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Who Is the World’s Greatest Intellectual?

By Jennifer Schuessler [1]

As published in Paper Cuts [2], a blog affiliated with the New York Times [3].

Turkey, its hopes dashed at the recent Euro Cup, can take comfort in having come out on top of an even more prestigious contest: Prospect magazine’s poll to determine the world’s greatest living intellectual.

And the winner is … Fethullah Gulen [4], a 67-year-old Turkish Sufi cleric currently residing outside of Philadelphia. Can half a million respondents be wrong?

Apparently, Gulen owes his victory to the same sort of national mobilization campaign [5] that almost got Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic, elected Time Magazine’s Man of the Century back in 2000. (At one point, Ataturk even led Bob Dylan in the race for greatest artist and entertainer.) But in contrast to the staunchly secularist Ataturk, Gulen — who has a reported 5 million followers, and is an influence on Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party — has spent his life promoting interfaith dialogue and preaching the reconciliation of science and modern institutions with religious faith. Come to think of it, are there many more urgent intellectual projects out there these days?

Interestingly, the top ten finishers in the Prospect poll are all from Muslim backgrounds, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Tariq Ramadan, Orhan Pamuk and Abdolkarim Soroush. (Who? Read this [6].)

Further down the list (complete results here [7]), the list yields some strange pairings. Samantha Power (#73), the author and human rights advocate, will no doubt be delighted to have edged out the Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew (#74). And Christopher Hitchens (#27) will no doubt be pleased to have smoked Pope Benedict XVI (#32).

But Richard Posner (#85) — not to mention my colleague Barry Gewen, who sang Posner’s praises here [8] and pondered the death of the public intellectual here [9] — may be puzzled at his finish well to the rear of Malcolm Gladwell (#77), whom he skewered in a memorable review [10] in the New Republic back in 2005. The last time Prospect did the poll, in 2005, Posner ranked #32. (Gladwell was shut out entirely.) Then again, Posner’s own 2002 study of public intellectuals — his own equations placed him at #70 — was subtitled "A Study in Decline."