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

But his values-infused rhetoric has opened him up to attacks from the left flank that he is an unwitting enabler of President Bush and the neoconservatives. And in an interview, Mr. Buruma took issue with the personal tone of Mr. Berman’s attack on Mr. Buruma’s Times Magazine piece.

“It was full of innuendo and insinuation, feelings that he imagined were there which weren’t,” Mr. Buruma said. “He gets very emotional. He gets very excited … a lot of spittle around the mouth and so on. You don’t really need that.

“Nowhere did he come up with any real evidence to show that Ramadan was advocating violence against liberal democracy,” Mr. Buruma continued.

Mr. Buruma added that much of Mr. Berman’s piece—namely, his rigorously academic analysis of Mr. Ramadan’s intellectual roots—was detached from reality. “Berman is a very bookish man who seems to think that social and political issues are all driven by ideas, and that if you read all the text somehow you can come to an understanding of what’s really driving things,” Mr. Buruma said. “In fact what is much more important to look at is, you know, employment policies, economic issues, education policies, demographics.”

Mr. Buruma said Mr. Berman is wrong to turn Mr. Ramadan into a litmus test dividing faithful liberals from fallen ones. “I think Berman probably takes him more seriously than I do,” he said. “I don’t think Ramadan is a very profound thinker, and I don’t think he’s politically enormously important. … If anything, it’s part of the intellectual celebrity industry that there is such an interest in him.”

Mr. Buruma emphasized that he was not compromising any of his liberal values in supporting Mr. Ramadan, but being pragmatic in his approach to the modernization of Islam. “It’s not that I agree more with Tariq Ramadan than I agree with Paul Berman,” Mr. Buruma said. “I believe in democracy and liberalism and all those good things, but we’re faced with a situation where we have a large minority, and we have to find some way of integrating those people as citizens of liberal democracy without coming to violent clashes or provoking them to violence.”

Mr. Lilla and Mr. Judt both agreed, saying that incremental concessions made to a political Islam that denied human rights did not always amount to an abdication of principle.

“The first liberal virtue is a sense of reality,” Mr. Lilla said.

Mr. Judt, meanwhile, in an Oct. 7 Times Op-Ed piece bemoaned the unabashed resurgence of “liberal hawks,” a flock to which he says Mr. Berman belongs. In an interview, he said that tolerance was a more intrinsic attribute of liberalism than a messianic advocacy of universal values.

“The true Western value is the ability to understand difference and to accommodate and to know where the limits are,” Mr. Judt said. “Berman is saying the limits are rigid and we will make no accommodation. That’s very un-Western, really, it’s very illiberal.”

Mr. Berman bristles at the suggestion that his beliefs have turned him into a neoconservative. “A lot of these guys are … afraid of allowing themselves to appear as though they resemble neocons,” he said. “These people have lost the sense of confidence that should allow them to maintain their own position regardless of what kind of blather the president happens to be saying at any given moment.” Mr. Berman admits that, post-Iraq, those arguing for unapologetic confrontation with the Islamic world are at a disadvantage: “I think at the moment, in this country, my side looks beleaguered, and the other side looks like it has the big institutions,” he said. “But I think it’s going to go the other way. We’re right and they’re wrong.”