The American writer Paul Berman has just published a book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, and the reaction from certain quarters tells us something interesting about interpretation of the Middle East.
In his essay, Mr Berman criticises the Muslim activist Tariq Ramadan. For the author, Mr Ramadan has remained strangely ambiguous about his own views of violence, anti-Semitism, and the role of religion in life, a disturbing detail in light of the ideological legacy of his grandfather, Hassan al Banna, the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, whom Mr Ramadan still considers an example.
As Mr Berman recently put it in an interview, a presentation by Mr Ramadan is a model of liberal enlightenment for about 15 minutes. "Unfortunately, the 16th minute arrives, and, if you are still paying attention, you learn that he wants us to revere the most vicious and reactionary of Islamist sheikhs – the people who promote violence, bigotry, totalitarianism and terror. The 16th minute is not good. The liberal quality of his thinking falls apart entirely."
Mr Berman has read everything written by Mr Ramadan, and much else. His approach is to go through the literature and tackle topics by looking at what the protagonists have said and written. For an earlier book, Terror and Liberalism, which dealt extensively with the thinking of Sayyid Qutb and his influence on jihadism, Mr Berman read several translated volumes by the Egyptian Islamist, including what he could find from his 30-tome work, In the Shade of the Qur'an.
Yet this did not prevent Andrew March, a law professor at Yale University, from defending Mr Ramadan against Mr Berman by questioning Mr Berman's expertise. "He fumbles concepts and connections from Islamic intellectual history, groups together thinkers and ideas in inaccurate ways", Mr March wrote. Mr Berman also failed to see how Mr Ramadan's "Salafi reformism" was in fact "license for a creative reinterpretation of Islamic ethics unmoored from strict adherence to Islamic law".
Mr March never quite addresses Mr Berman's points head on, but more interesting is his strategy. It can be distilled down to one implied phrase: Paul Berman has no right to censure Tariq Ramadan because, well, he is not a specialist on Islam. In other words only true experts know the code that allows them to avoid "fumbling" concepts and grouping disparate ideas and thinkers inaccurately.
It's informative how that line of reasoning tends to be manipulated in one direction only. Mr Berman's detractors will doubtless cite Mr March's article. But I wager that many of those same people would not use the expertise argument to discredit, let's say, Noam Chomsky, who was denied entry into the West Bank by Israel several days ago. They would not question the linguist's right to take the positions he has on so many issues outside his domain. Nor would they have denied that to the late Edward Said, a professor of literature who wrote widely on matters related to Middle Eastern politics and Islam.
And they would be right. When a resort to expertise inhibits debate, you know a field of study is in decline. After all, Mr Berman was not engaging Mr Ramadan on esoteric matters; he was not parsing the finer points of Muslim jurisprudence. He was describing what he read and heard from Mr Ramadan on issues accessible to all, such as the fate of the Palestinians, relations between Islam and the West and the desirability of establishing a global Islamic state.
Mr Berman may not understand the code, but when Muslims in Europe hear Tariq Ramadan, do they understand the code? Is it not possible that Mr Ramadan's ambiguities and elisions might confuse his Muslim audiences as well? If he says that he opposes suicide attacks against civilians, but then cites as one of his intellectual paragons Sheikh Yusif al Qaradawi, who has justified such action by Palestinians and Iraqis, might not Muslim youths fumble concepts and connections as Mr Berman supposedly did?
Since the attacks on the United States almost nine years ago, Middle Eastern studies have been ravaged by partisan disputation and by irreconcilable codes defining what is allegedly wrong with the region. Mr Berman's error was that he strayed into territory on the other side. Yet in a broader sense it is generally non-specialists who have asked the right questions of the Middle East since September 11, and even before.
Western journalists have sometimes captured the regional mood far more accurately than academics, simply by talking to people. Western soldiers have frequently mastered best the dynamics of Iraqi or Afghan society, though there are limits that you would want to impose on that kind of learning. And it is people like Mr Berman who have well understood that the power of political Islam comes through its ideas – ideas about everyday politics, social behaviour, and personal freedom to which quite a few people adhere without the corrective interpretive prisms provided by Mr March and other savants.
The Middle East can be a complex place, but we really shouldn't go overboard. I will assert my modest expertise here as someone contentedly half-Arab, to say the experts often miss the point. The region's intricacy is no barrier to appreciating where universal values stand. There is no hidden meaning when regimes brutalise their own citizens and deny them the freedom to express themselves. One doesn't need a codebook to understand that treating women as chattels is wrong, as is sanctioning the murder of civilians.
These are simple concepts. Most cultures accept them, or claim to. The role of the intellectual is to remind us of these values, not to be immured in citadels of self-satisfaction and exclusivist knowledge.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. His book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, has just been published