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Revised: September 7, 2010

Word count: about 1000

Islamicists & the West: lost in translation

Paul Berman. The Flight of the Intellectuals. Melville House Printing: April 2010. Pp. 299.
$26.00 USD. ISBN 978-1-933633-51-0.

In 2003, American writer Paul Berman released Terror and Liberalism,

as the US led an invasion force into Iraq, and Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan was banned from

entering in the US due to financial links with Hamas. In 2010, Berman releases Flight of the

Intellectuals, as the US completes combat troop withdrawal from Iraq, and Ramadan’s travel ban

is lifted by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Much has developed in Western media and intelligentsia regarding analysis of Islamicists

between those years, in understanding the struggle for understanding between Islamicists and the

West. Both books examine Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—especially so, the organization’s

founder, Hassan al-Banna, and the literary-critic-turned-Islamicist, Sayyid Qutb, whom was

hanged by Gamal Abdul Nassar for sedition.

Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna. Ramadan’s father, Said, eventually

took the family to Switzerland after a crackdown the Brotherhood. Resultantly, Tariq Ramadan

is forever linked to the Brotherhood. Berman devotes considerable copy in Flight of the

Intellectuals to Tariq Ramadan’s statements in the press, and appearances on televised debates.

Tariq Ramadan is a sort of hobby for Berman, it seems.


For example, Berman bubbles over a 2003 televised debate between Ramadan and

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (then the aggressive Minister of the Interior), where Sarkozy

corners Ramadan on the practice of stoning women adulterers—Ramadan refuses to agree to a

‘moratorium’ on the practice of stoning, though, condemns the punishment as indeed “a bit

shocking.” A simple matter of semantics? Perhaps, but Ramadan has been doing damage control

ever since.

This is where Berman puts the arm on Ramadan. Berman’s message, in both books, is

that the greatest threat to the West is not the advent of extremists blowing themselves up in

crowded markets to “kill God’s enemies,” rather, that the serious threat facing the West is the

Islamicist moderates whom, draw well-meaning liberals into a dialogue that is ultimately toxic.

Yet, Berman offers no alternative to dialogue—the dialogue will certainly continue, and Sarkozy

is not considered a well-meaning liberal.

Sayyid Qutb, the bright young effendi from rural Upper Egypt was sent to cosmopolitan

Cairo by his father to study in the British education system. Qutb excelled. A pre-revolutionary

Egyptian monarchy later sent the mature Qutb to America for further study. Qutb was horrified

by his perceptions of America: overt racism, intermingling of the sexes at parties, reckless

alcohol consumption, materialism and violence. Qutb, who had been friends with Nobel Laureate

Naguib Mahfuz eventually turned away from his life as respected literary critic and poet and

became a hardline Islamicist—advocating violence in the overthrow of Gamal Abdul Nassar’s

revolutionary government.

By the time Qutb was executed, in 1966, he was a vocal and visible member of Hassan

al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood. Berman notes that Tariq Ramadan was emphatic during an

interview about how his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, “never even knew [Qutb].” And it’s true

that Qutb was in the US studying when al-Banna was assassinated by the Egyptian monarchy in

the 1949 streets of Cairo.

It wasn’t until Qutb’s return to Egypt from America that he took up the cause of

Islamicism. The Islamicist Qutb was jailed and tortured by the secular nationalist Nassar regime

for a decade, during which time Qutb wrote his 30-volume exegesis, In the shade of the Qur’an.

This work has been translated into several languages, and has inspired Islamicist movements

from Persia to the Arabian Peninsula: the Ayatollah Khomeni, and bin Laden were both ardent

Qutbists. Qutb’s powerful, refined and restrained literary skills lent themselves to his Islamicist

propaganda and ideology writings.

If Qutb “didn’t even know” Hassan al-Banna, he certainly knew Tariq Ramadan’s father,

Said Ramadan whom, was the editor of the Brotherhood’s magazine, al-Musulmin. It was

Ramadan the Elder who published Qutb’s Islamicist writings when Qutb returned from America.

And Berman acknowledges this.

But what Berman doesn’t acknowledge is that Islam may offer a better way of life to

disaffected immigrants languishing in European ghettos, and those who feel isolated at home in

developing nations, where there are few alternatives and little opportunity. The Muslim

Brotherhood, while officially banned in Egypt runs independent candidates in parliamentary

elections. By the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood had rejected Qutbism. The Brotherhood’s

presence, it could be argued, has kept al-Qaeda from establishing themselves in Egypt, the

Brotherhood now tolerated by the Egyptian government.


We once again see the tired ‘Islamo-fascist’ theories of the George Bush era. Berman

devotes copy to comparative analysis of European totalitarianism in the 1930s and 40s—

Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin—to the Islamicist movements. It’s distracting and irrelevant. And

this, as if Egyptians were living in a socio-political vacuum between Phaoronic times and World

War II. Those European models were not based on religious ideology, either. They were national

socialist movements. Further, there is no mention in this book about previous Egyptian

nationalist movements like Sa’ad Zaghloul’s Wafd Party (‘delegation’ party) during the British

condominium rule. Al-Banna and Qutb both lived through that era, and certainly would have to

have had thoughts about it.

But just as there are divisions within political parties, so too are there divisions within

Islamicist movements—polar opposites—Salafists would reject the Muslim Brotherhood as too

political an organization to be a true representation of an Islamic state. Sectarian violence

escalation in Iraq, as the US finishes combat troop withdrawal, underscores divisions within

militant Islamicist movements in Mesopotamia. Provincial pockets of radical Islamicist

movements continue to establish themselves: al-Shabab currently has control of southern

Somalia, and is striking into the heart of Black Africa. Khartoum has its own set of problems

with the International Criminal Court. Although the Taliban continue to deliver troubling images

of mutilation, a Muslim woman does not need fear disfigurement as an incentive to wear the

niqab (face veil), there are other more subtle pressures within her community, no matter where in

the world she lives.

That all Islamicst movements share a common strategic objective is simply not true. But

Berman sews these ideas together like chucks of meat to create a Frankenstein Islamicist

movement that is lumbering our way. All rather complicated.


• Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian Gazette and its weekly edition, The
Egyptian Mail. He studied at the American University in Cairo, and now lives in Toronto.