Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Paul Berman may have a minor, but important point...

Far be it for me to defend Paul Berman, who I am still angry with over his lying ways with respect to I.F. Stone (see these two posts of mine on the subject of Izzy), but this essay in the New York Review of Books starts out strong in making a case against Berman, but ends up leaving me more sympathetic to Berman's position than I ever thought I'd be.

As I had stated in this post from a few months ago, Lee Siegel ably trashed Berman in an earlier review of his new book, "The Flight of the Intellectuals," appearing in the New York Observer. However, the NY Review of Books essay review by Malise Ruthven indirectly makes a limited case for Berman, i.e. that Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma have used rather passive language to criticize a particular Muslim intellectual who has shown an inability to stand tall against Muslim fundamentalist practices that enforce a violent, rigid patriarchy, while each found ways to damn with faint praise a Muslim-born woman activist against that same Muslim style of patriarchy.

Berman, however, cannot leave it there, but must instead sound like his anti-Communist intellectual ancestors who spilled much ink with their fallacious belief that a particular religious or nationalist enemy can never be defeated and is an unchanging monolith. One thinks of Jeanne Kirpatrick and her "Totalitarian" communist model that was supposedly unable to change or be defeated (Michael Walzer's outstanding essay, "On Failed Totalitarianism", published in the Summer 1983 issue of Dissent, was the single best smackdown of Kirkpatrick I have ever read; it is reprinted in Irving Howe's edited essay book, "1984 Revisited").

Still, there was a point midway through Ruthven's discussion of Berman where I started to sympathize with Berman, and concluded Ruthven was too parsing in glossing over the active hatred existing within too many Muslim fundamentalist communities; a hatred we would easily denounce when such hatred of the "other" manifests itself in Christian and Jewish religious fundamentalist communities. To put it another way, there is some limited truth to Berman's point that some intellectuals who are correctly concerned with opposing colonialist-based oppression of other peoples may sometimes downplay Muslim fundamentalist rhetoric that is so obviously anti-female or anti-Semitic. I know I am personally more willing to give credence to a Hamas leader who calls for opening negotiations with Israel based upon his acceptance of the 1967 borders in a way I wish I did not have to do. However, with the extremes Hamas represents, I try that much harder to find a "moderate" among them because we have to start somewhere... Perhaps something similar may be said of the Republican Party in the US over the past decade, where, starting a few years ago, some Republicans began to notice that many in today's Republican Party would find Ronald Reagan "too liberal" in his acts as governor of California and even as President. It's amazing how the more extreme a group of people becomes, the more we want to hope there is a moderate somewhere, even when the moderates shift further and further toward that extreme.

Again, a careful reading of Ruthven makes a partial and an indirect case that wonderful and sober writers such as Ash and Buruma may well have been too conciliatory to Tariq Ramadan, who is, not so coincidentally, the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. What's funny and ironic to me is that in this post of mine from January 6, 2008, I was tough on Ayyan Hyrsi Ali for not understanding Western, secular culture's own contradictions and tensions, and gave kudos to Ramadan for an article he wrote for the NY Times where he provided a liberal, pluralist interpretation of various passages in the Koran. I stand by my critique of Ali, but I don't think I would have lauded Ramadan as much had I known then what Ruthven's essay described as Ramadan's failure to speak out against Muslim religious-backed patriarchal oppression when he had a platform to do so, or Ramadan's ambiguous refusal to condemn terrorist acts in various instances.

The world is sure a complicated place, isn't it? Berman's point, in short, is not completely daft. However, it remains my conclusion regarding Berman that his worldview presents no effective foreign policy prescription and worse, his fear of Muslim hordes may only exacerbate the challenge we face from the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. Nonetheless, Ruthven may have indirectly given Berman some due with too much parsing of Muslim fundamentalist scholars such as Ramadan...



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