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The Flight of the Intellectuals

The controversy over Islamism and the press

Twenty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the assassination of Salman Rushdie—and writers around the world instinctively rallied to Rushdie’s defense. Today, according to writer Paul Berman, “Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class”—an ever-growing group of sharp-tongued critics of Islamist extremism, especially critics from Muslim backgrounds, who survive only because of pseudonyms and police protection. And yet, instead of being applauded, the Rushdies of today (people like Ayan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq) often find themselves dismissed as “strident” or as no better than fundamentalist themselves, and contrasted unfavorably with representatives of the Islamist movement who falsely claim to be “moderates.”

How did this happen? In THE FLIGHT OF THE INTELLECTUALS, Berman— “one of America’s leading public intellectuals” (Foreign Affairs)—conducts a searing examination into the intellectual atmosphere of the moment and shows how some of the West’s best thinkers and journalists have fumbled badly in their effort to grapple with Islamist ideas and violence.

Berman’s investigation of the history and nature of the Islamist movement includes some surprising revelations. In examining Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he shows the rise of an immense and often violent worldview, elements of which survives today in the brigades of al-Qaeda and Hamas. Berman also unearths the shocking story of al-Banna’s associate, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who collaborated personally with Adolf Hitler to incite Arab support of the Nazis’ North African campaign. Echoes of the Grand Mufti’s Nazified Islam can be heard among the followers of al-Banna even today.

In a gripping and stylish narrative Berman also shows the legacy of these political traditions, most importantly by focusing on a single philosopher, who happens to be Hassan al-Banna’s grandson, Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan—a figure widely celebrated in the West as a “moderate” despite his troubling ties to the Islamist movement. Looking closely into what Ramadan has actually written and said, Berman contrasts the reality of Ramadan with his image in the press.

In doing so, THE FLIGHT OF THE INTELLECTUALS sheds light on a number of modern issues—on the massively reinvigorated anti-Semitism of our own time, on a newly fashionable turn against women’s rights, and on the difficulties we have in discussing terrorism—and presents a stunning commentary about the modern media’s peculiar inability to detect and analyze some of the most dangerous ideas in contemporary society.

PAUL BERMAN is a writer-in-residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the New Republic (where he is a contributing editor), Dissent and various other American, European, and Latin American journals. He edited the Library of America’s Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems and is the author of A Tale of Two UtopiasPower and the Idealists, and the New York Times bestseller Terror and Liberalism.

“An intellectual thriller in the form of a polemic, with Inspector Berman hunting for clues… Maybe Berman’s book will start intellectuals talking, and not just about each other. Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets.” —Ron Rosenbaum, Slate

”Despite the complexity, history and nuance of these subjects, the author probes each issue with elegant, incisive language.  A stunning, riveting commentary.” —Kirkus (starred review)

”It has been quite astonishing to see how far and how fast there has been a capitulation to the believable threat of violence…. I join with Paul Berman in expressing utter astonishment at this phenomenon, or rather at the way that it is not a phenomenon.” —Christopher Hitchens, Tablet

”Paul Berman is, just like me and I think many others, surprised—and that’s an understatement—that some liberals choose to defend ideas that are very illiberal and choose to look away from practices that are even more illiberal. Why are they excusing radical Islam? That fascinates Berman and it also fascinates me, what the presence of Islam does to the liberal psyche in the West.” —Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maclean’s

”Powerful.” —Columbia Journalism Review


”Berman, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, has written the first significant ideological contribution to the United States’ war on terror…. It deserves, even demands, to be read.” — Foreign Affairs

”A fluid and lucid essay by one of America’s best exponents of recent intellectual history.” —The Economist

Terror and Liberalism is several fine things: an evaluation of what is wrong in the Muslim world, a defense of humanist values, a messageof hope and, not least, a scintillating contribution to political literature.” —The Wall Street Journal

”One of the most challenging accounts of the post-9/11 world.”—The New York Times

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