With the 2003 publication of his groundbreaking book Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman became one of the most influential and incisive interpreters of Islamist political discourse for a general audience in America and England. A protégé of the literary critic and socialist intellectual Irving Howe, Berman was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his writing about politics and literature and the revolutionary aspirations of the social movements that came out of the 1960s in Latin America and elsewhere. He is currently finishing a book about the Islamist intellectual superstar Tariq Ramadan and his Western intermediaries, like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, which came out of a controversial piece that Berman wrote denouncing Ramadan and his Western admirers for The New Republic. Berman’s new book, Flight of the Intellectuals, is due out from Melville House in April.
Tablet sat down with Berman to talk about the State Department’s decision on Wednesday to reverse the Bush Administration’s policy to ban Tariq Ramadan from the United States and instead to grant him a visa to speak on the U.S. lecture circuit.
Tariq Ramadan is coming to America. Is it a mistake for the Obama administration to let him in?
It’s a good move for the U.S. to encourage freedom of speech and open debate. It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that he has positive contributions to make.
Ramadan has no deep, important thoughts we need to hear?
I do think it’s worth the trouble to look into his deep thoughts, and to notice how problematic they are. He can say something attractive at the level of a slogan; but when you examine it more closely it turns out to have unexpected meanings. He opposes terrorism but he does it with a series of asterisks. If you read the footnote in tiny print you discover some troubling aspects regarding terrorism, and this is borne out by the fact that he did donate money to a Hamas charity. To do so was not illegal at the time, and he has himself argued he didn’t know where his money was going. But if you read Ramadan carefully you would not be surprised to learn he donates money to such groups.
In my book I have more to say about Ramadan’s own philosophical ideas, which I find pretty appalling and obscurantist.
How can so many Western intellectuals, like Buruma and Garton Ash, just to name two, be so wrong about Ramadan?
The main reason they are attracted to Ramadan’s ideas is because of a bias against Muslims that leads many people to think the Muslim world, which contains 1.5 billion people, is incapable of producing genuinely attractive thinkers. Of course this is untrue, but because so many people believe it, they turn to Tariq Ramadan.
Another reason is that there is a Western fantasy that some messianic Muslim figure will step forward and resolve all the outstanding problems between Islam and the West. There’s a search for the great Muslim hope. Ramadan is put into that role, and he puts himself into it. To imagine that such a figure will step forward also reflects a bias against the Muslim world, since it suggests there is such a thing as the Muslim world—when in fact there is not any such thing. Islam has 10,000 sects and heresies and 100,000 episodes in its history, on the one hand. On the other hand, there are 56 states in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, each of which has its own history. So we’re talking about 1.5 billion people resting on 1,400 years of history. It’s absurd to think of this as constituting a single unit. The idea that it does constitute a single unit is a doctrine of the Islamist movement—with a single movement you have a single leader, like the caliph.
The defense of Tariq Ramadan in intellectual circles reflects a series of unexamined and in some cases very unattractive assumptions. I have expressed myself on this and will be doing so again at length, with gusto.