Friday, June 08, 2007

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan: Part 2

Paul Berman
(Image from New York University)

I'm now returning to Paul Berman's article on Tariq Ramadan: "The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism: Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?" The New Republic (June 4, 2007).

Ramadan -- as Berman points out -- is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded in Egypt, and though biology is not destiny, we should note this point because Ramadan himself makes much of it, as Berman informs us:
Ramadan, in his book Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, or The Roots of the Muslim Revival, in 1998, devotes some two hundred pages to al-Banna and his visionary ideas. Ramadan concedes that al-Banna did want to replace the multi-party system in Egypt with a single national council, which might appear to be a one-party state -- but Ramadan explains that, because of the fundamentally democratic nature of Islam, al-Banna's proposal was tantamount to a multi-party system. Such is the interpretation in The Roots of the Muslim Revival. And Buruma might have pointed out one of the principal alternative interpretations of al-Banna and his ideas, if only to offer a little perspective on Ramadan and his way of thinking. According to this second interpretation, al-Banna is best described as a fascist. (Berman, page 11)
Berman's designation of al-Banna as a fascist goes deeper than a mere label, but let me first interject my thoughts here. Ramadan may claim that Islam is fundamentally democratic, but little in its long history provides evidence that this 'fundamentally democratic' religion has ever given rise to anything significantly like political democracy, whatever democratic implications it might have in its 'anthropology' -- as in all Muslims being equal before Allah. And anyway, even that 'democratic' equality is merely an equality of subjection. Every Muslim is equally a slave of Allah, for that is what Islam as submission means, that one enslaves oneself to Allah.

The concept of submitting oneself to God's fetters also exists in Christianity, so this is no innovation of Islam, and a central strain of Christology even portrays Christ as God's "Suffering Servant" -- an image taken from Isaiah's description of a slave of God who suffers for the redemption of God's people (cf. Isaiah 53). However, Christ is also, and more centrally, understood as God's Son, an intimate relation of kinship extended by adoption to Christians, who through Christ become -- according to Christian soteriology -- not just slaves of God but also God's children. Moreover, Christianity shares with Judaism the belief that each human being is made in the image of God and thus partakes of at least a modicum of divine dignity, which might thereby make the Judeo-Christian tradition more open to democratic ideas, especially given the Christian distinction between God and Caesar, cashed out as the separation of church and state.

Islam accepts neither that human beings are made in Allah's image nor that any distinction exists between religion and politics, so Ramadan's assurances about the "fundamentally democratic nature of Islam" strike me as hollow.

Be that as it may, Berman shows that the proper understanding of al-Banna's views is that they are partly derived from European fascism:
Among the present-day commentaries on al-Banna and fascism that I have lately stumbled on, the most eye-opening turns up in an essay[, "Terror, Islam, and Democracy,"] by the Iranian scholars Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, which appears in an anthology called Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg. The Boroumands (who are sisters) arrive at a grim evaluation: "The man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna." By "totalitarian ideology," the Boroumand sisters have in mind the doctrines of the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, whose influence on al-Banna they underline. And they point out the disastrous consequences: "From the Fascists--and behind them, from the European tradition of putatively transformative' or purifying' revolutionary violence that began with the Jacobins -- Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as a political art form." (Berman, page 13)
Berman then adds:
There is nothing especially novel or bizarre in noticing that al-Banna displayed an eager interest in the aesthetic cult of death. The classic history of the Muslim Brotherhood, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, by Richard P. Mitchell, which appeared in 1969, was quite lucid on this topic even then. Al-Banna came up with a double phrase about the importance of death as a goal of jihad--"the art of death" (fann al-mawt) and "death is art" (al-mawt fann). This phrase became, in Mitchell's description, a famous part of al-Banna's legacy. Stringing together his own paraphrases with al-Banna's words, Mitchell wrote: "The Qur'an has commanded people to love death more than life" (which, I might add, is a phrase that we have heard more than once in terrorist statements during the last few years, for instance in the videotape that was made by the Islamist group that attacked Madrid in 2004). And al-Banna continued, in Mitchell's presentation: "Unless the philosophy of the Qur'an on death replaces the love of life which has consumed Muslims, they will reach naught. Victory can only come with the mastery of the art of death." (page 13)
How much of this thinking influences Tariq Ramadan? As Berman implies, "[T]hese are [ideas] from a couple of generations ago, and Ramadan is not his grandfather."

More on this tomorrow.

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At 8:18 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Thanks for this, Jeffery. I'm looking forward to the rest of the "series" on Berman's article.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, so am I. This is how I learn.

Jeffery Hodges

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