Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ian Buruma on Tariq Ramadan

Too handsome to be an extremist?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've finally read Ian Buruma's New York Times article on Tariq Ramadan, "Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue" (February 4, 2007). Like all of Buruma's articles, it is well written and pleasant to read, but it left me more dissatisfied with Ramadan than Buruma seems to be, though I tentatively agree with part of Buruma's conclusion:
Ramadan offers a different way, which insists that a reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment. From what I understand of Ramadan’s enterprise, these values are neither secular, nor always liberal, but they are not part of a holy war against Western democracy either. His politics offer an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.
Engage Ramadan in dialogue, yes -- on that, I agree -- but I would emphasize "critically" in any such engagement with him, for I'm not entirely convinced by his reassurances that he is 'European,' for one can be European in some rather disturbing ways, as we know from Europe's history.

Being as I am from the U.S., I'm not as 'European' as Ramadan, who was born in Geneva, but I suspect that the Europe with which I identify is rather different from the one with which Ramadan identifies. I identify with the Enlightenment project insofar as it respects religious tradition but insists on a distinction between the religious and secular realms, which fits with an old Christian distinction between the spiritual and temporal spheres -- or what, in another way, Augustine distinguished as the city of God and the city of man -- and I don't think that Islam ever makes such a distinction.

Thus, I have to wonder what Ramadan means when he makes statements such as the following:
"There is no such thing . . . as an Islamic order. We have to act to promote justice and inject our ethics into the existing system."
This sounds reasonable, just as reasonable as the Qur'anic statement that "There is no compulsion in religion" (Qur'an 2.256 (Al-Baqara)). The difficulty lies in determining precisely what it means. Even assuming that the statement has not been abrogated (naskh) by the Qur'anic "verses of the sword," does it mean "no compulsion" in the sense that personal submission to Allah in one's behavior should not be forced or in the sense that personal submission to Allah in one's inner faith cannot be forced? Would either of these interpretations preclude establishing an Islamic theocracy? The history of Islam allows space for dhimmis who can practice their own limited religious freedom, but only within a larger Islamic theocracy that has often been achieved through force and to which dhimmis must submit.

I therefore wonder what Ramadan means. In saying that "[t]here is no such thing . . . as an Islamic order," does he mean this in the sense that there is not yet an Islamic order in Europe? And by "justice" and "ethics," does he mean, ultimately, sharia as both governmental law and moral system? Others have wondered the same thing:
[O]n French television in 2003 with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister (now running for president as the candidate of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party), . . . accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers, a punishment stipulated in the section of the Islamic penal code known as huddud. Ramadan replied that he favored "a moratorium" on such practices but refused to condemn the law outright. Many people, including Sarkozy, were outraged. 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. I think 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. But now I can say that Sarkozy helped me enormously, because the controversy helped me to spread my ideas."
Perhaps Ramadan is in earnest here, but possibly, he's being disingenuous. What does he mean by "personally" being against capital punishment? Does he mean that in his subjective feelings, he is horrified by capital punishment, but that in a proper Islamic society, capital punishment, e.g., by stoning, would nonetheless have to be objectively instituted because the authoritative texts teach this?

Now, my doubts would appear to be allayed by Ramadan's statement that he in fact thinks that stoning in Muslim countries "has to stop." But I still wonder what he means by this. Does he mean stop forever? Or stop until proper Islamic conditions have been established for applying the punishment?

Perhaps Ramadan has addressed these issues elsewhere, but I wish that Buruma had raised them. Despite this limitation, Buruma's article is interesting, especially for how it indicates the convergence of some Islamic and Leftist views, an issue that I should explore sometime in a blog entry.



At 3:54 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Please do.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I will ... when I have a better grasp of it.

But it's linked to anticapitalism and anticolonialism as well as to politics in Europe, for the Left has supported immigrants rights and welcomed them into the parties of the Left.

But there's more going on, I think. Politics is really messy in Europe these days.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oops, that should read "immigrants' rights." I neglected the apostrophe.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Odd article (Buruma's, not yours). While he does mention Caroline Fourest's "Frère Tariq" which made such a splash that it discredited Ramadan in France for good, I'd be willing to bet the house Buruma didn't even read the book. Instead he reiterates all the 10-yerar-old questions, as if time and scholarship hadn't anwered most of them in the meantime. Fourest wasn't alone, of course: There was also Ralph Ghadban's "Tariq Ramadan und die Islamisierung Europas", a big book by Bassam Tibi (forgot the title), and many similar ones. As far as I can judge that, Continental-European discourse about Ramadan is over and the jury has spoken, but this doesn't appear to register in the Anglo-American world at all. Maybe nobody there reads any French or German any more.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal. Buruma's article is odd, given what you've offered. I'll try to find some reviews of the books that you mention. (I'd go for the books themselves, but my reading list has gotten out of hand).

Buruma can surely read German, since he is Dutch, but his field is East Asia, so perhaps he is out of his element on Tariq Ramadan.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe this 16 page pdf of Ghadban will be of interest, since it's mostly about Ramadan's intellectual heritage, and touches a lot on issues such as the history of reason in Islam, how it all came to what it is (Ghazali vs Averroes etc.) and how the philosophical and theological strands rose and fell over time, and which of them Ramadan subscribes to. I bet that you will find the part about the Quoranic treatment of the Abraham-Isaac-and-the-ram story most memorable.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again, Erdal. I'll take a look at the Ghadban article. Maybe it'll even provide me something to blog about.

Jeffery Hodges

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