Muslims Top New List of Public Intellectuals Turkish religious scholar Fethullah Gulen ranks first in Foreign Policy's survey of public intellectuals. He's followed by nine Muslim thinkers from predominantly Muslim nations. Editor Kate Palmer says the results reflect a wave of campaigning for top slots.
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Muslims Top New List of Public Intellectuals

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Muslims Top New List of Public Intellectuals

Muslims Top New List of Public Intellectuals

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Mike Pesca, you've pondered many questions in your life. Have you ever pondered this question? Who, I ask you, are the world's greatest living public intellectuals?

MIKE PESCA, host:

Well, on the short list, I would have to include Grimace from McDonald's cookies. He just seemed to have this sort of joie de vivre.

MARTIN: Je ne sais quoi.

PESCA: Je ne sais - je ne sais Grimace.

MARTIN: So, there actually was a list compiled of these folks, people who shaped their societies with their ideas, actions, words, and writings. Who did it? Foreign Policy Magazine. They asked their readers to pick from a list of 100 scholars, anthropologists, human rights activists, novelists, economists, journalists. Five hundred thousand readers voted over a four-week period. They were blown away by the participation.

The top pick, a man named Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader from Turkey. If you haven't heard of him, you are not alone. The top ten public intellectuals on the list are 20 all - I'm sorry, the 10 public intellectuals on the list are all Muslims from countries with dominant Muslim populations, and it's not a coincidence. Here to explain is Kate Palmer. She's the deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine. She joins us on the line from Washington.

Ms. KATE PALMER (Deputy Managing Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine): Hi, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Thanks for being here. So, first question out of the box, why do this? The first line in the article says, rankings are an inherently dangerous business. Why rank public intellectuals? I imagine it can stir up a whole lot of controversy. This intellectual is more influential that this one. It's all kind of subjective.

Ms. PALMER: Oh, it is very subjective, and it is unscientific, but it's also very exciting. And at Foreign Policy, we're all about provoking debate and starting conversations that matter. And so we wanted to - what we did actually in our May/June issue is that we just put Top 100 Public Intellectuals from a list that we compiled with our partner in Britain, Prospect Magazine. And we asked our readers to rank them.

So, we didn't actually go out and say, these are people that we would rank as the top 20. We just named the top 100. So, our readers came back and said, these are the people that we think are the most influential public intellectuals. And this is what we found was that Fethullah Gulen from Turkey was the top with, you know, many, many more votes than the next person, Muhammad Yunus, also a Muslim, as were the top 10, as you mentioned.

MARTIN: So, let's talk about this. That wasn't a coincidence. There was some kind of individual campaigning, I understand, for the top slots.

Ms. PALMER: That's right, which is exciting to us that we - that the list generated enough attention and excitement among their followers, and the intellectuals themselves, that they wanted to be on this list and rank highly in the public forum.

MARTIN: What happened? Explain what happened especially to Fethullah Gulen and his magazine.

Ms. PALMER: Well, he has a - he's closely affiliated with a newspaper in Turkey called Zaman and shortly after we published our list in - back in May, many of his followers went on sort of a web campaign and it was kind of a word-of-mouth thing, too. And so in Turkey, we received so, so many of the 500,000 thousand, half a million votes, and the vast majority were for Gulen, and we started looking at the results and noticed that so many more of these were coming in from Turkey than from any other country.

So what we think happened is that many of his followers came in to vote for Gulen, and then they also voted for several of the other, either Turks or Muslims on the last. The people who are Gulen's followers are usually pretty upwardly mobile Muslims and they - you can see that those are same people who picked a lot of the others on the top 10.

MARTIN: Now, there are some familiar names on this list, Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Muhammad Yunus, who's famous for his micro-finance project.

Ms. PALMER: Right.

MARTIN: Al Gore made the list.

Ms. PALMER: That's right.

MARTIN: As a public intellectual in his efforts in public thought and environmentalism.

Ms. PALMER: Right, he's at number 12, and has come a long way since 2000.

MARTIN: Noam Chomsky, but this guy, Fethullah Gulen, I mean, I've spent some time in that part of the world and tend to read Foreign Affairs from time and time again. I like to think of myself as kind of tapped into those kind of subjects. I'd never heard of this guy.

Ms. PALMER: Yeah, it was - we were pretty surprised, actually, when he was able to garner so many votes. You know, when we were looking through all the people that we wanted to include on the top 100 list a few months ago, you know, we weren't entirely sure which, you know, which people from that part of the world we were going to include. And you know, lo and behold, his followers have a lot stronger voice than we would have expected.

MARTIN: So, is he is the world's number one public intellectual? Or he is just the intellectual who got out the vote?

Ms. PALMER: Well, I mean, I think his supporters would certainly say that he is. But I think that, you know, it's certainly a case that he was able to garner a lot of votes, that maybe some other people were not because they didn't mount a voting campaign or maybe they didn't - or maybe they didn't even notice it until much later. Who knows? But you know, these things are so subjective, as you said.

Actually, in our May/June, issue we have an article by Christopher Hitchens who tackles that very topic and he says, you know, what do these rankings mean? And he kind of, you know, says that maybe the fact that he was ranked in our 2005 poll alongside someone like Rockwell Pavel (ph) means that it doesn't really mean as much as the, you know, significance we try to attribute to it. And that, you know, a lot of these supporters, are just - that is more of a reflection of people's support than, perhaps, their overall significance and public debate.

PESCA: Right, it strikes me that the list started off as one thing, and it became something else. I'm not sure I can put my finger on exactly what the something else thing is, maybe something like vagaries of the Internet, maybe the desire and the people who voted for him to kind of stake their claim. What do you think the list actually became a statement about?

MARTIN: Or maybe those societies place a greater value on public intellectualism.

PESCA: Or being seen as public intellectuals.

Ms. PALMER: I think it's a combination of both. We won't really know, or we wouldn't really know unless we polled really everybody who voted. You know, maybe it's an enthusiasm for being included on such lists when so much of the Western media tends to overlook that part of the world. Who knows? It's interesting to talk about it, though, and to try to figure that out. It's what we've been doing for the past few weeks?

MARTIN: Have you taken any criticism for this list?

Ms. PALMER: We have. Yeah, but most of the people, most of the things that people have been saying have revolved around the idea of whether or not it is a valid poll, and you know, all we can say is that we did all that we could to try to root out any duplicate entries or any kind of robotic voting systems that would entire someone's vote twice. So we did all that we could to make sure that it was one person, one vote.

MARTIN: The people have spoken. Kate Palmer, deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine. Hey, Kate, thanks very much for being here this morning.

Ms. PALMER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Take care.

Ms. PALMER: Take care. Bye.

PESCA: I have a great idea. You do a poll of who has the most grassroots support on the Internet. Is it Ron Paul? Is it this guy Gulen? Is it Ayn Rand? These are the people who always win the polls. Chomsky? Just have a poll-off. (Unintelligible) drunken dwarf?

MARTIN: You're our people. Come back to us. This is the BPP from NPR News.

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