The Flight of the Intellectuals
by Paul Berman
Melville House, 299 pp., $26.00
Nomad: From Islam to America
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, 277 pp., $27.00
Terror and Liberalism
by Paul Berman
Norton, 220 pp., $13.95 (paper)
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents
by Ian Buruma
Princeton University Press, 132 pp., $19.95
Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name
by Timothy Garton Ash
Yale University Press, 464 pp., $35.00 (to be published in September)
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, stands an exhibit that is for some more unsettling than the replicas of the Warsaw Ghetto or the canisters of Zyklon B gas used at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Next to blown-up photographs of emaciated corpses from the death camps there is a picture of the grand mufti of Palestine, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, reviewing an honor guard of the Muslim division of the Waffen SS that fought the Serbs and antifascist partisans. The display includes a cable to Hajj Amin from Heinrich Himmler, dated November 2, 1943: “The National Socialist Party has inscribed on its flag ‘the extermination of world Jewry.’ Our party sympathizes with the fight of the Arabs, especially the Arabs of Palestine, against the foreign Jew.” There is also a quote from a broadcast the mufti gave over Berlin radio on March 1, 1944: “Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This is the command of God, history and religion.”Not sure what to think. I'm with Berman on his earlier book, Terror and Liberalism, and I'm not one to play up the Islam/Nazi tie-in too much. Not only that, Ruthven's no appeaser. He sees Islam as a "religion of victory," but deals at a level of sophistication that we don't get in blog debates too often. Yet this is the New York Review, and that's pretty much a strike against, so what can you do?. RTWT. I'm thinking about this one a bit more.
As the Israeli historian Tom Segev suggests, “the visitor is left to conclude that there is much in common between the Nazis’ plan to destroy the Jews and the Arabs’ enmity to Israel.” Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, makes the connection even more explicit. Although defeated in Europe, the virus of Nazism is, in his view, vigorously present in the Arab-Islamic world, with Hajj Amin the primary source of this infection. Instead of being tried as a war criminal, Hajj Amin was allowed to leave France in 1946, after escaping from Germany via Switzerland. A trial, Berman suggests, might have “sparked a little self-reflection about the confusions and self-contradictions within Islam” on matters Jewish, comparable to the postwar “self-reflections” that took place inside the Roman Catholic Church.
Hajj Amin received a hero’s welcome on his arrival in Egypt, where he renewed his connections with Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he had previously supplied with funds from Nazi Germany and ideas for SS-type military formations. The Brotherhood proved fertile soil for the Nazi bacillus. As a result of Hajj Amin’s return, Berman concludes, “the Arab zone ended up as the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue, to boot, returned home in glory, instead of in disgrace.”
Planet Berman evidently excludes India, where Subhas Chandra Bose, who broadcast anti-British propaganda for the Nazis before creating the Indian National Army to fight with the Japanese, is now honored in the pantheon of national heroes in Delhi’s Red Fort. It also excludes Finland, where Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces that fought with the Germans against the Soviets and volunteered recruits for the Waffen SS, was elected by parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1944 to 1946. In 2005 he and his predecessor, Risto Ryti, who served a ten-year prison sentence for allying Finland with Nazi Germany, were voted the country’s top two national heroes in a survey by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Berman, however, is not to be bothered by inconvenient truths that might arrest the flow of his rhetoric. His vision is crassly ideological: facts that might interfere with his argument—such as al-Banna’s stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam, as well as other complicating factors—are liable to be discarded or ignored.
The thrust of his book lies in its title—a homage to La Trahison des clercs (1927), Julien Benda’s attack on the intellectual corruption of his contemporaries. In his famous essay Benda lamented the demise of philosophical universalism, accusing his peers of abandoning Enlightenment ideals in favor of nationalist particularisms and partisan ideologies. Published before Martin Heidegger joined the Nazis, and long before Jean-Paul Sartre “bit his tongue” about Stalin’s horrors to avoid discouraging the French working class, the book had a prophetic ring and is justly regarded as a manifesto for intellectual integrity. However, as his title suggests, Berman is less concerned with the betrayals or corruption of the intellectuals he excoriates than with what he claims to be their moral cowardice. One aspect of this is their “refusal to discuss or even acknowledge the Nazi influence that has turned out to be so weirdly venomous and enduring in the history of the Islamist movement.”
The charge is disturbing, but not without foundation. France and Belgium have seen an increase in anti-Semitic episodes, most of them laid at the door of Muslim immigrants or their descendants. Muslim polemics in Europe—reflecting the anti-Israeli rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah as well as traditional fulminations against Jews derived from the Koran and prophetic traditions—have long mixed anti-Semitic tropes derived from European sources in a toxic mix of diatribes.
The most egregious example is a reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a notorious tsarist forgery adopted and circulated by the Nazis—in the charter of Hamas, the Islamist movement now controlling Gaza. Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading ideologue who was executed by Nasser in 1966, was an outspoken anti-Semite, with views as extreme as Hitler’s, an issue that Berman addressed with considerable insight in Terror and Liberalism (2003). As Berman sees it, the poison of European anti-Semitism was subsumed in the broader eddies of Muslim totalitarianisms—Nasserist, Baathist, and Islamist. The atrocities these movements inflicted on Muslim societies (in Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria) turned out to have been “fully as horrible as the fascism and Stalinism of Europe” with victims numbered in millions. Instead of facing reality, Western politicians and intellectuals have engaged in “ideological systems of denial.” The wake-up call came on September 11. The War on Terror that followedwas an event in the twentieth-century mode. It was the clash of ideologies. It was the war between liberalism and the apocalyptic and phantasmagorical movements that have risen up against liberal civilization ever since the calamities of the First World War.The Flight of the Intellectuals elaborates on the theme of an embattled liberal civilization facing a totalitarian or fascist onslaught. Where Terror and Liberalism took a broad-brush approach toward the modern appeasers—heirs to the “useful idiots” on left and right who defended or ignored the dangers of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism—The Flight points an accusing finger at two particular writers—Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash—whom Berman regards as exemplifying liberal intellectual pusillanimity. The book—originally published as a lengthy article in The New Republic—tries to perform a detailed autopsy on Buruma’s New York Times profile of Hassan al-Banna’s Swiss-born grandson, Tariq Ramadan, whose work I have reviewed in these pages