Ignoring Ali (at best)

Ron Rosenbaum reviews Paul Berman’s upcoming book Flight of the Intellectuals, an examination of the silencing of public debates of the learned. Among other things, Berman discusses the disparity of support for two Muslim apostates who attracted death threats: Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

In The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman contrasts the way intellectuals have treated Hirsi Ali—with ostensible support, in the abstract, but condescension, disdain, and nitpicking criticism in all the best intellectual venues—with the way they and others rallied unequivocally to the support of Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the Satanic Verses fatwa.

And so Buruma snipes at “her attitude, her style.” Snarks at what he interprets as a snobbish wave of her hand in a TV clip. All but calls her “uppity.” (“The racism of the anti-racists.”) As Berman puts it, “[T]he Hirsi Ali who emerges from Buruma’s portrait”—in his book Murder in Amsterdam—is “animated by crude ideas” that evidently lack Oxbridge sophistication, of course. Berman continues, “She’s zealous, strident … arrogant, aristocratic.” Doesn’t know her place among Buruma and his peers. And Timothy Garton Ash chivalrically tells us that if Hirsi Ali “had been short, squat and squinting, her story and her views might not have been so closely attended to.” (Note the tone of donnish disdain—the sexism of the anti-racists.)

It would almost be as if a Rushdie supporter back then had said, “Sure, I’m for his not having his life threatened and all, but I’m tired of all this magic realism stuff, and he seemed arrogant when I saw him interviewed on TV. Maybe he was too contemptuous of the culture of the people who want to murder him.”

Hirsi Ali’s critics argue that she represents a simpleminded allegiance to the tolerant and libertarian values of the Enlightenment, that she’s an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” pretty much the moral equivalent of an Islamic fundamentalist who supports suicide bombing. Presumably because she doesn’t believe in tolerating an intolerance that kills, maims, and shackles women. It was Oxford’s Timothy Garton Ash who coined the oxymoronic phrase “Enlightenment fundamentalism,” which was then picked up by Buruma. To his credit, Garton Ash eventually publically apologized for applying the phrase to Hirsi Ali at a London debate, although he didn’t seem to withdraw from a belief that the phrase might have some residual legitimacy.

Apology or not, Berman believes that the phrase reflects a deeper misconception among a certain set of Western intellectuals. That although “the enlightenment is one of the great achievements of Western civilization,” these intellectuals “have come to look at the enlightenment as merely a set of anthropological prejudices”—to view a belief in free expression, for example, as merely a parochial Western view.

Which leads him to the most damning moment in his attack: “Buruma and Garton Ash had lost the ability to make the most elementary of distinctions … they could no longer tell a fanatical murderer from a rational debater” like Hirsi Ali.


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