THE BLOG
06/05/2007 02:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Demolition of Ian Buruma

In the latest issue of the wonderfully revitalized, now biweekly New Republic, Paul Berman has a 28,000 word essay on the Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan, who has become for Islam something like what Billy Graham is for evangelical Protestantism: the palatable, moderate spokesman who whispers in the ears of presidents. Ramadan advises Tony Blair, he holds a chair at Oxford and another chair at a university in the Netherlands.

He's a rock-star speaker to Muslim audiences in Europe, where his drawing power is something like Noam Chomsky's (reminding us that Europe treasures its intellectuals, certainly a good thing). But Berman is troubled -- he wonders how many of Ramadan's defenders have taken a proper look at what Ramadan has actually written. He wonders if charges of anti-Semitism, indifference to women's rights, and supporting terrorism, which have tended not to stick to Ramadan, have been dismissed too quickly.

The Berman piece is superb, but not for the reasons you might expect. Ross Douthat has a fine critique of the piece I expected Berman to write:

"I did it. I read -- with, okay, some skimming here and there -- Paul Berman's behemoth of an essay on Tariq Ramadan. And you know what? There's a pretty good piece buried under all those words, one that uses Ian Buruma's favorable treatment of Ramadan, and his unfavorable treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to illustrate the tendency of Western liberals to prefer Islamists of a seemingly-moderate stripe to anti-Islamists, like Ali, who seem too strident. Such a piece would have been a valuable contribution to the debate over whether Western liberalism should seek dialogue with the more moderate elements within political Islam -- with Ramadan a prime example -- or pursue confrontation instead, along the lines suggested by Ali. I'm by no means certain which side of that debate I'm on, Buruma's or Berman's, but that's all the more reason for TNR to run an essay that contributes substantially to the argument.

"But such a piece could have been about, oh, I don't know, 5,000 words long. A 28,000-word essay, by contrast, needs to do more than raise troubling questions about Tariq Ramadan (which Berman successfully does); it needs to demolish him, to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt the debt he owes to Qutbian thought and beyond Qutb to National Socialism, to lay bare his sympathies for global jihad and expose his desire to bring the whole edifice of European liberalism crashing down."

The problem with Douthat's analysis, however, is that Berman's piece is not primarily a demolition of Ramadan, even if his New Republic editors billed it that way. It's many things, but above all, it seems to me, it's a demolition of Ian Buruma.

Ian Buruma is not a household name in the United States, or anywhere for that matter. Among frequent contributors to The New York Review of Books, his fame is of a lower voltage than, say, Gary Wills's or Joan Didion's. But he is a terribly important intellectual, the author of learned (and highly readable) books about how Germany and Japan deal with the memory of World War II, lingering Anglophilia in Commonwealth countries, the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, and other subjects. He is multiethnic, as we prefer our intellectuals to be these days --Dutch, Jewish, and English. He speaks Japanese. And he has earned his esteem the old-fashioned way, by being learned, doing the reportorial legwork, knowing the scholarship, and writing clearly. I admire the man. So do others: he's rumored to be a possible replacement for founding editor Robert Silvers at The New York Review.

I love Ian Buruma's writing, but I don't see that I can ignore the case that Berman builds in his New Republic piece. Buruma is the author of a long New York Times Magazine profile of Tariq Ramadan, and he has written about Ramadan in other contexts, most notably comparing him with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch-Somali feminist and ex-Muslim. And in such pieces, Berman carefully shows, Buruma tends to be painfully reluctant to describe Ramadan for what he is: a man who is not nearly so liberal as Western liberals would like to believe, and who is particularly calloused on the subject of women's rights.

Buruma certainly notes the most important charges against Ramadan, citing at some length, for example, the famous debate with Nicolas Sarkozy in which Ramadan refused to denounce the Koranic practice of stoning female adulterers to death. But Buruma ultimately portrays him as a likeable sort, someone whose illiberalism has been trumped up by his detractors. Meanwhile, Buruma has written rather scornfully of Hirsi Ali, a true crusader for human rights. When faced with two people -- a decent-seeming, more-moderate-than-most Muslim who is nevertheless hostile to homosexuals and feminism, and a woman raised in Islam who suffered terrible depradations (beatings, female circumcision, death threats for speaking out) but who now fights for women's dignity -- Buruma seems to prefer the former.

It is much worse, Berman argues; I don't have space here to recapitulate Berman's entire argument, but you'll get a sense by reading the passage below, in which he is referring to Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, and other Western intellectuals:

"How did this happen? The equanimity on the part of some well-known intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the journalistic inability even to acknowledge that women's rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism; the inability to recall the problems faced by Muslim women in European hospitals; the inability to acknowledge how large has been the role of a revived anti-Semitism; the striking number of errors of understanding and even of fact that have entered into the journalistic presentations of Tariq Ramadan and his ideas; the refusal to discuss with any frankness the role of Ramadan's family over the years; the accidental endorsement in the Guardian of the great-uncle who finds something admirable in the September 11 attacks --what can possibly account for this string of bumbles, timidities, gaffes, omissions, miscomprehensions, and slanders?

"Two developments account for it. The first development is the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism."

Now, I find the last paragraph cited above, which is the last paragraph of Berman's extraordinarily brilliant essay, to be overly cryptic, an ill-fitting conclusion. But the entire piece is an indictment that should be read aloud (were there the time) in every university commons. I have read none of Ramadan's books, so I have no way of judging the ultimate verity of Berman's several arguments. But because Buruma is an important intellectual, and because his moral clarity is truly called into question by Berman's piece, I hope Buruma will respond. This is one debate that should not end until some version of the truth is wrung out.