Paul Berman’s enormous 28,000-word essay about Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan is a must-read. Berman’s intellectual goals are most laudable – against terrorism and for universal human rights. Unfortunately, I fear his essay is incomplete where it is not unfair, unfair where it is not dishonest, dishonest where it is not incomplete.
Ostensibly a book review of all of Ramadan’s works, it is also an intellectual history, a rebuke of this NY Times Magazine Profile of Ramadan written by Ian Buruma, and a criticism of what Berman sees as a scholarly and journalistic elite who are complacent with terrorism and human rights abuses in Muslim communities. To summarize the argument of Berman’s essay: Ramadan is not the modern Muslim who is attempting to reconcile Islam with modernity, the Enlightenment, and pluralism we read about in the NY Times profile. By looking at how his scholarship is rooted in his long family history, and by truly understanding his arguments, you will find that Ramadan is more in league intellectually with terrorists than with modern liberals. Finally, Berman argues that the main reason we don’t know this already is because there is an “intellectual establishment,” represented by Buruma, whose Third World sentiments encourage them to explain away beliefs that oppress women and celebrate suicide terrorism.
In short, that’s crap. Somebody has to say it.
Berman employs his own interpretation of Ramadan’s family history as a way of clouding Ramadan’s explicit commitments against anti-Semitism and against terrorism. Berman often acknowledges as much. Ramadan interprets the Koran as clearly teaching Muslims to treat Jews with respect and dignity – in short, that the Koran is not anti-Semitic, and neither should Muslims be. Ramadan also interprets the Koran as rejecting terrorism. Berman wants to undermine Ramadan here. He does this by tracing Ramadan’s ancestry to his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to his father, Said Ramadan, who was a lieutenant of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his brother, Hani Ramadan, who is a leader at the Islamic Center of Geneva. Berman then links these thinkers to Sayyid Qutb, the radical Islamic intellectual whose work is often cited as the intellectual backbone to Al-Qaeda. No matter that Al-Banna explicitly disagreed with thinkers like Qutb, wanted to reconcile Islam with parliamentary democracy, and never even met Qutb. No matter that Said Ramadan made efforts to distinguish himself from Qutb’s radicalism. No matter that Tariq is not his brother. Berman uses the fact that Tariq Ramadan’s family history is one of Muslim Third World political and intellectual elites to argue that Despite Ramadan’s explicit rejection of anti-Semitism and terrorism, despite his explicit interpretation of the Koran as rejecting anti-Semitism and terrorism, Ramadan is suspect.
The part of the essay that comes closest to being a book review is Berman’s discussion about the place of doubt in Ramadan’s Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity. In that book, Berman points out that Ramadan’s interpretation of Islam leaves no room for doubt about God and Islam. Berman uses this point to suggest that Ramadan is thus – again – more in league with proto-fascists and radicals like Qutb. But this is a dangerously incomplete understanding of Ramadan’s arguments. In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Tariq Ramadan argues that the true interpretation of the Koran, while it may leave no room for the Western, Cartesian concept of doubt, includes instead the Islamic tradition of submission. This concept, writes Ramadan, means that the practice of being a Muslim means submission to an Almighty God and the weakness of human beings. This serves, for Ramadan, as the Muslim analogue to Cartesian doubt. He writes on page 81, “The third pivot of Muslim identity is an open and constantly active expression of this last element because it is based on “being Muslim,” defined by the action of educating and transmitting.” (His italics.) He goes on to write that submission to God through active learning is a practice of “Texts and the context,” meaning Muslims must engage the Society in which they live. This, plus the Muslim concept of al-tahsiniyyat (enhancing, perfecting), Ramadan writes, are ways in which Muslims might root themselves in their own modern virtues of liberalism, pluralism, and rational inquiry. As Ramadan writes on pages 32-33 of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam:
“Between these two extremes, there is a way, I believe to change the terms of the debate: If, for Muslims, it is a matter of rejecting the insidious process of the relativization of their universal values, it is also incumbent on them to explain clearly in what sense, and how, those values respect diversity and relativity. If the Way to faithfulness, the Sharia, is the corpus of reference in which Islamic universality is written down, it is urgent and imperative to say how it is structured and how it expresses the absolute, and rationality, and the relation to time, progress, the Other, and more broadly, difference.”
In other words, reconciling Islam with modern liberalism and rationality requires knowing that Islam can (and does contain) these values, while rejecting the extreme either/or choice that says you can be a true Muslim, a modern Western person, but not both. Berman simply gets it wrong.
Berman then argues that Tariq Ramadan is not modern by pointing to two public debates in which Ramadan engaged. The first is about the French law banning Muslim headscarves in public schools. The second is about the proper understanding of wife-beating in the Koran.
France, concerned with making sure women had the social right not to wear the headscarf, eliminated the legal right to wear the headscarf in public schools. Ramadan argues that Muslim women in France should have the right to wear the headscarf, so the law should be repealed. Berman argues that Muslim women in France should have the social right not to wear the headscarf, so Muslim communities should, in effect, repeal the understanding of Islam as requiring it. In short, Ramadan and Berman are two ships passing in the night, here.
Berman notes a debate between Nicholas Sarkozy and Tariq Ramadan, which featured a discussion about wife-beating and the punishment of stoning women to death. Sarkozy is against wife-beating and the punishment of stoning women to death. Ramadan is against wife-beating and the punishment of stoning women to death. Berman gives what appears to be a complete representation of the debate, and it is worth looking at. Berman characterizes Ramadan’s comments about stoning women as qualifications to his opposition. What does Ramadan say? Ramadan says that Islamic law should have “a moratorium” on these practices. Ramadan continues, when challenged:
“What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community…. Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, “Me, my own position.” But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr. Sarkozy. It’s necessary that you understand….
…Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable–that’s clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world…. You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That’s too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, “We should stop.”"
In other words, Ramadan is saying that by declaring a moratorium, the Muslim community can foster the inter-Islam discussion, debate, and scholarship that will lead to Islam reconciling itself around the idea that true Islam rejects the stoning of women. In other words, Stop Stoning Now While Setting Up the Community to Decide For Itself to Stop Stoning Forever – Islam and progress together.
It is at this point that Paul Berman brings up Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali athiest woman who wrote Infidel and criticizes Islam as hopelessly barbaric and anti-reason. She is, Berman writes, to Islam, what Voltaire was to Catholicism: an insult-spewing, sharp-tongued critic who arose in the tradition only to reject it as barbaric and anti-reason. Berman points out examples of the “intellectual establishment” rejecting Hirsi Ali. These rejections usually feature criticisms of her condemning “true Islam” as always, necessarily, being a “destructive cult of death” that “leads to cruelty.” In other words, Hirsi Ali tells searching Muslims that they can either be barbarian Muslims or modern, Enlightenment athiests. To Hirsi Ali, and, it appears, to Berman – there is no other way. While I applaud Hirsi Ali for working for women’s rights and against barbaric practices, it is here where I must disagree.
We must remember that Christianity needed more than Voltaire, the angry, sarcastic Deist, to have its Reformation. It also needed a Christian who argued that modernization equalled a restoration of Christianity’s truest values – a Martin Luther. And so it is, and so it shall be, with Islam. Hirsi Ali may be Islam’s Voltaire, as Berman writes, shouting from the pamphlets that Islam is the same as Naziism, pointing to the worst elements of Islam’s community. But devout Muslims, when faced with the choice that they can either be Muslim or modern, are likely to choose Muslim. And so Islam will also need its Martin Luther, that scholar who says relentlessly, ceaselessly, that true Islam restored is modern, free, and compassionate, pointing to the best elements of Islam’s community. The scholar who says this is a false choice – that being a devout Muslim means being a modern, free, compassionate citizen in a liberal, pluralistic community. Tariq Ramadan may be that reformer. And Paul Berman should not fear him.
- Outlaw Clothing: Burqas, Islamophobia and Women’s Rights by Tasha Fierce July 14, 2010
- “On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West” by Fauzia November 7, 2007
- Women, Islam and Syria by Jill August 29, 2006
- Democracy Is Great, Until We Don’t Get What We Want by Jill February 1, 2006
- Speaking for Muslim Women by Jill July 25, 2006