The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Linguist, activist • United States

Chomsky is perhaps best known for his scathing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy extending back to the Vietnam War. An outspoken activist, a lively debater, and an icon of the international left, Chomsky rarely shies away from assailing American power and venerating those he deems the world’s oppressed. The failures of American mass media and the greed of big business are also frequent targets of his critiques. Beyond his political provocations, Chomsky’s contributions to modern linguistics are immense, particularly his theory of generative grammar. The bestselling author of more than 30 books, Chomsky has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than half a century.

Climate change activist, politician • United States

From the dejection of losing the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Gore has come to define political renaissance -- and vindication -- in the years since. For his second act, Gore found his true voice in raising public awareness of the effects of global warming. His efforts have earned him an impressive list of titles -- Oscar winner and Nobel Peace Prize recipient among them -- and acclaim as perhaps today’s most influential environmental crusader.

Historian • Britain/United States

Professor emeritus at Princeton University and the author of dozens of books, Lewis is one of the foremost historians of the Middle East. He is also one of the most sought-after advisors on the region’s politics and on Islamic society. Lewis’s works have recently focused on the source of antagonism between Islam and the West, a conflict he attributes to Islam’s failure to adapt to modernity.

Novelist, semiologist • Italy

Renowned for intricate, richly written novels that blend obscure historical events with complex plots and symbols, Eco is easily one of the world’s most scholarly writers of fiction. His day job, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, provides him ample material for his bestselling books, which have been described as encyclopedic in their historical breadth.

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.

Development economist • India

As a young boy, Sen witnessed the devastating 1943 Bengal famine, which killed nearly 3 million people. Decades later, Sen’s investigations of the political and economic underpinnings of famines established him as the premier welfare economist of the 20th century. In addition to his famous assertion that famines do not occur in democracies, Sen was one of the first economists to empirically examine gender disparities in Asia. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998.

Journalist, author • United States

Editor of Newsweek International, Zakaria is one of the most influential and respected commentators on international affairs. His article “Why Do They Hate Us?” a Newsweek cover story in the weeks after the September 11 attacks, upended the conventional explanations of the day for a nuanced discussion of the economic, political, and social forces pulling Islamic societies apart.

Democracy activist, chess grandmaster • Russia

One of the greatest chess players of all time, Kasparov is today a leading opposition figure in Russia, critical of Vladimir Putin’s tenure and the election of his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Agitating against what he calls a “police state,” Kasparov heads the anti-Kremlin coalition The Other Russia, which frequently stages pro-democracy protests. He recently launched an “alternative parliament” in a bid to unite the country’s opposition.

Biologist, author • Britain

One of the world’s preeminent evolutionary biologists, Dawkins established an international reputation with his 1976 work, The Selfish Gene, which holds that genes compete to propagate. He possesses a renowned ability to synthesize and communicate complex scientific ideas to the wider public. He is perhaps best known today for his criticism of creationism and religion. An avowed atheist, his most recent bestselling work, The God Delusion, is a vigorous defense of science and reason.

Novelist, politician • Peru

A giant of Latin American literature, Vargas Llosa has written dozens of works of fiction, drama, and literary criticism in his decades-long career. He is a firm believer in literature’s power to expose the injustice and tyranny of dictatorships, while providing moving defenses of free speech and individual liberty. He writes frequently on political issues in widely published columns.


Television host, satirist • United States

Host of the popular late-night fake news show The Colbert Report, Colbert so deftly and hilariously skewers the politically powerful that he has become one of young America’s go-to sources for genuine news and analysis. With deadpan delivery and a disregard for the line between parody and politics, Colbert is the ironic man’s talking head. For added intellectual cachet, he recently penned a bestselling book, I Am America (And So Can You!).


False Prophets

Building bridges between Muslims, Christians, and Jews seems like a worthy goal. But, by glossing over serious differences, the organizations at the forefront of interfaith dialogue confuse discussion with success -- and end up leaving everyone at risk.

Like many international institutions, the United Nations says it seeks to address Muslim extremism. Who else but the collection of states with the broadest mandate, most members, and loftiest goals could tackle this perversion of civilized society and threat to world order? So, when I was hired in January 2006 for a project to devise a U.N. response to the so-called clash of civilizations, it seemed a worthy way to consider this challenge on a global scale. At the urging of the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan established the Alliance of Civilizations with the goal of identifying the roots of the divide between Western and Islamic societies and, ultimately, to find ways to curb religious violence.

Part of my job was to travel around the world, collecting the views of leaders of Islamist parties and movements. Their ideas would then be included in a document the alliance would publish at the end of that year. The United Nations hoped the document would receive international press coverage and generate funding for the solutions, or "practical steps," it would propose to bridge the divide between Western and Islamic societies. There seemed to be no better way, I thought, to clarify the Islamist vision -- one ignored and rejected by Western governments -- for a wide international audience. Based on my own research on Islamic revivalism during a decade in the Middle East, I knew these dozen or so leading activists could shed light on the major causes of extremism, namely, anger and resentment at U.S. foreign policy; beliefs that the September 11 attacks sparked an ideological war between Islam and the West; and the underlying conviction that Islam would cure the ills that a decadent West had imposed on the world.

Almost as soon as the project began, though, a fear of political backlash proved to outweigh any potential for mutual understanding. At a meeting in Qatar with a 20-member committee composed of former ministers, diplomats, and scholars, the question of whether the views of Islamists would be part of the alliance's work was raised in public discussions. One of Annan's special advisors decided that meetings with Islamists would amount to scandal for the United Nations. For me, the reversal was one of a few defining moments in my understanding of the risks the institution was willing to take. More profoundly, it exposed the philosophical divide within the alliance: Was the best way to deal with extremism through a head-on political approach or an indirect cultural one? Is it better to engage directly with Islamists and learn firsthand their grievances and convictions, or to create Hollywood films for the Muslim masses in the hopes of changing perceptions of the West and vice versa? In the end, the cultural strategists won out, much to my dismay.

Today, as the Alliance of Civilizations continues its work, it can be added to the rapidly growing list of groups, including nongovernmental organizations, interfaith projects, the U.S. State Department, polling agencies, self-appointed Muslim-American public intellectuals, religious leaders, and academics, all claiming to be addressing the "problem." However, as someone who has actively participated in this debate, I believe that the opposite is true. Rather than dealing with extremism, these institutions are deliberately dodging the discomforting work of addressing a global conflict that in hindsight makes the Cold War look like a small ethnic squabble. Although the approaches differ from one organization to the next, the general strategies bear a great resemblance: emphasize the commonalities between Islamic and Western societies and among the three Abrahamic faiths; downplay or avoid completely the very real differences as if they don't exist; and make Westerners feel comfortable by convincing them that extremism is a temporary phenomenon that exists only on the fringes of Islamic societies.

Some in the American media encourage this angle on extremism. Exhausted and depressed by years of worry over Osama bin Laden, a war in Iraq, and high-pitched threats from the Bush administration toward Iran and Syria, people long for happier narratives about Muslims. In addition, this story helps both large institutions, ranging from the World Economic Forum to Georgetown University, and small grass-roots organizations that focus on the benign and irrelevant exercise of "interfaith dialogue" raise millions of dollars from U.S. foundations and governments in the Persian Gulf. The Saudi royal family, for example, has a great interest in downplaying the divide between Muslim and Western societies. But simply pretending these differences do not exist is a stumbling block to what should be Western governments' efforts to engage those Muslims who matter. Merely embracing Muslims who are already converted to a Western school of thought while shunning and alienating those who have influence over the very extremists who challenge the West's vision of the world is not only misguided; it is dangerous. By avoiding the fact that there are profound differences between Muslims in the East and non-Muslims in the West, we are hindering solutions that could prevent the next terror attack in London, Madrid, or Washington.

Among the most dominant actors in this campaign are Muslim-American activists. Their message to Muslims in the Islamic world is that America is a great land of the free and any grievances with the United States are misplaced. When addressing American audiences, on the other hand, they promote a mythical idea that Muslims from Egypt to Pakistan actually have favorable notions of the United States. Of course, that works in their favor: By deceiving the public into believing the "threat" is exaggerated, this Muslim-American lobby hopes to create more favorable views of Muslims in the eyes of Americans.

Another culprit is the interfaith dialogue campaign. A few dozen professors of Islamic studies and Muslim-American activists have signed letters to Pope Benedict XVI in an attempt to show that his derogatory statements about Islam have all been forgiven. (I doubt the proverbial Arab street agrees.) Likewise, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim youth groups are organizing gatherings at churches, synagogues, and mosques to find common ground. During their meetings, they condemn the violent acts carried out by extremists in their respective faiths and bond over how much their religions have in common.

If it all sounds like a healthy if insufficient first step, it probably is. Interfaith discussion distracts from uncomfortable but necessary questions and should be considered a hindrance to concrete and effective foreign-policy approaches to counter extremism. A far more effective effort would be to appeal to the disaffected youth in Europe and the Islamic world who loathe the United States and much of what it represents. Another necessary step -- widely debated during former President Jimmy Carter’s trip to the Middle East in April -- is to begin official negotiations with groups with widespread power and influence, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that these organizations are the future leaders in the Middle East cannot be ignored. So why shun them from the policy debate?

In January, the Alliance of Civilizations held an extravagant gala in Madrid, where dignitaries from around the world pledged to "bridge the divide." As usual, the world's political elites pledged to throw money at the problem. Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, wife of the emir of Qatar, announced a multimillion-dollar investment for a global youth employment initiative. Queen Noor of Jordan pledged $10 million toward a media fund to "support the production and distribution of films that entertain as well as enlighten." The alliance claims that the media have overemphasized extremism and a media fund can help fix it. Sure, employing Muslim youth is certainly a worthwhile mission, and the power of Hollywood to influence public opinion should never be underestimated. But such projects do little to address the immediate problem of growing radicalization among Muslim youth in Europe and the broader Islamic world.

Promoting peace and understanding might comfort the Western body politic and convince Americans that Arab governments are doing their part, but it is simply window dressing. Despite the overwhelming evidence of a decline in the West's relationship with the Islamic world, it still has no effective foreign-policy strategy for engaging Islamist leaders and Muslim societies in any meaningful way. Until we force ourselves to deal with the most immediate crisis at hand -- the devastating failure of U.S. foreign policy and an Islamic world that is growing more conservative, religious, and hostile toward the United States with each passing day -- we will have done nothing to address the true conflict, one that remains threatening, enduring, and real.