Andrew Coates

The Flight of the Intellectuals?
A Look at Paul Berman’s Latest Book

Author: Andrew Coates
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

The phobia against secularists has passed the liberal dinner-party test. From Baroness Warsi, through the Guardian Comments page, to the apparently Marxist Socialist Workers Party, it has become acceptable to describe ‘anti-god-botherers’ as vulgar and insulting. Behind the New Atheists’ rationalism, the chattering classes say, lies a Eurocentric sense of superiority. Their criticism of Islam barely disguises racial prejudice. Failure to understand that ‘extremist’ Islamists are not representative of the faith, but individuals reacting to Western callousness and their own humiliation, is to draw close to the English Defence League. Enlightenment fundamentalism is not just bad taste. It is ‘new racism’, a cover for military imperialism, and an endorsement of Guantánamo Bay.

Guests at such soirées will find much to ruminate about in The Flight of the Intellectuals. Paul Berman describes himself as ‘pro-war and left-wing’ — a supporter of ‘humanitarian interventionism’. In Terror and Liberalism (2003) he described Islamism as an irrationalist mass movement. Against this totalitarianism, with its ‘mad platform’, Berman advocated a ‘third force’ that would defend human rights and build the basis of a liberal society across the Muslim world. It turned out that this force could be, albeit imperfectly, embodied by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Allied military occupation of Iraq.

That one can be a militant secularist, a left-wing democratic socialist, and strongly oppose both Islamism and American armed politics, tended to get forgotten in the confrontation between Berman’s ‘decent left’ and those who used ‘anti-imperialism’ to justify the kind of apology for Islamism sketched above.

Berman has continued his campaign against what he considers to be Islamist totalitarianism. Tariq Ramadan is the hook on which this extended pamphlet hangs: ‘The conventional wisdom looked on Tariq Ramadan as a long-awaited Islamic hero — the religious thinker who was going, at last, to adapt Islam to the modern world.’ (p 26) His essay is a genuine contribution to the ‘central debate of our moment’. That is the ‘debate over Islamist ideas in the Western countries, and over the reluctance of journalists and intellectuals from Western backgrounds to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas’ (p 11). Berman subjects Ramadan to a degree of hostile forensic examination only exceeded by Caroline Fourest’s Frère Tariq (2004). He discusses the Rushdie affair, the Muhammad cartoons, and hostility to Israel. During this interrogation Berman tries to reveal a deeper complicity between Ramadan and the Islamist far-right. Some of his insights are illuminating, but that it is also riddled with contentious and wholly false claims cannot, nevertheless, be forgotten for an instant.

The Flight of the Intellectuals is not just a study of Ramadan. Wrapped around Berman’s polemic is a favourite theme of his earlier writings: that the left, particularly the European left, and its liberal counterparts, has a congenital inability to stand up against totalitarianism. The recent past, when the continent was seized by the ‘mania’ of the extreme right and the Stalinist extreme left has left an indelible imprint on its culture and politics. To the author it is, therefore, no coincidence that the European left has reacted to Islamism with a ‘string of bumbles, gaffes, timidities, slanders, miscomprehensions and silences’ (p 299). Like 1930s liberals unable to resist the appeal of the Popular Front, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash have displayed complaisant understanding towards Ramadan and his cohorts, while taking it upon themselves to condescend towards liberal anti-Islamist Muslims and secularists like the Somali-born feminist and secularist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Unable to oppose Islamism seriously, many on the left today are de facto fellow-travellers of what they consider to be a ‘religiously-motivated social conscience’. Or as the Guardian’s Seamus Milne puts it, ‘religion can be an ally of radical social change’.

The book is markedly more self-controlled than Terror and Liberalism. It tries to influence the battle of ideas rather than take sides in real combat. The Flight has been compared to Julien Benda’s Traison de clercs (1927/1947) But that does not take us far. It is definitely not a parallel to Benda’s critique of intellectuals who abandoned the need to ‘défendre les valeurs éternelles et désintéressées, comme la justice et la raison’ for the Nation and, Benda also noted, ‘dialectical materialism’. It is, as Elbert Ventura suggests, ‘less concerned with the betrayals or corruption of the intellectuals he excoriates than with what he claims to be their moral cowardice’. One aspect is their inability to confront the links between Islamism and Nazism. Another, which is considerably more significant, is their alleged failure to hold Islamism to democratic account.

Islam and Fascism

The Flight asserts that the left (both in the American liberal sense, and the European socialist one) is infected with wishful thinking. Ramadan is both symbol and reality of Islamism’s uncritical welcome on the part of some sections of that spectrum. Behind this lies something more lasting. The left remains haunted by the ghost of Third Worldism and its vision of Noble Savages of the South. Pascal Bruckner, whose opinions on ‘the racism of anti-racists’ are spread over many pages towards the end of the book, famously criticised the left’s tendency to consider the ‘poorest human beings in the poorest regions of the world’ as ‘better than other human beings’ (p 269). Franz Fanon famously believed that violence, combined with linguistic defiance, could help foster a sense of self-worth of the ‘wretched of the earth’ as they threw off the colonial yoke. During the 1960s and sometimes even later, progressives showed willingness to make excuses for all aspects of their revolts, at one time often citing such dubious psychology.

This ideology, one can observe, is much more recent than Stalinist fellow-travelling. In Le Lièvre de Patagonie (2009), Claude Lanzmann paints of a picture of Fanon which shows that he was to a degree detached from reality. He describes how he, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of Les Temps Modernes in the 1960s concealed the ‘horreurs’ that the Algerian independence movement, the FLN, inflicted on opponents and dissidents, as they were above all ‘les plus malheureux de tous, victimes…’ (the worst of all, victims). It would not take long to sift through Google to find contemporary excuses for, say, the ‘Maoist’ peasant revolutionaries in the Indian sub-continent. But by and large the fashion for covering up the violence of any political organisation has passed, as the cruelty of such acts is now visible to all through the touch of a keyboard.

Ramadan does not offer apologies for violent anti-colonial revolutions — there are none at present. Murder appears a feature of more sectarian battles, inter-ethnic and religious. It is perhaps rather easy to condemn terrorist violence in these conditions. In these conditions Ramadan gives no support for ‘anything even remotely resembling a violent campaign’ (p 182). The Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University has talked simply of dignity and seems to advocate simply the assertion of the rights of a European oppressed group. They should advance by:

… developing and protecting spiritual life in society, disseminating religious as well as secular education, acting for justice in every sphere of social, economic and political life, and finally, promoting solidarity with all groups of needy people who are forgotten or culpably neglected or marginalised. (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, 2004)

These suggestions, as Berman notes, form a programme for ‘many agitations and protests’, not an armed uprising, still less random murder. This is a facile choice in favour of pacific politics: we rarely face genuine dilemmas in most countries where the only way one can oppose a tyrannical occupation or government is by force. The jihadist who launches a bloody struggle against the mere presence of the kufur is not difficult to condemn.

What then is the problem? To begin with, Tariq Ramadan, now resident in the UK, is someone who can represent Islamism in a reasonable way, yet appeals to a dangerously edgy audience amongst Muslims. He is — or claims to be — ‘a man in touch with the Muslim masses, sociologically authentic, therefore politically progressive’ (p 181). That is the difficulty. For the latter, and for some of the former, he continues to extol the fight against Israel. He is opposed to ‘all Zionist colonisers. This phrase can only mean the Zionist population as a whole.’ To oppose them with violence is sacred, ‘armed resistance was incumbent’ (p 184). This is religious duty.

This obligation is equally, Berman argues, linked to a living past. Ramadan is, Berman asserts, for all his liberal gestures, deeply indebted to the totalitarian battlements of Islamism. He retains a pious reverence towards his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, about whom he wrote an admiring doctoral dissertation. Liberals and the left, who accept Ramadan’s claim to ‘modernise Islam for a liberal age’ and the Islamist wish to conquer ‘a share of the public space’ should recognise this source. The streetwise Ramadan is full of admiration for the Yusif al-Qaradawi, an Islamic figure of considerable authority, who very explicitly endorses ‘martyrdom operations’ against the Jewish state. The difficulty with Ramadan is that the tradition he comes from is ‘without any kind of natural barrier between its pro-terrorists and its anti-terrorists’ (p 203).

Behind this, The Flight argues, is a lingering complicity with fascism. That is, with the ideological network laid down by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during his collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War. Berman spends a great deal of time going over some well-trodden paths, about the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood, about the founder of contemporary radical Islam, Qutb, and the far-right facets of their ideologies. The Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Hafiz and Hassan al-Banna (creator of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Ramadan’s forbearer) are called to account. The former collaborated with Nazis: ‘In the struggle against Jewry, Islam and National Socialism are very close.’ (p 80) The latter had ‘a politics of not just of ultra-conservative communitarian obedience but of violence and war’ (p 45). The main charge against Ramadan is that he is excessively deferential towards his ancestor:

The remarkable omission in Ramadan’s book about his grandfather, then — the discreet shrinking of al-Banna’s alliances with the mufti to a mere two sentences, the silence on the mufti’s calls for genocide and his wartime role, the silence on al-Banna’s admiration for Hitler… (p 121)

Berman focuses largely on the Islamists’ picture of ‘diabolical’ Jewry. This is a strong tie with National Socialism. But in many other respects, one would observe, the search for an ‘organic’ society, where right and God are united for the people (or rather the believers) beyond popular decision-making, resembles more closely an older tradition on the far right. That is the idea, articulated by Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), that the Enlightenment was a rupture in the divine fabric of the world, separating ‘man from the Divinity’. Who were the agents who brought about this rift? The enemies of the French Revolution suspected a conspiracy of diabolical origin: the agents of evil ranging from Illuminated Freemasonry to the Jews. The enemies of the Moslem Brotherhood strongly resemble those of the classic French extreme-right rather than the biological pollutants of Der Stürmer. For the Pan-Islamists and supporters of a restored Caliphate, the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse were “Jewry”, the “crusade”, “communism” and “secularism”’ (Gilles Kepel, The Roots of Radical Islam, 2005). The foes of the Maurrasians were and (in the tendencies that still support them in Le Pen’s Front National and the French extreme right), the Jews, the Protestants, Communists and Freemasons (a pillar of Gallic secularism).

But such analogies cannot be extended far, and Berman stretches the comparison to breaking point. Some European fascists anchor themselves in the soil and its dead, and exalt cultural identity, even tolerating the ‘other’ (non-European) as long as it is kept far away; others keep something of Alfred Rosenberg’s cult of will and racial soul, and desire planetary hegemony. The Islamists, while not foreign to Arab racial and cultural chauvinism, even racism, bind themselves to an invisible world of divine truth, set out in the book of the world, whose meaning is apparent only through Qu’ranic verses — in principle accessible to all. Above all, the Book is not the Führer or Duce. Religious council limited even Khomeini the Guide.

These are only some indications of the limits of Berman’s use of the catch-all category of totalitarianism. It becomes less than helpful when applied to the present subject. In Dissent Andrew F March makes a convincing case for demarcating Ramadan from this tradition. He has a tendency to ‘ignore all the places where Ramadan does denounce his grandfather’s and Qaradawi’s legacy (for surely these statements are just the set-up for a subtle backtracking or retraction, right?), but he also completely misses how Ramadan has changed from his earliest positions’. It is, in this context, ludicrous and offensive to place Ramadan within the foulest traditions of the far-right: he is clearly a democrat. No admirer of the Shoah would even contemplate the kind of dialogue that the Oxford Professor has initiated, or show the glow of love and compassion that he has put on naked public display.

Berman’s claims are stronger when he tries to situate Ramadan fully in political and class terms (that is, as something more than a quest for ‘influence’). While ‘he would like his Salafi counter-culture to become a main centre, instead of a faraway outpost, of the larger Muslim world’, his horizon does not end there (p 150). If the Oxford Professor has any strategy it is surely one of a slow ‘war of position’ for influence, a fight he is prepared to wage in order to conquer the heart of the British Establishment. The French Nouvelle Droite has tried to develop a Gramscianism of the Right, but its vehicle has been political parties. The all-embracing medium of the UK state, dominant class bloc, and its ideological apparatus is to be the instrument for Ramadan’s ‘post-integration’ plans to establish Western Islam in its rightful place. Or, to put in less Marxian language, the Swiss-educated ‘reformist Salafist’ wants Islam to get its slice of the British liberal pluralist cake.

Given the Liberal–Conservative Coalition’s enthusiasm for ‘faith communities’ one can easily imagine the Islamic Scholar eyeing up the potential of the ‘Big Society’. As the market state devolves power to local oligarchies and private companies, organised religion is a player. Ramadan was vaguely ‘anti-capitalist’ when the term was fashionable, and promoted social solidarity in place of unrestrained economic liberalism. Organic pictures of social being stand well in this prospect. So does a belief in its apparent opposite, diversity. Ramadan is adept at merging this type of contradictory imagery. As he says in his most recent book: ‘To love is to reconcile the sedentary presence with nomadic migration, the roots of the tree with the strength of the winds.’ The European Muslim can, in other words, find herself ‘at home’ on the Continent. ‘The ocean mirror that reflects our image now reflects that of a humanity that is in quest of reason, God, truth, happiness or love… always in search of meaning, serenity and peace.’ (The Quest for Meaning, 2010 — more on this below) A common civilisation of religious faith is, therefore, possible. These sentences, apart from being gobbledegook, are indicative of a shift. If violence lurked behind Ramadan’s public agenda, it has drained away into the seas.

Ramadan as Philosopher

Berman is at his strongest in attacking Ramadan’s philosophical pretensions. Since we have already begun some work in this area, describing his ‘pitiful dogmatism’, it is a pleasure to see someone with the resolve to wade through the turgid texts that he cites. Ramadan, The Flight notices, makes much of a certain Abu Hamid Ghazali (CE 1058-1111). He believed in the World Terrestrial and the Realm Terrestrial. William James, whom Berman cites, discusses him in a few pages of a chapter on Mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Ghazali talked of ‘in the prophetic the sight is illumined by a light which uncovers hidden things and objects which the intellect fails to reach’. James commented that for him: ‘Mystical truth exists for the individual who has the transport, but no one else.’ Less generously Berman compares him to the early Renaissance ‘doctrine about symbols and a world of spirit’. Far from forming the basis of modern science or philosophy, as Ramadan repeatedly asserts, these ideas were abandoned at the beginning of the modern age. Ghazali was someone who helped block this development in Muslim lands. He was ‘one of the many religious thinkers over the centuries who have inflicted a genuine damage to science — in al-Ghazali’s case, by arguing that laws of nature do not exist’ (p 225).

Ramadan’s philosophy, such as it is, is therefore fundamentally awry. It is poetic rather than analytical. This is quite explicitly set out in the Messenger (2007). He states that this:

… revealed Book, the written text, is made up of signs (ayat), just as the universe, like a text spread before our eyes, is teeming with signs. When the heart’s intelligence, and not only analytical intelligence, reads the Qur’an and the world, then the two texts address and echo each other, and each of them speaks of the other and of the One. The signs remind us of what it means to be born, to live, to think, to feel, and to die.

The Flight compares such ‘reasoning’ to Ralph-Waldo Emerson’s efforts to reconcile science with these ancient ideas or the Over-Soul, perhaps ‘as the great soul has enshrined itself… that is now the flower and head of all living nature’ (Spiritual Laws, 1841). However it is the Qur’an that is the true fountain of knowledge. One might there be reminded of Emanuel Swedenborg’s declamation that ‘in every of particular of the Word there is an internal sense, which treats of spiritual and celestial things and not of such natural and world things as appear in the sense of the letter’ (Heaven and its Wonders, and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen, 1758) For Ramadan ultimately then the Qur’an is simply true, and this assertion, even by a ‘reformist’, brooks no contradiction.

Or perhaps it can be submerged. The Flight was written before Ramadan’s most ambitious ‘philosophical’ excursion to date, The Quest for Meaning (2010). This he describes as:

… a strange mixture of analytic thought, Cartesianism, strict rationalism and flights of mysticism, some of them quite ethereal. It really has a strange journey through the lands of eastern philosophies, religions, the sciences, psychology and the arts, flying from one to another, weaving links, and opening up horizons by starting out from the one and the multiple, as though the presence of the ocean were enough to reconcile the windows rather than separate them. (p 209)

This is too modest, there are the countries of Marx, Aristotle, Comte, Foucault, Rousseau and many, many others that he has explored and wishes to describe to us. But in truth, there are so many ideas in this ‘philosophy of pluralism’ that we drown in the water. Or rather, Ramadan has cooked up an olla podrida. That is ‘fusion cuisine’, a dish with multiple ingredients from different traditions. One not too imaginary British version might consist of a beef, fried chillies in extra-virgin olive oil, mushrooms, lemon grass, garlic, onions, aubergines, courgettes, peppers, kaki fruit, bay leaves, oregano, rosemary, stock, sweet corn, tomatoes, vinegar, saffron, salami and mustard greens. Cheese is sprinkled on it. It is served with fresh pasta and garlic bread. It savours of mush. It tastes of mush. It is mush. The Quest for Meaning is such an intellectual olla podrida: it has so many ingredients there is no flavour left. In this respect at least Ramadan has truly immersed himself.

Islam, Politics and Secularism

Ramadan may venerate Islamists with dubious political and social ideas. But the main problem he presents is his refusal, as Berman says, to back a genuinely Westernised Islam based on the recognition of the secular distinction between private faith and public democracy. Let us always bear in mind that his faith is primarily in ‘the oneness of God, the status of the Qur’an, prayer and life after death’ (What I Believe, 2009). In this he may edge closer to John Locke’s concept of tolerance, supporting liberty of conscience and opposition to giving the Magistrate the power to rule the intimacies of men’s souls. But he is definitely not at one with Voltaire’s Traité sur la Tolérance (1763), which declared war on intolerance. The French lumière was concerned to demolish the institutions of intolerance, the religious corporations that had ‘couvert la terre de carnage’. Ramadan would not wish faith, be it in Mosques, Churches, Temples or Synagogues, to lose its temporal strength.

The desire to hold to the divine ‘status’ of the Qur’an is not without consequences. It is often said that the heart of Islam is the Sharia — the word of God that rules every aspect of people’s lives. Ramadan’s inability to adopt secular values has come to the fore, as The Flight notes, in his tortuous calls for a ‘moratorium’ on the most severe Sharia punishments, the ‘huddud’ — the death penalty for apostasy, the stoning of adulterers, the amputation of the limbs of thieves, and other ‘laws’. That is before we go further into different Islamic ‘legal schools’ and their versions of these and the vengeance of the Muslim talion. The fact that women and non-Muslims count for less than Muslim men in these religious ‘courts’ casts doubt on the credentials of anyone who considers them just. There is no equality before the law in Islamic ‘jurisprudence’.

This came to a head on French television in 2003. The future French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, confronted the future Oxford Don. Ramadan refused to condemn these punishments, specifically on stoning miscreant women, arguing that a ‘consensus’ amongst scholars and the Muslim community had to be reached on the subject before anything more than a temporary halt could be called for. Berman comments that he appeared to seek credibility with his own faith community (Berman uses the metonymic symbol ‘Brick Lane’ for this rather vaster and more complex grouping). Later, however, we learn that Ramadan has mooted the idea of a broad, global debate, drawing in secular scholars. But we remain transfixed by what The Flight calls the eruption of ‘a moment of barbarianism’. Ramadan simply would not denounce stoning outright. We could then see ‘the whole panorama of Muslim women’s oppression suddenly deployed across the television screens of France…’.

Ramadan was, by contrast, quick to react to French laws that prevented religious dress codes entering into schools. I recall a certain editor of Islamophobia Watch asking my help in translating one of his texts predicting a ‘hot rentrée’ (school return after the summer holidays) when the rules were due to be enforced. Suddenly a ‘woman’s right to choose’ — the veil — became of great importance. This ignored, as Berman rightly points out, that the demand for public spaces free of religious pressure had great support amongst Muslim women. He was no doubt surprised that the temperature never rose, and indeed dropped to zero when Islamists abroad made the progressive new regulations a target for terrorist acts.

Feminism is one of Ramadan’s weakest flanks. Women’s rights collide with Islam. Though no doubt some interpret the Qur’an to suit a minimal feminist agenda, it is hard to see polygamy and a host of other customs, laws and sanctions disappearing in some kind of voluntary moratorium: they are rooted in social relations, not just texts. Yet, as Berman is never reluctant to point out, the ‘multiculturalist’ agenda and the liberal desire to respect Ramadan’s ‘community’ make them hard to reform.

There are women from a Muslim background who refuse to engage in the kind of ‘debate’ offered by the Oxford Professor of Islamic Studies. They tend to be ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’, like the French group, Ni Putes ni Soumises (including those who have since split away to form a more politically independent organisation). In Holland the most famous example has been Hirsi Ali. She has attacked some of the multiculturalists dearly-held beliefs:

In the real world, equal respect for all cultures doesn’t translate into a rich mosaic of colourful and proud people interacting peacefully while maintaining delightful diversity of food and craftwork. It translates into closed pockets of oppression, ignorance, and abuse.

This was locked into a whole range of cultures that depend on Islamic sources, which give a ‘sense of honour and male entitlement’. Furthermore:

American liberals appear to be more uncomfortable with my condemning the ill treatment of women under Islam than most conservatives are. Rather than standing up for Western freedom against the totalitarian Islamic belief system, many liberal prefer to shuffle their feet and look down at their shoes when faced with questions about cultural differences. (Nomad, 2010)

It is not surprising that such statements (written after The Flight’s publication but representative of long-standing opinions) should rub Ramadan’s admirers up the wrong way. For Ian Buruma, she reminds him of Thatcher:

… the same impatience with those from a similar background who lack the wherewithal to ‘make it’ and the same fascination with America… Aayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe. (Murder in Amsterdam, 2007)

It is not, as the joint author of Occidentalism (with Avishai Margalit, 2005) that Ali was wrong to criticise Islamists who see political reality in theological terms. Or that she could be repelled by an ideology that separates ‘the culture of Islam, in the service of God, and the culture of jahulyya in the service of bodily needs that degrade human beings to the level of beasts’. One might envisage Buruma accepting that his own tendresse for the Islamic philosopher could be at least politely criticised. But there are ways of disagreeing and ways of offending. This ‘daughter of the Somali élite’ showed community bad manners. At one meeting she waved her hand, and it was ‘this gentle gesture of disdain, this almost aristocratic dismissal of noisome inferior, that upset her critics more than anything’.

Liberals like Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash showered ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’ of Hirsi Ali’s stripe with well-mannered insults, even suggesting that she would not have been heard had she been ‘short, squat and squinting’. Berman has some fun with their contortions, and shows even their principal critics, the otherwise obnoxious Pascal Brucker, in a good light. There is a fight against ‘fundamentalism’, or in French, integrisme (a better word, implying adherence to a ‘whole’ doctrine), and allies from her quarter are needed. It is obvious to anyone but the peddlers of cultural relativism that if human rights are universal (however we understand this in historical and social terms), then Hirsi Ali is justified in applying them to Islam. To do otherwise is, as Bruckner says, to treat Muslims as children who should be protected from rules that apply to other people. Or, to believe in the kind of nonsense that regards Islamic dress codes as vehicles of ‘modesty and pride’ through which ‘feminine agency’ works (Judith Butler, Precarious Life, 2006). If there are reasons to respect Muslims because many in Europe are amongst the least well-off, this does not apply to Islam, still less to Islamism: Muslims may be poor, but the Mosques are rich.

Hirsi Ali, like another critic of Islam, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nazreen, should be defended to the hilt. The Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoons scandal illustrated that free speech cannot be negotiated away. Berman raises the bar of Hirsi, and rightly so, by stating that ‘a more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist’ (p 257). This, naturally, invites a bout of ‘whatboutery’, as other dissidents suffer perhaps worse fates, but more modestly one can say she has been driven from pillar to post, and that many of her charges against the sexist character of many forms of Islam are hard to gainsay. But the idea that one could be a supporter of the Somalian feminist’s rights and a supporter of the fight against Western political and economic domination of the planet does not seem to have figured in their debates.

Nor does the existence of a strong strain of secularism on the European left. No doubt to please his own sense of permanent outrage about ‘totalitarianism’, we are treated to homilies about an alliance between the far-left and Islamism. He is disappointed that his own anti-totalitarian liberal left ran out of steam in France in the 1990s. In place of the 1980s SOS Racisme, backed by figures he finds sympathetic, such as Marek Halter, the Estate-based Islamists, described in Boulem Sansel’s novel The German Mujadid (and incidentally, the Trotskyist detective writer, Tierry Jonquet, and by Yasmina Khadra — the list is long), took over. The same process occurred elsewhere, notably in Britain, where Islamism became a feature of many inner-city Muslim enclaves:

The Trotskyists eyed the newly-visible street-corner Islamists, and by squinting, they found a sympathetic new way of viewing the entire development. This was sociological, instead of ideological. A focus on social class instead of a focus on ideas. (p 176)

Despite then the fact that Islamism was clearly on the far-right (as he notes, Tony Cliff regarded the Muslim Brotherhood in this light), the raw material appealed to the activists: ‘And, in a spirit of Marxist solidarity, the Trotskyists reached out.’ (p 176)

For Berman after the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 and in the lead-up the invasion of Iraq a real possibility for mass mobilisations, around an Islam–left axis, developed. If the Trotskyists were small in number they were able to mobilise people: ‘the tiny movement knew how to shape events’ (p 177). Thus was born a ‘new and peculiar alliance’ (p 178). In London the Stop the War Campaign, an alliance of the Socialist Workers Party and the Muslim Association of Britain, brought millions onto the street: ‘Nothing like a Trotsko-Islamist alliance could possibly have mobilised millions of Britons in the past.’ (p 179) Another peculiar alliance emerged between liberal hawks like Berman and American neo-conservatives shaped rather more significant events, by invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, but this seems unworthy of mention in The Flight.

The result of this ‘Trotsko-Islamist’ alliance, Berman implies, is indulgence towards the Islamists’ worst sides, notably their anti-Semitism. He cites an attack on yarmulke-wearing Jews on a Paris anti-war march, but neglects to mention that Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire (LCR) stewards then mobilised its ‘service d’ordre’ to smash anyone expressing anti-Jewish views on all subsequent demonstrations. Regarding Britain, one should add that the StWC was overwhelmingly organised by the ‘broad left’, and that the SWP/MAB coalition only stuck because the protest was held around the lowest common denominator — opposition to the war. It was certainly was not an endorsement of Islamism. I speak as someone who was heavily involved in a local group that took 12 coach-loads of people to the big 2003 London demonstration, and recall that there was opposition from many sections of the left to a real alliance with Islamism. When one happened, as it did with the Respect Party, the affair went down in the farce of George Galloway’s appearance on Big Brother, and the sordid squabbling of local politics in Brick Lane.

An ‘alliance’ with Islamism and the left never occurred in France. Much of the far left supported the veil ban, and even those who did not regarded and still regard it as sign and reality of oppression (not to mention that the Burqa has provoked near unanimous hostility). Why? The French left is secular, much of it militantly so. The 1930s non-Communist extreme left, in the form of Pivertism, made this their particular badge of honour. At present the successor party of the LCR, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), has effectively pushed out its sole public representative who wore the veil and is sometimes accused of ‘Islamophobia’. The Parti de Gauche is much more hard-line and adopts a Voltarian stand on all religion. Across the Continent secularist leftists, hostile to Islamism, and largely indifferent to Ramadan, is influential, though pockets of sycophantic sympathy for his views exist, notably in the circle around former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, whose indulgence in this area is the subject of violent criticism from other sections on the left. There is a real debate, about the place of religion in politics, and about secular institutions in the context of wider issues of social justice. But no echo is found in The Flight. On the Simpsons there is a British character who produces films about stupid Yanks titled American Bonehead. One cannot but feel that in his treatment of the European left Berman, who has a thin patina of knowledge about us, offers a rival production, Leftist Lamebrains.

Flawed but Invigorating

The Flight is more than worth reading: it is essential. It is indeed a serious contribution to public debate. Yet it is hard to forget Berman’s warmongering. Or, as Elbert Ventura put it, ‘the theme of an embattled liberal civilisation facing a totalitarian or fascist onslaught’ is wide of the mark. To establish this proposition one would have expected at least some discussion of ‘actually existing Islamism’ in Iran, a theocracy and bloodied autocracy with democratic elements. There is none. Everything is centred on the Middle East. Opposition to Israel and Zionism, no doubt one of Berman’s principal concerns, is far from being yoked to Islamism and anti-Semitism, though that would take another essay to discuss. Our problem, at least in Europe, is that religion is encroaching on the public space: a non-democratic, though not ‘anti’-democratic, current. The inspiration behind faith is an obstacle to negotiated politics: it rests on an appeal to ‘things unseen’ which cannot be negotiated with rationality. For socialists it splits people on imaginary grounds, without roots in real class interests. That is a concern Berman does not speak to. His inability to grasp the nature of a central strand in European leftist thought — secularism — grates. When the religiously minded shout their fear of intellectual New Atheists, such as Michael Onfray or Richard Dawkins, it is odd to assert that the intelligentsia is still weeping tears of white self-loathing in their anxiety to appease Islamists. There is naturally another approach. The British establishment has quietly embraced Ramadan, the target of so much ire, and he has lost his distinctive message in the process. It is in this role that he merits criticism, as severe as one can make it, of his political-religious beliefs. It would, by contrast, on the evidence we have examined, be more than an error to attribute the crimes of Nazism to the Oxford Professor; it would be a very serious fault.



Last updated on 6 January 2018