Sunday, June 10, 2007

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan: Part 4

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In his article "The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," Paul Berman notes that Tariq Ramadan, when asked by Ian Buruma to describe what current of Islamic thought he would call his own, specifies "Salafi Reformist" (page 19).

That's somewhat surprising to hear directly from Ramadan himself, if one knows anything about some of the eddies within this current of Islamic thought, but Buruma, as Berman notes, indulges Ramadan and finds an innocuous definition:
Buruma came up with a definition by plucking a sentence out of Ramadan's Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. A "salafi reformist," Buruma explained, quoting Ramadan's book, is someone who aims at the following goals: "to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level, and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs." ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 19)
Berman locates this quote on page 27 of Ramadan's Western Muslims book -- and also notes some interesting things on page 26.

Before we turn to those interesting things, let's reflect on the quote. The word "recognize" has a troubling ambiguity, for it can imply either "genuinely accept" or "intellectually acknowledge." Which does Ramadan mean? Knowing the French original might help here, but I don't have access to that, nor does Berman raise the issue (though perhaps some reader could enlighten us).

I'd also like to know what "true loyalty" implies. Ramadan -- or his translator -- doesn't simply advocate loyalty to one's country but qualifies that loyalty as true loyalty. What does that mean?

Perhaps recognizing the Western constitutional structure and living with true loyalty to one's country are subordinate to protecting Muslim identity and religious practice. In Ramadan's view, what would that mean? Isn't Islamic religious practice defined by Islamic law, i.e., shariah? This raises a question posed to Ramadan in his debate with Sarkozy -- yes, that Sarkozy, the new Monsieur Le President. Ramadan was asked for his views on the huddud punishments set forth in shariah. He replied that he favored a moratorium on such punishments as stoning (which he prefers to call lapidation). One has to wonder -- as I have previously wondered -- how long such a moratorium would be intended to last.

But leave that for another time. Let's turn to those "interesting things" that Berman notes in determining who other salafi reformists might be:
Here, on page 26 [of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam], is Hassan al-Banna; and Abul Ala Mawdudi from the South Asian subcontinent, whose activities Tariq's father, Said Ramadan, coordinated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Khomeini's fellow thinker in Iran. And here is Sayyid Qutb, one more influential reformist among the others, listed without comment--even if Qutb's legacy, in one of its offshoots, did lead to Al Qaeda. In Ramadan's usage, salafi reformism turns out to be the philosophical underpinning for modern Islamism in the sundry versions that descend from al-Banna's (and Mawdudi's) original idea. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 20)
Berman notes of salafi reformism that its "sundry versions do not always chime with one another" (page 20), so we shouldn't assume that Ramadan agrees with each and every person or movement listed. For the record, in fact, Ramadan mentions one variant with evident distaste:
Ramadan somewhat ruefully cites still another sub-current that flows from the salafi reformist source--though, in his view, this final tendency has emptied salafi reformism of almost all of its original content. This final tendency, he tells us, has gone over to "strictly political activism," joined to "a literalist reading" of the sacred texts, leading to "radical revolutionary action." Ramadan describes this tendency as "political literalist Salafism" .... [and] explains that political literalist salafism has attracted "a lot of public attention" ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," pages 20-21)
Berman then observes:
As to why the political literalist salafists should have attracted "a lot of public attention," Ramadan says nothing at all in his main text. Only in a footnote does he mention "violent and spectacular actions," and not even there does he remark on any sort of radical departure from basic morality. Nor does he define any relation that might exist between this sort of thing and the legacies of Qutb. A veil of timidity and euphemism hangs over the entire discussion, which could lead a sleepy reader to miss his meaning altogether.

And yet it is obvious what Ramadan is talking about in this particular passage. Political literalist salafism is the doctrine underlying the terrorism that has emerged from salafi reformism -- the vast wave of random murder, the vogue for "violent and spectacular actions," that has swept across so many regions of the Muslim world and beyond. That is what he means by "radical revolutionary action." ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 21)
In short, such "violent and spectacular actions" as the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Ramadan is against that sort of salafi reformism.

Yet ... there's that worrisome connection to that figure who partly inspired al-Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb, the contemporary to Ramadan's grandfather al-Banna, a fellow Egyptian and fellow foundational figure within the Muslim Brotherhood whom al-Banna never met -- as Ramadan emphasizes. Never met, true, but as Berman notes, al-Banna came to respect Qutb from a distance as Qutb moved away from secularism and toward Islamism, and "in 1948 [as] Qutb and Mahfouz and a few other people launched a magazine, with Qutb as editor" (page 22), al-Banna showed considerable interest:
Al-Banna tried to woo the magazine for the Muslim Brotherhood. The next year, al-Banna was assassinated. Qutb happened to be in the United States at the time, and, in one of the stranger passages of his report on his American experience, he recounted that Americans were jubilant over al-Banna's death -- which has got to be a fantasy, given that in 1949 hardly anyone in the United States had heard of Hassan al-Banna [a point that I noted in "Sayyid Qutb's Dishonesty"]. The fantasy nonetheless suggests that al-Banna's late-life appreciation for Qutb had begun to be balanced by Qutb's appreciation for al-Banna as a world-historical figure, even if they never met. Then Qutb returned to Egypt and enlisted in the Muslim Brotherhood, and found his way to al-Banna's son-in-law, "the little Hassan al-Banna," Said Ramadan, the editor of Al-Muslimun. Said Ramadan's magazine presented the ideas of Abu Ala Mawdudi to the Arabic-speaking world, and Qutb adopted some of these ideas for what now became his own ultra-revolutionary doctrine. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 22)
In other words, Qutb knew Tariq Ramadan's father, even sought him out, which suggests that there is rather more to this story than Ramadan would prefer to acknowledge.

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At 3:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He replied that he favored a moratorium on such punishments as stoning (which he prefers to call lapidation)."

That euphemism ranks right up there with collateral damage. Muslims in the West really do face quite a conundrum, trying to reconcile the laws and practices of the Quran with Western liberal values. I had never heard of Ramadan prior to reading your entries and two linked articles. I suspect Tarik Ramadan finds stoning and other practices abhorent but cannot condemn them openly without losing credibility in the eyes of his Muslim audience. By refusing to condemn such barbaric practices, he loses credibility in the eyes of Westerners.

Unlike the Quran, Buddhist sutras, to my recollection, make no distinction between the sexes or among believers of different faiths. Likewise, I believe the New Testament makes only one direct gender-related command, when St. Paul told the ladies of the Church to be quiet and submit to their husbands. I used to cringe once a year when that passage was read at Mass.

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Even Iran prefers the euphemism "lapidation." This use of softer terms suggests discomfort with the hard reality and may imply hope for the future.

Jihadists, however, seem unfazed by sticks and stones and really sharp knives.

Jeffery Hodges

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