Paul Berman


There are a number of problematic things in this interview with Paul Berman by Michael Totten. But it is certainly worth reading. Some extracts below the fold:

MJT: You do a good job unearthing fascinating characters I hadn’t heard of before. I didn’t know about Sayyid Qutb, for instance, the modern philosopher of Islamic terrorism, until you introduced me to him almost a decade ago. I would have found him by now because lots of people have written about him, but you were the first one to write about him in the mainstream press.

Sayyid QutbSayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda theology

Paul Berman: I was thrilled when I discovered Sayyid Qutb. The man makes sense, sort of.

MJT: He does, sort of. His world view is understandable and logical on its own terms.

Paul Berman: Yeah. He gets at some deep things, in a horrendous way. You can see why someone could get drawn into it.

The news media always seem shocked to discover that the latest suicide bomber is an educated guy from a privileged background, but why? I understand it perfectly. An ordinary uneducated person would never get lost reading the dozens of volumes by Sayyid Qutb, but an educated person might. And the next thing they know they’ve lost their moral bearings, and there they are, ready to pull the plug.

MJT: I also appreciate the chapters in your new book about German foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II. It’s all absolutely fascinating and disturbing. You’ve written about this before, and so have others, so I wasn’t entirely unaware of what happened, but I didn’t realize the Nazis spent that much time and effort broadcasting their message about Zionism and Jews into the Arab world.

Paul Berman: I had written about it before, but less was known then than is known now.

MJT: Right. I’ve been all over Arab world, and to many Muslim countries outside the Arab world, and conversations about Zionism and Jews are very different outside the Arab world. The differences are striking, sometimes overwhelming. Nazi Germany’s foreign policy in the Arab world can’t explain all of it, but I think it does explain part of it.

Paul Berman: It’s a big issue. It was a big issue in the invasion of Iraq, when Saddam’s army took up their positions with their chemical warfare suits expecting, as we later learned, to be attacked with chemical weapons by Israel. The whole question of paranoid ideas about Jews and about Israel has, I think, been underreported.


Paul Berman: An Iraqi friend explained to me that in the 1950s, some of Iraq’s greatest pop singers were Jews, so even now if you get into a nostalgic music phase, you’ll be nostalgic for the old Jewish pop stars. Even today, you can’t eliminate Jews from Iraqi culture.

It’s all very mysterious and, I think, poorly understood. The German aspect of this story is part of it. It’s not the whole of it, but it’s a part of it. And it’s a part that bears in some degree on Tariq Ramadan because his own grandfather, as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, was tied to German policy by his very intense and passionate alliance with the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the most influential of the Palestinian leaders, unfortunately, in that period.

Mufti and HitlerPalestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and Adolf Hitler

The mufti was a hardcore supporter of Nazism. He delivered Nazi-like speeches, or speeches presenting Nazi ideas translated horribly into Koranic phrases over short-wave radio during the war. And Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather was his great ally.

Mufti Inspects Nazi TroopsPalestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini inspects Nazi troops

If you keep paying attention to Ramadan, this is one of the things that comes up in the sixteenth minute, or the seventeenth minute. If people ask him about it, he gets really testy and declines to answer or declines to answer honestly. It’s a big deal, I think. It’s not just a matter of having a peculiar grandfather, which of course we can’t be responsible for.

MJT: Right.

Paul Berman: But he has written at length about his grandfather, in one of his major books. He reveres his grandfather. His grandfather’s doctrines lie at the heart of his own thinking. And his grandfather’s legacy is quite important. It is a living legacy, as I try to show in my book.

MJT: You mention in your book how some Western intellectuals get really bent out of shape if you bring up Nazi foreign policy in the Arab world during World War II. What do you suppose that is about?

Paul Berman: Bush Derangement Syndrome may come into play because Bush used the phrase “Islamofascism.” But that’s not sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

Stop to consider: if you and I were to get up in front of an audience and have a conversation about France during World War II, we might point out that a lot of French people joined the Resistance, but a lot of other French people supported Hitler. We might point out that, if you want to understand French politics today, for instance the role of Jean Marie Le Pen and his National Front, it would make sense to look back on the Nazi sympathizers of the past, back in the 1930s and ’40s.

What would happen if you and I made those observations in front of an audience? The audience would nod sagely and say, “yes, those are interesting points, worthy of discussion.”

MJT: Yes, that’s true. This conversation has in fact been had thousands of times.

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