Foreign Policy: The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

Foreign Policy: The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

In their previous issue FP 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, they have published the results. And yes, as has been proven numerous times already internet 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.

The people they included were there 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.

The top 20:

  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 w .eekly 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
  5. AITZAZ AHSAN -Lawyer, politician • Pakistan
  6. AMR KHALED -Muslim televangelist • Egypt
  7. ABDOLKARIM SOROUSH – Religious theorist • Iran
  8. TARIQ RAMADAN -Philosopher, scholar of Islam • Switzerland (also a position in the Netherlands) – 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.
  10. SHIRIN EBADI -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.
  11. NOAM CHOMSKY – Linguist, activist • United States
  12. AL GORE – Climate change activist, politician • United States
  13. BERNARD LEWIS -Historian • Britain/United States
  14. UMBERTO ECO -Novelist, semiologist • Italy
  15. AYAAN HIRSI ALI – Activist, politician • Somalia/Netherlands – A fierce critic of Islam’s treatment of women, the Somalia-born Hirsi Ali is known for her full-throated defense of the West, reason, and freedom. Her public rebellion against her Islamic upbringing has come with a steep cost: death threats and around-the-clock protection. She first received notoriety for penning Submission, a film renouncing the subjugation of Muslim women. (The film’s director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim fanatic in Amsterdam in 2004.) After being elected to the Dutch parliament in 2003, Hirsi Ali resigned her post three years later over a scandal involving false information on her citizenship application.
  16. AMARTYA SEN – Development economist • India
  17. FAREED ZAKARIA – Journalist, author • United States
  18. GARRY KASPAROV – Democracy activist, chess grandmaster • Russia
  19. RICHARD DAWKINS – Biologist, author • Britain
  20. MARIO VARGAS LLOSA -Novelist, politician • Peru

One thought on “Foreign Policy: The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

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