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CFR Papers: Veiled Truths (2)

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The Rise of Political Islam in the West / Part 2 from 4

By Marc Lynch

Lumpers And Splitters

In trying to understand Islamism, two approaches are possible. The first sees Islamism as essentially a single project with multiple variants, in which the similarities are more important than the differences. In this view, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda represent two points on a common spectrum, divided by tactics rather than by goals. Such an understanding makes it possible — if not unavoidable — to see Osama bin Laden lurking in the figure of Ramadan.

The second approach sees consequential distinctions in the ideology and behavior of various Islamist strands. In the years since 9/11, the United States has moved from the former camp to the latter. The United States’ experience of cooperating with nationalist Iraqi insurgents against al Qaeda in Iraq has led many U.S. policymakers to favor a strategy that identifies differences among Islamists and uses them to accelerate al Qaeda’s marginalization. Many observers in the United States and elsewhere adopted a similar tack after watching the Muslim Brotherhood contest elections and defend democracy in countries such as Egypt, even as the Brotherhood opposed U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Berman proudly takes the first approach, of lumping Islamist groups together. For him, the faces of Islamism range from the wild-eyed assassin of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the anonymous bearded radicals who terrorize their communities, and from the “monstrous” Qaradawi to the smooth Ramadan. Yes, Ramadan has criticized bin Laden and condemned terrorism — but Berman is unmoved, since he sees violence only as a manifestation of the deeper intellectual problem of the Islamist project. Liberals, Berman argues, should not be fooled by the mild rhetoric or democratic inclinations of nonviolent Islamists or think that engaging with them does Muslims any favors. “Muslim liberals take umbrage . . . at well-meaning observers from outside the world of Islam who, in a misplaced effort to sympathize with the oppressed and stigmatized Muslims, agree to regard the heritage of Hassan al-Banna as the authentic and respectable voice of Islam,” he writes. He is right about the suspicion of Islamists among many Muslim liberals and secularists. But these groups — however much Berman and I both might wish otherwise — represent only a small slice of Muslim societies. By focusing on them, Berman disregards the more important battles that occupy the Muslim mainstream.

The evolution of these struggles can be seen in the experience of Qaradawi, who plays a decisive role in Berman’s book. Ramadan’s “reverence” for Qaradawi, a preacher and television host linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, serves as Berman’s coup de grâce. Qaradawi has achieved infamy for his fatwas in support of Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians. If Ramadan reveres such a “monstrous” figure — and does not understand him to be monstrous — then surely Ramadan’s worldview must be fundamentally flawed. But Berman renders Qaradawi so crudely that few Muslims would recognize him in the caricature.

In fact, Qaradawi is a pivotal figure who straddles the divides within today’s Islamist world. He is a fierce advocate of democratic participation and a critic of al Qaeda, which makes him an icon to mainstream nonviolent Islamists and an object of outrage among Salafi jihadists.  He is best known for his doctrine of wasatiyya, or “centrism,” which lays out a middle ground between secularism and fundamentalism. He rejects the doctrinal extremism of the Salafists and the violent extremism of al Qaeda — in a recent book, he dismissed al Qaeda’s efforts as a “mad declaration of war upon the world.” At the same time, he often takes issue with U.S. foreign policy and is certainly hostile toward Israel, not to mention being a highly successful proselytizer of the Islamist worldview. This potent mixture may be troubling, but it largely defines the mainstream Muslim position. Indeed, one of the keys to Qaradawi’s popularity is his ability to anticipate Arab and Muslim views; like Ramadan, Qaradawi is a barometer of Muslim opinion as much as a cause of it.

Berman argues that Ramadan’s respect for Qaradawi prevents him from making the breaks with Islamist orthodoxy necessary to becoming a truly reformist figure. But Berman fails to notice that Ramadan has already made such breaks, at some personal cost to himself. Ramadan and Qaradawi have clashed several times in recent years. Ramadan has rejected Qaradawi’s suggestion that Muslims in Europe should relocate to Muslim-majority lands; he has also criticized Qaradawi’s defense of Palestinian violence against Israel, insisting that Palestinian opposition should take the form of nonviolent civil disobedience.

These arguments demonstrate not only that Ramadan is flexible but also how Qaradawi has changed. Over the last few years, his rulings have become more conservative, literalistic, and orthodox. Arguably, this is because the winds of Islamism have been changing. Salafists are gaining in influence everywhere, driven largely by the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s model of political participation and the continued flow of Gulf oil money to literalistic institutions and individuals. The purity of Salafism offers simple answers to Muslims in Europe, many of whom are facing profound crises of identity and alienation. Qaradawi senses these changes but has struggled to adapt. This spring, he lost control over his own creation, the popular Islamist Web site Islam Online, when Salafists took over editorial control and forced out a number of staff members sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. When Qaradawi tried to intervene, he was dismissed from the editorial leadership by the site’s owners in Qatar — a startling fall for one of the pillars of Islamist activism over the last three decades.

Those, such as Berman, who see Islamism as flat and uniform claim that Islamists of all varieties — despite differences over the use of violence or the value of democratic participation — ultimately share a commitment to achieving an Islamic state. But this is misleading. There is a vast and important gap between the Salafi vision of enforced social uniformity and the moderate Islamist vision of a democratic state, with civil institutions and the rule of law, populated by devout Muslims. The gap is so great as to render meaningless the notion that all Islamists share a common strategic objective. Ramadan stands on the correct side of this gap, and by extension, he stands on the right side of the most important battle within Islamism today: he is a defender of pragmatism and flexibility, of participation in society, and of Muslims’ becoming full citizens within liberal societies.

Ramadan’s defense of participation places him opposite the literalists and radicals with whom Berman attempts to link him. The hard core of the Salafi jihadists view all existing Muslim societies as fundamentally, hopelessly corrupt — part of a jahiliyya, which means “age of ignorance,” from which true Muslims must retreat and isolate themselves. Ramadan, by contrast, calls for change from within. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood offer clinics, charities, schools, and other services, while pursuing the dawa, or “spiritual outreach.” Their approach would be familiar to anyone who has engaged with American evangelicals — the polite conversation, the pamphlets and other literature, the self-presentation as honest and incorruptible. There is an obvious difference between a woman who is forced to wear a veil for fear of acid being thrown in her face and one who does so to show respect for God. But there are other forms of coercion — peer pressure, societal norms, and economic need — that can be difficult to detect from the outside. These are topics for serious study.

But Berman does not even try. He sees only a radical mob of fanatics, not individuals who find meaning in their lives given particular contexts and specific challenges. As Berman sees it, blank-faced cyphers impose a grim conformity on passive communities that are unable to resist (presumably because their will has been weakened by an Ian Buruma essay). It does not occur to him that Islamism might offer meaning to those who are confined to gloomy urban ghettos or that Islamist groups might be the only ones working on the ground to improve certain people’s lives. For many Muslims around the world, Islamism may offer a better life in the here and now — and not just in the hereafter — than do many of the alternatives.

This point should not be misunderstood. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly distinct from al Qaeda, it is not the uniformly “moderate” organization that its supporters often say it is. The organization’s character and goals often vary from community to community, and its rhetoric sometimes betrays a number of worrisome “gray zones,” in the words of a 2006 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Its members generally avoid making clear statements on contentious issues, such as the place of non-Muslims in the Islamic state, the toleration of secular Muslims, or where the authority to interpret Islamic law should reside. And the Muslim Brotherhood’s rejection of violence at home does not extend to areas where Muslims live under occupation, such as the Palestinian territories or Iraq. Such positions may not please many Americans, but they do — like it or not — represent the mainstream of much of the Muslim world.

End of Part Two


Written by Theophyle

August 8, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Posted in CFR Papers, Islamism

Tagged with ,

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  1. […] P.S. Postari noi pe Paleografia si pe Politeia Digest. […]

  2. […] P.S. Postari noi pe Paleografia si pe Politeia Digest. […]

  3. […] CFR Papers: Veiled Truths (2) « Politeía Digest […]

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