as they prayed, before he was overpowered and beaten to death.  Goldstein’s “suicide assault” prompted some Palestinians to start retaliating with their own first suicide bombings the next month.

Other reviewers, like David Rieff and Pankaj Mishra, have already quite deftly dismantled Berman’s simplistic views of Islamism. But no one so far has paid close attention to his evasions over Israel. In one place, Berman does recognize that the Irgun, the Israeli group that took part in the 1948 massacre of Palestinian civilians at Deir Yassin, “were in fact terrorists” – but the Irgun is safely 65 years in the past.

Surely Israel today is a fruitful place to study the connection between extreme socio-religious ideas and political violence? What kind of feverish intellectual atmosphere produced Dr. Baruch Goldstein? What were the influences on Yigal Amir, the fanatic who murdered the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (an act that some people, like the great Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, say actually changed history)? Is it true that the Israeli military is so infected with extremist settler ideology that it cannot be relied on to evacuate the settlements?

And what of the Settler/Likud fellow travelers in the United States and elsewhere? Have their apologies for Israel’s extremists, their labeling of all criticism as “anti-Semitism,” made a 2-state solution impossible and put off a 1-state solution for many years and many more thousands of deaths?

Paul Berman most probably did not set out to distract attention from the U.S. disaster in Iraq and from Israel’s fanatic expansionism. He most likely has a strong attraction to Israel as he thinks it was in 1948 or 1967, and he simply is afraid to examine his views and consider changing his mind. So instead of stalking the leading Israeli right-wingers of today, along with their intellectual apologists in Israel and in AIPAC, he wasted nearly 300 pages on Tariq Ramadan.

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