Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 3, 2010

The Paul Berman-Ian Buruma feud

Filed under: cruise missile left,Islam,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Paul Berman

Ian Buruma

Today’s NY Times has a review of The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman’s latest Islamophobic tirade:

Paul Berman’s new book, “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” plural, might as easily have been titled “The Flight of the Intellectual,” singular. It is essentially a booklong polemic against one magazine article: a profile of the Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan, written by Ian Buruma, the Dutch academic and journalist, and published in The New York Times Magazine in 2007.

While I doubt any of my readers would waste $26 dollars on Paul Berman’s trash, you can read the short version of the book, an article titled Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan? that appeared in the June 4, 2007 The New Republic (TNR).  For those who are unfamiliar with the TNR, this is a magazine whose editor Martin Peretz defended the war in Iraq this way recently:

There were moments–long moments–during the Iraq war when I had my doubts. Even deep doubts. Frankly, I couldn’t quite imagine any venture like this in the Arab world turning out especially well. This is, you will say, my prejudice. But some prejudices are built on real facts, and history generally proves me right. Go ahead, prove me wrong.

The review of Berman’s book was quite sympathetic and situated it in the kind of debates that used to take place on the Old Left:

Mr. Berman’s book has already made some noise. Writing in Slate, Ron Rosenbaum compared its stinging ambience, nostalgic to some, to one of “those old Partisan Review smackdowns,” in which Dwight Macdonald or Mary McCarthy cracked some unsuspecting frenemy over the head with a bookcase and a tinkling highball glass. And for sure, everything about “The Flight of the Intellectuals” feels old school, from Mr. Berman’s tone (controlled, almost tantric, high dudgeon) to the spectacle of one respected man of the left pummeling another while the blood flows freely, and no one calls the police.

Of course, the idea that Berman or Buruma have anything to do with “the left” is nonsense. As should be obvious, Berman is a neoconservative like Christopher Hitchens who invokes “liberalism” in his Islamophobic rants. Their main goal—obvious to anybody operating outside of the rather narrow political framework of the NYT—is to attack the left.

But what about Buruma? From the violence of Berman’s attack, you’d think that he was another George Galloway and a prime candidate for MRZine. But nothing can be further from the truth. Ian Buruma, a Bard College professor, only appears soft on political Islam from the perspective of a full-bore racist like Berman.

On February 25, 2006 Buruma wrote a piece in the Guardian raising the question Can sexual inadequacy or deprivation turn angry young men into killers? It attempted, believe it or not, to explain Muslim violence in terms of not getting laid:

Sexual deprivation may be a factor in the current wave of suicidal violence, unleashed by the Palestinian cause as well as revolutionary Islamism. The tantalising prospect of having one’s pick of the loveliest virgins in paradise is deliberately dangled in front of young men trained for violent death.

I personally think it has more to do with IDF brutality and the theft of Palestinian land but what do I know. I’m no Bard College professor.

Only two years earlier, Buruma had teamed up with Princeton professor Avishai Margalit (I dealt with his argument that Stalin was much worse than Hitler here) to produce Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism, a book that consciously seeks to undermine the arguments made by Edward Said in Orientalism. (I wrote a letter to Buruma about this analysis.) They see the Arab and Muslim world as seething with the kind of irrational attitudes that lead to jihadi violence. There’s little here, it would seem, to distinguish Buruma from Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism covers the same territory.

Indeed, writing about Berman’s book in the May 2003 New York Review, Buruma was generally positive:

There is, however, much to admire in Berman’s book too. As a general analysis of the various enemies of liberalism, and what ties them together, it is superb. All—Nazis, Islamists, Bolsheviks, Fascists, and so on—are linked by Berman to the “ur-myth” of the fall of Babylon. The decadent city-dwellers of Babylon, corrupted by luxury and poisoned by greed, infect the people of God with their wicked ways, even as the forces of Satan threaten the good people from afar. The people of God will only be freed from these abominations after a massive war of Armageddon, in which the city slickers and Satanic forces will be exterminated. A pure new world will rise from the burning ruins and “the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.”

It would seem that this is just another case of cruise missile leftists having some kind of turf battle. George Packer, another cheerleader for Bush’s wars, wrote a nasty attack on Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War, a book written by Mark Danner, another Bard College professor noted for his gung-ho support for bombing the Serbs to oblivion. I discussed their feud here. All of these characters—Danner, Berman, Buruma, Hitchens, Packer—share a belief that the U.S. has the right to police the world and would regard anti-imperialism as an evil to be avoided at all costs.

Berman’s TNR article is filled with outrageous Islamophobic observations such as the following:

The Muslim emigration has turned out to be one of history’s largest events, and in scattered regions across the whole of Western Europe, old-stock populations nowadays wake up to discover that people from the Muslim world have suddenly come to dominate this or that neighborhood or town, and Arabic or Turkish has begun to outpace some of the smaller European languages, and here and there Islamist groups are demanding censorship of one thing or another, or are demanding gender-segregated beaches, or the curricular demise of Voltaire or Darwin, or an end to history instruction on the crimes of Nazism. And there are always sermons by one or another exotically costumed Islamic scholar fantasizing about a Muslim conquest of Europe and the world, which therefore can be cited as evidence of a giant conspiracy.

I should state to begin with that Berman does not document the charge about demanding an end to history instruction on the crimes of Nazism. The article is filled with such inflammatory and unsubstantiated allegations. With respect to exotically costumed Islamic scholars fantasizing about a Muslim conquest of Europe, you’d have to search far and wide for more offensive and racist prose.

The article also singles out “Trotskyists”, including the British SWP and the French LCR, for marching in antiwar demonstrations with Islamic radicals. Considering his support for a war that has cost the lives of nearly 2.5 percent of the Iraqi population according to Lancet (equivalent to 7.5 million American deaths), it is shocking to see him passing judgments on those who agreed mostly on the need for peace rather than how to interpret the Quran.

A January 2004 symposium in Slate Magazine invited Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria to revisit their support for the war in Iraq. Berman was as fanatical as he was at the outset, stating:

Sept. 11 did not come from a single Bad Guy—it was a product of the larger totalitarian wave, and the only proper response was to comprehend the size and depth of that larger wave, and find ways to begin rolling it back, militarily and otherwise—mostly otherwise. To roll it back for our own sake, and everyone else’s sake, Muslims’ especially. Iraq, with its somewhat antique variation of the Muslim totalitarian idea, was merely a place to begin, after Afghanistan, with its more modern variation.

Somewhere along the line, liberals began to step back from this kind of blood-curdling militarism. Packer and Friedman, for example, did a feeble mea culpa. Understanding that his credibility as a liberal pundit was at stake, Buruma began to retreat from the arguments made in Occidentalism. While not explicitly confessing that they were garbage, he began to distinguish himself from the kind of mouth-breathing racism that people like Hitchens and Berman typify.

He had the temerity to describe Tariq Ramadan in the following terms in the New York Times Magazine on February 4, 2007:

Ramadan’s favorite Muslim philosophers are the late-19th-century reformists Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who tried to revive Islam under Western colonial rule by rational interpretation of the holy texts. They were skeptical of religious tradition, accumulated over time, and looked for core principles in the Koran that spoke to reason. For them there was no contradiction between scientific reasoning and their Muslim faith. And female emancipation or democratic government could be reconciled with the original principles of Islam. Both had lived in Europe. Both were harsh critics of colonialism and Western materialism. In Ramadan’s words, “They saw the need to resist the West, through Islam, while taking what was useful from it.”

Berman’s answer to this is to connect Ramadan to al-Qaeda through a kind of “six degrees of separation” logic:

Here, on page 26, is Hassan al-Banna; and Abul Ala Mawdudi from the South Asian subcontinent, whose activities Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, coordinated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fellow thinker in Iran. And here is Sayyid Qutb, one more influential reformist among the others, listed without comment—even if Qutb’s legacy, in one of its offshoots, did lead to Al Qaeda.

I myself have little patience for this kind of amalgam-building, having seen the low-rent version from Michael Pugliese when he was on Marxmail briefly a decade ago.

But the proximate cause of Berman’s new book was Buruma’s treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian émigré now ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute. In a review of Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism that appeared in the September 27, 2007 New York Review, Buruma knocked Ali off her pedestal, although rather daintily:

Since she renounced her Muslim beliefs to become an atheist and a defender of “Enlightenment values” against Islam, she has been taken up by neocons and neoleftists as an iconic figure, described in The New Republic Online as “the most courageous and remarkable woman of our time.”

She is indeed a courageous and remarkable woman, whose skillfully ghostwritten memoir, Infidel, has attracted a great deal of attention. Her views on the oppression of women in the name of Islam are admirable, and I share her conviction that liberal democracy should be defended against violent intimidation. But atheists, especially after conversion from religious orthodoxy, tend to retain some of their old zeal. This rather limits Hirsi Ali’s influence over Muslims who are trying to find a place for their faith in a modern democracy. Dogmatism also leads to errors of judgment, for example when she recommends backing the Turkish military against the democratically elected Turkish government, just because it is led by an Islamic party. To point this out is not the same as placing her on the same moral or political level as the violent zealots she opposes. And it should not be a reason to denounce the critic as an implacable foe not only of Hirsi Ali herself, but of free speech, democracy, the Enlightenment, and so forth. Like Podhoretz’s description of the US press as pro-Islamic, such a conclusion can only be drawn by fanatics.

Buruma also took a swipe at Berman and his creepy co-thinkers:

Such tub-thumpers for Bush’s war as Christopher Hitchens, the Parisian writer Pascal Bruckner, and the American journalist Paul Berman would not describe themselves as neocons. On the contrary, in their view, they are just where the true left should be, the neoleft as it were. The revolution has moved on. In the words of Hitchens: “The United States has placed itself on the right side of history.” Or, as Dick Cheney once said about Bush to a neocon friend of mine: “Yup, he’s a revolutionary president.”

This prompted a letter to the NYR from Berman that included the following:

He mentions in his review Christopher Hitchens and Pascal Bruckner, and he links their names to mine, as if in further expression of his all-purpose loathing for Bush. Yet he might have shed a clarifying light on his own article by acknowledging that, among the many writers in the United States and especially in Europe who have uttered a few indignant words in Hirsi Ali’s defense, Hitchens and Bruckner have made themselves especially prominent. Pascal Bruckner’s name appears in The New York Review for one reason only, which is to punish him for having become the single most scathing and influential of Buruma’s European detractors.

Allow me to add that, regardless of his journalism, which I have not been reluctant to criticize, I continue to admire the book that Buruma wrote with Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism, the first sketch of which appeared in The New York Review [“Seeds of Revolution,” March 11, 2004]. Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism is a classic of the antitotalitarian left—an outstanding study of totalitarian and fascist ideas of the past and their enduring influence today.

Buruma answered Berman thusly:

What I wrote was not that Berman likes or admires George W. Bush. My point was that on the question whether it was right to go to war in Iraq to fight “Islamofacism,” in the name of Abraham Lincoln, I see no difference between the neocons and the neo-left. Indeed, Berman appears to agree with this, at least partly. He said in an on-line interview in March 2003:

I admire the neocons in one regard: their political ideas are very ambitious. I think the neocons are correct in supposing that something fundamental has gone wrong in the political culture of the Middle East, and that radical measures are required to set the wrong aright.

The question is what radical measures he had in mind. Here, too, there is no mystery. Arguing in Dissent magazine with an imaginary leftist opponent of the Iraq war, he wrote: “If only people like you would wake up, you would see that war against the radical Islamist and Baathist movements, in Afghanistan exactly as in Iraq, is war against fascism.”

There was, of course, in the case of Iraq, the matter of international law, something liberals, unlike neocons, have always taken seriously. But Berman wrote in the same article:

We have had to choose between supporting the war, or opposing it—supporting the war in the name of antifascism, or opposing it in the name of some kind of concept of international law. Antifascism without international law; or international law without antifascism. A miserable choice—but one does have to choose, unfortunately.

Yes, one does, unfortunately. And Berman’s choice was precisely the choice of President Bush and his neocon supporters. “On principle” it is easy to agree with Berman. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein is a fine thing. But how responsible is it to promote a war that is waged by a president who is as hopeless as Berman says he is? Berman proudly relates that he resisted telling the world “I told you so.” Told us what exactly? That this reckless war should never have been attempted?

Between Buruma and Berman, I’d have to give critical support to the former since he certainly qualifies as a “lesser evil”. Our business, of course, as leftists is to stick to our anti-imperialist principles and leave such feuding to the Upper West Side of Manhattan salons where it belongs.


  1. I thank you for this article. To me Tariq Ramadani is bound to become a victim to scums like these!

    Comment by Zarina Bhatia — May 4, 2010 @ 12:18 am

  2. The original version of Marty Peretz’s gem is an even greater contribution from a humane man of letters:
    “There were moments–long moments–during the Iraq war when I had my doubts. Even deep doubts. Frankly, I couldn’t quite imagine any venture requiring trust with Arabs turning out especially well. This is, you will say, my prejudice. But some prejudices are built on real facts, and history generally proves me right. Go ahead, prove me wrong.”
    See: http://www.lobelog.com/marty-peretzs-cowardice/

    Comment by goldeneskalb — May 4, 2010 @ 3:33 am

  3. Paul Berman, with his pose of being under siege, is really a comic figure. He’s one of the company who sit on the other side of the Atlantic, extrapolating from statistics in their university offices and predicting the demise of “Christendom” in Western Europe. It’s no surprise he defends “Glamor” magazine since his book has him rubbing shoulders with Claire Berlinski, (“Menace in Europe”). There’s no end of these volumes. They usually have an orgiastic blurb from Daniel Pipes: “Why Europe Slept?”, “The Last Days of Europe,” “Decline and Fall of Europe” and so on. Often the authors reside in California. They have never actually lived in a mixed ethnic neighborhood in a European city. Or like Belinsky they gather their insights sojourning at Balliol College, Oxford. About Buruma, you do well, despite your strictures on him, not to put him in the same sack as Berman. He never quite got down on his knees for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (See his “Murder in Amsterdam”) A big difference between the two men is that Buruma actually lived in Holland and has to pay some attention to reality on the ground. Berman does his hallucinating well-removed from Europe.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 4, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  4. Louis, thanks for this. What you could have said a little more about is that other context for this dust up. They are arguing about the limits of Arab and Muslim participation in official institutions. In Ramadan’s case, they are arguing about whether Arab and Muslim liberals can be allowed any place in these institutions. Obviously, this has been more of a question in Europe where defenders of herrenvolk democracy like Berman and Buruma have been frantically trying to find a way to keep a sizable working class Arab and Muslim population at the bottom. But it has popped up in the U.S. from time to time, as you well know and have documented. Zionist campaigns against liberal professors in American universities is the best example.

    The debate between these two clowns is therefore not only about the wars and Israeli apartheid, it is also about how to think about the race question in Europe during an era of collapsing social democracy, growing white populism and fascism, and failing legitimacy of ruling class and political elites in general. Berman is saying there must be strict political tests for all Arab and Muslims in official institutions (and presumably all people of color) and this corresponds to his support for more violent coercion. Buruma is saying that Ramadan, as a mild mannered Islamic liberal, may be useful in mediating the political struggle of Arabs and Muslims in Europe.

    I also wouldn’t let the NPA off the hook here, though in terms of the white left in France, it is not as bad as others. From what I can tell it is debating the issues of race and class about 30 years late.

    Comment by djones — May 4, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  5. You are an idiot, OP, living in a hermetically sealed reality-denial machine. Your commenters make this a circle jerk of me-too-ism. I get it, and am thankfully released from ever having to read your noisome crap again on any topic relating to the Middle East: anyone who expresses any concern whatsoever about Islamism is “Islamophobic.” Sure beats thinking.

    Comment by The Baron — May 9, 2010 @ 12:11 am

  6. “Our business, of course, as leftists is to stick to our anti-imperialist principles and leave such feuding to the Upper West Side of Manhattan salons where it belongs.”

    So why, Louis, do you spend nearly thirty paragraphs on these people? I understand the anger that ex-left neo-cons provoke, but do not think polemics between the likes of Berman and Buruma generally merit this amount of attention.

    Comment by burghardt — May 10, 2010 @ 12:40 am

  7. I have been following Paul Berman for over 25 years. He used to write pro-contra propaganda in the Village Voice during the war on Nicaragua. I am interested in Buruma because he teaches at Bard, where I went to school in the 60s. If you are not interested in my views on this character, then just don’t bother reading them. I write mostly for myself in fact.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 10, 2010 @ 1:42 am

  8. Is it significant that there’s a concerted effort by U.S. publicists to encourage an anti-Muslim panic in European electorates? I think so. What to do with immigrants is a top issue in every Western European election. So looking into the background of people like Berman and Buruma is worthwhile.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 10, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  9. Louis Proyect – medieval exorcisme revitalized as modern form of socialist social exorcism! The moral is: Avoid the groups of obsessed heretics and their dangerous influence, because they are obsessed by the devil.

    Comment by Torq — September 24, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  10. How nice to read my words and see that, if slightly intemperate, they describe Mr. Proyect accurately. Come on, Louis, fess up: did you actually read the book? Of course you didn’t! Why bother reading something you dismiss as of sentence 1 as an “Islamophobic tirade”? Right, b/c why would a good leftist be afraid of warm, cuddly theocratic fascists? Well I’m reading it, and what’s interesting is Berman gives a lot of respectful coverage to liberal Muslim thinkers. Which you would know if you’d read the book. Which you haven’t. And rightly: it might interfere w/ your prejudices. Dangerous things, books, Mr. Proyect – they might make you think, and you’re best off avoiding them.

    Comment by The Baron — January 21, 2012 @ 4:14 am

  11. […] these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking […]

    Pingback by What to do about Syria | a paper bird — April 18, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

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