JUNE 4, 2007
To Be a European Muslim
By Tariq Ramadan
(Islamic Foundation, 273 pp., $19.95)
Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity
By Tariq Ramadan
(Islamic Foundation, 352 pp., $35)
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam
By Tariq Ramadan
(Oxford University Press, 272 pp., $16.95)
In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad
By Tariq Ramadan
(Oxford University Press, 242 pp., $23)
Tariq Ramadan is a charismatic and energetic Islamic philosopher in Europe who has become popular and influential among various circles of European Muslims during the past fifteen years—originally in Geneva, where his father founded the Islamic Center in 1961; then in Lyon, the French city closest to Switzerland, where Ramadan attracted a following of young people from North African backgrounds; then among French Muslims beyond Lyon; at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, in Britain, where he spent a year on a fellowship; among still more scattered Muslim audiences in Western Europe, who listened to his audio recordings and packed his lecture halls, normally with the men and the women sitting demurely in their separate sections; among Muslims in various Francophone countries in Africa—and outward to the wider world.
Ramadan possesses a special genius for shaping cultural questions according to his own lights and presenting those questions to the general public, and he has demonstrated this ability from the start. As early as 1993, at the age of thirty-two, he campaigned in Geneva to cancel an impending production of Voltaire’s play Muhammad, or Fanaticism. The production was canceled, and a star was born—though Ramadan has argued that, on the contrary, he had nothing to do with canceling the play, and to say otherwise is a “pure lie.” Not every battle has gone his way. He taught at the college of Saussure, where his colleagues were disturbed by his arguments in favor of Islamic biology over Darwin. This time, too, Ramadan shaped the debate to his own specifications by insisting that he never wanted to suppress the existing biology curriculum—merely to complement it with an additional point of view. A helpful creationist proposal. But the Darwinians, unlike the Voltaireans, were in no rush to yield.
That was in 1995, and by then Ramadan had already established his social base in Lyon, at the Union of Young Muslims and the Tawhid bookstore and publishing house. These were slightly raffish immigrant endeavors, somewhat outside the old and official mainline Muslim organizations in France. Even so, the mainline organizations seem to have welcomed the arrival of a brilliant young philosopher. He built alliances. He attended conferences. His op-eds ran in the newspapers. He engaged in debates. Eventually his face appeared on French television and on the covers of glossy magazines, which introduced him to the general public in France, a huge success. And yet—this is the oddity about Tariq Ramadan—as his triumphs became ever greater, and his thinking came to be more widely known, no consensus whatsoever emerged regarding the nature of his philosophy or its meaning for France, or Europe, or the world.
Some mainstream journalists in France were drawn to him from the start. The Islam-and-secularism correspondent at Le Monde, full of admiration, plugged him fairly regularly and sometimes adopted his arguments. At Le Monde Diplomatique, he became a cause, not just a story; the editor lionized him. Politis magazine promoted him. On the activist far left, some of the anti-globalist radicals and the die-hard enemies of McDonald’s looked on Ramadan—because of his denunciations of American imperialism and Zionism and his plebeian agitations in Lyon—as a tribune of progressive Islam, even if his religious severities grated on left-wing sensibilities. The Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Communist League formed something of an alliance with him. A number of Christian activists regarded him with particular fondness: a worthy partner for inter-religious dialogues. A dike against the flood tides of secular materialism. A religiously motivated social conscience similar to their own, laboring on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. Ramadan might even have seemed, in some people’s eyes, stylishly trendy at one moment or another—a champion of Islam who, because Islam has been so badly demonized, held out a last dim hope for shocking the bourgeoisie. Then again, some of the French experts on Islam, such as the distinguished scholar Olivier Roy, who had no interest in shocking anyone, likewise found something admirable in him: a thoughtful effort to modernize Islam for a liberal age.
Still, in France other people recoiled, and did so without much hesitation, and recoiled also at the people who had failed to recoil. The critics were thoroughly convinced that Ramadan’s friends and admirers and supporters in the press were deluding themselves, and that alliances with him were bound to backfire, and that, beneath the urbane surface, he represented the worst in Islam, not the best. These critics were drawn not only from the Christian conservatives and the political right. The most prominent of his left-wing Christian allies turned against him in a fury, as if betrayed. Some mainline Muslim leaders in France grew reserved. Even the French anti-globalists were of two minds about him. He had his fans, but there were many who watched with dismay as Ramadan’s pious followers filled the seats at anti-globalist meetings and veiled women thronged the podium. In France his loudest enemies were left-wing feminists, who took one look and shuddered in alarm. Feminists from Muslim backgrounds denounced him in Libération, the left-wing newspaper. The Socialist Party politicians in France, who had every reason to seek out Arab and Muslim voters, showed no interest in him at all.
Dark rumors spread. The Spanish police inquired into his Lyon networks. In 1995 the French minister of the interior denied him permission to re-enter France—which sparked a mobilization of petition-signers until the order was rescinded. His detractors in the press—initially at Lyon Mag, the city magazine in Lyon—speculated grimly about his personal connections. He responded with a double lawsuit, against Lyon Mag and against one of his critics, the Lebanese historian Antoine Sfeir. The verdict ended up split: against the magazine but in favor of Sfeir. The magazine kept on hammering nonetheless.
Books about Ramadan tumbled into the bookstores at a remarkable pace. Caroline Fourest’s Frère Tariq, or Brother Tariq, which appeared in 2004, has been the most influential—an angry book, alarmed, energetic in tabulating the naïve tropes and clichés of the French press, indignant at the journalists who keep falling for the same manipulations, indignant at the progressives who view Ramadan as progressive. But hers was only the first, followed by six more books in the last three or four years—among them Paul Landau’s Le Sabre et le Coran, or The Saber and the Qur’an, in 2005 (no less hostile and accusatory than Fourest’s); Aziz Zemouri’s Faut-il Faire Taire Tariq Ramadan?, or Should Tariq Ramadan Be Silenced?, the same year (which affords Ramadan the chance to have his own say); and Ian Hamel’s La vérité sur Tariq Ramadan, or The Truth About Tariq Ramadan, this year (mildly sympathetic to Ramadan, sometimes skeptical, indignant at the hostility expressed by Fourest and Landau). And the books, too, having contributed to the controversy, contributed to his popularity.
Ramadan seems to have known instinctively how to respond to accusations and innuendos, and his rejoinders succeeded in turning every new setback into an advance. He suggested a bigotry against Islam on his critics’ part, amounting to a kind of racism. He argued that criticisms of him represented a holdover from the colonialist mentality of the past. He was angry, dignified, self-controlled, and unmovable. The combination of his replies and his demeanor proved effective in the conscience-stricken atmosphere of modern postimperial France. A good many people, listening to his rejoinders, grew pensive. His supporters waved their fists. And his critics became ever more fretful—not just at Ramadan, but at the people who, in applauding or merely in growing pensive, seemed to have accepted his categories of analysis, as if in a stupor.
His entrance into the Anglophone world began quietly. The Islamic Foundation in Leicester, where Ramadan studied and wrote in 1996–1997, enjoys the distinction of having been the first and most vigorous Muslim institution in Britain to rally against Salman Rushdie back in 1988, even before Ayatollah Khomeini issued his religious decree authorizing Rushdie’s assassination. The foundation published Ramadan’s book To Be a European Muslim in 1999, and it enjoyed a modest success. To Be a European Muslim was regarded as a thoughtful argument for healthy new relations between oldstock non-Muslim Europe and the newstock immigrant Muslim population. Daniel Pipes in the United States was among the expert observers who offered applause—though, if you visit Pipes’s website, you will see that, ever since his initial review, Pipes has been posting additional remorseful observations about how wrong he was, and what could possibly have gotten into him? (You will also see that Ramadan, for his part, together with a sympathetic journalist or two, has promoted Pipes into the center of an anti-Ramadan conspiracy on behalf of the Jews.)
In 2001, the Islamic Foundation published Ramadan’s Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity, a philosophical text that attracted less attention. Even so, controversy went on working its wonders, and in faraway Indiana the University of Notre Dame offered him a professorship beginning in 2004—partly funded, as it happens, by the Kroc family, which means the McDonald’s fortune. Ramadan accepted. He obtained a visa. He arranged for his family to move. Then, at the last minute, Homeland Security balked, and the State Department revoked his visa. The ACLU, PEN, and a couple of academic organizations rallied to his defense, as was their duty. But the man was barred, which generated still more publicity, some of it hostile, of course, but much of it sympathetic, as was only natural—a feeling of outrage on his behalf, an exasperation at American provincialism, a fearful recollection of the obtuse McCarthyite xenophobia of yore. Anyway, America’s nay triggered a British yea. St. Antony’s College at Oxford stepped in with its own offer of a fellowship for 2005. Ramadan accepted.
The London terrorist attack took place in July of that year. The Blair government organized an advisory commission afterward to make suitable recommendations. Ramadan was invited to participate. He accepted. And with one incident piling atop the next—the defeats, the victories—he was lifted, at last, to the pinnacle of American journalistic recognition: the sort of full-length profile and full-page photograph in The New York Times Magazine that half the writers and intellectuals of Europe dream of receiving one day, in the hope of realizing the impossible, which is to break into the American bookstores and the American conversation.
No popular magazine in the United States has done more in the last few years to illuminate the intellectual life of the Muslim world than The New York Times Magazine—always in a serious manner, never flippantly, always with major sources behind the journalism, always at full length. In this instance, the Times magazine assigned its profile to the well-known journalist Ian Buruma, and this was an impeccable choice. Buruma published a book last year called Murder in Amsterdam, on the assassination of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist fanatic—and the book testified to Buruma’s expertise on Islamist dangers in Europe. Three years ago, Buruma and the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit joined forces to write a book called Occidentalism, on the historical appeal of European fascist and other anti-liberal doctrines to people outside Europe, and this book testified to Buruma’s expertise on wayward and totalitarian ideologies as well: a pertinent credential. Buruma produced his profile. The Times magazine published it in February—though, because of the European controversy that has broken out during the last few months over Buruma’s journalism, the profile has lingered in the public eye, and not just in Europe. The profile bore the amusing title “Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue.” You can find it on the New York Times website.
The profile affected a quizzical tone. Buruma seemed bemused by his difficulties in pinning his subject down—his difficulties even in arranging for an interview, though he did finally get one. Buruma dutifully rehearsed some of the political accusations that have been leveled at Ramadan in France, in their more generalized versions at least—dark rumors, feminist shudders, instinctive suspicions. In Buruma’s judgment, one accusation after another turned out to be groundless; or exaggerated and unjust; or distorted because the context had been omitted. Or Buruma expressed no opinion of his own and, out of courtesy, permitted Ramadan to rebut his critics; and the rebuttals seemed firm, or at least plausible, even if Buruma now and then raised a skeptical eyebrow.
He marveled over Ramadan’s mix of anti-globalist fervor and ultraconservative cultural views. “In American terms,” Buruma remarked, “he is a Noam Chomsky on foreign policy and a Jerry Falwell on social affairs.” Yet Buruma seemed to look on Ramadan much more warmly than any comparisons to Chomsky and Falwell might suggest. He explained that last year the French magazine Le Point invited him to debate Ramadan and, in the hope of seeing sparks fly, urged him to be aggressive. The debate took place. Ramadan was unflappable. The discussion failed to stumble across any serious differences at all. “We agreed on most issues,” Buruma wrote, “and even when we didn’t (he was more friendly toward the pope than I was), our ‘debate’ refused to catch fire”—which is a debate summary that, in its affability, is hard to imagine if Buruma had come face-to-face with Chomsky or Falwell on a public platform. “We agreed on most issues”—no, this would have been an unlikely result of any encounter with the anti-imperialist from MIT or the late evangelist of the Christian right.
All in all, Buruma judged that, despite the controversies and accusations, Ramadan the philosopher offers, in Buruma’s words, “a reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam” based on “values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment.” He judged that Ramadan’s values, although “neither secular, nor always liberal,” offer “an alternative to violence, which is, in the end, reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.” This was not quite a ringing endorsement. Still, it was an endorsement. It conveyed the unmistakable implication that Ramadan, the worthy interlocutor, stands for more than himself, which is why engaging him might be useful—in order to discover the human and philosophical principles that Western and Muslim hearts and minds might share in common, and to bridge the divisions, and at last to achieve, between the West and Islam, a cultural peace: the goals that every reasonable person yearns to see achieved, even if not everybody would assent too quickly to a vision of the world that consigns the West to one corner and Islam to another.
Such were the conclusions in the Times magazine. They were tempered. But they were confident. And here, in a single full-length magazine profile, the entire well-established heap of European journalistic platitudes about Ramadan that Caroline Fourest had catalogued and deplored three years ago in France smoothly glided into American print, as if landing at the airport. Nor was Buruma left standing alone with his luggage of views and evaluations. The New York Review of Books had already published an essay by Timothy Garton Ash, who is Ramadan’s colleague at St. Antony’s College. Garton Ash lavished praise on Buruma and, in passing, applauded Ramadan, too, precisely along Buruma’s lines, except without the cautionary notes. This spring, Oxford University Press published Ramadan’s latest book in English, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad called In the Footsteps of the Prophet. The New York Times Book Review assigned the book to Stéphanie Giry, an editor of Foreign Affairs—a journalist who, like Buruma, has contributed to The New Republic. Giry in her review went so far as to invoke the authority of Buruma’s profile in the Times magazine, and she followed his argument almost to the letter.
It is not entirely obvious to me that Buruma has read very much by Ramadan, nor that Stéphanie Giry has read more than a single book, though she has met the man. As for Garton Ash, he confesses in his New York Review essay that he bases his judgment on having heard Ramadan speak, which may suggest that he has read nothing by Ramadan at all. But no matter: a conventional wisdom has plainly convened. And in this fashion Tariq Ramadan, by acquiring a brilliant fame and refracting its rays in one country after another, has succeeded in brightly illuminating two very different, murky, and related developments during the last few years: a large new development among select circles of pious Muslims in Europe, and not just in Europe; and an equally new and still more remarkable development among the normally impious journalists and intellectuals of Europe and America.
Tariq Ramadan is nothing if not a son and a brother and, especially, a grandson, not to mention a great-grandson—family relations that shape everything he writes and does, or at least the perception of what he writes and does, which is an unusual fate for a writer on philosophical themes. His grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, born in Egypt in 1906 and assassinated by the Egyptian political police in 1949—a man who has cast a big shadow over modern events. At a very young age, Hassan al-Banna conceived a genuinely original project for the Muslim world, or at least a partly original one, as is always the case with new ideas. He gazed back on some late nineteenth-century thinkers—on Muhammad Abduh (under whom al-Banna’s father, Ramadan’s great-grandfather, studied at Al-Azhar University) and on Abduh’s mentor and colleague Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. These were people who had wanted to overthrow the European colonizers—and at the same time to modernize the Islamic world. They wanted to join reason to faith, tradition to modernity, the Islamic achievements of the ancient past to the European breakthroughs of their own age. They called for an Islamic rejuvenation that was going to return to the pristine seventh-century, or “salafi,” roots of Islam, while retaining a spirit of innovation—which made sense on the ground that, back in the seventh century, Islam itself was forcefully innovative.
Maybe there was something ambiguous in those nineteenth-century ideas. It has even been suggested that al-Afghani was never entirely sincere about his religious convictions, and used Islam for rhetorical purposes. Then again, the nineteenth-century ambitions and ambiguities ought to seem recognizable enough. In several places around the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—in Latin America, in India, in China—nationalist-minded intellectuals labored earnestly to bring their own autochthonous traditions together with European and North American innovations, in the hope of overthrowing the imperialists. That was an irresistible idea in those days. It is still an irresistible idea. But how to accomplish any of this was never really obvious.
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. He glanced at a few of the European breakthroughs of his own time, which meant the extreme-right political movements of the 1920s–1940s, whose doctrines he was happy to borrow so long as he could adapt them to his own purposes. And in 1928, with these several wispy inspirations beginning to solidify in his imagination, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood.
The organization was minuscule. It grew. It became a political force—though the Muslim Brotherhood was always many other things as well: rigorously pious and observant, intellectually vigorous, educationally and culturally active, earnestly welfare-oriented, athletics-oriented (the Boy Scouts were a direct influence), secretly paramilitary (although cautious and legal-minded in appearance), and not above staging the occasional assassination. Ultimately, al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood was revolutionary in the name of a Qur’anic utopia—the Brotherhood’s politicized vision of returning to the salafi seventh century, as adjusted for the modern age. And yet the Brotherhood was patient and even eager to endure the greatest of sufferings, given that utopia was eternal and did not have to arrive tomorrow. Al-Banna’s Brotherhood was, in short, the original model for what has come to be known as “Islamism”—with the “-ism” trailing after Islam in order to distinguish Islam itself, the ancient religion, from the modern political, and more than political, tendency that al-Banna brought into the world.
The Muslim Brotherhood spread from Egypt to Syria, Palestine, Sudan, and other places, and its inspiration spread even to Iran (via the Shiite variation of al-Banna’s idea elaborated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati) and India and Pakistan (via a sister movement founded independently by Abul Ala Mawdudi, al-Banna’s South Asian counterpart) and beyond. In a small way, the Brotherhood even spread to Europe, under the leadership of al-Banna’s secretary and son-in-law, Said Ramadan, who became Tariq Ramadan’s father. Said Ramadan was a loyal lieutenant—he was “the little Hassan al-Banna”—and as a very young man he took on some big responsibilities. Said Ramadan was in charge of spreading the Muslim Brotherhood’s message to Palestine (where he fought in 1948 in the war against Israel) and to Pakistan (where he coordinated affairs with Mawdudi’s sister movement). And Said Ramadan published a monthly magazine, Al-Muslimun, which introduced Mawdudi’s ideas to the Arabic public. In 1954, the Egyptian government under Nasser suppressed the Brotherhood and threw its leaders and a great many other people in jail, but Said Ramadan, having already done a month in prison, happened to be in Jerusalem at the crucial moment, and he escaped the crackdown. Then he fled from pillar to post in the Arab world, to Germany, and finally to faraway Geneva, where he founded his Islamic Center and settled his family. He started up Al-Muslimun again. Until his death, in 1995, Said Ramadan persisted in his proselytizing labors among the Muslims of Western Europe.
The number of people all over the world who have come to look on the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist legacies with ardent veneration has by now become immeasurably vast, and this is true nowadays even in Western Europe. The Muslim population in Western Europe numbered less than one million in the 1950s, but it has lately swelled to something like twenty million, though no one seems to have exact figures—and this means that, in the eyes of huge numbers of European Muslims, a more glorious ancestry than Tariq Ramadan’s does not exist. Ramadan himself, Swiss-born and Swiss-educated, has always exulted in his family legacy, sometimes humbly, sometimes arrogantly; sometimes presuming the right to speak for his long-gone revered grandfather; sometimes carrying himself with the wounded air of a man who, through his father, knows in the flesh the meaning of persecution and suffering.
And yet Tariq Ramadan’s august background generates, all by itself, still more controversy, and has done so from the very start. At the University of Geneva, Ramadan wrote his thesis on his grandfather’s ideas—and his committee judged the work to be a partisan apologia, unworthy of commendation. Ramadan protested. A Swiss Socialist rose to his defense, and a second committee was convened, a rare occurrence. Even then, the thesis was accepted without honors. This was an academic dispute, but also more than academic. And it has never gone away. It is a dispute over the meaning of Hassan al-Banna’s Islamic revival and its political and cultural legacies for today and not just the past—a dispute over whether al-Banna’s movement ought to be regarded as a progressive force, in spite of every complaint or reservation that could be lodged. Or is there something in al-Banna’s legacy that ought to worry us unto panic?
Everyone knows by now that Al Qaeda can trace its roots to a splinter tendency within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1960s and even earlier, and this history raises an awkward question, which Ramadan has had to answer more than once in the years since September 11. He answered the question one more time in Buruma’s Times magazine profile in February. He acknowledged that, yes, Al Qaeda emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood. But not from Grandfather al-Banna’s legacy. Al Qaeda drew its inspiration, instead, from Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), who enlisted in the Muslim Brotherhood only after al-Banna’s assassination. About al-Banna and Qutb, Ramadan said, “They didn’t even know each other”—which is true, narrowly speaking. Buruma quoted the remark and had every reason to do so (though it was odd of him not to mention how misleading was Ramadan’s observation, seen from a broader angle—a point to which I will return). Still, Buruma did go on to quote Ramadan’s account of his grandfather’s un-Qutb-like political goals. Al-Banna, in Ramadan’s phrase, “was in favor of a British-style parliamentary system, which was not against Islam.”
This second observation, though—is it equally correct, from a narrowly factual angle? In the Times magazine, Buruma elected to be wryly noncommittal. “This may or may not be an accurate representation of Hassan al-Banna,” he observed—which is the mark of Buruma’s charm as a writer, his gift for understatement and indirection. Even so, understated indirection is not always the best way to inform the public. He might have pointed out that Ramadan, in his book Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, or The Roots of the Muslim Revival, in 1998, devotes some two hundred pages to al-Banna and his visionary ideas. Ramadan concedes that al-Banna did want to replace the multi-party system in Egypt with a single national council, which might appear to be a one-party state—but Ramadan explains that, because of the fundamentally democratic nature of Islam, al-Banna’s proposal was tantamount to a multi-party system. Such is the interpretation in The Roots of the Muslim Revival. And Buruma might have pointed out one of the principal alternative interpretations of al-Banna and his ideas, if only to offer a little perspective on Ramadan and his way of thinking. According to this second interpretation, al-Banna is best described as a fascist.
This used to be a fairly common judgment on the Arab left, not to mention among European Marxists—maybe in some cases because “fascist” is every left-winger’s favorite insult, and for no larger reason. Still, something called “clerico-fascism” (to use the traditional term) is an old concept on the left, dating back to the 1920s in Italy, where it used to refer to the militant wing of the Catholic extreme right. And the applicability of that sort of label to al-Banna’s new movement in Egypt did seem, at least to some people in the past, hard to miss—an obvious applicability based on the populism and demagogic emotionalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, together with its authoritarianism, intolerance, violence, invasiveness, and a certain kind of giddy twentieth-century style utopianism, not to mention some of the direct influences that wended across the Mediterranean Sea from fascism’s original home in Europe. Then, too, in the eyes of a fair number of scholarly and journalistic observers today, a fascist label, or some reasonably similar term, seems faintly applicable—or more than faintly—even now.
You can see a sophisticated political-theory presentation of this analysis in the writings of Bassam Tibi, the Syrian-German scholar, though in regard to al-Banna and his legacies, Tibi, in his precision, prefers the loftier Arendtian word “totalitarian” (which, anyway, was coined by Mussolini) to the label “fascist” (likewise coined by Mussolini). A discussion of al-Banna’s fascism turns up repeatedly in the current literature on Tariq Ramadan. Paul Landau, in The Saber and the Qur’an, describes al-Banna, in his position as chief guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a figure comparable to Il Duce and the Führer. Landau attributes a lot of importance to al-Banna’s friendship with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem—who, as Hitler’s ally, helped organize a Muslim division of the Waffen-SS and then, after the war, when he was wanted for war crimes (owing to his SS division), succeeded in escaping to Egypt, thanks to help from al-Banna himself. Ian Hamel reprises Landau’s point about al-Banna and the mufti of Jerusalem in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan—though Hamel’s purpose is normally to knock down everything said by Landau, if he can. Even Hamel describes al-Banna as a man with a “totalitarian organization and an extremist program.”
Caroline Fourest offers a more striking observation in Brother Tariq by pointing to al-Banna’s Epistle to the Young. The epistle lays out, under the six clauses of his slogan (“God is our goal; the Prophet is our guide; the Qur’an is our constitution; struggle is our way; death on the path of God is our ultimate desire; God is great, God is great”), the five stages of his program. To wit: the creation of a properly Muslim individual person, in thought and belief; of a properly Muslim family; of a properly Muslim people or community; of an Islamic state; and, finally, the resurrection of the ancient Islamic Empire—which al-Banna describes by referring admiringly to what he calls the “German Reich” and to Mussolini’s dream of a resurrected Roman Empire, though naturally al-Banna regards his own resurrected Islamic Empire as vastly preferable and theologically more legitimate than anything Mussolini could have contemplated.
Back in the early 1940s, the British authorities in Egypt took this sort of sentiment seriously enough and, in the hope of avoiding anything resembling the pro-Axis coup d’état that took place in Iraq in 1941, presided over al-Banna’s arrest more than once. But thepointed aspect of Fourest’s discussion of al-Banna and his Epistle lies in her observation that Ramadan, in presenting the Epistle in one of his own popular audio recordings, has omitted the fascist references—which raises anew the question about forthrightness.
Among the present-day commentaries on al-Banna and fascism that I have lately stumbled on, the most eye-opening turns up in an essay by the Iranian scholars Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, which appears in an anthology called Islam and Democracyin the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg. The Boroumands (who are sisters) arrive at a grim evaluation: “The man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna.” By “totalitarian ideology,” the Boroumand sisters have in mind the doctrines of the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, whose influence on al-Banna they underline. And they point out the disastrous consequences: “From the Fascists—and behind them, from the European tradition of putatively ‘transformative’ or ‘purifying’ revolutionary violence that began with the Jacobins—Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as a political art form.”
There is nothing especially novel or bizarre in noticing that al-Banna displayed an eager interest in the aesthetic cult of death. The classic history of the Muslim Brotherhood, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, by Richard P. Mitchell, which appeared in 1969, was quite lucid on this topic even then. Al-Banna came up with a double phrase about the importance of death as a goal of jihad—“the art of death” (fann al-mawt) and “death is art” (al-mawt fann). This phrase became, in Mitchell’s description, a famous part of al-Banna’s legacy. Stringing together his own paraphrases with al-Banna’s words, Mitchell wrote: “The Qur’an has commanded people to love death more than life” (which, I might add, is a phrase that we have heard more than once in terrorist statements during the last few years, for instance in the videotape that was made by the Islamist group that attacked Madrid in 2004). And al-Banna continued, in Mitchell’s presentation: “Unless the philosophy of the Qur’an on death replaces the love of life which has consumed Muslims, they will reach naught. Victory can only come with the mastery of the art of death.
But what might strike some people as novel or controversial is the Boroumand sisters’ observation that al-Banna borrowed these grisly ideas from Europe, instead of deriving them, as al-Banna himself claimed to have done, from Qur’anic tradition. Hassan al-Banna, seen in this light, did something dreadful to Islam. He founded the modern vogue for suicide terror—the cult of death as political art form par excellence—and he attached this cult to Islam. This interpretation of al-Banna corresponds to Bassam Tibi’s view, though Tibi emphasizes that al-Banna served mostly to clear the way for Sayyid Qutb, and it was Qutb who played the crucial role.
Ian Buruma, as a co-author of Occidentalism, is a student of fascism’s influence outside of Europe, which means that he does know something about these several arguments and points, and the knowledge at his fingertips must surely have contributed to his skeptical response in the Times magazine to Ramadan’s description of his grandfather—though Buruma tactfully refrained from sharing any of this information with his readers. Buruma did remark that Ramadan’s description of al-Banna tells us “a lot about the way Ramadan presents himself.” But what does it tell us? In the Times magazine, Buruma confined himself to observing that Ramadan is a builder of bridges, someone who sets about “reconciling what seems hard to reconcile,” and he confirmed the point by quoting a professor at Notre Dame who praises Ramadan for “trying to bridge a divide and bring together people of diverse backgrounds and worldviews”—all of which does sound wonderful, though only so long as everyone agrees not to mention or describe some of the worldviews being bridged.
But these are questions from a couple of generations ago, and Ramadan is not his grandfather, nor does he appear to be an agent of his grandfather’s organization (though both Fourest and Landau do take him to be an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood). “What is past is past,” as the Qur’an says more than once. And the past cannot tell us what Ramadan has been trying to achieve in the present. His own ideas and intentions—where do they point, finally? That is what everyone has wanted to know during the last dozen years or so. In the Times magazine, Buruma put it directly: “What does he stand for?” And, having asked, he stood aside to allow Ramadan to respond, and Ramadan used the opportunity to speak about philosophical principles.
He stands, he explained, for “universal values” that are in line with the European Enlightenment. He stands for a rationalism seeded by doubt, though Ramadan prefers to invoke these concepts and beliefs by citing the wisdom of Islamic philosophers instead of their European counterparts. “Doubt did not begin with Descartes,” Ramadan instructed Buruma. “We have this construction today that the West and Islam are entirely separate worlds. This is wrong. Everything I am doing now, speaking of connections, intersections, universal values we have in common, this was already there in history.” So he stands for the commonalities linking the West and Islam—for the values that everyone ought to share, except that, in his version, he prefers to give these values an Islamic inflection.
His response is philosophically reasonable and historically defensible, given the medieval sages and the influences of Aristotle this way and that. On the other hand, it is worth asking why anyone should care about what was “already there in history,” in Ramadan’s phrase. Why bother with historical chronologies or with the matter of whether Descartes came first? These are not trick questions. There might be some obvious answers: to remind the hubristic and anti-Muslim Western publics of Muslim contributions to world civilization. Or to hearten the many publics of the Muslim world, who may feel a little discouraged and beset. Or simply to draw an accurate timeline of the history of ideas, which would be valuable in itself.
Then again, if Ramadan means to suggest, by pointing to Islamic thinkers of the Middle Ages, that ancient roots are everything; or that science and rationality come in different versions depending on one’s origins, a version for Muslims and a different version for everyone else; or that universalism itself comes in different versions, and my universalism may not be the same as yours, and truth varies from culture to culture—then, of course, further questions arise. The notion that science and rationality come in different versions is an old idea: it is the notion that, taken to a logical conclusion, led the Nazis to suppose that physics came in an Aryan version and in a Jewish version, which were not identical, even if Jewish physics and Aryan physics appeared to be identical; and led the Stalinists to suppose that proletarian science was one thing and bourgeois science another, in spite of every superficial resemblance; and so on. This kind of argument is not hard to stumble across in Islamist literature: the notion that science comes in a Western version and also in an Islamic version, which are not the same. The same idea re-appears today in a sweet-tempered postmodern variation, as a kind of multiculturalism taken to the nth degree, in which every culture is pictured as equivalent and unique, and each culture’s claims to universal principles ought to be taken with a grain of salt, as an agreeable rhetoric that probably does not mean very much.
So, then, where does Ramadan stand on these philosophical matters? Buruma did not inquire any further, but Ian Hamel does pose the question in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan. Hamel provides a number of isolated quotations suggesting that Ramadan draws a careful line between religious outlooks and scientific ones; and that he does know that medicine is medicine, regardless of its origins; and that his notion of universality is genuinely universal. But it is hard to judge the significance of those quotations when they are removed from their original context. In The Roots of the Muslim Revival Ramadan presents a quotation that makes al-Banna himself appear to have entertained a lucid and un-fascist view of natural science. But then again, in Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity Ramadan finally makes plain that, in his own view, Muslim universalism is not, in fact, the same as Western universalism, and Muslim reasoning, with its acknowledgment of doubt, is not the same as Western reasoning, with its own acknowledgment of doubt. This might explain why Ramadan regards biology education as merely an education in Western biology, which ought to be supplemented by a bit of Islamic biology (though I might add that in the Islamist literature there is a deeper argument against Darwin, which Qutb presents, drawing on Alexis Carrel, the French Vichy intellectual). In any case, Ramadan does believe that Islam and the West are separate—even cosmically separate. At least he appears to believe this in Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity. “We are indeed dealing with two different universes of reference,” he writes, “two civilizations and two cultures.”
On the topic of rational doubt and Descartes, he invokes the medieval philosopher al-Ghazali, who, in Ramadan’s interpretation, proposed arguments that anticipated Descartes by several hundred years. This must be what Ramadan had in mind in pointing out to Buruma that “doubt did not begin with Descartes.” But in Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity he goes into more detail, and the details suggest that al-Ghazali’s notion of doubt points in one direction and Descartes’ in another—an observation that accords with al-Ghazali’s reputation as the medieval philosopher who issued the most formidable challenge to high Islamic rationalism. About al-Ghazali, Ramadan writes, “At first, we can find innumerable correspondences between his thought and that of Descartes. Such correspondences certainly exist, but the frame of reference which gives the solution to going beyond doubt is fundamentally different.”
In Ramadan’s view, ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for the kind of tension or difference between the sacred and the non-sacred that exists in Western thought. The ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for a Promethean spirit of rebellion, and have never allowed for a sense of the tragic. That is because in Islam, as per Ramadan (and here he invokes the medieval philosopher Ibn Taymiyya), the zone of the sacred contains only a single concept, which is tawhid, or the oneness of God. Tawhid leaves no room for tensions, rebellions, or doubts. A deep and tragic sense of doubt is not even a conceptual possibility. Buruma in the Times magazine pursued this philosophical matter sufficiently at least to ask Ramadan if he has “ever experienced any doubts himself.” Ramadan replied: “Doubts about God, no.” And Buruma seems not to have realized that, in responding with this easy certainty, Ramadan was surely offering more than a self-confident autobiographical observation. Doubt, in Ramadan’s interpretation, can exist only within the limits allowed by tawhid—meaning that, for a proper Muslim, doubts about God are literally inconceivable. A Muslim, in Ramadan’s formulation, may forget, but a Muslim cannot doubt.
Ramadan’s harsher critics would argue that in speaking to Buruma the way he did on these abstract and historical questions, not to mention on his grandfather’s ideals, he was cagily deploying a “double discourse”—a language intended to deceive Western liberals about the grain of his own thought. An accusation of “double discourse” has dogged Ramadan for many years in France. It is a chief complaint against him, and a big source of anxiety among his critics. Fourest, in Brother Tariq, documents what appears to be rather a lot of “double discourse,” instances in which Ramadan appears to have said one thing to the general public and something else to his Muslim audiences. Landau, in The Saber and the Qur’an, offers his own documentation. On the other hand, Hamel, in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan, will have none of this. Hamel is a Swiss journalist from a Moroccan background, and he does seem to have listened to a great many speeches and audio recordings by Ramadan, and to have conducted many interviews, and generally to be more at ease in Ramadan’s European Muslim environment than Fourest and Landau appear to be; and he earnestly believes that Fourest and Landau, in their animosity, have wrongly allowed themselves to think the worst.
And yet what are we to do, in that event, with the expansive puddle of footnoted documentation that lies at the bottom of Fourest’s pages, and the additional puddle at the bottom of Landau’s? I have no way to resolve this quandary, except to hazard a guess that all these writers, friend and foe alike, may have arrived at a truth. Islam, in Ramadan’s view of it, is a comprehensive system that takes in the universe, and the comprehensive quality allows him—requires him—to view each new thing in an Islamic light, as if from on high. I think that, from his lofty Islamic heights, he ends up speaking in a naturally dialectical language, secular (in a style descending from both Descartes and al-Ghazali) and at the same time Islamic (in a style descending from al-Ghazali alone). Ramadan’s outlook allows him to speak on a level that is true and on a level that is truer; and sometimes the two levels are the same. Is there something deliberately deceptive in this way of going about things? Some people are bound to think so. And yet someone else, more willing to grant the presuppositions, might conclude that Ramadan has stayed reasonably consistent all the while, and, if some people cannot make sense of him, that is the fault of his undialectical listeners.
I would suppose that, in the case of Buruma and The New York Times Magazine, Ramadan might have figured that if the journalist required on-the-spot instruction into the deeper meanings of words such as “doubt” in their al-Ghazalian and Cartesian contexts, this was not up to Tariq Ramadan. Nor was it Ramadan’s obligation to explain how Grandfather al-Banna’s intention to abolish the multi-party system was perfectly compatible with Britishstyle parliamentarism, given the democratic nature of Islam. I would imagine that from Ramadan’s perspective, with his notion of “two different universes of reference, two civilizations and two cultures,” there was not much point in spelling out every last nuance to the cordial journalist, especially since, in his books, Ramadan has already done so. Some things may be ambiguous, but nothing is secret. Besides, Ramadan is generally not in the business of making enemies. If the correspondent from The New York Times Magazine was intent on coming away from their debates and discussions with a feeling that, in Buruma’s phrase, “we agreed on most issues”—hey, how wonderful! Why pick a fight?
Ramadan’s various opinions and interpretations ought not to be conflated with Islam itself—and this point, as I have learned from experience, requires emphasis, and even double emphasis. When I wrote about Ramadan some years ago, I noticed that all too many non-Muslim readers are quick to seize on any disagreeable or troubling statement by a Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole—even if these readers are warned not to do anything of the sort. So I stress the point. Nor does Ramadan himself claim to be speaking for every last Muslim on the planet. He identifies several modern currents of Islamic thought or Muslim self-identification, even apart from the ancient denominations that have transfixed everybody’s attention right now, and he knows that all these currents do not accord with one another. In the Times magazine, Buruma very properly asked Ramadan to specify which of the currents is his own, and Ramadan answered with a simple phrase. His own current of Islamic thought is the one that goes under the paradoxical-sounding label of “salafi reformist.”
Which means? Buruma came up with a definition by plucking a sentence out of Ramadan’s Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. A “salafi reformist,” Buruma explained, quoting Ramadan’s book, is someone who aims at the following goals: “to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level, and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.” This quotation is accurate, in a fashion—I have located it on page 27 of Ramadan’s book, as well as in a slightly different setting in To Be a European Muslim—but, then again, less than accurate because of the way that Buruma has severed the quoted words from some other remarks on the same page and the previous one. Taken by themselves, the quoted words make salafi reformism sound like an earnest and slightly dowdy do-good effort to adapt Islam to the modern liberal world. But that is a mistake. It is an old mistake, too, that journalists persist in making, as both Fourest and Landau point out with a lot of exasperation in their respective books. In a footnote on the topic of “reformism” in his book The Roots of the Muslim Revival, back in 1998, Ramadan himself halfway acknowledges the potential for misunderstanding, though he thinks he is justified in using the term anyway.
Salafi reformism, in his usage, signifies something precise, which has nothing to do with liberal reformism in the conventional sense. Buruma asked Ramadan to list his two favorite Muslim philosophers. Ramadan duly named Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh—the late nineteenth-century figures whom Ramadan regards as the progenitors of Hassan al-Banna’s Islamic revival and the Muslim Brotherhood (though other people would insist rather sharply that al-Banna’s Islamism, in its radicalism and rigidity, departed fundamentally from those nineteenth-century thinkers). Anyway, not many readers of the Times magazine are likely to have recognized these nineteenth-century names. And yet if Buruma had thought to ask Ramadan about some more recent thinkers in the salafi reformist mode, Ramadan could have gone on listing names, and some of those additional names would, in fact, be recognizable to a good many readers. Ramadan has already listed the names in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam—has done this, as it happens, in the paragraph directly preceding the one from which Buruma has plucked his misleading definition.
Here, on page 26, is Hassan al-Banna; and Abul Ala Mawdudi from the South Asian subcontinent, whose activities Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, coordinated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fellow thinker in Iran. And here is Sayyid Qutb, one more influential reformist among the others, listed without comment—even if Qutb’s legacy, in one of its offshoots, did lead to Al Qaeda. In Ramadan’s usage, salafi reformism turns out to be the philosophical underpinning for modern Islamism in the sundry versions that descend from al-Banna’s (and Mawdudi’s) original idea. Naturally, these sundry versions do not always chime with one another, and this, too, Ramadan carefully spells out. In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he divides the descendants of the original reformist idea into subcurrents or tendencies—though in order to distinguish among these tendencies, you have to inspect his account rather closely, unto the fine print, meaning the footnotes. And this kind of close inspection is worth undertaking, not just to shed a little light on Ramadan’s philosophy but also to cast an extra glance at the related but different theme of Ramadan’s image in the press.
So, then, the subcurrents of salafi reformism, as per Tariq Ramadan. One of these subcurrents turns out to be his own: the outspokenly Western variant, the version whose particularities Ramadan defines with the attractive language that Buruma has mistakenly applied to the entire movement—a language of preserving Muslim identity and becoming loyal citizens of democratic countries. Ramadan’s subcurrent is not the principal one, however. The principal subcurrent flourishes only in the Muslim world (and, in Ramadan’s book, only in the footnotes)—though “flourishes” may give the wrong impression, since, as he observes with a touch of bitterness, the organizations and movements within this subcurrent “are almost everywhere, though in different degrees, subjected to imprisonment, torture, and persecution.”
Plainly, Ramadan is writing here about the Muslim Brotherhood, together with (I suppose) its several national and sectarian variations and offshoots—the Muslim Brotherhood in the Muslim countries themselves, where martyrdom has come to figure as part of the movement’s identity. The intention of this, the most prominent current of the salafi reformists, is fully revolutionary: it is to establish an Islamic society.
And then, in his honesty, Ramadan somewhat ruefully cites still another subcurrent that flows from the salafi reformist source—though, in his view, this final tendency has emptied salafi reformism of almost all of its original content. This final tendency, he tells us, has gone over to “strictly political activism,” joined to “a literalist reading” of the sacred texts, leading to “radical revolutionary action.” Ramadan describes this tendency as “political literalist Salafism”—which Buruma in the Times magazine mentions by name, though without identifying it as an offshoot of the salafi reformist idea. Ramadan explains that political literalist salafism has attracted “a lot of public attention”—though it is represented in the Western countries only “by structures and factional networks.” This last phrase is incomprehensible to me, but it communicates an impression that, in spite of the public attention, political literalist salafism does not count for much.
Ramadan disapproves of this tendency, owing to its textual literalism and its unspecified departures from salafi reformist principles—though he also rushes to ascribe the tendency’s errors not to any elements intrinsic to its salafi reformist roots but to the ghastly way that Muslim governments have suppressed the mainstream salafi reformists.
As to why the political literalist salafists should have attracted “a lot of public attention,” Ramadan says nothing at all in his main text. Only in a footnote does he mention “violent and spectacular actions,” and not even there does he remark on any sort of radical departure from basic morality. Nor does he define any relation that might exist between this sort of thing and the legacies of Qutb. A veil of timidity and euphemism hangs over the entire discussion, which could lead a sleepy reader to miss his meaning altogether.
And yet it is obvious what Ramadan is talking about in this particular passage. Political literalist salafism is the doctrine underlying the terrorism that has emerged from salafi reformism—the vast wave of random murder, the vogue for “violent and spectacular actions,” that has swept across so many regions of the Muslim world and beyond. That is what he means by “radical revolutionary action.” He does refer somewhat cautiously in a footnote to “a section” of the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria, by which he must have in mind the people who went about slaughtering whole villages in Algeria during the 1990s and who are evidently not finished yet. But mostly he is the sphinx. At least Ramadan does not deny the estranged sibling relation between his own wing of salafi reformism and the champions of “radical revolutionary action”—these different currents that descend from the same source. Ramadan is, on this particular theme, more straightforward than his Times profiler.
Still, Ramadan has left out a few details, and these do add up to something. On the topic of al-Banna and Qutb, for instance, it is true, yes, that in spite of being exact contemporaries, the two men never did meet in person. Al-Banna was a salafi reformist from the start, but Qutb, in his younger years, was a secular intellectual, a poet, and a literary critic—which meant that al-Banna and Qutb disapproved of each other. Still, they did not live on opposite sides of the earth. Qutb, as I learn from a biography by Adnan A. Musallam called From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism, adhered to a school of Romantic poetry in Egypt, influenced by Coleridge among others, and his ideas about poetry led him to seek truth in his own heart (as opposed to following the traditions of established schools) and at the same time to yearn romantically for death. Qutb’s poetry took an apocalyptic turn as well—which, though his biographer does not make the point, could be compared stanza for stanza with some of the apocalyptic poetry of the fin-de-siècle European Symbolist poets. And all of this, the Romantic and Symbolist literary impulses, mirrored al-Banna’s Islamic thinking pretty closely.
What was salafi reformism, after all, if not a belief that truth could be obtained directly from the Qur’an and the seventh century (as opposed to following the traditions of the established schools of Islamic jurisprudence)? And what was al-Banna’s phrase about “the art of death” and “death is art” if not an Islamic variation on Qutb’s Romantic-poetry yearning for the eternity of the tomb? As for Qutb’s Symbolist-poetry apocalyptic fantasies—well! This was Islamism itself, in its Mussolinian, Third Reich–style yearning for the final showdown. Seen from this angle, Qutb’s Romantic secularism and al-Banna’s Romantic Islamism were variations on a theme. And then, in the mid-1940s, Qutb began to drift in Islamist directions himself, and al-Banna was anything but hostile. Sayyid Qutb and Naguib Mahfouz made up a mutual admiration society in those days (Qutb, in his capacity as literary critic, played an important role in bringing public recognition to Mahfouz’s talent), and in 1948 Qutb and Mahfouz and a few other people launched a magazine, with Qutb as editor.
Al-Banna tried to woo the magazine for the Muslim Brotherhood. The next year, al-Banna was assassinated. Qutb happened to be in the United States at the time, and, in one of the stranger passages of his report on his American experience, he recounted that Americans were jubilant over al-Banna’s death—which has got to be a fantasy, given that in 1949 hardly anyone in the United States had heard of Hassan al-Banna. The fantasy nonetheless suggests that al-Banna’s late-life appreciation for Qutb had begun to be balanced by Qutb’s appreciation for al-Banna as a world-historical figure, even if they never met. Then Qutb returned to Egypt and enlisted in the Muslim Brotherhood, and found his way to al-Banna’s son-in-law, “the little Hassan al-Banna,” Said Ramadan, the editor of Al-Muslimun. Said Ramadan’s magazine presented the ideas of Abu Ala Mawdudi to the Arabic-speaking world, and Qutb adopted some of these ideas for what now became his own ultra-revolutionary doctrine.
Qutb began to contribute his own monthly articles to Al-Muslimun. Some of those monthly articles were eventually gathered together in a book called Toward an Islamic Society. But Qutb’s most important contributions to Al-Muslimun consisted of commentaries on the Qur’an, which were strikingly original—commentaries written not in the spirit of traditional jurisprudential analysis but, instead, in the spirit of Romantic literary criticism, drawn from the heart instead of from the scholarly texts. These were the articles that, in book form, eventually blossomed into Qutb’s gigantic masterwork, In the Shade of the Qur’an, which is widely regarded as the single greatest literary product of the worldwide Islamist movement.
And so, yes—a third time, yes—Qutb and Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather never met, if only because of al-Banna’s assassination. But Ramadan’s father, Said Ramadan, the editor of Al-Muslimun, not only knew Qutb; he was, at the crucial moment, Qutb’s most important supporter in the world of the Egyptian intellectuals. Said Ramadan was the editor who got Qutb started on what became his most important work. And at the worst moment of Qutb’s life—in 1965, when, having already languished in prison during most of the time since the crackdown of 1954, he was accused one last time of plotting a revolution, for which he would be hanged a year later—his alleged conspiracy was said to include, of course, Said Ramadan, the man who avoided a similar fate only because, back in 1954, he happened to have been out of the country.
Ian Hamel in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan insists that, in his last years, Said Ramadan put some distance between himself and Qutb’s legacy. But that is a late-life detail. The biographies of Said Ramadan and Sayyid Qutb are otherwise intertwined. And in this case what is past is not, in fact, past, and Tariq Ramadan’s career has likewise twined itself around the Qutb legacy. Said Ramadan worked long ago with Mawdudi in Pakistan, and Mawdudi’s British followers established their Islamic Foundation, and Tariq Ramadan published his first two English-language books at the Islamic Foundation and spent his year of study at its campus for reasons that were entirely natural and familial. The Islamic Foundation has been slowly bringing out a handsome edition of Mawdudi’s own multi-volume Qur’anic commentary, Toward Understanding the Qur’an, translated from Urdu into English. And the foundation has also been bringing out Qutb’s In the Shade of the Qur’an, likewise in a handsome edition—some ten volumes of which, out of what is promised ultimately to be eighteen, now sit on my own bookshelves. All of this makes perfect sense, given that salafi reformism does constitute a movement broad enough to stretch from al-Banna to his son-in-law to Mawdudi and Qutb and, ultimately, to Tariq Ramadan. The Islamic Foundation, from its British campus with its Al-Banna Hall, has done nothing at all peculiar in publishing Mawdudi, Qutb, and Ramadan, these several intellectual stars in a single constellation.
Only why did none of this, not even a trace, appear in the portrait of Ramadan in the Times magazine? It’s not as if Buruma skipped over the issue of Ramadan’s relation, via his grandfather, to Qutb. Buruma did pose the question, even if he satisfied himself by publishing Ramadan’s remark about Grandfather al-Banna and Qutb not having known each other. Nor did Buruma lack for information of his own. In Occidentalism he discusses Qutb. He points out the Nazi influence on Qutb’s thinking. The editors of The New York Times magazine (who some years ago published my own essay on Qutb) had every reason to expect that on this topic, as on many topics, Buruma knew what he was doing. He must have arrived at the conclusion for some reason that in the Times magazine it was good to ask the question about the relation to Sayyid Qutb, but bad to answer the question.
In any event, the family ties between Tariq Ramadan and Sayyid Qutb offer an analytic opportunity. Ramadan’s reputation for less-than-frankness raises a bit of a problem for anyone who cares to figure him out. If you wanted to know the beliefs and opinions of any number of public figures, you could go ask them, and you could publish their replies with a reasonable certainty that you were getting the real poop. Not so Ramadan. He poses a difficulty—the constant possibility of an esoteric meaning. Still, there is a way to put his doctrines into some kind of historical and intellectual perspective, and this is to stand Ramadan next to Qutb—the father’s son next to the father’s author, the Islamic Foundation’s book-writer next to the Islamic Foundation’s book-writer, salafi reformist next to salafi reformist. Ramadan himself devotes a chapter of The Roots of the Muslim Revival to Qutb, just to show that nothing is illegitimate in proposing such a comparison. And, with Ramadan standing next to Qutb, it ought to be possible one more time to ask the question, which still has not been answered: what does he stand for, in the end? Salafi reformism—what does it amount to, finally?
Salafi reformism, judging from Qutb and Ramadan, turns out to be a kind of Rousseauianism. There is a pure and authentic way of living, which is the Muslim way. And yet the Muslims, who were born free, are everywhere in chains. The Muslims are oppressed by what Ramadan calls “a Western aggressive cultural invasion”—which is the kind of language that Qutb liked to use half a century ago (and al-Banna before him). A very great danger arises from the Western “colonization of minds,” in Ramadan’s phrase, by which he means the influence of television. This was Qutb’s worry exactly, even in the pre-television age, which he described as “the cultural influences which had penetrated my mind.” And so the road back to the pure and authentic way of living must be found.
The road is textual, and it leads back to the foundational documents of seventh-century Islam, which record the pure and the authentic before the days of Western cultural aggression and the colonization of minds. And yet neither of these men wants to reconstruct the seventh century brick by brick. Both of them are convinced that, in its comprehensiveness, the Qur’anic revelation is larger than the modern world and can swallow it whole—convinced that, instead of reconstructing the seventh century, they can reconstruct the modern age, and do so along salafist lines. They can fill each element of modern life with a proper Islamic meaning. Therefore they need to read the ancient texts with an eye to the modern world and come up with new interpretations: Islamic responses, point by point, to the challenge from the West, which conventional Islam has failed to do. That is why they are “reformists”—unlike the scholastic traditionalists (to use Ramadan’s term), who merely go on rehearsing the ancient Islamic jurisprudence; and unlike the starker fundamentalists, who do want to rebuild the seventh century.
It has to be said that, in regard to reading the ancient texts with an eye to the modern world, Qutb is vastly more interested in the ancient texts, whereas Ramadan appears to be mostly absorbed in the modern world. Still, the principle remains intact. And then, since both men are seeking a practical result—the reconstruction of a proper Muslim community—they have no alternative but to give their project a political aspect, which is the doctrine of al-Banna.
And the ancient-and-modern orientation leads to another common trait, which is the tendency on the part of both men to grab hold of modern political vocabularies and convert them to their own purposes—quite as if a political vocabulary could be regarded as one more empty modern reality waiting to be infused with Qur’anic meaning. Do modern political thinkers speak about such-and-such? Qutb and Ramadan will rush to do the same, only in versions that seem to them faithful to the Qur’an. Qutb, following this instinct, sometimes sounds like an early twentieth-century revolutionary anarchist. Then again, sometimes he sounds (in one of his earlier books) like a New Dealer. “Social security” figures among his ideals. Those are vocabularies from his own time.
Ramadan, being a man of the postmodern era, prefers to sound like a liberation theologian from Latin America.
Or he sounds like one of his anti-globalist allies, railing against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He cites the Greco-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, the philosopher of left-wing “autonomy,” which is Ramadan’s way of indulging in his own anarchist-like flights of fancy. Or Ramadan sounds like a moderate reformer in the conventional civic and not the salafi sense—like someone who has a few practical and well-intentioned proposals to make on behalf of marginalized populations.
Yet the modern rhetorics always turn out to be translations, in one fashion or another, of Qur’anic concepts. They are worldly exteriors with Islamic interiors. Qutb, in launching his anarchistic odes to freedom, means to say that, under his proposed resurrected Islamic caliphate, human beings will no longer be tyrannously ruled by other human beings but only by God, as interpreted by God’s representatives. The libertarian rhetoric turns out to be a theocratic argument against democracy. By “social security,” Qutb means the traditional Islamic obligation to pay a charity tax. Ramadan invokes civil libertarian arguments in order to defend the autonomy of his reconstructed Muslim community. He invokes the anti-globalist rhetoric of his left-wing allies in order to defend the mainstream Islamist movements in the Muslim world. And so forth, throughout the entire modern terminology.
None of this is meant to deceive anyone. These people are trying to conduct a thorough “reform” not of the world, but of Islam—a campaign to ensure that Islamic thinking will expand to match each new innovation of modern life without losing the connection to the original revelation. So they look for modern concepts, and for Qur’anic equivalents, and they fill the modern with the Qur’anic. And with all of this in hand, they set about posing their challenges to the unreformed Muslims, and to the modern, non-Muslim world.
The challenges they pose turn out to be different, however. Qutb wrote his principal works in the decades between the 1940s and 1966; and, like the fascists on the extreme right in those years, or the Marxists and the anarchists on the extreme left, he pictured the entire world hurtling toward a catastrophic crisis, which he interpreted along paranoid and apocalyptic lines. His vision of the impending collapse of both the West and the communist East Bloc, his vision of an Islamic revolutionary vanguard establishing somewhere an
Islamic state and using it to export the Islamic revolution to the Muslim world and then to everywhere else, his vision of the Qur’anic utopia to come—all this was fairly wild: a grandiose version of al-Banna’s already pop-eyed and Mussolinian idea about resurrecting the Islamic Empire. Perhaps Qutb’s vision enjoyed one great advantage over the other mid-twentieth-century revolutionary projects, and this was Islam, an exceptionally sturdy base on which to rest his many novel ideas. Even so, his was a vision in the mid-twentieth-century mode.
Ramadan bears no relation to any of this. He is post-paranoid and postapocalyptic. He thinks that Western-dominated globalization produces the poverty of the underdeveloped “south,” the Muslim world included, and ought to be resisted. He is furious about Western assaults on the Muslim world, which in his eyes seem to be taking place no matter what the West happens to be doing or not doing—failing for such a long time to intervene in Bosnia, or choosing to intervene in Afghanistan (which strikes him as an American “retaliation against the people of Afghanistan”). In the 1990s he swelled with indignation at the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and these days he swells with still more indignation at the invasion that overthrew Saddam. Everything the United States does strikes him as something of a plot; but this is not unusual. He does not seem obsessed by the coming catastrophe. He has no intention of launching revolutionary wars. He adheres to the preaching, or dawa, school of salafi reformism, and he wants to achieve his successes through persuasion and legal methods. His dreams do not point to a utopian climax. Mostly he wants to construct an Islamic counterculture within the West—his reconstructed Muslim community, which instead of withdrawing behind ghetto walls will take its place within the larger non-Muslim society.
Ramadan wants a share of the public space, not just a share of the private sphere. Or more than wants: he demands a share of the public space. A properly Muslim life has a physical and communal quality, which must be lived in physical space, and this will require modifications in the existing European secularism. Therefore he wants—he needs—to stick a few sharp elbows into the larger society, demanding his extra space. And does he dream in secret of something larger? Maybe he does, on some theological level, which would not be unusual. All great religions dream great (and dangerous) dreams. Still, Fourest and Landau and some of Ramadan’s other panicky critics suspect something much more worldly. They suspect that clandestinely Ramadan, too, entertains the larger pop-eyed more-than-theological project: a world dominated by Islam, with his Muslim counterculture serving as the future empire’s fifth column within Europe, under the ultimate control of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Exactly why the panicky critics harbor these suspicions ought to be easily understood. The Muslim emigration has turned out to be one of history’s largest events, and in scattered regions across the whole of Western Europe, old-stock populations nowadays wake up to discover that people from the Muslim world have suddenly come to dominate this or that neighborhood or town, and Arabic or Turkish has begun to outpace some of the smaller European languages, and here and there Islamist groups are demanding censorship of one thing or another, or are demanding gender-segregated beaches, or the curricular demise of Voltaire or Darwin, or an end to history instruction on the crimes of Nazism. And there are always sermons by one or another exotically costumed Islamic scholar fantasizing about a Muslim conquest of Europe and the world, which therefore can be cited as evidence of a giant conspiracy. And it is true that, in Europe, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups are prospering among the immigrant populations, not to mention Qutb’s radical fringe groups, which are thoroughly terrifying; and true that Ramadan is theorizing the Muslim advance; and true that Ramadan wants his Muslim counterculture to promote the mainstream Islamists elsewhere in the world.
Only none of this needs to be interpreted as a fifth column acting on the Brotherhood’s secret plan. Mostly Ramadan’s worldwide ambition appears to be something else entirely: the dream of a Western Islam, in his own salafi reformist version, taking the lead among Muslim currents everywhere; the dream of Western Islam, in his version of it, becoming the center, instead of a faraway outpost, of the larger Muslim world. But that is not a millenarian eschatology.
Judged on strictly literary grounds, there is no comparison between these men. Qutb, even in translation, commands a prose style of his own, which is typically serene and discursive, and nonetheless capable of sulfurous outpourings. He has the advantage of a background in literary criticism, which allows him to comment easily on the Qur’an and its style and mood. Most of all he has the advantage of the Qur’an, which occupies his attention. Qutb shows no embarrassment at all in noting the seventh-century barbarities whenever they seem apropos—the cruel amputations and other punishments ordained by huddud, the penal code, which he carefully discusses (“In case of a third or fourth theft, scholars have different views as to what is cut off,” and so forth). The barbarous passages add a peculiar thrill to his writings, a frisson of the weird and the forbidden that seems all the more powerful because his tone of voice never changes: the tone of a man speaking with tranquility and confidence about things that are cosmically true.
And Qutb is, not least, a writer capable of summoning up the passions of hatred. He rains mighty blows upon the Jews of ancient Arabia. He scrupulously acknowledges that, here and there, the Qur’an contains passages that show compassion or kindliness to this or that individual Jew, but he prefers the other, more numerous passages: the descriptions of Jewish treachery and enmity during Muhammad’s years in Medina, which in Qutb’s estimation represent the eternal Jewish trait. In Qutb’s commentaries (just as in Said Ramadan’s Al-Muslimun, according to Hamel), you stumble here and there on references to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in a simple display of the continuing influence of Nazi and Nazi-like influences from Europe, even in the period after Nazism had been defeated; and in a simple display, likewise, of Qutb’s reformism, to use the right word—his willingness to interpret the ancient texts on the basis of modern ideas. Not every modern idea is a good one, after all; nor every reform, a forward step.
The Swiss professor, by contrast, who never languished in an Egyptian jail, has never managed to work up a reliable prose style. Sometimes Ramadan writes in a heated and emotional tone, personal, slightly archaic, grim, tight-lipped; and this is startling to see. The very first sen of Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity offer a breathless description of an unnamed person who turns out to be the author’s father: “I still have the intimate memory of his presence and of his silences. Sometimes, long silences sunk in memory and thoughts and, often, in bitterness. He had a keen eye and a penetrating look that now carried his warmth, kindness and tears, and now armed his determination, commitment and anger.” At other times he lapses into a faux esoteric and ecumenical guru tone, suitable for all denominations. The first sentence of Ramadan’s new book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet: “In the hours of dawn when this book was written, there was silence, meditative solitude, and the experience of a journey, beyond time and space, toward the heart, the essence of spiritual quest, and initiation into meaning.”
More often, Ramadan produces a solid professorial expository prose, unremarkable and clear, except for some obvious infelicities of translation. He never even toys with the idea that pulses so insistently within Qutb’s Qur’anic commentaries—the idea that merely by turning his pages you are performing a religious act, or are engaging, soldierlike, in a bold and dangerous mission. Then again, if Ramadan makes very few efforts to inspire a sense of spiritual elevation, neither does he strain himself to incite his readers. Ramadan is not a hater—not by Qutb’s standards, certainly. Sulfurous odors do not seep upward from the page.
But his books can seem a little bowdlerized. His own recounting of Muhammad’s life and teachings in In the Footsteps of the Prophet is relentlessly bland, as if he has gone out of his way to avoid the Qur’anic tones of florid exaltation. “Life went on in Medina.” “The situation had become difficult for the Muslim community in Medina.” “The Muslims had returned to Medina and daily life had resumed its course, in a far less tense atmosphere than before.” The Prophet himself is a very nice person. Muhammad adores his first wife:
“He loved her so much.” Also his other wives. Muhammad is reasonable. The little contradictions that pop up in the Qur’an, which Qutb patiently disentangles, pretty much disappear in Ramadan’s account. On the topic of the Jews—to stick with the controversies in Medina—Ramadan presents Muhammad as thoughtful and just. Even when Muhammad orders the massacre of all the males of a Jewish tribe, Ramadan makes it clear that Muhammad has issued the order not because the hostile Jewish tribe embodies an eternal quality of Zionist evil, but because Muhammad needs to teach his numerous enemies, Jewish and otherwise, a stern lesson. And because the massacre succeeds at doing this, no further massacres of that sort need to be committed, thus demonstrating Muhammad’s wisdom and even his restraint.
The Jews themselves arouse nothing venomous in Ramadan’s account of Muhammad’s life and experience of revelation. On the contrary, Ramadan emphasizes the common God worshiped by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. Naturally Ramadan acknowledges that, in Medina, Muhammad’s relations with the Jewish tribes take an unfortunate turn. And yet, in Ramadan’s version, “those developments by no means affected the principles underlying the relationship between Muslims and Jews: mutual recognition and respect, as well as justice before the law or in the settlement of disputes between individuals and/or groups.” From a present-day political standpoint, Ramadan’s presentation is more than superior, it is altogether commendable.
Passages in Ramadan’s account could lead you to believe that if Qur’anic scholars ever wanted to spell out a scriptural basis for Muslim recognition of a Jewish state, the prophetic revelations might well prove to be, upon examination, more elastically flexible than previously imagined. Anyway, a good story, like an inveterate thief, can always be usefully amputated, in order to eliminate the disagreeable antisocial aspects. But then the surgical amputations, and Ramadan’s spirit of uplift and multicultural piety, might prompt a skeptical reader to wonder if, as in Ramadan’s several remarks to the credulous Buruma, something crucial may have been craftily withheld. Something about the Jews, maybe? Violence? Women? I do not bring up these three issues to be provocative. Ramadan’s life during the last few years, his history of polemics and controversies, has already broached these particular matters—which drags me back one last time to the double question of his Genevan opinions and their shimmery Lake Léman reflections in the press.
In the Times magazine, Buruma did inquire into these three controversies—over Jews, violence, and women—and, in regard to the Jews, he did this by wondering about twenty-first-century France instead of seventh century Arabia. This was appropriate. Four years ago, Ramadan launched a polemic against six well-known French intellectuals—Pierre-André Taguieff, Alexandre Adler, André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, and Bernard Kouchner—whom he grouped together as Jews. And he launched some accusations. In Buruma’s summary of the affair, Ramadan complained that the various intellectuals had abandoned universal principles by becoming, in Buruma’s phrase, “kneejerk defenders of Israel.” Buruma considered this complaint to be, in his word, “unfair,” and that was because the several intellectuals in question, as he described them, “had all championed many causes other than Israel, including putting a stop to the mass murder of Muslims in Bosnia.”
But then, in his even-handed spirit, Buruma went on to compare the intellectuals to “many early neoconservatives” in the United States, which is a description that five or six readers of the Times magazine may have regarded as neutral and objective, but was bound to be viewed by everyone else as pejorative, if not a withering condemnation. And Buruma observed that at least some of those French intellectuals struck back at Ramadan in ways that were, in Buruma’s words, “shrill” and “vastly overblown,” namely, by accusing Ramadan of anti-Semitism—which, in Buruma’s view, they should not have done because these kinds of attacks, in Buruma’s words, “have a way of sticking to their target.” But did Ramadan deserve these attacks in a non-shrill and underblown way? Buruma went out on a limb. Ramadan, he flatly declared, “is in fact one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism.”
Such was the account in the Times magazine. It was not accurate. In his polemic of four years ago, Ramadan’s chief complaint about the people he grouped together as Jewish intellectuals did not boil down to calling them “knee-jerk defenders of Israel.” Ramadan complained that his group of intellectuals had abandoned what he called universal values in order to advance their narrow community interests as Jews. A retreat to Jewish tribalism: that was the accusation, and the communal loyalties had to do, above all else, with French domestic politics. Ramadan accused the intellectuals of making a false issue out of anti-Semitism in present-day France, a false complaint that bigotry against Jews has lately begun to revive in a novel form, different from the Christian religious hatreds of the Middle Ages, and different from the hatreds of the fascist era, though perhaps not entirely different. The writer who has chiefly advanced this idea is Taguieff, the author of a book called La Nouvelle Judéophobie (which has been somewhat oddly translated as Rising From the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe); and Taguieff’s was the first name to come under Ramadan’s attack. Taguieff is the principal historian of racism in France today, and, as it happens, he is not Jewish—a mistake on Ramadan’s part, which Buruma duly noted. Still, the question remains: regardless of Taguieff’s ancestors or religious affiliation, does his notion about the rise of a new kind of French anti-Semitism, a “new Judeophobia,” reflect some kind of communal loyalty to the Jews on his part, perhaps a loyalty that he has freely chosen for one reason or another? The obnoxiousness of this question ought to be obvious. The only proper question ought to be, is Taguieff a good historian?
This, at least, is answerable. A new kind of hostility to Jews does seem to have cropped up in France, and the evidence for this proposition, I would think, has the misfortune of being overwhelming. It is confirmed by the flight of some French Jews from the immigrant working-class suburbs; by the much-discussed difficulty or inability of even non-Jewish schoolteachers in those same suburbs to teach students about the Holocaust, out of fear of arousing Islamist anger; and by some well-reported violent crimes. It is true that, for a couple of years, the government in France, and the mainstream press as well, stuck to the view that most of this was greatly exaggerated. And yet after a while, when the problem failed to go away, the French government organized its own advisory commission, and the commission arrived at the conclusion—reported in The New York Times in March 2005—that 62 percent of the hate crimes committed in France during the previous year were directed at Jews. This is the kind of pseudo-precise statistic that can seem a little dubious, but it does suggest a trend, especially when you consider that France’s Jewish population amounts to less than 1 percent of the total French population.
As to how sinister and dangerous the “new Judeophobia” may be: that is a separate issue. Jumpiness is the modern French condition, and some of the jumpier commentators have left an impression that France’s Jews are under going a horrific wave of hatred andought to flee for their lives to Israel. Ariel Sharon, not long before his health collapsed, advised the French Jews to do just that—only to be rebuked by André Glucksmann, as could have never have been predicted by anyone relying on Ramadan’s essay, or for that matter on Buruma’s.
The point of Ramadan’s essay, in any case, was not to argue about social realities or the accuracy of Taguieff ’s scholarship, but to challenge the Jewish communal loyalties that Ramadan imagined to be at work—which is still another aspect, in the zone of intellectual debate, of what Taguieff has done so much to identify.
Ramadan’s second big indictment had to do with the Iraq war and its accompanying disputes, which Ramadan saw once again as proof that the Jewish intellectuals had acted on their tribal loyalties. He wrote that “intellectuals as different as Bernard Kouchner, André Glucksmann or Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had taken courageous positions on Bosnia, Rwanda or Chechnya, have curiously supported the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq.” Another error turned up in this sentence. Lévy, back in 2002–2003, when the Iraq war was being debated, declined to endorse the intervention, though his endorsement would have counted for a lot. (This error was compounded by Stéphanie Giry’s account of the same affair in the Times Book Review, which erroneously enlisted Alain Finkielkraut as still another Jewish supporter of the war.) Still, Kouchner and Glucksmann lent their endorsements—Kouchner, in a highly modulated version. But nothing was, in Ramadan’s word, “curious” about this—at least, nothing suggesting a retreat from positions held in the past.
Kouchner, in his capacity as humanitarian activist, not to mention as a veteran campaigner for the Kurds, has advocated humanitarian interventions in any number of instances over the years, which makes it hardly surprising that, in 2003, he would have seen a virtue in overthrowing Saddam. The same logic applies to Glucksmann. Nor has either of those men, Kouchner or Glucksmann, kept the public uninformed about his reasoning. These are voluble men, at book length. They have even acknowledged, both of them, an influence from their Jewish backgrounds on their recent thinking, though the influence has zero to do with Israel. They were influenced by their experiences as toddlers during the years when Nazis ruled France—experiences that led both men to conclude that powerful countries have a duty to protect populations victimized by dictatorships.
Ramadan argued that, by intervening in Iraq, the United States “certainly acted in the name of its own interests, but we know that Israel supported the intervention and that its military advisers were engaged among the troops.” More: “We also know that the architect of this operation in the heart of the Bush administration is Paul Wolfowitz, a notorious Zionist, who has never concealed that the fall of Saddam Hussein would guarantee a better security for Israel with its economic advantages assured.” It ought not to require an exceptionally fine mind to detect the conspiracy theory at work in these remarks. I cringe at having to add that Wolfowitz, whatever his other sins, has never been known for his Zionism (though I realize that, given the confluence of z’s, hardly anyone will believe me). Ramadan’s description of the Jewish intellectuals in France pretty much harmonizes, by the way, with his description in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam of the American Jews as well—the American Jews who, en bloc, are said by Ramadan to form a “lobby” (the word has been internationalized) that advocates Jewish interests and the promoting of Israel in lieu of standing for “right, justice, and ethics,” which is what he thinks that Muslims should do.
So, yes, Glucksmann and Lévy responded in print. Glucksmann began his response by writing, “Mr. Ramadan says, in short: Glucksmann doesn’t think with his head, he thinks with his race” (though Buruma, in the Times magazine, skipped over this line, which contains the nub of the argument, in order merely to quote Glucksmann’s insult: “What is surprising is not that Mr. Ramadan is anti-Semitic, but that he dares to proclaim it openly”). Lévy, as Buruma reports, adverted to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But were these responses especially shrill and overblown, as Buruma claims? Ramadan’s polemic did have the sound, in some people’s estimation, of an ultra-right-wing rally, with a demagogic leader calling out the names of Jewish journalists to the jeers of a crowd—but perhaps this echo is not widely appreciated outside of France. The anti-globalists in France posted
Ramadan’s polemic on their European Social Forum website; but once the anti-globalists had listened to the responses, they took it down again, abashed, and not because they had been intimidated.
But never mind the Jews. The most striking comment in Buruma’s Times magazine account of this affair is something else entirely—his plea, in Ramadan’s defense, that “Ramadan is in fact one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism.” It is as if, in picturing the modern Muslim world, Buruma can imagine only a landscape of bearded fanatics—the kind of people who, like Qutb in his Qur’anic commentaries or Hamas in its charter, do natter on about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And, to be sure, there are many such types, which is Taguieff’s point. And Ramadan has indeed issued some excellent condemnations of anti-Semitism (which Hamel quotes at length), even apart from his genuinely commendable interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad and the Jews of ancient Arabia.
But good grief! What can Buruma have been thinking of? You have only to glance at your own bookshelves to see how absurd is Buruma’s comment about Ramadan as a lonely Muslim intellectual opposed to anti-Semitism—your shelves full of books by this or that novelist or literary critic or well-known political analyst, one book after another demonstrating that liberal culture in our modern age has come to be animated by no small number of distinguished and celebrated intellectuals from Muslim backgrounds. Or was Buruma thinking only of the Francophone world? Francophones are not so different. But I suspect that, in speaking about Muslim intellectuals, Buruma was picturing something other than ordinary intellectuals. I suspect that he was picturing the kind of person who can claim deeper social roots than bookwriting intellectuals would normally care to have. He was picturing leaders with mass followings in poor neighborhoods, intellectuals whose audiences, in their folk authenticity, might enter the lecture halls through separate doors for men and women. From this point of view, Buruma might well be right. The number of demagogic rabble-rousing Islamist preachers who denounce anti-Semitism is not very large.
But let us not be too quick to assume that one person is authentic and another is not. Nor should we assume too quickly that Muslim immigrant neighborhoods are inherently deaf to liberal voices, even if Buruma’s description of Ramadan as a lonely Muslim voice against anti-Semitism does seem to imply something of that sort. The “new Judeophobia” that Taguieff has identified is unquestionably a large phenomenon, but it is also, as Taguieff’s coinage suggests, new. And yet the immigrant neighborhoods are relatively old. Something has happened, then; and Ramadan may even have played a role in bringing the something about. He began to build his social base in the Arab districts of Lyon in 1992. But those neighborhoods do have a history, and this history does not begin with Islamism. In 1983, a tiny group of young Arabs in Lyon organized something called a “March for Equality” to protest their own social conditions and those of people like themselves.
And the tiny group set out for Paris. The march turned out to be a big event. The young people from Lyon captured the popular imagination. By the time they arrived in Paris, their numbers had swollen to 100,000, and the protest had become known as the “March of the Beurs”—a slang word, friendly and not at all racist, for young Arabs.
Here was a genuinely mass movement. It gave rise, the next year, to an organization called SOS Racism. And SOS Racism likewise proved to be a popular success, for a while. SOS Racism called a rally in the Place de la Concorde in Paris in 1985. I happened to be there myself. Hundreds of thousands of young people attended, Arabs and everybody else, glorying in their multi-hued splendor—which SOS Racism made a point of rendering fashionable. These were the avatars of 1980s anti-racism and social equality, young people who were determined to shout down the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotries of the French extreme right, and were determined to protest the disparities of wealth, and had good reason to make these protests. But SOS Racism defined its principles broadly, and was therefore the enemy of anti-Semitism as well. Explicitly, no less. SOS Racism’s slogan was “Touches pas à mon pote! ”—“Don’t touch my buddy!”—and this was an affecting and popular slogan for a trendy movement of the anti-racist young. People wore a cheerful-looking button bearing that slogan, and in some neighborhoods the button itself came into fashion, pinned to every lapel.
A number of media-savvy writers stood behind the movement, and orchestrated the press and offered a bit of intellectual leadership. And these people, who were they? Marek Halter, the popular novelist, was one of them. The best-known was Bernard-Henri Lévy, the same person whom the readers of Ramadan’s polemic from 2003 could only view as an agent of the notorious Zionist within the Bush administration, and whom the readers of Buruma’s piece in the Times magazine could only regard as an incipient neocon. But SOS Racism was not a neocon development. It was something new on the left, a wing of the larger popular left that, in the 1980s, worked up an excitement for Amnesty International, and for East Bloc dissidents, and for famine relief—quite as if anti-racism, human rights, Arab rights, women’s rights, anti-totalitarianism, humanitarian awareness, the rebelliousness of the young, a fashion for boldly colored clothes and for certain kinds of music, and the cult of motorcycles could be viewed, in a tizzy of trendiness, as one and the same.
Only what happened to that movement in the years that followed—the movement that got its start among the “Beurs” of Lyon? It was defeated. That is the big story lurking underneath all these current debates about Tariq Ramadan and salafi reformism. SOS Racism was defeated by its own errors and missteps, none of which were especially dreadful but did give the impression that politicians in the Socialist Party were pulling the strings, and SOS Racism had ended up a feel-good exercise for softheads. But mostly the new movement was defeated by a newer movement, which competed for support in the immigrant streets. The newer movement (as I learn from the various biographies of Ramadan) likewise got started in the immigrant zones of Lyon.
The newer movement was the Union of Young Muslims, founded in 1987, four years after the March of the Beurs, precisely in order to fight against everything that had come out of the March of the Beurs. The Union of Young Muslims was, exactly like SOS Racism, a movement for social justice—only, instead of being animated by the trendy mishmash of 1980s left-liberalism, the new movement invoked seventh-century Islam, in the style descended from al-Banna. And the two movements, the brand-new Islamists and the left-wing liberals, went head-to-head in a competition for support. SOS Racism campaigned to prevent nightclubs from discriminating against young Arabs and blacks. The Islamists campaigned to prevent young Muslims from going to nightclubs.
By the time Ramadan arrived in Lyon, the Union of Young Muslims was five years old, and the Tawhid bookstore and publishing house were reasonably well-established, and yet those were immigrant institutions, a little rough around the edges, the bookstore filled (according to Paul Landau in The Saber and the Qur’an) with anti-Semitic tracts, the tape cassettes with rants. Ramadan added polish and eloquence to those endeavors, even if, being a bourgeois from Geneva, he could never quite make himself at home in the proletarian streets. And in the immigrant districts of Lyon, the fiery refurbished hard-headed Islamists outcompeted the politician-ridden soft-headed liberal left. Then again, this was more than a local story. Islamists defeated leftists all over the world.
There is another half to this story, though, which is what happened on the left in the wake of these defeats. The rise of Islamism in the 1980s and 1990s created a tremendous crisis on the European and even the American left—even if, for most left-wingers at the time, the crisis went unnamed and undiscussed. The crisis was unavoidable, though. What does it mean to be on the left, after all? I mean the larger left, the left that includes everybody marked by even the faintest and most attenuated of left-wing traces—the progressives, and the people who, with still more sophistication, shudder with savvy distaste at any ideological label at all. To be on the left: doesn’t this mean a solidarity with the poor and the downtrodden?
The March of the Beurs excited support and acclaim in France in 1983 precisely because, for the first time on a national scale, the sincere young antiracists of old-stock France were offered a way to manifest their solidarity with the oppressed immigrants. But once SOS Racism had lost its sheen, everybody who identified even faintly with the left had to pause and consider what new attitude to adopt. Here were the Islamists, shouldering aside the liberal left, and shouldering aside the dowdy mainline Muslim organizations, too—the Islamists, claiming to be, at last, the true and authentic representatives of the poor and the downtrodden. The Islamists, in spite of a thousand principles that were otherwise unthinkable to the left. This required a left-wing response.
In France—and in Britain and other countries, too—the first people on the left to recognize that something big was going on proved to be the tiny and ridiculous-looking Trotskyist sects. The Trotskyists saw an opening. From a Marxist perspective, Islamism was strange, and it was true that Trotskyism, back in the 1940s, used to have its own literature (there was a famous essay by Tony Cliff ) about the fascist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that was long ago, and Trotskyists pride themselves on not being finicky. So the Trotskyists reached out. Nor were they the only ones. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in Iran came to power in 1979 by allying with the Marxists of Iran, meaning the groups that were pro-Soviet, and this development led communist parties all over the world, during the early 1980s, to look on Iran’s Islamists as a progressive movement: a force for anti-imperialism and social justice. In its May Day parade, the French Communist Party marched through Paris with an Iranian delegation called Hezbollah, as Ladan Boroumand has pointed out—something that could never have happened in the past.
These developments on the old-school Marxist left might appear of no significance whatsoever, given that, by the 1980s, old-school Marxism was beginning to fade ever more quickly into the past. In France the communists were undergoing the first stages of their collapse. As for Trotskyism, it was, almost by definition, a microscopic cause. Still, no one should be counted out. In the first round of the presidential elections in France in 2002, a lot of high-minded progressives wanted to register a protest vote, and Trotskyist candidates were on the ballot, and 10 percent of the electorate ended up voting Trotskyist (which is how, back in 2002, Jean-Marie
Le Pen edged past the Socialist candidate in the first round of elections and ended up in second place). Something similar cropped up at the big anti-war marches in February 2003: the giant demonstrations in Paris and London, not to mention in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and many other places. The tiny Marxist groupuscules played an outsize role in organizing those demonstrations, either behind the scenes, as in the United States (where the groupuscules were exceptionally tiny), or front and center, as in Europe. And the Marxist organizers with their new alliances added a new and peculiar note to those gigantic events.
The march in Paris offered the most scandalous example, not just because a contingent of Baathists marched by with their placards in favor of Saddam Hussein, but also because a group of peace demonstrators broke away from the march and beat up some Jews—a minor event, universally condemned, but hinting of something new in the air. Nothing even faintly resembling an attack on random Jews could possibly have taken place at any previous left-wing demonstration in France during the last many decades. The march in London proceeded without anything shameful taking place, but this only made the situation in London easier to identify, since everybody was well behaved. Britain’s Stop the War Coalition, which organized the February 2003 march and a good many additional demonstrations during the next years, was visibly dominated by the tiny Socialist Workers Party, in alliance with Britain’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Association of Britain. Trotskyists and Islamists: “an odd marriage,” as the Economist put it. Tony Cliff must have turned over in his grave.
Yet the marital oddity did not prevent millions of non-Trotskyists and non-Islamists from tramping through the streets under the leadership of this alliance, quite as if the millions felt confident that, no matter what might come of the march, the Socialist Workers could reasonably be ignored (a safe assumption) or even regarded with irritable fondness, and quite as if the Islamists, whom nobody could ignore, authentically represented the oppressed and the downtrodden, and therefore lent majesty to the march. Such was the implication, anyway. Nothing like a Trotskyist-Islamist alliance could possibly have mobilized millions of Britons in the past.
And among the progressive intellectuals, the people who sound off in the magazines and write their books? Here, too, a shift got under way, and Buruma—not to beat a dead horse—has offered the clearest instance of it, stage by stage. In Occidentalism, in 2004, he and his co-author Avishai Margalit made a big point of demonstrating the influence of fascist and Nazi ideas on various radical thinkers around the world, the Islamists included. But this kind of sophisticated ideological analysis pretty much disappeared in Buruma’s next book, Murder in Amsterdam, which was published in 2006. Murder in Amsterdam described the murder of Theo van Gogh by the Islamist fanatic Muhammad Bouyeri, but Buruma no longer seemed interested in extremist doctrines and their origins and trajectory—even though, to judge from his spotty descriptions, the murderer Bouyeri appears to be a reasonably consistent ideologue, clinging to Islamist doctrines descending from Qutb himself. And by February 2007, in his Times magazine profile, face-to-face with Tariq Ramadan and his slightly complicated family relation to Qutb, Buruma could hardly bestir himself to say anything at all about extremist ideas and their consequences.
Ramadan offered his misleading explanation that Qutb and Grandfather al-Banna never knew each other, and Buruma left it at that. Salafi reformism? Buruma failed to notice Qutb’s prominence among its intellectual leaders. Anti-Semitism? Ramadan is “one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out.” And why one of the few? It was as if, without realizing what had happened, Buruma had quietly come to accept Ramadan’s overall thesis, and had begun to look upon Ramadan as the voice of the masses, and the masses as a population hopelessly steeped in the vapors of authenticity; and had come also to look upon the liberal intellectuals from Muslim backgrounds as insignificant because, in their liberalism, they are demonstrably inauthentic. Ramadan ended up being “one of the few Muslim intellectuals” because the other Muslim intellectuals, being liberals, did not count. Or worse, the other Muslim intellectuals, being liberals, sometimes stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the non-Muslim liberals, whom Buruma had decided to dismiss as neocons.
This is a pretty big development, if you stop to think about it, and one that might explain the oddly ingenuous press that Ramadan has been receiving. For if people like Ramadan and the other Islamists do speak for the oppressed and the downtrodden, and if Ramadan is a pretty good guy compared with most of his fellow
salafi reformists, then shouldn’t we make every effort to view Ramadan in the best of lights? He is better than Qutb, after all—so why bring up the troubling parts? Anyway, even if Qutb is a nightmare, wouldn’t we be better off not inquiring too closely into the views of someone like van Gogh’s murderer? Wouldn’t we be better off trying to be, from a sociological point of view, halfway sympathetic? Those millions of anti-war marchers made exactly such a choice, at least on that single day in February 2003: to look on the march’s Islamist leaders as the proper representatives of an oppressed community. Shouldn’t we ferret out an upbeat definition of salafi reformism? Shouldn’t we find a way to conclude, along with Buruma, that “we agreed on most issues”?
A sincere person could stroke his chin for quite a while over these questions. But then, the questions do express an attitude, which is bound to congeal into a lens, sooner or later, which might not lead to the sharpest of journalistic reportage. And if, in Buruma’s journalism, a degree of fuzziness seems to have obscured his view of Ramadan and the Jewish intellectuals, what is likely to have happened in regard to Ramadan and the question of violence, a much bigger issue—this question that Buruma has resolved with the simple and confident remark about Ramadan offering “an alternative to violence”?
It is true and it is wonderful that Ramadan has, on quite a few occasions, condemned any sort of terrorist violence. Better still, these condemnations seem consistent with Ramadan’s larger program for the Muslim community in Europe, which ought to require many things, but nothing even remotely resembling a violent campaign. Anyway, the entire shape of Ramadan’s career so far—the energy he has expended on projecting his own ideas and personality onto the public stage in Western Europe and beyond, instead of conserving his time and strength for strictly Muslim audiences—would make no sense at all, if the ultimate purpose was to mold his followers into some sort of force, capable of opening a violent breach in society. Ramadan is said to have been influenced by the example of Malcolm X in the United States, or at least by Spike Lee’s Malcolm X—Malcolm, whose last letter in real life, left unsent at his death, is said to have been addressed to Said Ramadan at the Geneva Islamic Center. But Tariq Ramadan, who has something of Malcolm’s air of touchy dignity, has nothing of Malcolm’s demeanor of unstated threats.
Still, sometimes it is useful to inquire a little more closely into what anyone means by violence or terrorism. Bomb attacks on random crowds in the mass-transit systems of Madrid or London obviously count as terrorist acts. But what about bomb attacks on random bus-riders in Israel? Ramadan has expressed himself on this topic, too. He is keenly anti-Zionist. He applauds the Palestinian resistance. And yet he has sometimes raised an objection to some of the methods of the Palestinian resistance: a careful distinction, well drawn. But then again, Ramadan has offered more than one commentary on anti-Zionist themes, and, to my eyes, one of those commentaries, in the introduction to Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity, nearly leaps from the page. It comes in the course of an emotional tribute to his father, and to his father’s devotion to the principles of Grandfather al-Banna.
About his father, Tariq Ramadan writes, in a passage that has been translated less than gracefully: “Often, he spoke of the determination in his commitment, at all moments, against colonialism and injustice and for the sake of Islam. This determination was though never a sanction for violence, for he rejected violence just as he rejected the idea of an ‘Islamic revolution.’ ” The rejection of an “Islamic revolution” in this context means the rejection of armed uprisings or coups in favor of the slower, more cautious, yet still militant proceedings of the Muslim Brotherhood. Violence does not offer the road to success, from this point of view. But the passage continues. The time frame is evidently the late 1940s:
The only exception was Palestine. On this, the message of al-Banna was clear. Armed resistance was incumbent so that the plans of the terrorists of Irgun and of all Zionist colonizers would be faced up to. He had learnt from Hassan al-Banna, as he said it one day: “to put one’s forehead on the ground.” The real meaning of prayer being giving strength, in humility, to the meaning of an entire life."
So there is an exception. It is violence against Zionists—against the plans of all Zionists and not just the Zionist extreme right wing, the Irgun (who were in fact terrorists, just as al-Banna says). But the peculiar note in that passage emanates from a single word, “incumbent”—a word suggesting that anti-Zionist violence is obligatory. A duty, not just a tactic. Moreover, a duty linked with prayer, forehead on the ground. A duty that gives meaning to an entire life. A religious duty.
That is a heartbreaking passage. The entire tragedy of the Palestinian people can be found in statements such as this one—the ideological dogma that has led so many Palestinians to look on violence as a principle, therefore as something that can never be abandoned. If only the Palestinian national movement had been able to look on violence as merely a tactic, the movement’s leaders, and not just a handful of freethinkers and pragmatists, might have noticed after a while that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were proving to be counterproductive and ought to be exchanged for better tactics—perhaps something that might actually succeed in building a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, as could very likely have happened years ago. But if violence is obligatory, if it is “incumbent” on the partisans of al-Banna’s Islamic renewal, if violence is an obligation that (as al-Banna observes) distinguishes anti-Zionist struggles from all other struggles against colonialism and injustice, well, there can be no question of surrendering a principle, regardless of the practical cost. And so it has been, in the history of the Palestinian movement; and the cost has been terrible, to the Palestinians above all.
There is something else in that word “incumbent,” together with the forehead bowed in prayer. Tactics speak to a given circumstance, but religious duties address the universe. The notion of a religiously mandated violence, an obligatory violence, therefore opens a door, and it is hard to see what could prevent ever wilder yet equally pious obligations from ultimately pushing their way through the open space. Qutb’s contribution to the notion of religious violence consisted largely of determining that Muslim “hypocrites,” quite as much as Zionists or any other outright enemy of Islam, merited a violent resistance. This notion opened the door to mass killings of Muslims, in the name of Islam. And there is the example of Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, 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. It was Sheik al-Qaradawi who directed the funeral prayer at Said Ramadan’s funeral in Cairo in 1995—as Tariq Ramadan proudly reports in The Roots of the Muslim Revival.
And yet Qaradawi is also the person who, in 2003, issued the most famous of the fatwas authorizing suicide terrorism by Palestinians. He issued the gruesome fatwa permitting women to commit suicide terrorism while, at the same time, giving women terrorists a dispensation from the normal obligation to conceal their hair under a hijab—a bizarre touch on Qaradawi’s part, underlining the ritualistic nature of these acts, and yet entirely in keeping with the sort of erudite matter that Qaradawi normally concerns himself with: say, whether women must keep to themselves when they are menstruating (a point that he rejects, on authority) or whether they may have intercourse with their husbands during that time (they may not, though other kinds of physical pleasure are permitted).
Among the religious authorities who stand behind the vogue for ritualized suicide terrorism in the Arab and Muslim world in the last few years, Qaradawi, drawing on his jurisprudential learning, does appear to be in the first rank—which is not an argument for downplaying the historic role of Hassan al-Banna long ago. On the contrary, the elderly Qaradawi himself has invoked, in one of his sermons, the memory of al-Banna orating on the agreeable nature of death in the cause of God. As for Tariq Ramadan, he reveres Qaradawi above all other present-day Islamic scholars, and in one book after another he has left no room for doubt about his fealty. If anyone in the world offers a model of modern enlightened Islam, Ramadan plainly judges Qaradawi to be that person. Ramadan has contributed prefaces to two collections of Qaradawi’s fatwas in their French editions, not to mention other books written by people with one or another sort of connection to the terrorist vogue—these editions published by the Tawhid house in Lyon, which is Ramadan’s publisher as well.
None of this alters the fact that Tariq Ramadan himself disapproves of terrorism. But there is a cost in having it both ways, in noisily affirming his place within the salafi reformist tradition while pretending that terrorist components of the movement belong only to a distant offshoot; or in affirming his own disapproval of violent action while exalting his grandfather’s memory; or in condemning the terrorist aspects of the Palestinian resistance while still revering Qaradawi and even, with his prefaces, bedecking himself with Qaradawi’s prestige, and bedecking Qaradawi with his own prestige. The cost is a little smudge of ambiguity in Ramadan’s own position. It is the little smudge that makes the various allegations regarding the Ramadan family (in connection with the al-Taqwa Islamic bank in Switzerland, accused and later cleared of financing Al Qaeda, though the lawyers for some families of September 11 victims have lodged a lawsuit; in connection with a Qaeda financier who has been jailed in Spain since 2002, under the authority of the great Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet; in connection with a Qaeda militant who came from the Lyon region; and so forth) look not more convincing than before, but also not outlandish.
The problem lies in the terrible fact that Ramadan’s personal milieu—his grandfather, his family history, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition—is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theoretical justification for religious suicide-terrorism. Yet what can Ramadan do about this horrific reality—turn against his family? He is his family’s prince. He has timidly offered jurisprudential proposals contrary to Qaradawi’s; but Ramadan, unlike Qaradawi, is a university philosopher, a secular figure (in spite of everything), and not an authoritative theologian. Ramadan’s opinions are opinions; Qaradawi’s opinions are law. What is Ramadan to do, then? To challenge Qaradawi’s authority would mean challenging the system of authority as a whole, which is something well beyond the salafi reformist idea. So Ramadan writes op-eds, which are not fatwas. And he devotes his life to burnishing the prestige of his father and grandfather and their works, and to promoting the cause of salafi reformism, which means promoting the authority of true and authentic Islamic scholars such as Qaradawi.
And his final message, therefore, ends up calling for—but what is his final message with regard to violence? It is a double message. The first message condemns terrorism. The second message lavishes praise on the theoreticians of terrorism. I suppose he expresses a third message, too, to the effect that around here nobody knows nothing about nobody, and around here nobody would dream of ratting on family, and what are you, a racist?
Caroline Fourest, in Brother Tariq, makes the argument that, in the end, the ambiguity in Ramadan’s outlook can only serve to confer legitimacy on the revolutionary Islamist idea, which is willy-nilly bound, in turn, to elevate ever so slightly terrorism’s prestige. Fourest pictures a young man from North Africa in France, attending a lecture by Ramadan, and she wonders what ideas somebody like that might take away. Hamel, in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan, scoffs at Fourest’s argument and observes that, for all the accusations against Ramadan, nothing has ever been proved, and out of the many thousands of people who have in fact attended his lectures, only a single person, a man from the Lyon district, is known to have ended up in Al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps. Who is right in this dispute?
Hamel, the scoffer, would carry the day in a court of law. Still, it is easy to imagine that, in a small way, Fourest may be on to something. And what is Buruma’s position on the Fourest-Hamel debate? The author of Murder in Amsterdam seems to have missed this particular controversy, which is odd. Theo van Gogh’s murderer is precisely the kind of bewildered young man that Fourest has asked us to picture: a second-generation North African immigrant who has had to sort through the doctrines coming his way, looking for the signs of prestige and glamour, trying to estimate which of those many ideas might be deemed to be exceptionally honorable, legitimate, dignified. Even obligatory. Fourest published Brother Tariq in 2004. Muhammad Bouyeri murdered van Gogh later that year. Buruma published his book in 2006.
Buruma has not missed one other issue, though, and this is the biggest issue of all, though it may seem strange to say so, given how much we hear about anti-Semitism and terrorist violence. This is the question of women’s rights. And it is here that Ramadan’s dialectical language has proved to be exceptionally flexible, hitting notes that are ancient and modern at the same time—the tones of the Islamic renewal that wishes to return to the salafi past, yet wishes to do so with an eye to modernity and a willingness to innovate. In his conversation with Buruma, Ramadan said in regard to the relation between the sexes: “The body must not be forgotten.
Men and women are not the same. In Islamic tradition, women are seen in terms of being mothers, wives, or daughters. Now woman exists as woman.” This makes Ramadan sound like a traditionalist, and he certainly is one. Yet the traditions in question here are not the same as folk customs or peasant gowns. Ramadan’s phrase “Islamic tradition” in this passage means Islamic law: a religious matter, not a folk habit. But then, since religious law bespeaks the eternal, there is no reason why Ramadan should not seek to express his views in a fully modern language, something up-to-date and readily understandable.
And so Ramadan considers himself to be—it goes without saying—a feminist. Better: an “Islamic feminist,” which is a traditional claim in the Muslim Brotherhood. Islam itself, in his description, should be regarded as a force for women’s rights. At the time of the Qur’anic revelation, cultural assumptions with regard to women’s role in society were extremely primitive, and Islam improved upon them. Islam, or at least his own
Islam, requires women to wear headscarves or veils, and this, too, ought to be seen as a step in favor of women’s autonomy. The scarves and the veils, the separate entranceways and seating sections, the general ban on intermingling the sexes—these rules of dress and conduct uphold a spirit of sexual modesty, and this modesty removes women from the oppression of male considerations. Modesty is liberation, from this point of view. And all this, Ramadan’s argument for the rights of women, emerges finally as part of a larger battle, which he likewise expresses in the modern language of rights. It is the battle for individual liberty, for religious rights, for the right to choose one’s path.
His position on the headscarf law in France—the law in 2004 that forbade the wearing of veils or headscarves (and other ostentatious religious symbols) in the public schools—followed this line of reasoning exactly. “Rights are rights,” he told Buruma. “And to demand them is a right.” On Ramadan’s part, this sort of argument has been perfectly consistent. But it is strange—it ought to seem strange, anyway—to see the journalists adopt the same position, and even the same language. Ramadan presents himself as a defender of the rights of Muslim women, and in the Times magazine Buruma likewise presents him as a man who “promoted the right of Muslim women to wear the veil at French schools.” The description could have been written by Ramadan himself. Once the terms for arguing an issue have been established, there is no getting away from them. And so Stéphanie Giry, Ramadan’s reviewer in the Times Book Review, looked on Ramadan and the headscarf debate in exactly the same light. Ramadan, in Giry’s presentation, opposed the headscarf law on what she described as “classic libertarian grounds—the right of Muslim girls to choose for themselves whether to cover up.”
And yet all this ought to be fairly astonishing. A reader could almost imagine from these accounts that, in the French debate over the headscarf law, there were no other ways to present the issue. But there were, in fact, other ways. Some of them were silly, or anti-Muslim, or folklorically French, or a dozen other things, as in any national debate. But there was a serious argument, which emerged in the course of the hearings that were held and might even have produced the overwhelming public approval of the law. The whole controversy over headscarves in the schools is not anything old or traditional in France. The issue arose only beginning in 1989, which is to say, at the moment when the Islamist movement began to take on strength—though, once the issue had arisen, it grew rapidly, until at last the pressure to enact a law became too great to resist. And what was this issue?
The issue, the deep issue, the issue that commanded a genuine respect, was one of equal education for women, and, by extension, equal health care, too: the absolute fundamentals for any possible achievement of rights for women. As the Islamist movement grew in France, Muslim girls and women in the schools increasingly refused to participate in gym class, because of the immodest clothes that sports require; and refused to be alone with male teachers; and refused to be examined or treated by male doctors. The agitation in the immigrant neighborhoods to ban instruction in Voltaire, Darwin, and the crimes of Nazism attracted most of the public attention for a long while; but it may be that these issues were not nearly as fateful as the campaign that now got under way, on the basis of religious objections, to limit the education of girls and women, and to limit their access to health care, too.
The hearings revealed something else. Quite a few Muslim girls and women honestly had no desire to see their educational and healthcare opportunities demurely shrink into something less than the maximum. The girls and the women refused to take gym class and engage in other activities for one reason only: they were under pressure to do so. The pressure sometimes came from their families at home, and other times from the larger Muslim community, in opposition to their own families. The pressure demanded conformity with Islamic precepts, not as determined by the already existing traditions of the Muslim immigrants, nor by the old and official mainline Muslim organization, but by the new Islamists. The headscarf was more than the symbol of this pressure. It was a mechanism of Islamist enforcement. The headscarf was precisely the item of clothing that guaranteed that any Muslim girl or woman who dared to venture into the wrong doorway or to take her place in the wrong classroom was going to be instantly visible to everyone who might disapprove.
The question, from this point of view, was not whether Muslim girls and women had the right to wear a headscarf in the schools. The question was whether Muslim girls and women had the right not to wear a headscarf. The purpose in proposing a law against wearing headscarves in the schools was not to crush the Muslim religion. Nothing in that law prevented women and girls from donning their headscarves as soon as they left the school building. The purpose was to transform the schools into a zone beyond Islamist control, not out of some ideological whim but in order to preserve and to enforce one of the major achievements of modern society, still not entirely realized, which is full rights and benefits for women.
The battle to secure equal education and health care for women has been going on for a century and a half, and it has always taken the same form, more or less: a battle against obscurantist priests, against reactionary patriarchs and prejudices, against entrenched social customs. The whole controversy ought to be fairly recognizable by now. Nineteenth-century novelists were obsessed by these themes. And yet somehow, in the case of Muslim girls and women in the schools and hospitals not just of France but everywhere in Western Europe (not to mention in the rest of the world), the entire question of women’s rights, virtually every aspect of it, has disappeared from a great many journalists’ narrative of events. And the dispute has been presented to the public in Ramadan’s version: as a matter of rights for Muslims. Or, as Ramadan said to Buruma, without the slightest demurral on Buruma’s part: “Rights are rights.”
But that is not the half of it. The truly enormous issue in regard to women has always been a question of violence and brutality—the violence of husbands against their wives. The group rapes in the French suburbs (which, having been a problem in the last years, led to the formation of the Muslim feminist movement
Ni Putes Ni Soumises, or Neither Whores Nor Submissives—an organization that Ramadan regards as hostile to the Muslim immigrants). The violence of fathers against their daughters, of brothers against their sisters. The genital mutilations of Muslim women (sometimes euphemistically described, by people who have never heard a description, as mere “circumcisions”), which by now are said to have affected thirty thousand women in France alone. The lurking potential, finally, of outright murders: the so-called honor killings of women by their fathers or brothers because of some transgression of the sexual code. Is there any educated person today who has not given a few thoughts to this horrendous issue?
On this question, too, on the issue of violence against women, especially the issue of violence and murder as punishment for sexual transgressions, Ramadan has taken a remarkable public stand—though it may be that he took this stand without much forethought, as something that he blurted out. His position emerged during the course of a debate in 2003 between him and Nicolas Sarkozy (who was then the French interior minister and has just now become president) on the French television program “One Hundred Minutes to Convince.” Sarkozy arrived at the program with a debater’s trick up his sleeve and, when the moment seemed propitious, came out with it.
This was a question regarding Ramadan’s family—in this case, Tariq’s older brother Hani, who has always taken more brazen positions than Tariq. The two brothers, Tariq and Hani, have been known to have their differences. Still, the question remained: how great were those differences between the extremist Hani and the moderate Tariq? Sarkozy brought up Hani Ramadan’s view of the proper punishment for women who commit adultery. Hani Ramadan has favored stoning these women to death. That is the seventh-century law, and Hani Ramadan has stood behind it.
But what about Tariq Ramadan, Sarkozy asked? What is his own position? Ian Hamel, in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan, argues that Ramadan’s response, in its frankness, proves that he does not practice a “double discourse” but says what he thinks, without the slightest effort to conceal his views. And maybe so, though you could just as reasonably argue that Sarkozy caught Ramadan off-guard, and he had no time to work up a modern and progressive language to express his religious conviction, and his thoughts came tumbling out in an unpolished version. In any case, Ramadan, in Buruma’s account, “replied that he favored a ‘moratorium’ on such practices but refused to condemn the law outright.”
Aziz Zemouri provides a transcript in Should Tariq Ramadan Be Silenced?, which offers a fine display of the French fondness for the ellipsis as an expressive punctuation:
Sarkozy: A moratorium.... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?
Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.
Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?
Ramadan: No, no, wait.... 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....
Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan....
Ramadan: Let me finish.
Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.... But that’s monstrous—to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It’s necessary to condemn it!
Ramadan: 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.”
Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.
Some six million French people watched that exchange. A huge number of Muslim immigrants must have been among them—the very people who might have benefited from hearing someone speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan couldn’t do it. Here was his Qutbian moment, the moment of frisson. The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights. A moment of barbarism. A thrill. The whole panorama of Muslim women suddenly deployed across the television screens of France—the panorama of violence that is condoned, sanctified, and even mandated by the highest authorities. And here was Sarkozy, recoiling in horror: the bourgeoisie, shocked at last.
Even so, Sarkozy had more to say. Ramadan had written yet another preface, this time introducing a book that cites the Qur’anic passage enjoining husbands to beat their wives under certain circumstances—though the book maintained that beatings should merely mean a light slap, without producing a physical wound. “We are grateful for this advice and recommendation,” Sarkozy mordantly remarked.
And yet—here is another peculiarity—some people, and not just salafi reformists, convince themselves that Ramadan came out looking pretty good in that exchange. There is the case of Olivier Roy, one of the world’s supreme experts on Islam and Muslim culture. In his new book Globalized Islam, Roy takes the view that
Ramadan’s argument on stoning was not merely understandable, for reasons that supreme experts could best appreciate, but was, in absolute terms, positively progressive—a blow for secularism, no less, on the grounds that state and church ought to be separate, and here was Ramadan maintaining the autonomy of his separate sphere, and yet doing so with just the right touch of admirable hypocrisy not to run afoul of secular law. From this point of view, Sarkozy in this debate was the tyrannical oppressor, and Ramadan the progressive—but, oh, never mind the reasoning. The point is: Ramadan did a good thing.
Buruma in the Times magazine was a little cagier:
When I talked with Ramadan in London, the mere mention of the word “stoning” set him off on a long explanation.
“Personally,” he said, “I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive.”
And Buruma in his article left it at that—for the moment. He appended not one comment of his own, not even a skeptical phrase equivalent to saying, “This may or not be accurate,” as he had said in regard to Ramadan’s picture of Hassan al-Banna’s British-style parliamentarism—though, in this case, the comment would have had to be something like, “This may or may not be civilized.”
Still, Buruma did linger over one aspect of Ramadan’s argument in his profile, and this was the matter of speaking to Muslims as an insider versus speaking as an outsider. A pragmatic question. Buruma invited his readers to amble with him down Brick Lane in London’s East End—the old and traditional immigrant district, which, as he lachrymosely observed, “used to be a poor Jewish area, where refugees from Russian pogroms eked out a living in the Sunday markets, cheap clothing stores and kosher dining halls.” Brick Lane’s immigrants today are Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Amid these colorful and touching scenes, Buruma contemplated Ramadan and compared him with another Muslim intellectual. This was Ayaan Hirsi Ali—the Somali woman who, after having undergone many gruesome experiences in Africa and in Saudi Arabia, escaped to a new life of academic study and liberal activism in Holland, making movies and writing books titled, in one case, Infidel, and subtitled, in another case, “An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan seemed to Buruma rather similar in one respect. “Her mission, too, is to spread universal values. She, too, speaks of reform”—though I have to interrupt these quotations to recall that Buruma’s understanding of Ramadan’s universal values is based on a philosophical miscomprehension, and his notion of reform in connection to Ramadan reflects a simple factual error. He continued: “But she has renounced her belief in Islam. She says that Islam is backward and perverse. As a result, she has had more success with secular non Muslims than with the kind of people who shop in Brick Lane.” But—this was Buruma’s implication—that is not the case with Ramadan. His own credibility has remained intact.
In short, Ramadan made the right decision in refusing to condemn the practice of stoning women to death—not for Roy’s reason (a principled blow for secularism) but for political reasons: to maintain his viability on streets like Brick Lane. This ought to be a familiar argument—it was more or less the argument that Sartre invoked in order to explain why he refused to condemn the Soviet Union. Sartre invited his audiences to think of the industrial suburb of Paris called Billancourt, where the ignorant workers believed in communism and the Soviet future—and he did not want to demoralize the downtrodden, to désespérer Billancourt. And so Sartre bit his tongue; if the workers were going to learn the truth about the Soviets, it was not going to be from him.
And Ramadan is right not to désespérer Brick Lane by offering a simple straight-out condemnation of violence against women.
Needless to say, yet another positive evaluation ran in the Times Book Review under Giry’s byline. Giry argued that Ramadan’s refusal to condemn stoning could be sympathetically regarded as, in her words, “an expression of his view that each society must decide for itself how to put into practice the values of Islam.” An argument for self-determination. It is almost comic to notice that Roy, Buruma, and Giry disagree entirely about why Ramadan was right to take the position that he did, but everyone agrees that, whatever the rationale, he was right. To go on television and unambiguously condemn the stoning to death of Muslim women—surely everyone can see how wrong that would have been, especially for any progressive person who cares about secular values, oppression, poverty, and colonialism. This is amazing.
There is something more, though, and this has to do with the Muslim intellectual whom Buruma contrasted so unfavorably to the admirable Ramadan—namely, the author of Infidel and the “Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Buruma’s criticism of Hirsi Ali in the Times magazine did not come out of the blue. A year ago he published an op-ed in the Times likewise criticizing Hirsi Ali, though on the slightly broader grounds of fanning the flames of right-wing racism against Muslims. More recently he reviewed Infidel for the Times Book Review and lit into her yet again with a suggestion that her passionate devotion to exposing the scale of honor killings around the world ought to be likened to Muslim fundamentalism. His most extended criticism appears in Murder in Amsterdam, his book about the murder of Hirsi Ali’s film-making colleague van
Gogh, who was found dead on the street with a knife plunged into his chest, pinning to his body a sheet of paper containing a death threat to Hirsi Ali. In his article in the Times magazine, Buruma referred obliquely to this murder and the death threat by noting that “having had her fill of controversies in the Netherlands,” Hirsi Ali has not only moved to Washington, D.C., but has taken a job at the American Enterprise Institute—a remarkably serene way of describing these events, neatly packaged with a sly suggestion that Hirsi Ali has sold out to the neocons.
At least in Murder in Amsterdam Buruma summons an occasional kind word for Hirsi Ali. His book concludes: “Ayaan Hirsi Ali has had to leave the scene. My country seems smaller without her”—which at minimum decently acknowledges that she might have departed Holland for reasons going beyond pique and annoyance. But Murder in Amsterdam is mostly filled, in connection to Hirsi Ali, with one argument or insult after another, accusing her of being a fanatic, of entertaining intellectual arguments that are substantially no different from those of van Gogh’s murderer (“two fundamentalisms”), of retaining the zealousness of the Muslim Brotherhood in her own arguments against the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood, of exaggerating the dangers facing her, of being strident and arrogant, of being an aristocratic snob (“It was this wave, this gentle gesture of disdain, this almost aristocratic dismissal of a noisome inferior, that upset her critics more than anything”), and so on: pages written with an unmistakable flash of anger, relative to Buruma’s normally phlegmatic manner.
The chapters in Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin—the book with the subtitle about the “Emancipation Proclamation”—carry such titles as “Genital Mutilation Must Not be Tolerated,” “How to Deal With Domestic Violence More Effectively,” and “Standing Up for Your Rights!” And yet one of the chapters is titled “Let Us Have a Voltaire”—and this was too much for Buruma. He wrote: “Ayaan Hirsi Ali was no Voltaire. For Voltaire had flung his insults at the Catholic Church, one of the two most powerful institutions of eighteenth-century France, while Ayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe.” Voltaire was brave—but Hirsi Ali? She is a bully.
Why has Buruma done this, and at such length, too, and repeatedly—three articles condemning Hirsi Ali in The New York Times alone, apart from his book? His main ostensible complaint, as expressed in the Times magazine, seems absurdly tiny. He remarks that, because of her Voltairean insults at Islam, she has frittered away any chance she might have had to make friends and influence people on streets like Brick Lane. Is this true? I wonder if bookish young Muslim women in the immigrant zones of Europe aren’t sneaking a few glances at Hirsi Ali’s writings and making brave resolutions for themselves. Anne Applebaum contemplated this possibility in The Washington Post, in the course of noting what a large campaign has been gotten up against Hirsi Ali. In Holland, the novelist Margriet de Moor, in her own contribution to the recent debate over Buruma’s journalism, has insisted that in fact Hirsi Ali has been tremendously effective in speaking to Muslim women. “And it was claimed that she did not reach her target group?” De Moor thought otherwise: “Secretly, though, all of them swallowed what she said, their ears burning.” Ramadan himself has ruefully observed that the overwhelming majority of European Muslims are far from devout—though it should be added that in many places the devout minority have intimidated the majority.
Still, everyone can grant that Hirsi Ali, in taking her Voltairean stand against Islam, has put herself in a less than ideal position for addressing the devout minority, and everyone who has come under their influence. But why this should arouse Buruma’s animosity is hard to know. Salman Rushdie has not endeared himself either in some neighborhoods—which is not a count against him, given that, normally speaking, novelists in our modern day have no reason at all to pander to the religious reactionaries. Hirsi Ali is a tractarian and a memoirist, and it is not obvious why the rules for her should be any different. Her entire purpose in fleeing to the Netherlands, as she has explained eloquently and at length, was to escape a life of submitting to other people’s reactionary opinions and to go bang the table on behalf of individual freedom, and here she is doing what she has intended to do. Why the attacks, then?
If you open either of her books and read a few lines at random, you will discover one reality that you would hardly guess from reading those attacks. Buruma—and he is not the only one to do this—presents Hirsi Ali as a diehard enemy of Islam, dedicated to hurling insults, which, to be sure, she does do, and with gusto. But this is not her major theme. In her books, and in the little film that she made with van Gogh, she dedicates herself mostly to something else, and that is to describe and to decry the miseries of women in the portion of the Muslim world that she knows best—in East Africa and Saudi Arabia, together with the immigrant zones of Europe. Her account of her own genital mutilation as a little girl, and of the botched genital mutilation of her sister, and the sister’s tragic life and suicide; her portrait of girlhood and marriage in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, not to mention her own forced marriage, which she fled; the portrait of her grandmother, the Somali nomad, and the patriarchal customs of the past, which do seem to have lingered on; her sense of horror, as a girl, at seeing the women of Saudi Arabia for the first time, these women who have no faces because of their veils and whose black garments hang so shapelessly upon their bodies that, in order to know which way the women are facing, you have to look to see which way their shoes are pointing; her account of the shelters for abused Muslim women in Holland; her account of the terrors of refugee existence, and the double terrors of refugee existence for women—all these passages express something that can never be detected in a certain kind of high-minded cerebral journalism today. It is a visceral anger at oppression. A moral indignation, and not just a wistful pragmatism.
But mostly these passages in Hirsi Ali’s books raise the issue of women’s rights, and not from an outsider’s point of view, regardless of how many times she has been denounced for making herself an outsider to Muslim life. Hers is a story marked by knives—the knife at her own genital mutilation, and at her sister’s; the knife at the murder of her friend and colleague, pinning to his chest the sheet of paper threatening her own life. This is not a Swiss professor! Here is the actual insider; the real thing. I suppose that all this unironic indignation can only be annoying in the extreme to a certain kind of refined sensibility. Something about those knives takes away the quality of abstraction that allows a social issue to be shrugged off. It is always good to be subtle and nuanced, but Hirsi Ali’s writings have the effect of making a large number of nuanced subtleties look ridiculous.
About Hirsi Ali we do not have to wonder: where does she stand on the question of stoning women to death? Or on the obligation for husbands to beat their wives? Read one page by her and you will know the answer; and if you read two pages, you might begin to suspect that, on the television screens of France, the man who defended the oppressed of the oppressed in the poorest neighborhoods of Europe was Nicolas Sarkozy. But that has got to be the problem from a perspective like Buruma’s. This talk of women’s rights—doesn’t it point ultimately in directions that ought to be regarded as (here is the mystery of our present moment) conservative? Better the seventh century than Nicolas Sarkozy.
If there is an intellectual establishment, and I suppose there is, the attacks on Hirsi Ali radiate from its center. And this, the campaign against Hirsi Ali—this, like the anti-Semitic mob assault during the Paris peace march of 2003, or like the spectacle of millions of Britons marching under the leadership of an Islamist organization, or like the calm discussions in The New York Times of why it would be wrong to condemn with any vigor the stoning of women to death—this does represent something new. Here is the new development among journalists and intellectuals, the development that Ramadan’s career has served to illuminate. Something like a campaign against Hirsi Ali could never have taken place a few years ago. A sustained attack on an authentic liberal dissident crying out against injustices in remote parts of the world and even in the back streets of Western Europe, a sustained attack that appears nearly to have erased the very mention of women’s oppression and the struggle for women’s rights from discussion—no, this could not have happened yesterday, except on the extreme right. This is a new event. This is a reactionary turn in the intellectual world.
The reactionary turn has aroused a response, however, and this has been fascinating to see. A fairly large controversy over Buruma’s journalism has broken out in Europe during the last few months, originally in an online English-language journal in Germany with the slightly punny name of signandsight.com (the pun being on Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, though what Heidegger has to do with this is beyond me); and from the cloudy zones of cyberspace the controversy has precipitated by now onto the feuilleton pages of paper-and-ink newspapers in Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, and France. A first book adverting to the scandal has already appeared in Germany, Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft, or Which Freedom: Arguments for an Open Society, an anthology edited by Ulrike Ackermann (to which Buruma himself has contributed an adaptation from Murder in Amsterdam). A second book is on its way. The controversy was inaugurated by Pascal Bruckner, the French writer, and this was entirely in keeping with his own work over the years. The group of French intellectuals known as the New Philosophers are famous for having launched a criticism of communism, and of totalitarian doctrines as a whole, some three decades ago—actually, a mortal blow to communist and pro-communist ideas in Europe. But Bruckner’s contribution to this literature veered in a slightly different direction. He wrote a criticism of the leftist doctrine that in those days was still known as “Third Worldism”—meaning the hope and the expectation that, around the world, the impoverished countries, the former colonies and semicolonies, would generate, as an aspect of their struggle against Western imperialism, a worldwide revolutionary alternative, a soulful new kind of socialism, a new and revolutionary culture. This was the doctrine that venerated revolutionary leaders such as Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro not because they were communists but because they were the leaders of the Third World revolution.
But Bruckner, in writing about the “Third Worldist” idea, noticed that among the good-hearted leftists of the Western countries, sympathy for oppressed people in the former colonies had turned into a kind of dehumanizing contempt for the oppressed people in the former colonies, without anyone having noticed. He called his book The Tears of the White Man, and in its pages he served up a spectacular exposé of left-wing European clichés about the poor and the oppressed in faraway places—an enormous catalogue of Noble Savage imagery and other fantastical pictures of the superior qualities of downtrodden people in poor countries, compared with their former oppressors in Europe. The book was a demonstration of how, through a combination of guilty consciences and patronizing ignorance, the European intellectuals had ended up re-creating the worst sorts of racist and colonialist imaginings of what people in other places and with other skin tones must be like: their wisdom, virtue, selflessness, brilliance, and, above all, their profound quality of being different.
Bruckner has returned to this topic from time to time over the years, and just last year he came out with a sequel called La Tyrannie de la Pénitence, or The Tyranny of Penitence, updated to our own age, in which the “Third World” of yore has been renamed the “south,” and the imperialists have been renamed the forces of globalization. And the sequel has led Bruckner to take a new glance at how, in our own time, the progressive intellectuals of the Western countries, out of a continuing self-contempt and feeling of guilt for the Western crimes of the past, have likewise updated their fantasies about the wronged and inscrutable people of other regions without really changing them. Ian Buruma, because of his sundry books, was the ideal person for The New York Times Magazine to assign a profile on Tariq Ramadan; and Pascal Bruckner, because of his own books, has turned out to be the ideal person to write about Ian Buruma. Bruckner noted the peculiarities of Buruma’s campaign against Hirsi Ali. He took note of Timothy Garton Ash’s contribution to this campaign in The New York Review of Books. And Bruckner offered a philosophical analysis.
Buruma and Garton Ash, Bruckner concluded, had fallen for the intellectual miasmas of the postmodern sensibility, and the miasmas had led, via the errors of relativism and an indiscriminate multiculturalism, to the simplest of philosophical mistakes. This was the inability to draw even the most elementary of distinctions. In the postmodern idea, the Enlightenment has come to be looked upon as merely one more set of cultural prejudices, no better and very likely rather worse than other sets of cultural prejudices—a zealotry that is unable to control its own excesses. From this point of view, someone like Hirsi Ali, who grew up in an atmosphere of Islamist radicalism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Africa and has taken up a new outlook committed to rationalism and individual freedom, has merely gone from one fundamentalism to another—not much different, seen in this light, from van Gogh’s murderer.
But this means only that Hirsi Ali’s critics have lost the ability to distinguish between a fanatical murderer and a rational debater. Here is “the racism of the anti-racists,” in Bruckner’s phrase. It is the racism that, while pretending to stand up for the oppressed, would deny to someone from Africa the right to make use of the same Enlightenment tools of analysis that Europeans are welcome to use. Bruckner took note of the nasty personal tone with which Hirsi Ali had been discussed—the masculine condescension, to mention one aspect, which scarcely anybody could have missed in Garton Ash’s New York Review essay, where he suggested that Hirsi Ali’s literary success must be owed significantly to her looks. “It is astonishing,” Bruckner wrote, “that 62 years after the fall of the Third Reich and 16 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an important segment of Europe’s intelligentsia is engaged in slandering the friends of democracy.” This was not a gentle criticism. Then again, Bruckner was hardly alone in making these points.
It must have been depressing for Buruma to see both the Turkish writer Necla Kelek and Bassam Tibi weigh in with their own ferocious criticisms. Kelek saw in Buruma’s writings a new set of stereotypes about Muslims that had prevented him from being able to notice a series of dangers—for instance, the increasing problem in Europe of Muslim men preventing their own women from receiving medical care from male physicians. Tibi, without being much of a fan of Hirsi Ali, was indignant that Buruma could not tell the difference between Islam and Islamism, between the religion and the totalitarian ideology. Tibi was indignant that Buruma had conceded to Tariq Ramadan the right to speak for Islam; and indignant that Buruma could not see the virtue of a genuinely new kind of Europeanized Islam, which can hardly be salafi.
Then again, it was surprising to see how much difficulty Buruma and Garton Ash had in mustering a proper response to these criticisms—not that anyone suffered an inability to summon forth minor phraseologies and harrumphs. Garton Ash was not at his best. The first of his responses to Bruckner began, “Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road,” and proceeded from there, chiefly for the purpose of trying to demonstrate that Bruckner, in his inebriation, had failed to identify any sort of problem at all. Garton Ash’s second intervention meandered a little further down the road. He came under criticism in Germany from Ulrike Ackermann, and this must have been, for him, less than pleasant. Garton Ash, years ago, was a hero of the anti-communist dissident movement in the East Bloc. Certainly he was a hero for many of us who read him in the Western countries—a journalist who, with a dramatic flair, brought to life the struggles that were going on throughout the East Bloc in the last years of communist rule. He was an unimpeachable authority on the nature and the necessity of dissidence.
But Ackermann was also, in those years, a hero of the dissident movement. She defended the Czech partisans of Charter 77, which marked one of the early and most important stages of the East Bloc dissident movement, at a time when hardly anyone in her own West Germany or elsewhere in the West was paying attention. And, for her troubles, she was arrested by the communist authorities in Prague and jailed for six weeks, and was lucky not to have served a longer sentence. From Ackermann’s perspective, Hirsi Ali was the true heir of the East Bloc dissidents of the past—and Garton Ash had turned himself into the kind of person who, in the past, out of a failure to appreciate the achievements of liberal democracy in the West, never did want to see communism collapse. “Precisely because of his support for the Central European dissidents—which I am very familiar with—I find it astonishing that Timothy Garton Ash has clearly become a fellow traveler of Tariq Ramadan,” Ackermann wrote.
Garton Ash replied in the Guardian. He heaped still more criticism on Hirsi Ali. He was indefatigable. He had lately spent a little while in Egypt, and he wished to explain that other dissidents and intellectuals in the Muslim world were infinitely preferable to the feminist Voltairean. He even came up with a first-rate example. This turned out to be Tariq Ramadan’s great-uncle Gamal al-Banna, age eighty-six, the younger brother of Hassan al-Banna. Perhaps it was not surprising that Garton Ash would find himself in the company of Ramadan’s great-uncle. Garton Ash was Ramadan’s colleague at St. Antony’s College at Oxford, and Garton Ash had already expressed his approval of Ramadan in The New York Review of Books in the course of his encomia to the brilliant journalism of Ian Buruma, and, whatever the route may have been, the path from St. Antony’s to Ramadan’s great-uncle in Cairo must not have been a difficult one to tread.
In the Guardian, Garton Ash described al-Banna’s apartment. He was awed by the mass of religious texts filling the space: a true indication, he meant to suggest, of Sheik al-Banna’s erudition. Garton Ash contrasted the sheik’s knowledge to Hirsi Ali’s pitiful ignorance. Garton Ash quoted one of Hirsi Ali’s critical comments on Islam, and he quoted a statement by Sheik al-Banna, and, comparing the two quotations, he was beside himself with indignation at the inferiority of Hirsi Ali’s. About those two quoted statements, Garton Ash asked the readers of the Guardian, “Which do you think reveals a deeper historical knowledge of Islam? Which is more likely to encourage thoughtful Muslims in the view that they can be both good Muslims and good citizens of free societies?” Garton Ash seems to have felt that finally he had unmasked the pretensions of Hirsi Ali.
Only, a pity! And more than a pity! On the very day that Garton Ash’s favorable comparison of Gamal al-Banna with Ayaan Hirsi Ali ran in the Guardian, the Middle East Media Research Institute, known as MEMRI, issued its own report on Gamal al-Banna, and the MEMRI report put Sheik al-Banna in a rather less flattering light. This was chiefly because of Sheik al-Banna’s praise—it is terrible to have to report these things—for the September 11 attackers and, in al-Banna’s words, their “extremely courageous” action, which was “dreadful and splendid,” in opposition to the “barbaric capitalism” of the United States. Nor was this the whole of it. Sheik al-Banna expressed a few thoughts in support of suicide terror among the Palestinians, too. He had been on television expressing these ideas; his opinions were not a secret. You might argue that Garton Ash’s error in selecting Sheik al-Banna as a model dissident was understandable, and the error was doubtless caused (I am surmising) by the urgent need to come up with the name of somebody, anybody at all, who could be used to take one more swat at the author of the “Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.” Yet there is something uncanny, almost creepy, about how often the journalism on these themes has led Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s critics and Tariq Ramadan’s defenders into the zones of the grand theoreticians of suicide terror.
Buruma’s responses to the several criticisms of his work in Europe were not as calamitous as Garton Ash’s, and yet he too could not get himself to see or to acknowledge that Bruckner and the other writers might possibly be on to something. Buruma could not even recognize why anybody would suppose that he, the affable author of Murder in Amsterdam, had launched a prolonged, inexplicable, and reactionary campaign against arguably the best-known liberal champion of women’s rights ever to come out of Africa. Buruma wrote, “If Mr. Bruckner has been kind enough to read my book, I’m not sure how he came to the conclusion that it was an attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali.” And he went on: “I admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and agree with most of what she stands for.” Of course he does! This is precisely what he said about Ramadan: “We agreed on most issues.”
Something is disturbing in all this agreeableness. At least Buruma might have worked up the courage to acknowledge that some people do seem to regard his attacks as attacks, which have left an impression that if anyone from a Muslim background is right now responsible for whipping up dangerous moods in Europe, that person must be Hirsi Ali. He might have had the courage to assume responsibility for what he wrote about Ramadan in the Times magazine, as well, the anointing of Ramadan as the interlocutor for dialogue between the West and Islam—“a laudatory portrait,” in Bruckner’s dismissive phrase, that “borders on hagiography, despite minor reservations.”
But I see that, in recounting these disputes, I have, by the logic of my own narrative, ended up trotting out the dread word “courage.” This may be the heart of the matter. Bruckner seemed to think so: “A culture of courage is perhaps what is most lacking among today’s directors of conscience.” This sort of remark is not Buruma’s cup of tea. The word “courage” leads him into thoughts of fascism. In reply to Bruckner’s call for a bit of courage, Buruma tut-tutted, “Now where have we heard that kind of thing before? The need to defend Europe against alien threats; the fatigued, self-doubting, weak-kneed intellectuals....” Buruma wanted his readers to recognize the fascist rhetoric of Europe from seventy years ago, the kinds of phrases that used to pour from the mouths of Nazi intellectuals. Yet something seems to have eluded him. In his own book Murder in Amsterdam, the narrative of events requires him to describe sharing a harrowing car trip with Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, rolling along the streets in an armored car with bodyguards nervously making contingency plans, in case of an assassination attempt against her. The worst thing that Hirsi Ali has done, to judge from Murder in Amsterdam, was to engage in a televised discussion with women in a Muslim women’s shelter in Amsterdam, where Hirsi Ali came off looking like a snob. Yet maybe it is worth focusing instead on the ghastly fact that, by Buruma’s own account, most of the women engaged in that televised discussion wore disguises over their faces, for fear of what might happen to them; and, soon enough, Hirsi Ali herself was forced to take refuge in women’s shelters, for fear of being murdered.
When I met Hirsi Ali at a conference in Sweden last year, she was protected by no less than five bodyguards. Even in the United States she is protected by bodyguards. But this is no longer unusual. Buruma himself mentions in Murder in Amsterdam that the Dutch Social Democratic politician Ahmed Aboutaleb requires full-time bodyguards. At that same Swedish conference I happened to meet the British writer of immigrant background who has been obliged to adopt the pseudonym Ibn Warraq, out of fear that, in his case because of his Bertrand Russell–influenced philosophical convictions, he might be singled out for assassination. I happened to attend a different conference in Italy a few days earlier and met the very brave Egyptian-Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who writes scathing criticisms of the new totalitarian wave in Il Corriere della Sera—and I discovered that Allam, too, was traveling with a full complement of five bodyguards. The Italian journalist Fiamma Nierenstein, because of her well-known sympathies for Israel, was accompanied by her own bodyguards. Caroline Fourest, the author of the most important extended criticism of Ramadan, had to go under police protection for a while. The French philosophy professor Robert Redeker has had to go into hiding. I have no idea what security precautions have been taken by Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published the Muhammad cartoons. And van Gogh....
So Salman Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class, a subset of the European intelligentsia—its Muslim wing especially—who survive only because of their bodyguards and their own precautions. This is unprecedented in Western Europe during the last sixty years. And yet if someone like Pascal Bruckner mumbles a few words about the need for courage under these circumstances, the sneers begin—“Now where have we heard that kind of thing before?”—and onward to the litany about fascism. In the Times magazine, Buruma held back even from hinting obliquely about the fascist influences on Ramadan’s grandfather, the founder of the modern cult of artistic death. Yet Bruckner, the liberal—here is somebody on the brink of fascism!
And this, too, is something new. Eighteen years ago, when Rushdie came under threat, and one of his translators was killed and another was knifed and a couple of Norwegian bookstores were bombed and a British hotel was attacked by a suicide bomber, not to mention the more than fifty people killed in anti-Rushdie rioting around the world—at that terrible moment, when the dangers were obvious, a good many intellectuals in Western countries, people without any sort of Arab or Muslim background, rallied instinctively in Rushdie’s defense. A good many reached out to their endangered Arab and Muslim counterparts and colleagues, and celebrated the courage of everyone who declined to be intimidated. My glance happens to rest just now on a dusty volume on my bookshelf, brought out in the course of the Rushdie affair, in 1993, by the French publishing house La Découverte, which contains statements of support for Rushdie by a solid one hundred Arab and Muslim intellectuals: a moving display of fraternal solidarity by the publisher and the contributors both. Leafing through, I stumble on the contribution of Orhan Pamuk, who nowadays goes about with his own detail of bodyguards, though in his case the danger comes from Turkish nationalists, not from Islamists. And here is the contribution of Antoine Sfeir, the Lebanese historian who criticized Tariq Ramadan some years ago in France and found himself facing a lawsuit (which, at least, he won).
Sfeir, in his 1993 essay, recalled that in Egypt the intellectual Farag Foda had recently been assassinated, and Naguib Mahfouz had been brutally assaulted, as part of the same wave of Islamist violence that was threatening Rushdie and his associates. Sfeir declared, “We will never say it enough: to attack the Islamists, to denounce their actions and their lies, is not to attack Islam. To attack the Islamists is, on the contrary, to defend the Muslims themselves, the first though not the only victims of the Islamists.” How times have changed! The Rushdies of today find themselves under criticism, compared unfavorably in the press with the Islamist philosopher who writes prefaces for the collected fatwas of Sheik al-Qaradawi, the theologian of the human bomb. Today the menace to society is declared to be Hirsi Ali and people of similar minds, of whom there are quite a few: John Stuart Mill’s Muslim admirers, who are said to be just as fanatical as the fanatics. During the Rushdie affair, courage was saluted. Today it is likened to fascism.
How did this happen? The equanimity on the part of some well-known intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the journalistic inability even to acknowledge that women’s rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism; the inability to recall the problems faced by Muslim women in European hospitals; the inability to acknowledge how large has been the role of a revived anti-Semitism; the striking number of errors of understanding and even of fact that have entered into the journalistic presentations of Tariq Ramadan and his ideas; the refusal to discuss with any frankness the role of Ramadan’s family over the years; the accidental endorsement in the Guardian of the great-uncle who finds something admirable in the September 11 attacks—what can possibly account for this string of bumbles, timidities, gaffes, omissions, miscomprehensions, and slanders?
Two developments account for it. The first development is the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism.
Paul Berman is a writer in residence at New York University and the author, most recently, of Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischerand Its Aftermath (Norton).