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Who’s Afraid of Paul Berman?

Does moderate Islam exist? To many Westerners, the answer is absolutely not; they view Islam as a religion of violent jihad, amputation of limbs, compulsory veiling of women, honor killings, and similar atrocities. To Muslims, even posing the question is … Read More

By / June 6, 2007

Does moderate Islam exist? To many Westerners, the answer is absolutely not; they view Islam as a religion of violent jihad, amputation of limbs, compulsory veiling of women, honor killings, and similar atrocities. To Muslims, even posing the question is vexing, because it demonstrates how little Westerners understand the faith of Muhammad. But who and where are the moderates, some Westerners would ask. The Muslim author Tariq Ramadan, born in Switzerland, has declared himself a moderate, but is he sincere? And what about the implicit claim of another author coming from the Muslim world, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who left the religion entirely? She would argue that there is no moderate Islam, that the nightmare of extremism is ubiquitous.

The question of moderate Islam, which impends on the future of humanity as a whole, lurks somewhere inside the cumbersome June 4 New Republic article on Tariq Ramadan by Paul Berman. Also in the article, though much less crucial to human fate, is the issue of how Ramadan and Hirsi Ali have been treated by Western media—Ramadan is, generally, welcomed, while Hirsi Ali has been criticized. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Berman presents nothing but banalities in his groping attempts to address these matters.

Following up on his deeply flawed study of Sayyid Qutb, Berman’s latest adventure in amateur comparative religious studies poses as a review of Ramadan’s books, though it’s really a survey of things written about Ramadan by the journalist Ian Buruma in The New York Times Magazine, as well as by other lesser figures. Berman is less concerned with the Islamic doyen of the multiculturalist European left than he is with his assorted cheerleaders and critics and their pet peeves. So we get an extensive comparison of Buruma on Ramadan with Buruma on Hirsi Ali. The result is a 28,000-word prose labyrinth, which no one I know wishes to enter, let alone escape. (One very sharp and knowledgeable writer suggested the piece had been published without editing.) Titled “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” Berman’s opus appeared like an iceberg in the middle of the Potomac: immense, dismal, unexplainable, melting before one’s eyes.

The case of Tariq Ramadan is much simpler, from the Muslim perspective, than Western intellectuals like Berman think. That, of course, is the problem; Muslims see him as he is, while Westerners see him through the lens of their untutored hopes of who he might be— or, more importantly, what he might stand for. Westerners take Ramadan for both a traditionalist and a modernist Muslim, but in fact he’s a radical reformer.
That would seem, to many non-Muslims, to be wonderful. But these terms have a different meaning in religion than in politics, and are most certainly distinct in Islamic public discourse from what they appear to mean in the Judeo-Christian world. Neither the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimeen)—founded by Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna (1906–1949)—nor Tariq Ramadan himself, is traditionalist, and neither of them is modernist. While few suspect Ramadan of being an actual member of the Brotherhood, he is widely viewed as a fellow traveler, having praised its legacy and stayed as far away as possible from criticism of it or its ideology. The Brotherhood and Ramadan are alike in that while they call themselves reformers, they are really radical reformationists, calling for a fundamentalist reformism that would supposedly return Islam to what they imagine it to have been at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. They are reformers in the manner of the Central European religious extremists of the Protestant Reformation—they justify bloodshed for what they consider the purification of the faith.Three countries spawned the ideologies that most support jihadist Islam today—the Saudi Arabia of Wahhabism, the Egypt of the Brotherhood, and the India-Pakistan of Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi—whom Ramadan explicitly defends and Berman claims to understand. In all three cases, the traditional Islam of the past 1,400 years—embodied in a pluralistic view of Islamic law, support for Sufi spirituality, and an emphasis on prayer rather than politics—is the target. Ramadan himself jeers at the Islam that has evolved over 14 centuries as “scholastic traditionalism,” which Berman notes. But neither he nor Berman mentions that “scholastic traditionalists” are under attack today in many Muslim countries precisely because they represent the moderate Islamic religious heritage.

The “modernizers” and “reformers” who Tariq Ramadan defends represent something apart from that patrimony—a perverse vision of ur-Islam “Protestantized” into what I have called “cracked modernity.” Much as evangelical Christian sects preach a rejection of the contemporary world through the medium of stadium rock concerts, so do Islamic fundamentalist reformers make use of contemporary conduits, like satellite television, for disseminating their retrograde worldview. This gap between moderate, traditional religion and radical reform is easy for Muslims, who participate in this history, to grasp. But it is very difficult for non-Muslims to understand. To the Western liberal, tradition is bad and reform is good, a dichotomy that has befuddled the author of Terror and Liberalism into speaking of Straussian “double discourses” to account for Ramadan’s contradictory positions before Western and Islamic audiences.

Six ways Berman misses the point:

1.) He fails to distinguish between religious and political reform.

Berman demonstrates his inability to genuinely comprehend this difference when he writes, “Hassan al-Banna’s suggestion in the 1920s and 1930s was to convert the proposed seventh-century-and-modern Islamic revival into a forward-looking political force of a particular sort.” The “revival” to which he refers was epitomized by the Salafist political reformers of the 19th century, but the Muslim Brotherhood of Al-Banna was and remains much more backward-looking than the 19th-century Salafis. Berman wrongly assumes that religious totalitarianism is not just comprehensible through political categories, but that it is inextricable from them. He sounds like Isaiah Berlin lamenting how the humane Russian revolutionary traditions of Herzen and Belinsky were denatured beyond repair or recognition by Lenin and Stalin. Thus he concedes that some “would insist rather sharply that al-Banna’s Islamism, in its radicalism and rigidity, departed fundamentally from those 19th-century thinkers.”

Continuing in the same disastrous vein of radical political analogy, Berman writes, “Anyway, not many readers of the Times Magazine [which published Buruma’s sympathetic profile of Ramadan] are likely to have recognized these 19th-century names.” It is of no import to him that every educated Muslim knows the names of the 19th-century Salafis. Berman is quite satisfied with his own obliviousness, because it reinforces the alleged significance of his deus ex machina: “the [European] extreme-right political movements of the 1920s–1940s, whose doctrines [Al-Banna] was happy to borrow so long as he could adapt them to his own purposes.” Berman somewhat recognizes that radical reformism differs from what he calls “starker” fundamentalism, but because he is ignorant of religion in general he is unaware that the fundamentalist urge may often be limited to preaching, while the reformist frenzy almost always leads to aggression.
2.) He doesn’t challenge Ramadan on the concept of takfir

Every Muslim in the world also knows that the jihadism of the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Mawdudists is inextricable from the concept of takfir, or excommunication. Under takfir, the millions and millions of Muslims who do not accept radicalism are declared to have fallen out of Islam into a state of pre-Islamic ignorance, known as jahiliyya. On this basis, coupled with the claim that ordinary Muslims are not real Muslims, the Taliban and Pakistani and Iraqi Sunni terrorists have murdered Shia Muslims, extremists in Tajikistan and Algeria have killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Muslims, and new threats are delivered daily. Yet the word takfir appears nowhere in Berman’s interminable disquisition.

Tariq Ramadan criticizes the lurch of the radical reformers he supports into “political literalist salafism,” and therefore violence, which he blames on repression by governments like those of Mubarak in Egypt. But he cannot directly address the issue of takfir because of his loyalty to the takfiri foundations of the Muslim Brotherhood—which Berman seems at least to sense, even if he cannot imagine what it means.

3.) He misrepresents the Muslim Brotherhood.

Berman’s thesis—if not his entire “career” as an interpreter of Islam—rests on his examination of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideologist, Sayyid Qutb. But in his accounting of the Brotherhood, he exaggerates here, omits details there, and then emits grandiose pronouncements that are simply absurd.

Berman credits the Muslim Brotherhood with near-absolute control over European Islam, despite the fact that the Brotherhood barely exists in as important a Western European country as Germany, with its large Turkish-Kurdish immigrant community. At the same time, he ignores the indicative fact that Hamas was founded by the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. These are defining questions about the role of the Brotherhood outside Egypt, but his approach to them shows that he finally lacks command of the subject. The extent of his ineptitude is revealed by a characteristic overreach into fatuity, when he declaims, “In the eyes of huge numbers of European Muslims, a more glorious ancestry than Tariq Ramadan’s does not exist.” Really? Does this mean that honor to descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, known as sayyids, has disappeared from the minds of European Muslims? That would certainly be news to most of them. Indeed, the very idea that a living intellectual should be “glorified” in this manner is profoundly alien to the Sunni Islam, which most European Muslims follow.


4.) He thinks Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a great scholar

Ramadan is proud of his family’s association with, and personally adulates, the Muslim Brotherhood cleric from Qatar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, hailed by Berman as “by all accounts one of the great scholars of Sunni Islam, a man with a long and illustrious history in the Muslim Brotherhood who went on, after his emigration to Europe, to help found the European Council for Fatwa and Research—all this, even apart from his other career, thanks to Al-Jazeera television, as the world’s most visible expert on Islamic jurisprudence.” So much misinformation in so few words!

By all what accounts? Al-Qaradawi is not a great scholar of Sunni Islam; in fact, he is challenged and execrated by many Muslim scholars, who consider him a corrupted frontman for the Saudi and other Arab regimes. His best-known work, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, is an elementary handbook of Islamic law, with no serious scholarly apparatus attached, and is for sale in English in most American mosques and Islamic bookstores. To call it undistinguished and even innocuous would be a compliment, although it is typically the first book handed to converts to Islam, who may have read and reread Al-Qaradawi without studying a single surah of the Qur’an.

The European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), for its part, is a small and shadowy body located in, of all places, Ireland, a country with few Muslims, but, apparently, liberal residency laws. Not widely known nor respected outside of its own rarefied circle, the ECFR claims to represent and even have Islamic legal jurisdiction over all European Muslims, but it has only a single member representing an old, established European Muslim community: the Bosnian Mustafa Ceri?. Al-Qaradawi is certainly not European. ECFR has included 33 members, four of them Saudi, although few Saudis live in Europe; the rest, aside from Ceri?, comprise members from 12 Arab and African countries, plus Pakistan, while the others represent immigrant communities, mainly Arab, in Western Europe.

Al-Qaradawi’s fatwa-vision show, Sharia and Life on Al-Jazeera, is detested by many Muslims for its continuous spew of reactionary, repressive garbage. What was “illustrious” in Al-Qaradawi’s association with the Brotherhood? Nothing at all, and I am convinced Berman, adding such epithets, could cite no examples of such.

5.) He misses the boat on Ramadan and the left

Berman also interjects into his discussion of Ramadan many pages of extraneous and unedifying commentary about the issue that excites him the most—the reception of Tariq Ramadan’s ideas among European sectarian leftists. He follows that with an inventory of critical works about Ramadan, followed once more by some extended comments on Ramadan and women’s rights, particularly as the latter cause has been taken up and embodied for Western audiences by the Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Berman is quite right to point out that politically correct journalists in Europe flock to Ramadan but view Hirsi Ali with horror and disdain.

There is, nevertheless, legitimate criticism to be made of Hirsi Ali. Although Berman and others fantasize that her books will inspire, Muslim women around the world, she is mainly a Western personality and a Western topic of interest. Some of the views she has inculcated in her readers are questionable. Female genital mutilation, a criminal practice worthy of severe penalties (there is no other way to describe it), about which she writes dramatically, has a limited range in the Muslim world; it would never be countenanced anywhere from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Eastern Turkestan, running north, or through India south to Indonesia, which happens to have the largest Muslim population in the world. It is a folk practice originating with Africans and Arabs and is nowhere mentioned in the Qur’an or sharia.

Nor are honor killings, against which Hirsi Ali has campaigned, limited to Islamic societies. They, too, have no basis in Islamic tradition, which favored resolution of such disputes by juristic mediation and the payment of fines. Honor killings, which are simple and gross crimes that also call for resolute punishment, happen in the Christian countries of Latin America, among indigenous people, in Buddhist lands, and even in the U.S. of A. Millions of television viewers around the world revel in watching The Sopranos, the ethical basis of which is, finally, killing people over presumed slights to honor.

If Ramadan was despicable in refusing to dissociate himself from justifications for such abuses as stonings of Muslim women, Berman was deceptive in pretending they are ubiquitous. He also goes overboard in turning Buruma’s criticism of Hirsi Ali into a wholesale “campaign…a sustained attack [a phrase he repeats].” According to Berman, this propaganda effort against Ayaan Hirsi Ali “radiates from the center” of what Berman believes to be “the intellectual establishment.” Strangely, though, these attacks appear nowhere except in the most shore-hugging venues, such as The New York Times Magazine, and have not dampened sales of her books.

6.) He dismisses Al-Ghazali

Berman’s tin ear when dealing with matters of religion is no better revealed than in his interrogation as to why Tariq Ramadan—entirely justifiably, it must be said—prefers such Muslim theologians as Al-Ghazali to Descartes. Al-Ghazali had an immense influence on Jewish and even Christian religious thought, but all Berman knows of him (notwithstanding that much of Al-Ghazali is in English) is that he supposedly possesses a “reputation as the medieval philosopher who issued the most formidable challenge to high Islamic rationalism.” This is an incomplete and noxious statement. Al-Ghazali did not merely challenge “high Islamic rationalism,” which had taken a repressive turn under the Abbasid caliphs; he also challenged fundamentalism, defended Sufi spirituality, and arrived at a most excellent balance of reason and faith that – to repeat – inspired Jewish as well as Muslim believers. (Christians read him, but followed their own path.) Berman’s social democratic alarm bells strike false notes when it comes to Ramadan’s supposed intellectual heritage: the real concern is not whether Ramadan prefers Al-Ghazali to Descartes but whether he in fact considers himself a true proponent of Al-Ghazali’s philosophy.

There is a moderate Islam, unrepresented by Tariq Ramadan and unrecognized by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and ignored by all the Western media purveyors of stereotypes. But it constitutes the majority of Muslim believers, and I am confident it will prevail, with or without the notice or approval of Paul Berman.

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