We can’t say we weren’t warned. Plenty of people—including many friends of the magazine—tut-tutted at the very idea of the Prospect/Foreign Policy global public intellectuals poll (the unexpected result of which you can find here). They saw it as a capitulation to glib, list-making populism. How can you compare the work of a scientist and a novelist? How can you sit in London or Washington and make a sensible judgement about thinkers in Asia or Africa? How can you take seriously a list with such a fuzzy definition of its subject, and which stretches it to include political celebrities? All of these were fair points. But we still thought it a worthwhile exercise—with the disapproval of our more fastidious readers outweighed by the entertainment value and the valuable international publicity. And to the extent that such a list gets people talking about intellectual trends, it also serves a less self-interested purpose.
What the critics did not focus on was how easily the poll could be hijacked (we asked readers, or anyone who stumbled on the poll online, to vote for their top five intellectuals from the list of 100). On the two previous occasions we have conducted similar polls—for British public intellectuals in 2004 (won by Richard Dawkins) and a previous global poll in 2005 (won by Noam Chomsky)—the voting was in the tens of thousands and largely individual. This time was very different, as Tom Nuttall describes. More than half a million people voted, above all the supporters of a modernising Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen. Some votes for Gülen were generated by hackers and were discounted. But we have never disallowed campaigning on behalf of someone on the list, though it is perhaps something we should consider in future. The trouble is that even without overt campaigning, intellectuals who are aligned to social movements are likely to do better than independent intellectuals—but does that mean we should select only the latter?
Anyway, looking on the bright side, we might pick up a few more readers in Turkey. More to the point, the victory of Gülen—whom most of us had not heard of a month ago—draws attention to the most important conflict in Europe, being played out in Turkey between the secular nationalist establishment and the reforming Islamic democrats of the AK party (see Ehsan Masood’s essay). It has everything—secularism vs religious freedom, democratic voice vs constitutional rules, modernising Islam…