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Righteous & Wrong

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Fred Ernst/AP Images
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Hague, the Netherlands, April 2006

It is tempting to conclude that in mounting this intemperate attack on Garton Ash, Berman is really writing about himself. Despite his implied claim to be one of the few journalists or intellectuals from Western backgrounds “to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas,” phrases such as “carelessly adopted positions,” “flippant phrasing,” and “paucity of research” constantly spring to mind when reading his book.

In his attack on Garton Ash, Berman makes no reference to frequent and highly positive statements he has made about Hirsi Ali as a “thoughtful, calm, clear, almost pedantic spokeswoman for the fundamental liberal values of the Enlightenment” fully deserving of liberal support. Nor does Berman mention the qualifications Garton Ash applies to Tariq Ramadan as a “very problematic” spokesman for Islamic reform. Any such nuances would interfere with Berman’s purpose of representing these two influential European writers, in language borrowed from Pascal Bruckner, as “Western masochists” driven by “colonial guilt.”

Moreover, in his account of Tariq Ramadan and his work Berman avoids exploring the complex religious forces affecting contemporary Islam. He conveys little sense of the historical and political context behind the struggle between the reformist tendency in Sunni Islam going back to such nineteenth-century thinkers as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, who were strongly influenced by, though also resistant to, the West, and the myriad groups of modern Salafists (sometimes called “literalists”) funded by petrodollars from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Berman questions Ramadan’s self-designation as a “Salafi-Reformist,” hinting that it may conceal terrorist leanings; but he takes little trouble to explain the contradictory currents (some of them jihadist or terroristic, but most of them merely puritanical, judgmental, and inward-looking as well as sectarian and misogynistic) covered by this somewhat oxymoronic umbrella term.

A more illuminating analysis comes from Hirsi Ali herself in her latest book. Nomad covers some of the same ground as The Caged Virgin and her personal memoir, Infidel. Its special strength, like that of its predecessors, lies in the way that her arguments and perceptions are rooted in personal experience. Unlike Berman, Hirsi Ali is not an armchair observer or strategist. She is a battle-scarred fighter for rights that most women in the West take for granted, but that the vast majority of women in the developing world can only dream about. She sees how the culture of honor and ideas of male entitlement “drastically restrict women’s choices.”

She rages eloquently against the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (to which she herself was subjected by her own grandmother), at the scandal of small girls having their labia removed on kitchen tables in Rotterdam and Utrecht in order to provide them with “built-in chastity belts.” These alone can guarantee the “incontrovertible proof of the virginity” that safeguards family honor. She writes revealingly about the clash of cultures between the tribal values of her Somali background and those of the modern West.

In America, where she often appears as a celebrity speaker, she is especially annoyed by meeting young Muslims,

these confident young men and women…who had so manifestly benefited from every advantage of Western education yet were determined to ignore the profound differences between a theocratic mind-set and a democratic mind-set…. If they lived in Saudi Arabia, under Shari’a law, these college girls in their pretty scarves wouldn’t be free to study, to work, to drive, to walk around.

In sum, her fulminations against Islam are directed less at its theology than at the tyranny of patriarchal customs that she sees it as upholding. She is aware that this is delicate territory because of the legacy of colonialism; but she gives short shrift to the arguments about colonial feminism—that the colonial powers used women’s rights to further their imperial ambitions, for example:

Concern for the plight of Muslim women was not remotely related to the original European colonisation of what is now called the developing world. The scramble for Africa was a brazen competition openly motivated by gold, God, and glory, not a gracious attempt to emancipate little girls.

Many historians would challenge her here on grounds of historical accuracy. Britain’s scramble for Africa was intimately bound up with the suppression of the slave trade, much of it conducted by Muslims, and a substantial part of which included traffic in women.

As a work of impassioned zealotry, Nomad is an excellent read. It is a book that never hesitates to stand up for the Enlightenment and to proclaim that “West is Best.” As a manifesto for individual freedom it is powerfully subversive, appealing to wives, daughters, and sisters to abandon the tyranny of custom, to throw off the patriarchal yoke. But it offers no plausible avenues for religious reform within Islam (although, as a visitor to American churches, Hirsi Ali seems well disposed toward liberal versions of Christianity). With her knowledge largely confined to her own background in Somalia and Saudi Arabia (and among immigrant communities in Holland), she exhibits little interest in or understanding of the complex processes currently at work in the wider Muslim world.

The book’s most telling passages narrate encounters that are poignant, even tragic, between Hirsi Ali and her dying father, the pain of whose final illness may have been exacerbated by the knowledge of his daughter’s apostasy. She faces this dilemma squarely. Her story may resonate with many able and intelligent women from Europe’s immigrant communities who find themselves in similar situations. But it is not a path that all will wish to emulate. The power of clan and custom (as she herself ably demonstrates) is rooted in human affections as well as patriarchal authority.

Herein, I would suggest, lies the fallacy of treating the Islamist movements with all their complicated ramifications as a “totalitarian” ideology in the same category as Nazism and communism, with dissenters such as Hirsi Ali viewed as “persecuted intellectuals” comparable to the heroic refuseniks of the cold war era. Granted that Islamism contains fascistic elements (to which I myself have drawn attention), it is dangerously simplistic to assimilate the complexities of family power rooted in clan politics and kin patronage networks of a traditionally based society to a system comparable to that which operated in Russia from 1917 to 1991 or Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich.

The inadequacy of the ideological model of “Islamic fascism” that Berman adopts in both Terror and Liberalism and The Flight of the Intellectuals was revealed by Paul Bremer, George W. Bush’s viceroy in Iraq, when he made the disastrous decision to abolish the Baath Party in 2003, precipitating a sectarian war that wreaked an appalling human cost. Bremer was explicit in making a Berman-like comparison between Baathism and Nazism. “Just as in our occupation of Germany we had passed what were called ‘de-Nazification decrees,’” he told PBS’s Frontline, “the model for the de-Baathification was to look back at that de-Nazification.”

Berman is Bremer’s intellectual companion, his ideological fellow traveler. Despite a smooth delivery that gives an appearance of sophistication, he suffers from the same anthropological illiteracy that has proved catastrophic in Iraq and now—increasingly—in Afghanistan, where US and NATO policymakers seem to have difficulty in grasping the complex, clan-based nature of the insurgencies they face.

As for Hirsi Ali, a fiery rebel soul, she has fallen in love with Western culture: an epiphanic moment in Nomad comes on a visit to Las Vegas, of all places. Although she writes convincingly about her struggle with clan-based “family values,” she makes no practical suggestion about how the tight mesh of personal allegiances that make up European (or indeed much of global) Islam can be unraveled before a new, successful, individually based immigrant society can take root. As Garton Ash observed in his review of The Caged Virgin, “A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic.”

While the scandals that outrage European liberals and conservatives—the Rushdie affair, the Muhammad cartoons, the verbal attacks on Israelis and their supporters at campus meetings—call to mind some of the uglier episodes of the 1930s, they are not the logical outcome of “Islamo-fascism” or proto-Marxist ideologies, but of struggles around the contested symbols surrounding group identities and communal allegiances. The Islamist movement is not an ideological monolith backed by the power of an industrialized state—though there may be nasty underpinnings, as in the export from oil-rich countries of medieval prejudices about homosexuals, women, and Jews. All of the Islamist movements seek legitimacy by drawing on the symbolic capital sanctified by an ancient religious tradition. However, since—unlike in Christianity—there are no central organizing institutions able to manage and control this symbolic proliferation, a high level of anarchy—some of it with terrorist offshoots—persists.

Managing or “domesticating” Islam is a challenge for Western policymakers, as it was in the nineteenth century. A good beginning (now dawning in London and Washington) would be a new strategy for removing one of the principal catalysts for terrorism, which is the presence of Western troops in Muslim lands. On the domestication of Islam in Europe, Ian Buruma makes the useful suggestion that functioning democracies need not depend on shared values: the minimum requirement is, simply, that citizens abide by the law. Taking issue with the hysterical tone surrounding the debates over “banning the burqa” in France and Belgium, he argues that “a democratic state has no business being an arbiter in theological affairs.”

Fundamentalist enclaves—such as the Orthodox quarters of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem, Stamford Hill in London, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or the Amish villages in Pennsylvania—can coexist with democratic polities, although there will always be disputes about boundary maintenance. Religious fundamentalisms can be linked with political extremism, but they are not the same. Indeed, it is the task of good governance to keep them apart.

That process is already taking root inside developing Muslim polities. As the Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni demonstrates in L’Islam de marché: l’autre révolution conservatrice (2005), Islamist movements as far apart as Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia are giving ground to new types of “religious entrepreneurs” less interested in the grand design of acquiring state power than in developing Muslim lifestyles that can coexist with the status quo. Haenni sees this as part of the process of embourgeoisement occurring in Islamic societies, showing how the “cosmopolitan bourgeoisie and export-oriented manufacturers are making their pious ‘come-back’”(he uses the English term), bringing with them an agenda of religious reform that coincides with the attainment of worldly opulence.

Haenni’s model recalls the paradigm of Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic” and the suffocating picture of Methodist conformity in the novels of Arnold Bennet. This may not be hospitable to freethinkers, but it is a stage toward secularization. A good example is the city of Kayseri in central Turkey, currently one of the world’s largest exporters of denim, and sometimes described as the center of “Muslim Calvinism.” Kayseri is the Islamist equivalent of Bennet’s “Five Towns” where public piety rules the streets and affluence is equated with godliness.

Obsessed as they are with their model of a “totalitarian threat” to Enlightenment liberalism, both Berman and Hirsi Ali fail to take account of well-documented facts that would challenge their presuppositions. Berman muddles kin-patronage politics, a constant in Arab societies, with fascism. Hirsi Ali—oblivious of changes in gender roles that are occurring within more developed Muslim polities, and ignoring the way that traditional systems of authority tend to oppress women in cultures as different as China, Japan, and India—confuses Islam (a malleable religious tradition) with patriarchy (a specific set of social relationships built around masculine power). As Julien Benda himself might acknowledge, a failure to look at all the facts, however complex they may be, is a kind of intellectual betrayal, a trahison des clercs.

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