The Flight of Benjamin Barber

by Lorna Salzman

The NY Times Book Review of June 6, 2010 has a fiery tirade by academic Benjamin Barber, protesting, predictably, a favorable review a week before, by Anthony Julius, of Paul Berman's new book, Flight of the Intellectuals,

Predictably, because Barber is clearly one of the intellectuals Berman is attacking.

Barber's flight has been a journey from a proponent of "Strong Democracy", the title of one of his books, to what I call paleo-liberalism, in which former intellectuals abandon the progressive side of the political fence, clamber up, and then remain on top of it. Some of course eventually get both legs over and end up in a heap as neo-conservatives, such as David Horowitz.

What has frozen these former liberals in place? And why now, of all times in history? Actually, the fence-climbing started back in the 1960s as post-modernism reared its regressive, anti-rationalist head in the universities, and then crept into the real world as Identity Politics, Multiculturalism and Cultural Relativism.

This is a very long tedious story. But it has ballooned in the past ten years - since 9/11 in fact - with the appearance of a new form of tyranny : Islamism. This was not new for the Arab and Muslim world of course, but few of us, except for those who followed the cultivation of radical Muslims and the Taliban by our government as a means of beating back Communism, knew anything about life on the ground and in the streets of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and their neighbors.

Now, as Barber's thinly disguised defense of, or at least dismissal of, the dangers of radical Islam demonstrates, the split between liberal intellectuals in this country resembles the ideological split between Shi-ites and Sunnis in the Muslim world.

Though fence-sitting liberals tend to make the Iraq war the dividing line between these two factions - unjustly tarring liberals like Berman and leftists like Hitchens as neo-cons for their support of the invasion - in fact the real division is over the definition of radical Islam, and between those who depict Islamist terrorism as acts of disaffected oppressed traditionalists fighting American imperialism and those who, more accurately, understand the religious basis for terrorism and jihad.

Barber, like other apologists who think that criticizing any religion other than Roman Catholicism is unjust, exemplifies those who refuse to take the word of dissident Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji at face value and insist that their own analysis and critique, developed at far removal from the reality experienced by Ali and others, is the correct one.

Nicholas Kristof's review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Nomad, is a leading example of this and of how many intellectuals and social critics have appropriated issues as their own, come up with their own solutions, and discredited those like Ali who have had firsthand experience with the oppression of Islam. Another example is that of Pankaj Mishra's "Islamismism", a review of Ali's book in The New Yorker, which casually asserted that Islamic terrorism was merely a response by traditional cultures to being overtaken by modernity. Yada, yada, yada...

Thus, Barber can, blithely and despite evidence to the contrary, assert there is a "crucial difference between Islam and a few of its radical zealots". A few? A whole bunch of middle east nations in their entirety including Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and now Turkey? The nations where governments tremble in appeasement before radical Islamist groups, such as Yemen, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and Pakistan, plus the Central Asian republics? Or the hundred or more groups and movements, with their dozens of affiliates and offshoots, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkaar al Taiba, Jamaiya Islamaya, whose cadres are found in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, not to mention the "homegrown" terrorists in western Europe and the United States who have bombed Germany, London, Madrid, New York City, Bali, Kenya, not to mention Israel?

A "few" radical zealots indeed.

Then Barber defends Tariq Ramadan as a "true mediator between the three Abrahamic religions and the quarrelsome (sic) civilizations they have engendered". If you weren't paying attention before, pay attention to this: Christianity and Judaism are on a par with Islam regarding "quarrels". This is a deft shift in terminology, away from any suggestion that Islam is responsible for engendering something far more dangerous than a quarrel: terrorism, for example.

Then, characteristic of other fleeing intellectuals, he stoops even lower to accuse Berman of being anti-Muslim rather than anti-Islamist,
another refuge of paleo-liberal scoundrels, as if there were no such thing as Islamism or radical Islam, or as if the Muslim religion were not culpable in the least, despite the fact that terrorists boast of being inspired by Allah and the qu-ran, just as the Turkish flotilla "activists" reminded us a few days ago.

But let's return to Tariq Ramadan, this supposed moderate philosopher. Such moderation is like moderate Nazism in Ramadan's case. Ramadan has refused to condemn the stoning of women, saying there should be a "moratorium" on stoning followed by a discussion in the Muslim community. Presumably Ramadan would accept the outcome of such a discussion.

The facts about Ramadan are even more revealing than this. His grandfather Hassan al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the fount of Salafism and anti-Semitism, and the funding source of the terrorist group Hamas. He was a supporter of the Nazis and their campaign to exterminate the Jews, along with Amin al Hussaini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during World War II. Yet this connection to Nazism is not mentioned in Ramadan's book about his grandfather. Curiouser and curiouser, and doubly so since Barber seems unaware of this history and of the Muslim Brotherhood, which along with Hamas, its evil spawn, is responsible, politically and philosophically, for the rebirth of anti-Semitism today.

Ramadan has clearly stated that he wants to take the original Salafist teachings of the 7th century and integrate them into contemporary society. To someone who isn't paying close attention, this might sound attractive. But one must first understand that Salafism does NOT accept the strictures of secular or civil law. It clearly insists that its religious precepts must be the sole determinant of social organization and behavior. Furthermore, it stridently curses the Jews, as do Mohammed and the qu-ran, as, alternatively, pigs and dogs, to be destroyed.

All of this was codified by another proto-Nazi, Qutb, and it is his writings and prescriptions which are the basis for Salafism and Wahhabism today. While Ramadan claims to oppose anti-Semitism, he has not rejected and WILL not reject or denounce the tenets of Salafism.

All this and more comprise the history of Islamism - indeed of Islam today, a sorry history and a violent totalitarian one in all details. Even sorrier is the sight of scholars and writers like Barber, Buruma, Kristof and others making excuses for repression, hatred and violence. If I were one of them, I would flee fast before the public finds out just what they stand for.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.