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The worlds top 20 public intellectuals

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The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

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 to cast ballots.

The World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals

July/August 2008

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. 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.


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!). For More Online

For the full results of the reader poll and more write-in candidates from members of the Top 100, visit

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