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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Liberals Debate Political Islam

“He gets very emotional. He gets very excited … a lot of spittle around the mouth and so on," says Ian Buruma of Paul Berman, kicking off the latest round of polemical bloodletting between the two liberal intellectuals.

The history of this spat is a bit tedious and more than a bit convoluted, but here it is in a nutshell: In February Buruma, a professor at Bard College, wrote a profile of the Swiss-born Egyptian scholar Tariq Ramadan for The New York Times Magazine. Buruma concluded that Ramadan's "politics offer an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear."

Berman found that take dangerously naive and simplistic. In a 28,000 word response that ran across almost an entire issue of The New Republic, Berman delved deep into Ramadan's written work and biography to paint a far more complex -- and menacing -- picture of the controversial and wildly popular scholar of Islam.

Buruma held his fire until late last month when he took after Berman and other "such tub-thumpers for Bush's war" as Christopher Hitchens and the French writer Pascal Bruckner in the course of a review of Norman Podhoretz's new book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. Buruma's central point was that he sees no difference between the views of "neo-left" thinkers like Berman and neoconservative thinkers like Podhoretz. (Bruckner and Buruma have tangled before on the related issue of when tolerance for cultural differences becomes tolerance for intolerance.)

Berman has just hit back with a letter to the editor in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, in which he claims that Buruma is for some reason incapable of seeing the fine distinctions that Berman feels he has drawn between his own position and that of President Bush's.

Berman and Buruma's ongoing spat -- which shows every sign of intensifying in the near future -- speaks to a much larger divide on the left over how to aid the cause of reform in the Muslim world.

Buruma's position is seconded by the New York University historian Tony Judt, most notably in this essay in the London Review of Books -- titled "Bush's Useful Idiots" -- and in this op-ed in The New York Times.

Elements of this debate have been playing out in the pages of The Chronicle Review. Earlier this year Tariq Ramadan made a case for what the West can learn from Islam. In 2004 Ian Buruma sketched out the origins of Occidentalism, which he defined as "a war against a particular idea of the West, which is neither new nor unique to Islamist extremism." And in 2003 Paul Berman implored intellectuals to ask themselves what they are doing to support "liberal values against the totalitarianism of the Muslim world and its defenders in the West."


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