A clash of ideologues: 'the Enlightenment' versus Islamism

The liberal hawk Paul Berman's new book demands that intellectuals mount a militant defence of 'Enlightenment values' against the encroachments of Islamism.

Accusing each other of betraying their true calling was a habit among 20th-century intellectuals. The practice may have begun with the French writer Julien Benda, who attacked his fellow thinkers in a 1927 book, The Treason of the Intellectuals, charging them with having abandoned impartial inquiry to serve as defenders of nationalism. Though often referenced, Benda's polemic is rarely read, which is a pity. His warnings against intellectuals becoming ideologues, servants of political projects rather than free thinkers, are as relevant today as they were when his book was first published. The 20th century saw leading figures subordinating their critical faculties to serve as accomplices of totalitarianism - Louis Aragon and Jean-Paul Sartre on the left, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger on the right, along with many others who supported totalitarian regimes or refused to condemn them.

The tendency Benda analysed has not disappeared, but whereas the intellectuals he targeted in the 1920s were avowed enemies of liberalism, their heirs today claim unyieldingly to be guardians of liberal values. These thinkers - some of them avowed neo-conservatives and others hawkish liberals - believe that the world is in the throes of a conflict as large and fateful as any in the 20th century, one that pits the West against Islamist political movements, which are routinely depicted as posing a threat to freedom on a par with Nazism and communism. Anyone who questions this, they proclaim, is a deluded fool, or else a traitor to western civilisation.

Paul Berman, one the most prominent figures in this group, has never been a man of the Right. He remains strongly attached to American liberal traditions, but he thinks those traditions have been betrayed by contemporary liberals who fail to grasp the challenge that Islamism poses to their values. In his 2003 book Terror and Liberalism, he urged liberals to support a global struggle - a "Terror War" - against what he described as the new totalitarian threat of Islamism. A strategy never fully accepted by the military or security services, the "war on terror" has been thoroughly discredited - even the White House and Pentagon have disowned the phrase. The liberals Berman attacked for questioning the wisdom of waging an open-ended war on Islamism have been largely vindicated. But for Berman, learning from experience is a mark of moral weakness, and he has now published another book intended to rally the liberal West into battle with the Islamist menace.

The Flight of the Intellectuals restates Berman's vision of a radically divided world. He finds this division embodied in two figures - the Swiss Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan and the Somali-born writer and feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Both are controversial figures. Ramadan, the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna, was banned from entering the United States under the Bush administration, and has been attacked by European liberals who regard him as an Islamist wolf in sheep's clothing, talking of tolerance but unwilling to publically denounce practices and traditions they find outmoded. Hirsi Ali, who has been subjected to death threats from radical Islamists for repudiating the faith, which she calls "a backward religion", has also attacked the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed, and (despite her own conversion to atheism) called on Muslims to embrace Christianity.

For Berman the two exemplify a stark conflict in which there is no room for ambiguity or doubt - a struggle between "bad" Islamism and "good" Enlightenment. In a minutely detailed analysis of Ramadan's family background and opinions that at times has the flavour of a police report, Berman accuses the Islamic scholar of equivocating on the stoning of women and hedging his condemnation of terrorism. For Hirsi Ali he has nothing but praise, calling her a "persecuted dissident intellectual" and a disciple of Voltaire; she should be cheered, Berman writes, for rejecting Islam and embracing the Enlightenment, "one of the great achievements of western civilization". Assessing Berman's account of Ramadan's life and writings would be an impossibly tedious task, and the same is true of the many obsessively dense pages Berman devotes to dissecting the statements of writers (Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash amongst others) whom he condemns on account of their not entirely laudatory assessments of Hirsi Ali.

Happily such labours are unnecessary, for the personal qualities of Berman's two main protagonists are largely irrelevant to his fundamental argument. Hirsi Ali, who arrived in the West and settled in the Netherlands as a refugee fleeing Somalia, may have had a compelling personal struggle, but - as western liberals discovered in the case of Solzhenitzyn - a record of resistance to oppression does not always go with a reasonable view of the world: whatever the dangers of Islamism, they are not reduced by attacking Islam as a religion and advocating mass conversion. Ramadan may be equivocal in some of his responses to repellent practices, and yet he still may be a valuable figure: his chief argument is not with the West but with Muslims, who are unlikely to become more open if subjected to head-on confrontation. Whatever one thinks of these individuals, the central question remains: is Berman right that intellectuals are guilty of betraying their critical vocation in their response to Islamism? Or is it Berman and those who think like him who have abandoned their critical faculties?

The first thing a reader notices in The Flight of the Intellectuals is its relentless crudity. There is nothing here of the ambiguities and paradoxes of the real world; the daunting complexity of Islam is reduced to a cartoon-like monolith, the wide diversity of Islamist movements is left unexplored and the contradictions of the West are smoothed away. Making no distinction between fundamentalist religion and political movements that use religion to advance their own agendas, Berman writes as if the terrorist threats the world faces today are exclusively or mainly Islamic in origin. A little history shows that some of the first suicide bombers in Lebanon in the early Eighties were members of leftist groups such as the Communist party, while, until the invasion of Iraq, the largest single perpetrator of suicide bombing was a Sri Lankan Leninist group, the Tamil Tigers. Again, anyone with a smattering of history knows that Islamist movements have been at war mainly with other Muslims. The chief strategic goal of the most dangerous Islamist terrorists has been to overthrow states with majority Muslim populations, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. To view these warring factions as posing a threat to the West comparable to communism or Nazism shows a lack of proportion verging on the grotesque.

No one would deny that fundamentalist religion can have a baleful influence - the evidence is clear in the United States, the only advanced country in which fundamentalists have shaped the agenda of politics. According to Berman, however, Islamism is more than the political mobilisation of fundamentalist believers: it is "a modern totalitarianism". "Hitler was a totalitarian, and Stalin was no less of one," he writes, while Hirsi Ali is "a true and genuine heir of the East Bloc dissidents of the past". Yet no Islamist regime - not even the Afghan Taliban - has ever achieved anything remotely resembling the degree of control the Soviet regime exercised in Eastern Europe, Mao in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia and the communist regime still exercises in North Korea. Ahmadinejad's Iran is an oppressive regime; but anyone who thinks repression there rivals Nazi Germany should ask themselves why there were no street demonstrations against Hitler.

In Berman's vision of a global struggle between Islamism and "the Enlightenment", the former is all bad and the latter all good. In fact, both are highly complex, often contradictory and not always opposed. A careful reader could come away from the book without ever suspecting the formative influence of Leninism on radical Islamists; on any balanced view Islamist terrorism owes more to Marxist-Leninist groups like the Red Brigades than it does to the 12th-century Assassins. The gulf between the semi-anarchic society envisioned by radical Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb and anything in traditional Islamic accounts of good governance is not explored, and the Bolshevik origins of the idea of an incorruptible vanguard, which played an important role in Qutb's thinking, is not even mentioned. The omission is telling, because it allows Berman to pass over the fact that the Enlightenment, which he sees as engaged in mortal combat with totalitarian Islamism, itself includes traditions that can only be described as totalitarian - traditions that helped create the movements we now call Islamist. In many of its forms Islamism may be a type of religious fundamentalism; but it is one that has drunk deeply from one of the most radical currents of western secular ideology. You will not find this paradox acknowledged in The Flight of the Intellectuals because it does not serve the book's polemical purpose, which is to portray western civilisation as endangered only by its reluctance to defend itself from external attack.

An active controversialist well known in his native France and throughout Europe for his polemics against Islamism, Pascal Bruckner shares Berman's view that the West is vulnerable chiefly because of its unwillingness to defend itself. His latest book, The Tyranny of Guilt, is largely in agreement with Berman's arguments: Bruckner seems to think that moderation in defence of liberal values can only be a kind of treasonous defeatism, a masochistic or even suicidal betrayal of the West by itself. Unlike Berman, who continues to support the war, Bruckner accepts that the invasion of Iraq was doomed from the start. "The neo-conservatives who were the chief architects of this conflict," he writes "are still Bolsheviks who have moved to the right and have retained from their own family, Trotskyism, the same Promethean determination to impose their will, the same disregard of facts." But this difference with Berman is a matter of strategy rather than of basic principle, for Bruckner shares the view that there can be no compromising "liberal Enlightenment values". When defending these values even moderate Muslims must be condemned, while immoderate critics of Islam must be unfailingly supported.

The trouble with this crude dichotomy is that it assumes that "Enlightenment values" are always benign. Along with Berman and Hirsi Ali, Bruckner is an ardent devotee of Voltaire. He does not mention that the philosophe subscribed to the "pre-Adamite" theory that Jews were the sole survivors of a primitive, sub-human species that existed before Adam was created. Voltaire's fondness for this grotesque fancy has led some historians to argue that he is the true originator of modern, secular, "scientific" anti-Semitism. While this is debatable - the dubious honour could as well be accorded to Ernst Haeckel, the 19th-century German biologist and secular humanist who first popularised the idea of immutable racial groups - it is a demonstrable fact that "scientific racism" is an Enlightenment invention. Mix this hateful pseudo-science with vulgarised Darwinism and a large dose of moral relativism (also an Enlightenment tradition) and you have something like the ideology that sanctioned the Nazis' supreme crime. Nazism was not an incursion from an alien civilisation. It was indigenously western and European, and the same is true of communism, the other great 20th-century totalitarian movement. "Anti-colonialism serves as a substitute for Marxism," writes Bruckner, "for a whole segment of the left that no longer knows how to understand the world." It is a pertinent comment, yet nowhere in The Tyranny of Guilt is there any acknowledgment that Marxism, which supplied the intellectual underpinning for communist totalitarianism, is a prototypical Enlightenment ideology.

While Bruckner and Berman claim to defend Enlightenment ideals of critical reason against the rising tide of fundamentalism, they approach the Enlightenment itself with uncritical piety. Referring to the description by some of her critics of Hirsi Ali as an Enlightenment  fundamentalist, Berman writes that this is an "odd and oxymoronic locution", since "the Enlightenment , back in the 18th century, was nothing if not a protest against fundamentalism".

Whether Hirsi Ali can be described as an Enlightenment fundamentalist may not be terribly important. What is clear is that something that can be described as Enlightenment fundamentalism does exist today. A feature of fundamentalism is the belief that at the heart of religion is a pristine core that is innocent of any crime."Enlightenment values" have quite often been illiberal and at times racist, and the role of powerful strands in Enlightenment thinking in animating totalitarian terror from the Jacobins and Lenin to his disciples among the Islamists cannot reasonably be disputed. Yet the delusion persists of an intrinsically good Enlightenment locked in a life and death struggle with an implacably evil fundamentalist enemy.

It might be supposed that a degree of humility is called for in the West at this point in history. The grisly fiasco of regime change in Iraq has left a devastated country increasingly subject to the power of Iran, while a military intervention in Afghanistan that may have been initially legitimate has lost any kind of strategic or moral coherence. With western capitalism sliding into deeper crisis, the "Washington consensus" that was preached in hectoring sermons from the Bush White House is no more than a rapidly fading memory. Soon the US and its allies will be forced to accept that they can no longer afford the world-transforming role they arrogated to themselves in the latter part of the 20th century.

In these circumstances it would seem sensible to relinquish the demand that Islamic countries follow a western model, and instead encourage them to develop models of their own. Terrorism is a real threat, but it will not be contained by a global crusade for "western values". The task of western countries is to defend their way of life, which includes protecting figures such as Hirsi Ali. A fundamentalist faith in the inherent goodness of western civilisation is at best a distraction. The essentially flawed quality of civilisation in all its forms was accepted by the Enlightenment thinkers from whom we still have something to learn, above all Freud. Rather than Berman's frenzy, it is Freud's unyielding stoical determination that will save the day.

In a memorable summary of his central message, Benda wrote: "Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organisation of political hatreds." Eighty years on, the intellectual organisation of political hatred continues. Berman would like to see himself as Benda's heir, but he embodies the very tendencies against which Benda warned. Civilisation cannot be defended by mimicking the certainties of zealots who themselves emulate the worst western traditions. Renewing civilised life is a task requiring the qualities Benda required in a true intellectual - a capacity for dispassionate inquiry, the willingness to tolerate uncertainty and an ability to detach oneself from the political clamour of the day. Displaying none of these qualities, Berman might qualify as a kind of anti-Benda - if only The Flight of the Intellectuals was not so consistently slight and forgettable. Still, the book is not altogether without value. By demonstrating what it means to lack the intellectual virtues that Benda identified, Berman has reminded us why they are still important.

John Gray's latest book is Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings. He is emeritus professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.