Egyptian playwright Ali Salem and others are marginalized at home and in the Western media, but they are political pioneers
By David Mikics for Tablet Magazine
When it comes to the Muslim world, Western opinion-makers seem to have a taste for what Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals”—figures whose intellectual and political virtue flows from their rootedness in their native cultures. The West is allowed to admire its own native pantheon of free-thinking men and women who turned their backs on racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism and relied on the fiercest invective to scorch false beliefs and repressive practices. But Muslim intellectuals who condemn even the worst aspects of their own societies must be rootless cosmopolitans rather than genuine voices of Islam: It’s assumed that true voices of Islam must, to some degree, be racists, anti-Semites, and sexists.
This twisted general logic was seen most recently in the New York Times’ hiring the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany as a regular op-ed columnist despite, or because of, his authentic belief in “a massive Zionist organization” that “rules America.” But perhaps the most famous instance was Ian Buruma’s celebration of the bigoted Muslim cleric Tariq Ramadan. Of course, Buruma admitted, Ramadan’s nudges toward reform were necessarily subtle, given the hidebound prejudices of the people he was addressing: He called, for example, for a “moratorium” on stoning women for “honor” offenses (i.e., having sex), rather than condemning the brutal practice altogether. Still, the fact that Ramadan’s tapes sold well on the Muslim street made him a model of reform-minded Muslim thinking worth drooling over. By contrast, Buruma suggested in other articles, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an apostate from Islam, was alienated from her culture and therefore a fitting object of contempt—precisely because she was repulsed by misogyny and had been condemned to death by her accusers. Buruma’s strange defense of Ramadan and even stranger attack on Hirsi Ali were dissected by Paul Berman in his book The Flight of the Intellectuals: Berman argued that Hirsi Ali was just as representative of what happens in the Muslim world as Ramadan and just as entitled to speak about it; moreover, Buruma’s assumption that Hirsi Ali would be ignored by “real” Muslims was wildly condescending—those people, Buruma seemed to be saying, just aren’t ready for enlightenment.