New York’s Liberal Intellectuals Are Back at Each Other’s Throats—Buruma and Berman Slug It Out Over Political Islam

One of the most divisive fault lines in American intellectual life is cracking open again, playing out in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The New Republic, and forcing some of the city’s best-known intellectuals to pick sides.

Nearly five years after prominent liberal hawks supported the war in Iraq, the city’s community of progressive thinkers has still not reached a consensus on perhaps the biggest global issue of the day—how the West should address political Islam. There is sharp disagreement over what Western intellectuals addressing Islam should be saying, how they should be saying it, and even whom they should be saying it to.

The debate, between some of New York’s most esteemed liberal thinkers—Paul Berman and Tony Judt of New York University, Mark Lilla of Columbia and Ian Buruma of Bard College—has captured the imagination of Europe, where the culture clash between Muslim immigrants and Western secularists is more urgently and immediately felt. But now, with the drumbeat steadily building among American conservatives for open conflict with Iran, the fight is coming back home and the city’s most venerated pages are the battleground.

“It’s going to be a big fault line,” said Mr. Berman, “The question is: What is the Muslim world?” To be more specific: Is it a place to which Western values should be exported (at the barrel of a gun if necessary), or must it find its own path to modernity? And what is the real liberal position: standing up for values, or being tolerant and pragmatic?

The same basic fault line last emerged in 2002 and 2003 over whether to go to war in Iraq. Now, it centers around whether Western liberals should lend their support to an influential Swiss-born Egyptian scholar and devout Muslim named Tariq Ramadan. Mr. Lilla, Mr. Buruma, Mr. Judt and their allies argue that Mr. Ramadan exerts a modernizing and moderating force on political Islam, while Mr. Berman, along with other liberal Iraq war supporters like Christopher Hitchens, accuse him of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and highlight his debt to the thinking of his grandfather Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a group eventually banned by the Egyptian government for periodic violence.

In February, Mr. Buruma penned a feature-length profile of Mr. Ramadan for The New York Times Magazine that presented the scholar as a cagey but promising asset for the liberal cause in the Islamic world. That piece prompted a 28,000-word riposte from Mr. Berman in The New Republic months later. Mr. Berman argued that underneath his moderate rhetoric, Mr. Ramadan is in fact a dangerous radical, and attacked Mr. Buruma and The Times Magazine for taking him at face value.

Then, in August, The Times Magazine shot back at Mr. Berman—though not by name—with a piece adapted from Mr. Lilla’s new book The Stillborn God, which argues against the notion that we should encourage a Western-style separation of church and state in the Muslim world. Mr. Lilla asserted the need for dialogue with Mr. Ramadan, and condemned the “harsh criticism” with which some “western intellectuals” had treated him.

As for Mr. Buruma, he did not at first respond in print to Mr. Berman’s New Republic salvo (nor did he get through the whole thing at first: “I sort of read it in dribs and drabs,” he told The Observer). But last month, he published an article on Norman Podhoretz’s latest book, World War IV, in The New York Review of Books, in which he acknowledged that Mr. Ramadan is a “slippery figure,” but reaffirmed his position that any attempt to make Muslim fundamentalism compatible with liberal democracy “is reason enough for me to take him seriously.”

Now it’s Mr. Berman’s time to respond: To that end, he has sent a 1,000-word letter to The New York Review, which will run with a response from Mr. Buruma in the back of the November 8th issue. But Mr. Berman is going further still: in March, Melville House Press will publish his book The Flight of the Intellectuals, about the ongoing debate. About a third of the book will consist of an expanded version of his TNR piece.

Mr. Berman believes that, in the wake of the Iraq war, his liberal opponents have lost confidence in the West’s ability to fight Islamic extremism, and sacrificed their principles for expediency. “Lilla is literally arguing for lack of principle, Buruma is demonstrating on the page that he hasn’t read the guy. Insofar as Judt is part of this, Judt is merely an insult-monger,” he told The Observer. “One wants to be on the winning side,” he said.

The problem, he said, is that political Islam is not a centuries-old religious movement but a recent creation, heavily influenced by European fascism, and thus, like European fascism, can be defeated by American perseverance and strength. On the question of exactly how to do that, Mr. Berman is less clear—he says it’s up to the diplomats, not the intellectuals.