Paul Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism ended up being one of the best books I read back in 2007. I found Berman’s hard-hitting and intellectually sophisticated critique a necessary and refreshing response to dangerous and uncompromising Islamic terrorism. It was comforting to me to know that the wise words contained in Terror and Liberalism come not from someone on the political right, but from a progressive like Berman, a respected public intellectual who serves on the editorial board of the publication Dissent. Therefore, when I spotted his 2010 book The Flight of the Intellectuals during one of my frequent visits to the public library I grabbed it, adding it to the small stack of library books I was quickly accumulating during the course of my short afternoon visit. After FINALLY finishing it last week I’m kinda sad to report that compared to Berman’s earlier book Terror and Liberalism this book isn’t nearly as good. Even though The Flight of the Intellectuals is incredibly well researched, unfortunately when compared to the more succinct and cohesive Terror and Liberalism Berman’s more recent book comes off as somewhat unfocused and meandering.
Sadly, the disappointment seems to start with the book’s title. Called The Flight of the Intellectuals, with a title like that I was hoping Berman’s book would address the current controversy purported by some writers such as Bruce Bawer that many progressive and liberal intellectuals have timidly retreated from challenging Islamists over issues concerning gender equality, freedom of expression and human rights. For the most part Berman’s book is a collection of nine essays, most of which critically discuss the controversial Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. Combined with a few of the book’s early chapters which cover the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Jerusalem’s former Grand Mufti and his close relationship to Nazi Germany, I found the much of the book’s contents out of step with its title. Only towards the end of the book when Berman discusses the left’s prickly and condescending relationship with Somali-born activist and film maker Ayan Hirsi Ali does the contents of Berman’s book match that of its title.
In conclusion, while I’m a bit disappointed with The Flight of the Intellectuals, especially when I compare the book with its predecessor, it’s hard for me to strongly dislike Berman’s book. While dry, meandering and mistitled it is however well researched, and at times intellectually stimulating and even thoughtful. So I guess finding those qualities in a book is seldom a bad thing.