The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals
July/August 2008, Foreign Policy
In our last issue, we named the world’s top 100 public intellectuals and asked readers to vote for those they deem most deserving of the top honors. Now, 500,000 votes later, we reveal the results of the reader poll. Plus, members of the Top 100 name the intellectuals they believe should have made the list.
Rankings are an inherently dangerous business. Whether offering a hierarchy of countries, cities, or colleges, any such list—at least any such list worth compiling—is likely to generate a fair amount of debate. In the last issue, when we asked readers to vote for their picks of the world’s top public intellectuals, we imagined many people would want to make their opinions known. But no one expected the avalanche of voters who came forward. During nearly four weeks of voting, more than 500,000 people came to ForeignPolicy.com to cast ballots.
Such an outpouring reveals something unique about the power of the men and women we chose to rank. They were included on our initial list of 100 in large part because of the influence of their ideas. But part of being a “public intellectual” is also having a talent for communicating with a wide and diverse public. This skill is certainly an asset for some who find themselves in the list’s top ranks. For example, a number of intellectuals—including Aitzaz Ahsan, Noam Chomsky, Michael Ignatieff, and Amr Khaled—mounted voting drives by promoting the list on their Web sites. Others issued press releases or gave interviews to local newspapers. Press coverage profiling these intellectuals appeared around the world, with stories running in Canada, India, Indonesia, Qatar, Spain, and elsewhere.
No one spread the word as effectively as the man who tops the list. In early May, the Top 100 list was mentioned on the front page of Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper closely aligned with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Within hours, votes in his favor began to pour in. His supporters—typically educated, upwardly mobile Muslims—were eager to cast ballots not only for their champion but for other Muslims in the Top 100. Thanks to this groundswell, the top 10 public intellectuals in this year’s reader poll are all Muslim. The ideas for which they are known, particularly concerning Islam, differ significantly. It’s clear that, in this case, identity politics carried the day.
1. FETHULLAH GÜLEN
Religious leader • Turkey
An Islamic scholar with a global network of millions of followers, Gülen is both revered and reviled in his native Turkey. To members of the Gülen movement, he is an inspirational leader who encourages a life guided by moderate Islamic principles. To his detractors, he represents a threat to Turkey’s secular order. He has kept a relatively low profile since settling in the United States in 1999, having fled Turkey after being accused of undermining secularism.
2. MUHAMMAD YUNUS
Microfinancier, activist • Bangladesh
More than 30 years ago, Yunus loaned several dozen poor entrepreneurs in his native Bangladesh a total of $27. It was the beginning of a lifetime devoted to fighting poverty through microfinance, efforts that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Over the years, his Grameen Bank, now operating in more than 100 countries, has loaned nearly $7 billion in small sums to more than 7 million borrowers—97 percent of them women. Ninety-eight percent of the loans have been repaid.
3. YUSUF AL-QARADAWI
Cleric • Egypt/Qatar
The host of the popular Sharia and Life TV program on Al Jazeera, Qaradawi issues weekly fatwas on everything from whether Islam forbids all consumption of alcohol (no) to whether fighting U.S. troops in Iraq is a legitimate form of resistance (yes). Considered the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi condemned the September 11 attacks, but his pronouncements since, like his justification of suicide attacks, ensure his divisive reputation.
4. ORHAN PAMUK
Novelist • Turkey
Part political pundit, part literary celebrity, Pamuk is the foremost chronicler of Turkey’s difficult dance between East and West. His skillfully crafted works lay bare his native country’s thorny relationship with religion, democracy, and modernity, earning him a Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. Three years ago, Pamuk was put on trial for “insulting Turkish identity” after mentioning the Armenian genocide and the plight of Turkey’s Kurds in an interview. The charges were later dropped. Today, Pamuk teaches literature at Columbia University.
5. AITZAZ AHSAN
Lawyer, politician • Pakistan
President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Ahsan has been a vocal opponent of President Pervez Musharraf’s rule. When Musharraf dismissed the head of the Supreme Court in March 2007, it was Ahsan who led the legal challenge to reinstate the chief justice and rallied thousands of lawyers who took to the streets in protest. He was arrested several times during the period of emergency rule last year. Today, he is a senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, formerly led by Benazir Bhutto, and one of the country’s most recognizable politicians.
6. AMR KHALED
Muslim televangelist • Egypt
A former accountant turned rock-star evangelist, Khaled preaches a folksy interpretation of modern Islam to millions of loyal viewers around the world. With a charismatic oratory and casual style, Khaled blends messages of cultural integration and hard work with lessons on how to live a purpose-driven Islamic life. Although Khaled got his start in Egypt, he recently moved to Britain to counsel young, second-generation European Muslims.
7. ABDOLKARIM SOROUSH
Religious theorist • Iran
Soroush, a former university professor in Tehran and specialist in chemistry, Sufi poetry, and history, is widely considered one of the world’s premier Islamic philosophers. Having fallen afoul of the mullahs thanks to his work with Iran’s democratic activists, he has lately decamped to Europe and the United States, where his essays and lectures on religious philosophy and human rights are followed closely by Iran’s reformist movement.
8. TARIQ RAMADAN
Philosopher, scholar of Islam • Switzerland
One of the most well-known and controversial Muslim scholars today, Ramadan embodies the cultural and religious clash he claims to be trying to bridge. His supporters consider him a passionate advocate for Muslim integration in Europe. His critics accuse him of anti-Semitism and having links to terrorists. In 2004, Ramadan was denied a U.S. visa to teach at Notre Dame, after the State Department accused him of donating to Islamic charities linked to Hamas.
9. MAHMOOD MAMDANI
Cultural anthropologist • Uganda
Born in Uganda to South Asian parents, Mamdani was expelled from the country by Idi Amin in 1972, eventually settling in the United States. His work explores the role of citizenship, identity, and the creation of historical narratives in postcolonial Africa. More recently, he has focused his attention on political Islam and U.S. foreign policy, arguing that modern Islamist terrorism is a byproduct of the privatization of violence in the final years of the Cold War. He teaches at Columbia University.
Lawyer, human rights activist • Iran
Iran’s first female judge under the shah, Ebadi founded a pioneering law practice after she was thrown off the bench by Iran’s clerical rulers. Having initially supported the Islamic Revolution, she cut her teeth defending political dissidents and campaigning for the rights of women and children. A fierce nationalist who sees no incompatibility between Islam and democracy, Ebadi became the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
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