Sunday, August 29, 2010

Malise Ruthven on Paul Berman: Wrong about 'Islamofascism'?

Paul Berman
Photo by Timothy Lu

I've often relied on Paul Berman's research into sources of current-day Islamism, particularly for his findings on anti-modernist Western sources. Recent commenter Nathan Rein, however, has linked to a critique of Berman's research by Malise Ruthven.

I've taken a look at that link and seen that Ruthven, in his article "Righteous & Wrong" for The New York Review of Books (August 19, 2010), takes issue with Paul Berman's argument that Nazi antisemitism entered into Arab and Islamist ideology via Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who had cooperated with the Nazis during the Second World War:
[After the end of World War II,] Hajj Amin received a hero's welcome on his arrival in Egypt, where he renewed his connections with Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he had previously supplied with funds from Nazi Germany and ideas for SS-type military formations. The Brotherhood proved fertile soil for the Nazi bacillus. As a result of Hajj Amin's return, Berman concludes, "the Arab zone ended up as the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue, to boot, returned home in glory, instead of in disgrace."

Planet Berman evidently excludes India, where Subhas Chandra Bose, who broadcast anti-British propaganda for the Nazis before creating the Indian National Army to fight with the Japanese, is now honored in the pantheon of national heroes in Delhi's Red Fort. It also excludes Finland, where Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces that fought with the Germans against the Soviets and volunteered recruits for the Waffen SS, was elected by parliament to serve as the country's president from 1944 to 1946. In 2005 he and his predecessor, Risto Ryti, who served a ten-year prison sentence for allying Finland with Nazi Germany, were voted the country's top two national heroes in a survey by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Berman, however, is not to be bothered by inconvenient truths that might arrest the flow of his rhetoric. His vision is crassly ideological: facts that might interfere with his argument -- such as al-Banna's stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam, as well as other complicating factors -- are liable to be discarded or ignored.
Aside from the dismissive reference to "Planet Berman," Ruthven is right to call attention to Nazi influence upon other figures who went on to postwar fame, but I don't see how this detracts from Berman's point about the pervasive influence of Nazi ideology upon postwar Islamism. Nor do I agree that Berman's "vision is crassly ideological." Berman is a man of the left, but he seems to be going against the grain of leftist thinking these days, so what 'crass ideology' does Ruthven mean? Besides, Berman does note that Nazi racial theory posed problems for German foreign policy in the Middle East:
Everything about the Nazi doctrines was bound to seem a little different, viewed from the Middle East. Nazi racial theory consigned the Arabs, Turks and Persians to lower rungs of human status . . . . German diplomats in the Middle East dutifully reported back to the chancellery in Berlin that Arabs, Turks and Persians responded poorly to this sort of thing. Nazi doctrine on the Jews doubled the problem. The Jews seemed biologically loathsome, in Nazi eyes, because the Jews were deemed to be Semites -- but unfortunately for German diplomacy, the Arabs, being cousins of the Jews were likewise deemed to be Semites. (Berman, Flight, pages 61-62)
I'd need to re-read Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals to see if he specifically notes that Hassan al-Banna considered Nazi racial theory to be incompatible with Islam, for I don't recall all the factual details of Berman's book. However, the citation above should be sufficient to demonstrate that Berman is aware of the issue.

Ruthven does, however, point to an important possible re-reading of the famous exchange between Sarkozy and Tariq Ramadan, the exchange in which Ramadan called for a 'moratorium' on stoning but which Sarkozy and, later, Berman condemned for not going far enough. Ruthven notes that Ian Buruma sees things differently:
In his most recent book, Taming the Gods, Ian Buruma puts an entirely different gloss on the episode, following France's leading scholar of modern Islamic movements, Olivier Roy, in suggesting that Ramadan's position represents a stage toward secularization. By leaving a religious law for discussion without actually applying it, he is effectively dissociating religious doctrine from political or social practice. As Roy has suggested, a moratorium "maintains orthodoxy while enabling the believer to live in a society governed by laïcité." Roy's position is evidently based on the idea that consensus -- one of four canonical "roots" of Islamic law -- is a precondition for change, a view that Berman entirely fails to consider.
This is a potentially valid point about Ramadan's position as "a stage toward secularization," and it's something that I've also considered in thinking about Ramadan, though Ruthven has here expressed it better than I could have. But I disagree that "Berman entirely fails to consider" this possibility, for Berman discusses Ramadan's later suggestion of so-called "fatwa committees" that would reconsider various Islamic laws and issue scholarly opinions. Reconsideration of stoning, for example, sounds like a good thing, but I wonder what Ramadan would do if the consensus of Muslim scholars still insisted upon stoning. Would he agree that such a consensus is 'incumbent' upon all Muslims? Stoning approved, moratorium lifted? In fact, drawing upon Berman, I've already posted on the problems posed by Ramadan's proposal of "fatwa committees," given one of the proposed Islamic scholars to be included:
Who would the Islamic scholars be? Prominent among them would be Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a well-known 'moderate' Islamist. He would be consulted as an expert, e.g., on women's rights. Berman offers the ironic suggestion that Qaradawi's qualification for this position stems from his role as "the scholar who issued the fatwa permitting Palestinian women to dispense with hijabs while committing [acts of] suicide [terrorism] -- an advance, presumably, for 'Islamic feminism'" (Berman, Flight, page 238).
In sum, then, while Ruthven raises some valid points and is worth reading, he does not -- in my opinion -- undermine Berman's general demonstration that Nazi antisemitism has come to pervade Islamist, and even larger Muslim opinion on Jews in the modern world, nor does he persuade me that Berman is wrong in his concerns about Ramadan.

And for that matter, Berman has a remarkably complex, nuanced view of Ramadan, which can be found in a fascinating interview conducted by Michael Totten, for those readers with time and interest.

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At 6:17 AM, Blogger Nathan Rein said...

Well, I don't completely agree with your assessment of Ruthven's criticism of Berman, but thanks for linking to that interview. It's really quite brilliant.

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome, Dr. Rein.

And thanks to you for the link to Ruthven, who makes some valid points. Berman has missed some things in his focus upon Tariq Ramadan, but he's also opened up a field of inquiry that has enriched my own understanding of Islamism.

I don't quite understand Ruthven's tone, which seems a bit too hard on Berman, so something must be going on that has escaped me.

But this is sensitive stuff, I guess, and Berman is pretty critical of Buruma and Ash.

Jeffery Hodges

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

Uncertain too Jeffery. Perhaps it has something to do with analyzing not a single work?


At 7:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You mean Ruthven's article? Perhaps so, for it's actually a review of several books.

Or perhaps Ruthven's tone merely reflects scholarly annoyance at a journalist who missed some things.

Or maybe there's some history between the two of them that I just don't know about.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. And the rest seem plausible. The linked interview I agree seemed to sort out a few things I thought "jumpy" in the review, but then, I've not read the work.


At 8:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm glad that the interview was useful for you. It's certainly interesting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Erdal said...

"Finland, where Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces that fought with the Germans against the Soviets"

Well... Finland was attacked by the Soviets in Oct 1939 for reasons entirely unrelated with Germany. They lost a lot of territory and indeed blamed the Germans (among others) for staying neutral and even siding with the Soviets. When Germany did attack the Soviets in 1941, it was, again, entirely unrelated to Finnland. Mannerheim simply took the opportunity to take back the territory lost in 1939. They did not, technically, take part in the war on Germany's side. They received logistical help from Germany though, after a plea for help was rebuffed by Sweden and Britain, which were their nominal allies.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Erdal said...

"Risto Ryti, who served a ten-year prison sentence for allying Finland with Nazi German"

Another misrepresentation. Facts here:

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal. I know nothing about Finnish history and simply assumed that Ruthven was accurate.

I guess the moral is: check everything for accuracy.

Jeffery Hodges

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