I’ve always felt there was a connection between the enslavement of Africans in the United States in the 18th century and the condition of untouchables in India. Sight and Sound, one of my favorite European web sites, links to an absolutely fascinating compendium by Namit Arora of untouchable narratives on 3Quarks Daily. Like slave narratives, these memoirs are written by “Dalits” themselves. Dalit roughly translates as “the oppressed,” and they constitute one in six Indians today.
Sight and Sound also alerted me to the publication this month by Melville House of Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals. In it he argues that liberals rallied to the defense of Salman Rushdie after the Khomeini fatwa twenty years ago. But today, there are many Rushdies, and the left has abandoned them. He sites Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq as examples. He also states that there is growing anti-Semitism among liberals and “a newly fashionable turn against women’s rights.” The book grows out of the 2007 piece Berman did for The New Republic in which he denounced Ian Buruma’s favorable view of Tariq Ramadan in a New York Times Magazine piece. This week, Ramadan will be speaking at an event hosted by Slate, the ACLU and PEN Thursday night at Cooper Union. He had been denied a visa since 2004; in some sense PEN’s hosting the event exemplifies some of Berman’s concerns.
I see both sides of this debate in all its intricacy. I have disagreements with Ali, Ramadan and Berman; I also have been a longtime fan of Berman’s acuity and courage. I’ve written in a very glancing way about Berman and Ali and some of these issues in an essay in The New York Times Book Review’s January 2008 issue on Islam. Ali and Ramadan both contributed reviews to that issue. I’ll be attending Ramadan’s event and be writing about it more later this week.