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Righteous & Wrong

Timothy Lui
Paul Berman

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.”

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 followed

was 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.1

This attack is oddly unbalanced, since the space Berman allows himself vastly exceeds the Times’s allotment to Buruma. Berman takes as his point of departure Buruma’s general assessment that “Ramadan’s values, although ‘neither secular, nor always liberal,’ offer ‘an alternative to violence, which is, in the end, reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.’” Without directly challenging this assessment, Berman explores the links between the grand mufti and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the latter is said to have revered. Berman regards Ramadan’s attitude toward his grandfather as being unacceptably adulatory: “He is presented as a visionary, ahead of his own time. A man of democratic temperament. A man committed to rational judgement and scientific truth. A peaceful man, patient and practical.”

This portrait, suggests Berman, is deeply flawed. “To read through Ramadan’s account of his grandfather you have to pick your way carefully past the omissions and gaps, as if tiptoeing down a potholed road.” In particular Berman accuses Ramadan of glossing over accusations that his grandfather was involved in violence or sanctioned assassinations. He writes that the Brotherhood’s current incarnation in the Hamas movement now ruling in Gaza remains “the world’s most famous celebrant of the cult of suicide bombings.”

This is an astonishing statement considering that most of the suicide missions currently directed at security targets or Muslim worshipers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have little if any connection with the conflicts in Gaza or Palestine. Without even acknowledging the mass of studies now available that explore the different jihadist currents in South and Central Asia, Berman makes the preposterous claim that most of the Islamist organizations with terrorist reputations are descended from al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood, either directly, like Hamas, or schismatically, like al-Qaeda. Berman attacks Ramadan’s claim to represent nonviolent values—for not owning up to his grandfather’s engagement in violence, and for not addressing his admiration for Hitler and reverence for the grand mufti: “On the topics of the SS, the Holocaust, Hitler, and the Nuremberg trials, someone reading Ramadan’s account of the mufti and the mufti’s debt to al-Banna would learn nothing at all.”

Warming to his theme, Berman accuses Ramadan—and, by extension, Buruma—of being “soft” on Sayyid Qutb, seen by many as the intellectual godfather of modern Islamist terror. Berman glosses a lengthy section of Ramadan’s first book, based on his Ph.D. dissertation and published in French under the title Aux Sources du renouveau musulman (The Roots of Muslim Renewal), and presents what he claims is Ramadan’s central argument in summary: “Islamism’s violent strain got its start among Qutb’s followers, but…this was not because of anything that Qutb himself had written or done.” This is, however, a crude and tendentious rendition of Ramadan’s subtle analysis of differences between Qutb and Banna and between Qutb and his more radical and extremist disciples.

The issue (a crucial one) revolves around Qutb’s use of the term jahiliyya, the period of “ignorance” classical writers associated with the era of paganism that preceded the coming of Islam, and that Qutb—following the Indo-Pakistani ideologue Sayyid Abu Ala al-Maududi—applied to the corruption and decadence of contemporary Muslim societies. Banna, Ramadan insists, never adopted the Manichaean or binary model (Islam versus the West, Muslim versus pagan, governance of God versus that of “idolatry”) that characterizes the vision of extremists, such as al-Qaeda or the Egyptian separatist group known as Takfir wa Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration); while Qutb never went so far as to declare Egyptian society a fully infidel one. Rather his view was that Muslims should recognize that their environment was non-Muslim in the broader Kirkegaardian sense that leaves space for activist commitment. As Leonard Binder, a leading American specialist puts it, the Egyptian writer urged the Muslim to “practice his faith as an expression of his being,” regardless of social consequences.

Ignoring such nuances, Berman constructs his “totalitarian” model of the Islamist movement, in which al-Banna, Maududi, Qutb, Ramadan’s father Said (who married al-Banna’s daughter), and Tariq himself are all “stars in a single constellation.” Revisiting several well-known episodes in the Ramadan story, he dwells on the famous television debate with Nicolas Sarkozy (at that time France’s interior minister), when Ramadan refused to condemn outright the stoning of adulterous women, arguing instead for a “moratorium” on the practice followed by a comprehensive “debate.” Berman sees the episode as a pivotal moment in Ramadan’s career:

  1. 1

    See “The Big Muslim Problem,” The New York Review, December 17, 2009, and “The Islamic Optimist,” The New York Review, August 16, 2007.

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