Michael Totten

Reading Paul Berman in Kurdistan

Last month when I interviewed Paul Berman about his outstanding new book The Flight of the Intellectuals, we briefly touched on how religion and politics in the Arab world differs so radically from religion and politics in some other parts of the Muslim world.

On that note, take a look at what Dr. Sabah A. Salih has to say about Berman’s book at the Kurdish Media Web site.

Islamism, which is markedly different from the way most practicing Muslims in Kurdistan understand the faith, as something spiritual rather than political, has never been a friend of the Kurds. Despite its noisy claims of universality and rejection of national boundaries, Islamism is sectarian through and through. In fact, its actions and programs are intended to put non-Arabs under the political and cultural hegemony of Arabs. Historically, Islamism has been just another name for Arab imperialism. To conceal that, Islamism has been relentless in insisting in its usual totalitarian fashion that its program comes straight from Allah.

This is how most people in Kurdistan view Islamism. There, clerics like Al-Jazeera Television’s wordmonger-in-chief Yusuf Qaradawi or Muslim Brotherhood’s point man in Europe Tariq Ramadan carry no weight. In Kurdistan, a person trading in dogma and medieval irrationality, as these men do, is not considered a person worth listening to. But outside Kurdistan, especially in the heart of Western democracies, as Paul Berman points out in this valuable new book, these are the very people a great many intellectuals embrace as moderate, mainstream, even authentic.

Using their own words and a rich body of scholarship, Berman shows that in fact these Islamists and the Islamism they champion are not moderate or mainstream or authentic at all. This is not a point that political culture in Kurdistan is unaware of. But the culture is not sufficiently informed about Berman’s larger point: How a great many Western intellectuals, having lost faith in their culture’s values of secularism and human rights, have decided that Enlightenment is no better than Islamism, and that therefore the likes of Qaradawi and Ramadan deserve to be taken as seriously as say Voltaire—not only that but that they need to be supported and their enemies, especially Muslim dissidents, attacked as misguided self-hating individuals that mistakenly believe Western culture to be superior to Islamist culture.

This is an important point for the people of Kurdistan to be aware of, important because the Western enablers of Islamism refuse to distinguish between Islamism and the faith; what’s more, they portray Islamism as mainstream rather than as the fringe it has always been and they portray all opposition to Islamism as an attack on Islam. As a consequence, today there is more willingness to criticize Islamism in Kurdistan and in Arab and Muslim countries than in the West. These days, if you happen to be a Muslim dissident living in the West, chances are you will be viewed by the mainstream media and the intellectual establishment as a traitor: traitor to your religion, traitor to your culture, and traitor to your past. And if you speak your mind freely and bravely, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali frequently does, you will be called a bomb thrower, a fanatic, a Muslim hater.

You can read the rest of the review here, and order Berman’s book here.