Over the past 10 years, Paul Berman has been exploring a theme: the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their values and ideals. The theme has been elaborated in several books — “Terror and Liberalism,” “Power and the Idealists” and now “The Flight of the Intellectuals.” Berman himself is a man who identifies “with the liberal left.”
It is a good theme, and it has attracted the attention of other writers too — the British journalist Nick Cohen, for example, examined it in his estimable 2007 book “What’s Left? How the Left Lost Its Way.” Indeed, so fertile is this idea, so appealing is it as an object of inquiry, we may even speak of a distinct category of recent books devoted to elaborations of it. Richard Wolin’s “Seduction of Unreason,” on the intellectual romance with fascism, is a distinguished instance, written from the left. Paul Hollander’s “End of Commitment,” on intellectuals, revolutionaries and political morality, is another, this time from the right. The many books written in the last 20 years about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism represent further instances of the genre.
The masterwork, however, is still Julien Benda’s “Treason of the Intellectuals.” This book, written in 1927 by one of the leading French intellectuals of the early 20th century, may be regarded as the inaugural work of the line. Berman’s own books can usefully be read as restatements (in their own register, of course) of Benda’s polemic against his fellow intellectuals.
For Benda, the intellectual betrays his vocation when he compromises his commitment to universalist values. The temptation to make such compromises, he argues, lies principally in the appeal of national sentiment, to which intellectuals are quick to subordinate themselves. And the role they assume as nationalists is to conceptualize political hatreds. Benda, a supporter of Dreyfus, deplored the eagerness of some French writers to play this degraded, ignominious role.
For Berman, the contemporary intellectual’s temptation is somewhat differently constituted. It consists of the following elements: the false identification of liberal values with an oppressive West, and of political Islamism with an oppressed third world; an unreflective, unqualified opposition to every exercise of American power; a certain blindness regarding, or even tenderness toward, contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism.
It is against these betrayals of vocation — colored in certain cases by self-hatred and defeatism — that Berman sets himself. And though there is a slight implication of civilizational decline in his work, as if to lament that intellectuals today are not what they once were, his arguments are always well made. He is an elegant, ironic writer and addresses his readers with an engaging, if at times slightly leisurely, assurance.
Berman has two targets. First, he takes on the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, whom he contrasts with the admirable and courageous secularist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Ramadan, a professor at Oxford, was recently permitted to enter the United States after being barred for six years under the Patriot Act.) And second, Berman challenges the commentators Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their qualified endorsements of Ramadan and their disparagements of Hirsi Ali, noting the “tone of contempt that so frequently creeps across discussions” about her, the “sneering masculine put-downs of the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa.”
In short, Berman finds the widespread admiration of Ramadan to be misplaced. Berman regards Ramadan as a sinister figure with a sinister agenda, and at the same time deplores the intimidation and violence directed at that “subset of the European intelligentsia — its Muslim free-thinking and liberal wing especially” — who “survive only because of bodyguards.” This, Berman concludes, has been unheard of in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis. “Fear — mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology — has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life.”
Berman identifies duplicity as part of the problem with Ramadan, that is, his tendency both to say different things to different audiences and to speak with such equivocality as to be understood in different ways by those audiences. There is “a dark smudge of ambiguity” that “runs across everything he writes on the topic of terror and violence.” In consequence, Ramadan cannot be trusted to know his own mind, and therefore cannot be trusted when he claims to speak it. Further, his language of accommodation, his project of defining a minority Islam at peace within liberal democracy, emerges as somewhat phony, the more hard-line stance that he advocates from time to time more accurately reflecting his true views. This duplicity is now well documented. The French journalist Caroline Fourest has written a whole book on the subject, with a title that discloses its essential argument, “Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan.” Berman contributes to this exposure of Ramadan and offers his own perspective on some instances that Fourest herself writes about.
Another part of the problem with Ramadan lies in his political and family pedigree, which he has not repudiated, but which he misrepresents. It is in his analysis of this pedigree that Berman’s book really takes off. Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a “terrible fact” that Ramadan’s “personal milieu — his grandfather and his father, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition — is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theory of religious suicide-terror.” Like his grandfather, Berman writes, Ramadan desires a return to a distant age, one characterized by religious purity, in which all dissent will necessarily be absent. It is an imagined past, of course, and an impossible political program. And it supposes the ideal intellectual posture to be “supine.” Furthermore, “in a modern political world shaped by the rise of the Islamists,” Berman writes, “even some of the most attractive of thinkers tend, if they have come under an Islamist influence, to have a soft spot for suicide terrorism. And a soft spot for anti-Semitism.”
On the question of anti-Semitism, Berman writes about Ramadan’s “brief and angry essay” of 2003 in which he attacked a group of intellectuals he designated as Jewish, criticizing them for forsaking their vocation as intellectuals in favor of support for Israel, and of Zionism. Berman demonstrates that the criticism is bogus, three times over. First, Ramadan went looking for Jews and made mistakes — not all the named intellectuals were in fact Jewish. Second, he muddled support for Israel with the recognition of a growing contemporary anti-Semitism, a “new Judeo phobia.” And third, since he is not himself a Benda-style intellectual, but rather the spokesman for a specific community, it is not open to him to adopt Benda’s universalist perspective. Actually, it is far worse than that. Ramadan’s own “commitment to ethical thinking,” Berman concludes, “turns out to be worthless.” “What is surprising,” remarked one of the intellectuals Ramadan attacked, “is not that Mr. Ramadan is anti-Semitic, but that he dares to proclaim it openly.” (Ramadan would no doubt say in response that he has spoken out against anti- Semitism before both Western and Muslim audiences.)
Berman, by contrast, has a fair claim to being regarded as the Benda of our time. In “The Flight of the Intellectuals” he continues his work of redeeming the good name of intellectuals by exposing the corrupt among them.

Anthony Julius is the author, most recently, of “Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England.”