Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan: Part 6

Carlos Schwabe, La mort du fossoyeur
Digging the Grave of the West?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Now, Paul Berman tells us clearly: It's all about Rousseau:
Salafi reformism, judging from Qutb and Ramadan, turns out to be a kind of Rousseauianism. There is a pure and authentic way of living, which is the Muslim way. And yet the Muslims, who were born free, are everywhere in chains. The Muslims are oppressed by what Ramadan calls "a Western aggressive cultural invasion" -- which is the kind of language that Qutb liked to use half a century ago (and al-Banna before him). A very great danger arises from the Western "colonization of minds," in Ramadan's phrase, by which he means the influence of television. This was Qutb's worry exactly, even in the pre-television age, which he described as "the cultural influences which had penetrated my mind." And so the road back to the pure and authentic way of living must be found. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 25)
Or maybe it's only a little about Rousseau. I was expecting rather more than this, yet the point seems not analytical but analogical.

Sayyid Qutb may be influenced by Romantic and Symbolist poets, Hassan al-Banna may be similar to the Romantics in his apocalyptic revolt against Modernity, and Tariq Ramadan might be 'romanticizing' about a postmodern, European Islam, but do any of these various manifestations of 'the Romantic' suggest any serious 'Rousseauianism'? Berman's terminology is more gesture than analysis.

I suppose that one could call this a Bermanian trope, in the sense that Martin Jay explained to me years ago, an oft-repeated figure of speech that pre-analytically shapes our way of seeing historical processes (if I recall, but Marty can correct me). Perhaps Berman is predisposed toward seeing irrationalist revolts against Modernity (or Postmodernity) as Rousseauian. Perhaps it's only a bit more substantive than Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetic title The Revolt of Islam. Stanza 43 in Canto 2 can sound rather Rousseauian:
Can man be free if woman be a slave?
Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air,
To the corruption of a clos├Ęd grave!
Can they, whose mates are beasts condemned to bear
Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare
To trample their oppressors? In their home,
Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear
The shape of woman -- hoary Crime would come
Behind, and Fraud rebuild Religion's tottering dome.
Talk of chains, slavery, and a free-waving goodbye to all that grave stuff certainly reminds one of Rousseau, but freeing women wasn't what exactly Rousseau had in mind even if the trope of chains, slavery, and freedom is Rousseauian. Similarly, Berman might be using a Rousseauian trope.

Or could he, instead, be thinking along the lines of Hans Blumenberg "reoccupation thesis," but in a different historical context, implying that salafi reformism, like many political ideologies of revolt, 'reoccupies' a position left vacant by the departure of genuine Rousseauianism.

Oh, maybe ... but Berman doesn't say, and perhaps I'm making too much of something that Berman seems to have spent little time on, for neither Rousseau nor Rousseauianism ever surfaces again in Berman's essay. Instead, we get Tariq Ramadan as a postmodernist ... of sorts:
Ramadan, being a man of the post-modern era, prefers to sound like a liberation theologian from Latin America. Or he sounds like one of his anti-globalist allies, railing against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He cites the Greco-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, the philosopher of left-wing "autonomy," which is Ramadan's way of indulging in his own anarchist-like flights of fancy. Or Ramadan sounds like a moderate reformer in the conventional civic and not the salafi sense -- like someone who has a few practical and well-intentioned proposals to make on behalf of marginalized populations. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 26)
But don't be misled by Ramadan's terminology, says Berman:
Yet the [post-]modern rhetorics always turn out to be translations, in one fashion or another, of Qur'anic concepts. They are worldly exteriors with Islamic interiors . . . . Ramadan invokes civil libertarian arguments in order to defend the autonomy of his reconstructed Muslim community. He invokes the anti-globalist rhetoric of his left-wing allies in order to defend the mainstream Islamist movements in the Muslim world. And so forth, throughout the entire modern [or post-modern] terminology. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 26)
Nevertheless, thinks Berman, neither Ramadan nor Qutb have intended to deceive us by this:
None of this is meant to deceive anyone. These people are trying to conduct a thorough "reform" not of the world, but of Islam -- a campaign to ensure that Islamic thinking will expand to match each new innovation of modern life without losing the connection to the original revelation. So they look for modern concepts, and for Qur'anic equivalents, and they fill the modern with the Qur'anic. And with all of this in hand, they set about posing their challenges to the unreformed Muslims, and to the modern, non-Muslim world. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," pages 26-27)
If this is so, then Islam itself (in my opinion) will likely be transformed in its translation from older Muslim terminology to contemporary non-Muslim terminology. The result still might not be something that non-Muslims like, but it could be an entirely different Islam. Why, then, are some critics like Caroline Fourest and Paul Landau so panicky about Ramadan and his putative intentions? Here -- according to Berman -- is why:
Exactly why the panicky critics harbor these suspicions ought to be easily understood. The Muslim emigration has turned out to be one of history's largest events, and in scattered regions across the whole of Western Europe, old-stock populations nowadays wake up to discover that people from the Muslim world have suddenly come to dominate this or that neighborhood or town, and Arabic or Turkish has begun to outpace some of the smaller European languages, and here and there Islamist groups are demanding censorship of one thing or another, or are demanding gender-segregated beaches, or the curricular demise of Voltaire or Darwin, or an end to history instruction on the crimes of Nazism. And there are always sermons by one or another exotically costumed Islamic scholar fantasizing about a Muslim conquest of Europe and the world, which therefore can be cited as evidence of a giant conspiracy. And it is true that, in Europe, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups are prospering among the immigrant populations, not to mention Qutb's radical fringe groups, which are thoroughly terrifying; and true that Ramadan is theorizing the Muslim advance; and true that Ramadan wants his Muslim counter-culture to promote the mainstream Islamists elsewhere in the world. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 28)
The fears, therefore, are neither baseless nor irrational. Still, thinks Berman, one need not situate Ramadan here:
Only none of this [about Ramadan] needs to be interpreted as a fifth column acting on the [Muslim] Brotherhood's secret plan. Mostly Ramadan's worldwide ambition appears to be something else entirely: the dream of a Western Islam, in his own salafi reformist version, taking the lead among Muslim currents everywhere; the dream of Western Islam, in his version of it, becoming the center, instead of a faraway outpost, of the larger Muslim world. But that is not a millenarian eschatology. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 28)
Does Berman therefore think that we have nothing to fear from Ramadan? Let's see where this goes, as we follow Berman's lead ... tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...

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At 8:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that despite US fears of Islamist terrorism, Europeans seem to fret more about their immigrant Muslims than we do. I've wondered about this and offer a few reasons for speculation:

1) Most Americans are still believers in God. Our public officials invoke God's name. Religious leaders offer prayers in the Senate chamber. Even in my public school district, major staff events begin with a prayer. A culture that embraces faith is easier for a Muslim to assimilate into.

2) Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion prevent laws and regulations like the infamous French school ban on headscarves.

3) The war on terror has made US Muslim leaders and organizations more cautious about what they say and write. Even green card holders aren't protected from rendition or a one-way trip to Gitmo, are they?

At 8:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Europeans worry about Muslim culture dominating some urban areas, and they see honor killings, hear about clitorectomies, arranged marriages between middle-aged men and teenage girls, and so on.

The percent of Muslims in America is still very small, maybe as little as one percent (depending upon whose statistics you believe).

The religious nature of American culture can cut both ways, for it convinces the Islamists that Americans are 'crusaders.'

Europeans, by the way, do also worry about Islamist terrorism, especially in places where Islamists have struck -- e.g., Britain, Spain, the Netherlands -- but none of that compares in scale to 9/11.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Jeffery!

Interesting post, I have yet to read the Berman article, for lack of time. I logged onto TNR a few weeks ago and was put off by the length of it; at that time I was in the throes of final papers, etc, so the last thing I had time to do was embark upon a journey through an 10-15 page article about a Muslim scholar none of whose books I'd read. My dad mentioned the article on the phone the other day; he really liked it.

Anyway, I guess I'd like to read some of his books and get to know him a little more before I start reading about what people have to say about him. So, I don't have much to comment about Ramadan or this post, but was just stopping by to give you the link to the blog I've been working on:


I'm digging wordpress so far, they don't have the few problems blogger was giving me; for example, posting pictures is much easier.

If I get time this summer to read some of Ramadan's stuff, I'll come back and engage in the posting you've proffered.

I hope everything's going great in South Korea!


At 1:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daniel, thanks for dropping by and leaving a message, especially the detail of your new website ... which I will get around to linking to sometime soonishly.

The Berman article is fascinating but loooong -- and even looooonger in my retelling! At my rate, this series will stretch out as long as one of Zeno's infinite endeavors.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This series of yours about brother Tariq is a great read indeed!

And it it also a very apt and ominous sign for Ramadan's career: When an (although obviously exceptional one) American scholar of English literature, writing in a mere blog from Korea, of all places, can easily see through the life and works of the self-styled "greatest Islamic thinker of his generation", this is a good sign that his subject's career is well beyond its zenith.

Another fitting sign is the publication of Ramadan's new book "In the Footsteps of the Prophet. Lessons from the Life of Muhammad. Oxford University Press 2007".

For a Muslim thinker, writing a biography of the prophet is usually the last thing he does before the curtain falls. This book is the swan song of a career - a thoroughly unoriginal and sentimantal retelling of how unique a philosoper, biologist, chemist, physicist, doctor, engineer, humanist, architect, and freedom-fighter the founder of all civilization Mohammed was, plus a desperate "but WE deserve the fruits of modernity - not you!"

This book emits the sweet stench of desperation, I can gleefully report.

At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see your point about Muslims in the US and Muslims in Europe. We haven't reached critical mass. The Detroit suburb of Dearborn is said to have the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East. It is probably the only US metro area whose immigrants are predominantly Muslim.

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal.

I'm reading slowly, and you're getting my reactions to Berman's study of Ramadan as I go. In other words, I've reached only page 28, so I have 37 unread pages still remaining.

I don't yet know Berman's conclusion ... or even my own.

The path should prove an interesting one, however.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

And the Dearborn Muslims date back to Henry Ford's time, so they're largely Americanized.

That, of course, could change...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:44 PM, Blogger Dorian Gray said...


I have a signed copy of "Terror and Liberalism"!

5 $ at The Strand in NYC!

At 3:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I take it that The Strand is a bookstore and not a beach:

I put my book upon my head
And walk'd into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose book was in his hand.

Apologies to Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And the Dearborn Muslims date back to Henry Ford's time, so they're largely Americanized.

That, of course, could change..."

It is changing. The city has been getting a fresh influx of immigrants since Lebanese Christians fled the civil war of the 70s. Over the past fifteen years, the Iraqi population has exploded, a fair number of whom are Chaldean Christians. I don't have any stats, but it may be that greater Detroit's Arab community has a sizable Christian minority in contrast to mostly Muslim North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian comunities in Europe.

At 6:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right, and in fact, most Arabs in America are Christian, not Muslim -- and by "Arabs," I mean "people from Arabic countries," for some Christians from Arabic countries argue that they are not Arabs at all but Assyrian, Phoenician, Egyptian, Berber, and so on, even if they speak Arabic as their mother tongue.

Jeffery Hodges

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