Essays: Paul Berman |
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Paul Berman

On What Tariq Ramadan Might Really Mean

A full 28,000 words long, Paul Berman’s June 2007 New Republic article “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” (it sounds like an editor’s idea of a  title) is either a long essay or a short book, but either way it has justly become a talking point among all the intellectuals, whether in Europe, America or elsewhere, who are engaged in discussing the question of how Islam and Islamism relate to each other. For what my own view is worth, this is the most significant stretch of writing on the subject yet to have appeared. The same might have been said for the relevant chapters in Berman’s essential book Liberalism and Terror, but this time he is fully focussed on only one form of totalitarianism instead of all of them. Though Berman is often tagged as a neo-conservative in the sense that has by now become pejorative, in fact he has never been an advocate of the so-called Bush Doctrine: quite the opposite. Berman seems to me a classic liberal in almost every respect, not least for the humane tact and sense of responsibility of his forensic style, which remains sober even when he is taking somebody else’s argument apart. Whether he succeeds in doing that to Tariq Ramadan is for the reader to judge. The article as reproduced on the New Republic website is disfigured by the strictly mechanical substitution of hyphens for dashes throughout, but only in that respect is it a hard read. Apart from a single awkwardly extended parenthesis the whole thing moves along as naturally as breathing. As from Pascal Bruckner’s clarion call in her defence, the courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali emerges from Berman’s essay as an heroic figure, which I think is only right and just: and her critics Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, formidably qualified though they might be, are once again given something to think about. One is sure that they will think hard. (Garton Ash, in fact, has already apologised to Ayaan Hirsi Ali for having suggested that fewer people would pay attention to her if she was not so beautiful.) This debate isn’t over yet, but nobody from now on will doubt that Berman has made a pivotal contribution. Even the ex-New Left commentator Peter Collier, no automatic admirer of Berman, commends it in his useful World Affairs survey of this intellectual battlefield. Readers of either essay will no doubt soon be in search of contributions by Necla Kelek, Lars Gustafson and Ulricke Ackermann, all speaking with commendable frankness in defence of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s seriousness, as well they might. But what Berman has put in question is Tariq Ramadan’s seriousness, and that could very well prove to be more problematic.    

Read Paul Berman’s essay “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?.

Read Peter Collier’s article “Backbone, Berman and Buruma.

Read Paul Berman's 2015 Essay on Charlie Hebdo.