Berman on Buruma on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

For those of you who have yet to make your way to the end of Paul Berman’s 28,000 word essay in the June 4 issue of The New Republic (sub. req.), I want to make sure you don’t miss the gravamen of the last 8,000 or so words, the ones that deal with journalist Ian Buruma’s repeated attacks on Hirsi Ali one of the most courageous champions of woman’s rights, and outspoken voices against vicious religious intolerance.


it was she–the author of Infidel who was the subject of murdered Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh’s film, who was stabbed to death by a Muslim fanatic for “blasphemy”–that is exercising his creative right to question religious dogma. A murder that liberals in the West were shamefully silent about. A murder that forced Hirsi Ali to flee to America when fearful Dutch authorities turned against her.

In focusing on Hirsi Ali I am largely ignoring the titlular subject of Berman’s essay “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadam?” his microscopic examination of the pretensions to interfaith tolerance by the increasingly influential European Muslim thinker, Ramadan. It is worthy of careful consideration and I am not suggesting you skip it, but I choose to speak here on what might be called the sub titular subject–the third term in Berman’s subtitle: “The Islamist, the Journalist and the Defense of Liberalism.”

It is the “defense of liberalism” from the fearful sophistry of those who attack Hirsi Ali that makes this essay most important to me.

Asa liberal, I feel it’s about time someone took on the shocking, smarmy pseudo-sophistication of the timid self-styled liberal intellectuals who can’t see that the values of the Enlightenment are at stake in the Ali affair and that their puny vicious nitpicking of the likes of this brave woman represents an astonishing display of intellectual intimidiation if not cowardice on their part.


I’ve referred elsewhere to the degraded thinking that finds moral equivalence between those who favor genital mutilation, “honor killings” and punitive gang rape of women, with those who defend tolerance, equal rights, self-determination and dearly won, always threatened Enlightentment values as indistinguishable “fundamentalists”. That’s right, their fearful sophistry has led them to argue that belief and tolerance and intolerance are both “fundamentalisms”. How pathetic.

But Berman painstakingly, at great length, nails this sensibility and attributes it–in a stunning conclusion–at least in part to fear: intellectual cowardice on the part of those who have abandoned the defense of liberalism because they have internalized the dread inspired by terrorism.

I’m surprised that there has yet to be more discussion of the Berman essay; perhaps the length is too intimidating. But get the magazine and make sure you read pages 59-63, the ones on Hirsi Ali. Otherwise I may feel compelled to return to the subject and just quote one salient passage after another from Berman’s demolition of Buruma’s condescending attack on this exemplary woman whose life is in danger because she is unafraid to speak out on behalf of liberal values. Those who don’t speak up to defend her join those who carped at Salman Rushdie, those who were silent when Theo van Gogh was murdered (for blasphemy!) and have forfeited the right to call themselves liberals.



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