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CFR Papers: Veiled Truths (1)

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The Rise of Political Islam in the West / Part 1 from 4

By Marc Lynch

This spring, Tariq Ramadan arrived in the United States nearly six years after being denied a visa by the Bush administration. The U.S. government had previously refused Ramadan entry on the grounds that he had donated to a French charity with ties to Hamas. Then, last January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Ramadan was welcome. His appearance in the United States seemed to manifest the White House’s changing rhetoric about the Muslim world. In June 2009, President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo of reaching out to Muslims with “mutual interest and mutual respect.” Figures such as Ramadan —  symbols of a nonviolent Islamism long shunned as enablers of extremism — may now represent a bridge across previously intractable divides.

Paul Berman will have none of this. His book The Flight of the Intellectuals, based on a 28,000-word essay published three years ago in The New Republic, mounts a furious counterattack from the bygone days of the Bush administration. Too many in the United States and Europe, Berman argues, are confronting the wrong enemy. Violent Islamists do not pose the greatest danger; instead, it is their so-called moderate cousins, who are able to draw well-meaning liberals into a poisonous embrace. Their rejection of violence is both partial — not extending to Israel or to U.S. troops in Iraq — and misleading. In Berman’s telling, the Islamist project of societal transformation from below does profound violence to the individual Muslims who are forced to live in an increasingly constricted milieu. The only defensible response is to repel the stealth Islamism of putative moderates with a morally pure vision of liberalism.

But such a polemic, in fact, poorly serves those concerned about the rise of political Islam in the West. Berman does flag important debates about Islam’s impact on Europe and the world, but he is an exceedingly poor guide to navigating them. His reading of Islamism, based on a narrow selection of sources read in translation and only a sliver of the vast scholarship on the subject, fails to grasp its political and intellectual context. He is blind to the dramatic variation and competition across and within groups — above all, to the fierce war between the Salafi purists who call for a literalistic Islam insulated from modernity and the modernizing pragmatists who seek to adapt Islam to the modern world. This blindness feeds the worst instincts of those hard-liners who are fomenting an avoidable clash between Islam and the West. His obsession with Nazism is distracting, and his dissection of Ramadan approaches the pathological. His caustic rhetoric toward writers such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash does not suggest the liberal or tolerant ethos to which he claims allegiance.

This is a pity, for Berman does raise several powerful and troubling questions. Islamists, even nonviolent ones, do often challenge Western liberals by advocating social norms and political agendas that run against the historical tenets of liberalism. What accommodations can be made for religious conviction without betraying core Enlightenment principles? What to make of the popularity and electoral prowess of Islamist movements across the Muslim world? It is impossible to support democracy without being prepared to defend the rights of Islamist movements to participate in and win elections. Yet the religious and cultural agendas of many of these groups should trouble Western liberals, even if these movements support the peaceful democratic aspirations of Muslims across the world. If a culture war against Islam is not the answer, then how should Western liberals respond to genuinely popular and nonviolent Islamist movements that are committed to working within democratic institutions but that promote values at odds with progressive standards of freedom, equality, and tolerance?

Fathers And Sons

Berman’s lodestar for addressing these questions is Ramadan, a Muslim public intellectual born in Switzerland in 1962. Ramadan descends from vaunted Islamic stock: his maternal grandfather was Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, and his father was Said Ramadan, a high-profile figure in the Muslim Brotherhood who fled repression in Egypt. Berman searches for the true Ramadan in his biography (researching Banna and Said Ramadan), in his intellectual influences (looking into the Doha-based Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi), in his (unpublished) dissertation, in his books, in his public exchanges, and in the growing library of critical books about him — but not, apparently, by speaking to him directly. Nonetheless, after years of effort and a couple hundred pages of inspection, Berman finds Ramadan to be an elusive figure. Berman is sure that Ramadan is hiding his true agenda, although he can never quite produce a smoking gun. He allows that Ramadan is not “engaged in some kind of elaborate conspiracy or . . .  acting on a secret plan” and that his ambition,so far as [he] can judge, is what he says it is.” But it is precisely that ambition — the nonviolent project of Islamic revival in Europe — which troubles Berman.

Berman’s unease lies in the very different notions found in the democratic societies of the West and the often authoritarian systems of Muslim-majority countries of how Muslims should understand their identities, practice their faith, and engage in politics. Ramadan is a pragmatist, seeking a way for European Muslims to be both fully European and fully Muslim. His 2003 book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, which Berman reads as concealing the truth beneath “a veil of euphemism,” in fact lays out a sophisticated argument for how Muslims can be full citizens of their countries while retaining their religious identity. In What I Believe, Ramadan is even more clear: “I state firmly that we have multiple, moving identities and that there is no reason — religious, legal, or cultural — a woman or a man cannot be both American or European and Muslim.” This is a positive obligation, he argues: “It is up to Muslim individuals to be and become committed citizens, aware of their responsibilities and rights.”

But this is an option from which Berman recoils. He prefers Muslims to be secular and does not want to see the kind of bridge Ramadan is constructing. His truncated understanding of the diversity of Islamic politics causes him to miss the significance of Ramadan’s exhortations to European Muslims to participate in politics as full, engaged, and equal citizens. Berman similarly underplays Ramadan’s doctrinal rejection not only of terrorism but also of narrow, Salafi jurisprudence. Ramadan has little use for the puritanical versions of Islam that have taken root in many Muslim communities and crowded out other forms of piousness — a process that Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, has called “the great theft.”

Berman gets Ramadan’s struggle backward. Ramadan’s primary adversaries are not liberals in the West but rather literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslim communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to western Europe. For Salafists, a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood is too political, too accepting of civil institutions, and insufficiently attentive to the formalistic and public rituals of Islam. They urge Muslims to separate from Western societies in favor of their own allegedly pure Islamic enclaves. The Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged women to wear the veil, but only so that they can demonstrate virtue while in universities and the workplace. The Salafists, meanwhile, want women at home and strictly segregated from men. True liberals should prefer Ramadan because he offers a model for Muslims of integration as full citizens at a time when powerful forces are instead pushing for isolation and literalism.

Ramadan has not couched his challenge to the Salafists in abstract language or kept it from public view. For example, when Salafi opponents have confronted him with Koranic verses dictating that women receive only half the inheritance of men, Ramadan has argued that these passages should be reinterpreted given the modern changes in family structure and the fact that many women today raise children alone. Therefore, Ramadan argues, Muslims should “try to keep the justice instead of literally implementing verses, pretending faithfulness to the Koran but in fact creating injustices on the ground.” This is a sharp challenge to the Salafists, the significance of which Berman does not recognize. Similarly, Ramadan’s call in 2005 for a moratorium on the implementation of hudud penalties — including the stoning of adulterers — is mocked relentlessly by Berman as too little, but in fact it posed an intensely controversial challenge to the heart of Salafi political agendas and jurisprudence.

Ultimately, Ramadan disappoints his liberal interlocutors because they are not his most important point of reference. He has made a strategic calculation that embracing the political passions of the Muslim mainstream is the only way for his reformist agenda to gain any sort of credibility or traction with the Muslim audiences that really matter. And although his vision may not be a classically liberal one, it is a fully legitimate guide for how Muslims — or any persons of faith — can participate in a liberal and democratic system. As Andrew March, a political theorist and professor at Yale University, has argued, the cultures of political liberalism in the West should be able to accommodate peaceful, law-abiding citizens who are motivated by explicit religious faith. The United States, which boasts its own powerful religious communities and fundamentalist political forces, should of all places be able to understand how this works.

This does not mean that liberals should not have misgivings about Ramadan’s project. He defines sharia — the system of Muslim jurisprudence — not as the law of the land but as a personal moral code, sustained by the faith of the believer. Why should such a belief be alarming? After all, this is how many people of faith have reconciled themselves to civic states. But in practice, this evangelical project of societal transformation through personal transformation — changing the world “one soul at a time” — is more deeply radical than what violent extremists envision. Anyone can seize state power through violence and then impose his will by force. True power lies in the ability to mobilize consent so that people willingly embrace ideas without coercion — so that they want what you want, not simply do what you want. Nonviolent Islamists excel at this level of soft power and, in doing so, have succeeded in transforming public culture across the Muslim world. Walking the streets of Cairo today, for example, it is hard to believe that only a couple decades ago, few women covered their hair.

End of Part One


Written by Theophyle

August 5, 2010 at 8:45 am

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