The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

| 24/06/2008 | Reply

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.

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.

Category: Research

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