Paul Berman’s new book a controversial polemic on religious fundamentalism

It might have been a grotesque scene out of a Dan Brown thriller: In the middle of the day, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a 26-year-old Moroccan Dutchman named Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri shot Van Gogh, then slit his throat with a machete. After the murder, he affixed a five-page note to his victim by plunging a smaller knife into his chest.

Except this was real, and the note was not a novelist’s contrivance but a fanatic’s chilling rant, rife with Islamic triumphalism, threatening the Jews (of course) and also targeting Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch parliament and author of the screenplay for Van Gogh’s work. Van Gogh was targeted because he had produced a film about the subjugation of Muslim women.

The cultural conflict between Western values and religious fundamentalism claimed yet another victim and spawned another story. Hirsi Ali, already becoming a celebrity, applied for and received asylum. To this day, she travels with bodyguards in a manner reminiscent of novelist Salman Rushdie, whose book “The Satanic Verses” provoked a fatwa 21 years ago.

The Rushdie book became a litmus test of Western intellectuals’ attitudes toward religious fundamentalism, in particular, Islamic fundamentalism. Some disgraced themselves, such as the British novelist John Le Carré, who took to lecturing Rushdie (then in hiding), “There is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” The only decent stance was to cry “foul” and to denounce the fatwa with all one’s powers.  No one need read a novel; it may be condemned or even execrated.  Calling for the death of the author is not censorship but terrorism.

This is the briefest of backgrounds to a continuing struggle among intellectuals in the West. As the Muslim population grows in Europe, as war in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, as Iran threatens to obtain a nuclear bomb and fundamentalist ideology spreads, what is the proper reaction of the Western thinker? For, along with political responses, there is a community of intellectuals who seek to rise above politics, to take a longer view, at least in theory.  Have they succeeded in creating a thoughtful response to Islam, or are they once again fulfilling the tart words of George Orwell, that there are some propositions so stupid that “only an intellectual could believe them”?

The German Web site has been an important forum, hosting a sometimes snarky debate between Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma and Pascal Bruckner.  These formidable thinkers, along with Hirsi Ali, play a significant part in Paul Berman’s probing and important book “The Flight of the Intellectuals.”

Berman’s title recalls the famous book written between World War I and II by Jewish intellectual Julien Benda, “La Trahison des Clercs” (“The Betrayal of the Intellectuals”). Benda, and now Berman, see those who think and read and write for a living as abdicating their crucial role in maintaining the standards of civilization in an increasingly divided and passionate age.  Most of Berman’s book is devoted to the evaluation of the roots and thought of one of the world’s most important Islamic intellectuals, Tariq Ramadan.

You may not know much of Ramadan, but he matters. He teaches at Oxford and was ranked eighth in a poll of the world’s most important intellectuals in American Prospect magazine; he has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine; and an earlier refusal to permit him to travel to the United States was just overturned by the Secretary of State. Ramadan is one of the few Muslim scholars who remains faithful to traditional teaching and practice who nonetheless speak to the larger Western world. How one approaches Ramadan (and as we shall see, by contrast, how one approaches Hirsi Ali) is of crucial importance.

Berman begins by tracing Ramadan’s background.  He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.  (The Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza is today called Hamas.)  Berman meticulously documents al-Banna’s extremism. Ramadan has said that his grandfather is being smeared by the “Zionist lobby,” according to the well-researched “Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan” by Caroline Fourest. When one finishes with Berman’s indictment, it is clear the defense will have an uphill battle.