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Righteous & Wrong

Tariq Ramadan; drawing by John Springs

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 a prestigious and articulate public figure speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan was not up to it…. The seventh century had suddenly appeared…. A moment of barbarism.

In his most recent book, Taming the Gods, Ian Buruma puts an entirely different gloss on the episode, following France’s leading scholar of modern Islamic movements, Olivier Roy, in suggesting that Ramadan’s position represents a stage toward secularization. By leaving a religious law for discussion without actually applying it, he is effectively dissociating religious doctrine from political or social practice. As Roy has suggested, a moratorium “maintains orthodoxy while enabling the believer to live in a society governed by laïcité.” Roy’s position is evidently based on the idea that consensus—one of four canonical “roots” of Islamic law—is a precondition for change, a view that Berman entirely fails to consider.

Berman also exhumes an article (published on the Internet after it was refused by Le Monde and other newspapers) in which Ramadan launched a Benda-style assault on several intellectuals with Jewish backgrounds—including Bernard Kouchner (now France’s foreign minister), Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and André Glucksmann. All were accused of putting their “communal” sympathies for Israel before their duty to defend universal human rights in the case of the Palestinian victims of Israeli policies. The article misfired since one of those named, Pierre-André Taguieff, is not Jewish; but it produced rejoinders by Glucksmann and Lévy, who in effect accused Ramadan of anti-Semitism—a response that Buruma, much to Berman’s annoyance, described as “shrill” and “vastly over-blown.” It is worth noting that since Berman’s book went to press, both Finkielkraut and Lévy have signed a petition to the European Parliament, calling Israel’s occupation and settlements policy “morally and politically wrong” and a threat to Israel’s existence because they “feed the unacceptable delegitimization process” that Israel faces abroad.

In his discourse on Ramadan, Berman challenges Buruma’s statement that “Ramadan is in fact one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism.” However, Berman fails to provide details of Ramadan’s views on anti-Semitism, creating the impression that Ramadan’s opposition to it is vague and ambiguous. Berman avoids mentioning, for example, the landmark interview Ramadan gave to the Israeli daily Haaretz in May 2002 after Israeli troops had entered the Palestinian town of Jenin. After signing a joint statement with fifty-six other religious leaders, including the grand mufti of Marseilles, the chief rabbi of France, and the Catholic bishop of Ivry, warning against criminal attacks on synagogues, Ramadan criticized as inadequate statements by Muslim leaders who described anti-Semitic incidents as “deeds of a local nature.” “It is possible to be against Israel’s policy in Palestine,” he said,

but we must take into account the real memory of the Jews’ suffering in the twentieth century and evince special sensitivity to the Holocaust. This is an obligation of conscience and ethics….

Challenged by the Haaretz reporter to comment on the ideological legacy of his grandfather, including his attacks on Egyptian Jews, Ramadan stated:

It is necessary to present each of the positions, my grandfather’s and my own, in their political and historical context. Al-Banna lived at a time when the state of Israel was being formed and he, like others, defined its establishment as an act of colonization which in his opinion justified resistance. This was a very difficult period for the Palestinians. Clearly there is a difference between what he said in his day and what I am saying today…. There are some things of my grandfather’s with which I agree and others with which I don’t agree….

The Haaretz interview is not an outright condemnation of his grandfather’s views; but neither is it a wholehearted endorsement. The problem—as with so many of Ramadan’s comments—is its lack of specificity. While he condemns anti-Semitism in Europe unequivocally, he doesn’t deal explicitly with the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in attacking Jewish homes and shops in Cairo in the 1940s. Ramadan prefers to deal with generalities rather than to focus on particular events or acts. As Denis MacShane, a former British minister of state for Europe, has remarked, he “is a supreme finder of words that elide and hide meaning, that glide away sinuously from confrontation.”

His comments on Brotherhood violence, however, are not inconsistent with the accounts of leading Western historians such as Richard Mitchell, Brynjar Lia, and Gudrun Kramer, who have shown how the violence attributed to the Brotherhood’s military wing (the so-called “secret apparatus”)—held responsible for the assassinations of Egyptian government officials during the 1940s and 1950s (including a judge and a prime minister, an event for which al-Banna paid with his life in 1949, when he was killed by the state security apparatus)—arose during the anticolonial struggle against Britain and the conflict in Palestine.

In a bizarre riff on a statement by Said Ramadan (Tariq’s father) that it was “incumbent” on Muslims to resist Zion-ist settlement, Berman locates the “entire tragedy” of Palestinian Arabs, who have come to look upon their struggle with Zionism as a religious affair, in the idea of “violence as a sacred principle.” This development must indeed be seen as tragic, given that conflicts rooted in religious absolutisms tend to be less susceptible to negotiated settlements than conflicts defined in purely secular terms.

What is astonishing, however, is the absence of any recognition on the part of Berman that the same corrosive religious and ideological processes have been at work on the Israeli side, and that armed settlers, inspired by the Torah and funded in some cases by evangelical Christian sympathizers, have mounted terrorist actions against Palestinian civilians along with illegal appropriations of territory and water. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, claimed rabbinical sanction for his act; while Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in Hebron, is revered as a hero and martyr by Israeli zealots.

In his comments on the Palestine conflict Ramadan has unequivocally condemned terrorism (including suicide bombings) against civilians, but has argued that the situation of Palestinians can make such actions “understandable.” His position on suicide missions puts him at odds with Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim television preacher, based in Qatar, now widely regarded as the Brotherhood’s most eminent preacher, who issued a fatwa allowing qualified support for these actions. Berman, who claims that Ramadan reveres Qaradawi, makes no reference to Ramadan’s condemnation of terror. For him the Brotherhood’s violence is primordial, a manifestation of its totalitarian inclinations, although he chooses the word “fascist” for being more suggestively pungent.

Berman never suggests that this term can be sharply double-edged. After Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat in 1993, demonstrators belonging to the Likud party, currently governing in Israel, held up effigies of the prime minister dressed in Nazi uniform. In December 1948, after the massacre of some 240 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin by irregulars of the Irgun Zvi Leumi (IZL) led by Menahem Begin, a future Israeli prime minister, a number of prominent Jews, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, wrote to The New York Times protesting against Begin’s forthcoming visit to America and accusing his Herut party of having “the unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a ‘Leader State’ is the goal.”

In due course the IZL was absorbed into the Haganah (now the Israel Defense Forces) and Begin’s Freedom Party—Herut—now forms part of the Likud. While some of Israel’s more vociferous critics will argue that a “fascist” predisposition toward violence exists, a more generous reading would be that what Ramadan calls “state terror” (evidenced by a policy of disproportionality in response to Hamas provocations) is the outcome of calculations that are strategic, tactical, and rational (which does not mean to say that they are not dangerously misguided or counterproductive).

In the Israeli political process the extremist tendencies exhibited by the IZL and the Stern Gang—its irregular cobelligerents—have been subjected to the rigors of democratic politics. Berman, however, will not grant that the Brotherhood or its offshoots are capable of a comparable evolution in response to changing circumstances. He pours scorn on claims that al-Banna or his political heirs supported parliamentary systems of government. For him the fascist beast remains a constant and vibrant presence, fronted by the likes of Ramadan and the “useful idiots” who have taken him seriously, such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash.

The burden of this attack is not confined to anti-Semitism and its fascistic ramifications. The cowardly intellectuals are also accused of being less than assiduous in defending intellectual freedoms and women’s rights. Both Buruma and Garton Ash are condemned for raising questions (with less than fulsome praise) about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the prominent Somali-born member of the Dutch parliament who—following death threats and the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam—is now living, under the protection of bodyguards, in the United States. Hirsi Ali is a self-confessed atheist who has abandoned the faith of her ancestors. In Murder in Amsterdam (2006), Buruma’s superb account of the Van Gogh murder, Hirsi Ali suggested that her critics saw her as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” a phrase echoed by Garton Ash in these pages in his review of The Caged Virgin, a book of essays, where he described her as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist.”2

Garton Ash now avoids this term, which he sees as being open to misunderstanding and willful misrepresentation (although, as I have suggested, it offers a plausible summary of her position, and places her in the excellent company of the late Ernest Gellner, who described himself as an “Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalist”).3 Neither he nor Buruma have any quarrel with Hirsi Ali for abandoning her religion. Buruma, however, does describe her as being a little disdainful toward her fellow immigrants. He argues that as an avowed atheist she must have a limited influence on Muslim believers—a proposition that is borne out historically by the failure of Communist movements in the vast majority of Muslim countries.

Berman questions this view: a book can be a powerful solvent of entrenched social practices. Many young Muslim women may be taking furtive glances at chapters such as “Ten Tips for Muslim Women Who Want to Leave.” “A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist,” Berman writes of Ali. Berman’s comments on Garton Ash, who built a formidable reputation in the 1980s writing about East European dissidents under very difficult circumstances, are particularly, and quite unfairly, harsh:

His contribution to public understanding was immense, in those years. In 2006 and 2007, these historic journalistic achievements of his conferred a moral weight on his easy dismissal of Hirsi Ali as a foolish simple-minded woman and his cautious applause for Tariq Ramadan—a greater moral weight than Garton Ash may have recognized (which might account for how careless he was in adopting his positions, how flippant in his phrasing, how content he seemed to be with his paucity of research).

  1. 2

    The New York Review, October 5, 2006.

  2. 3

    In Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name, to be published in the US in September, Garton Ash spells out his views on these issues at greater length in the section “Islam, Terror, and Freedom.”

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