Arguments: Response to Andrew F. March

Arguments: Response to Andrew F. March

Arguments Part 3: Paul Berman: Response to Andrew F. March

MY SKEPTICAL eye alights upon Andrew F. March’s fourth paragraph, where he explains that, in The Flight of the Intellectuals, I spend 100 pages recounting “the often stomach-churning history of Arab and Islamic attitudes towards Israel, Jews, Hitler, and the Holocaust.” He suggests that I have slandered Ramadan by family association with the stomach-churning history. But March devotes not one sentence to describing or summarizing what is said in those hundred pages.

Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was the original expression of the political movement known as Islamism, which, in its different versions, has gone into bloom in many parts of the world. In the hundred pages that Andrew F. March abstains from discussing, I explain that Tariq Ramadan has written a book largely devoted to Hassan al-Banna, called Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, which I translate as The Roots of the Muslim Renewal. The book emphasizes that Ramadan is, in fact, al-Banna’s grandson—a fact that is announced in the book’s opening dedicatory words: “To my mother, the eldest daughter of Hassan al-Banna.” But what chiefly matters is of course Ramadan’s intellectual filiation from al-Banna and his place within al-Banna’s current of fundamentalist theological interpretation, which is called “salafi reformism.” I judge The Roots of the Muslim Renewal to be Ramadan’s finest book, from a strictly literary standpoint. It expresses Ramadan’s philosophical ideas and heritage more clearly than any of his other books. I also judge the book to be gravely and even deliberately misleading about his grandfather.

Ramadan acknowledges in The Roots of the Muslim Renewal that al-Banna pledged fealty to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, back in the 1930s. Ramadan acknowledges that al-Banna helped the Grand Mufti return from exile to the Arab world after the Second World War. But Ramadan never does tell us that al-Banna’s alliance with the Grand Mufti was the single most important factor in converting the Muslim Brotherhood into a mass movement. He never tells us that, in proferring his support to the mufti, al-Banna had struck up an alliance with Hitler’s leading supporter in the Arab and Muslim world. The Grand Mufti spent the war broadcasting weird Koranic restatements of Nazi doctrine on shortwave radio into the Arab world, in the hope of stirring up an Arab insurrection to drive out the British and exterminate the Jews. The Grand Mufti contributed to the Holocaust in Europe. Al-Banna himself admired Hitler, and was not shy to say so, as I report (drawing on old information, but also on new information, reported in books just now by Jeffrey Herf and other historians). And all of this has been erased from Ramadan’s account of those years.

Why does any of this matter? Andrew F. March, who does not acknowledge the sheer mass of new information on these topics in my book, does not acknowledge my purpose in laying out the information, either. The Grand Mufti propounded various doctrines, and one of those doctrines was a Nazi or Nazi-like theory about the Jews as supernaturally evil, which he repackaged as an expression of authentic Islam. I argue in the book that, with the support of Hassan al-Banna, the supernatural theory entered into the mass Islamist movement, and it has flourished, and continues to flourish, with disastrous consequences.

In my own book I point to the official charter of Hamas, which is a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—the famous charter that begins with a quotation from the Koran, moves on to quote al-Banna (who calls for the obliteration of Israel), invokes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a staple of Nazi propaganda), and ultimately calls, on religious or pseudo-religious grounds, for a massacre of the Jews. I can’t help observing that Tariq Ramadan has contributed to Hamas’s fund-raising effort in Europe—not that I rest my argument on Ramadan’s monetary contributions (which, it is true, were not yet deemed illegal at the time, and which Ramadan himself has defended as humanitarian, though he would hardly say anything else). The contributions make a piquant and illustrative detail, though. But mostly I observe that Ramadan, who condemns terrorism in the abstract (it is wonderful to hear his condemnations, he is eloquent), nonetheless also writes justifications and even defenses of the kinds of terrorism that Hamas has always committed—as could only be expected, given his fidelity to the political tradition of Hassan al-Banna.

In my book I point to the television oratory and sacred fatwas of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as still another indication, and not a small one, of the continuing influence of the Nazi-Islamist alliance of the past. Qaradawi is the most influential of Hamas’s theological supporters. He is the single most influential Sunni religious figure to encourage people to commit suicide murder, under carefully defined circumstances (about which you can read a lucid discussion in Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Islam and Modernity by Samuel Helfont, published in 2009). I observe that Ramadan, who has contributed prefaces to two of Sheikh Qaradawi’s collections of fatwas, has revered and applauded Qaradawi in every one of his major books, beginning with the book about al-Banna. Anyone who takes the trouble to read through Ramadan’s work will discover that Qaradawi has been the most important of his mentors—a distinguished and learned sheikh with his own history of ties to the Ramadan family, by the way (which I mention, pace March, because Ramadan himself, in his book on al-Banna, chooses to boast of it).

Andrew F. March, having reported not one bit of this information, nonetheless argues that none of it bears on Ramadan. In March’s view, Ramadan has repudiated his grandfather’s doctrines, has repudiated “salafi reformism,” and has repudiated Sheik Qaradawi. Andrew F. March is deceiving himself on every one of these points. When Ramadan denounces “formalism” or some other error of the Islamist movement, he is not criticizing al-Banna, as March suggests. Ramadan is criticizing people whom he believes have strayed from al-Banna’s ever-admirable teachings. In The Flight of the Intellectuals I quote Ramadan from the New York Times Magazine in 2007 blithely and brazenly describing his grandfather as a champion of British-style political ideas. Nor has Ramadan taken the occasion in the years since 2007 to revise and correct his own presentation of these historical matters, though many people have challenged him to do so. Nor will Ramadan ever do so, if I judge the man and his doctrine correctly.

And “salafi reformism”? Far from repudiating this doctrine, Ramadan insists on draping it across his own shoulders. He does this in his books, and did it again in the New York Times Magazine back in 2007. And Sheikh Qaradawi? Andrew F. March is emphatic: “Ramadan has spent the past years doing nothing but rejecting Qaradawi’s authority, challenging the system of authority as a whole and moving beyond the salafi reformist idea.” This, too, is false, though with a complication. Ramadan and Qaradawi have indeed conducted a quarrel in the last few years, principally over Ramadan’s notion that Muslims ought to regard themselves as at home in the Western countries. My book notes the quarrel. Ramadan has come to regard his old mentor as a bit of a fuddy-duddy. And yet, Ramadan has insistently made clear that he wishes his quarrel with Sheikh Qaradawi to remain confined within the strictest of limits. He continues to look with humble veneration upon Qaradawi. And he instructs his readers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to regard Qaradawi as a grand sage of Islam at its best.

I show in my book that, as recently as last fall, Ramadan published a volume called Radical Reform, which repeatedly invokes the authority and prestige of Qaradawi, as if he were an entirely respectable and indeed awe-inspiring Islamic sage—praised as one of the several distinguished Islamic scholars who have called for a Muslim “renewal” (page 135); as someone who has advocated an admirably broad approach, instead of a narrowly formalist approach, to identifying a proper “Islamic ethics” for our own time (page 141); as the author of a “seminal book” on the topic of Muslim minority populations (page 326); as one of the eleven great Islamic thinkers of the past century who have “clearly contributed to furthering the debate and reflection about the issue of women” (page 344); and as one of the two “classical contemporary scholars” who have advanced our knowledge of “economic issues in the light of scriptural sources” (p. 349). What sort of chutzpah can lead Andrew F. March to say, even so, that “Ramadan has spent the past years doing nothing but rejecting Qaradawi’s authority”? March says it nonetheless. And yet the whole purpose of those repeated genuflections to Qaradawi in Radical Reform is plainly to show that Tariq Ramadan has remained, even now, Qaradawi’s humble and deferential admirer, and he wishes his readers to know this.

Allow me to mention another salient fact that readers will stumble across in the hundred pages of my book that Andrew F. March has deigned not to discuss. This particular fact consists of Sheikh Qaradawi’s oratory from 2009—the same year in which Ramadan published his Radical Reform. I am sorry to report that, in 2009, Qaradawi told his enormous television audience: “Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one”—which, as I show, directly echoes a speech by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1944, broadcast to the Arab world by the Nazi radio system. Qaradawi explained to his television audience on another occasion that Hitler was sent by Allah to punish the Jews—a claim that, as I show, likewise echoes the Nazi Arabic-language propaganda of long ago and certainly cannot be attributed to the Koran. And Qaradawi boasted of his support for suicide terror and his support for Hamas. And he called himself “the mufti of martyrdom operations.” These statements do mean something, too, given the size of Sheikh Qaradawi’s television audience, and given the kind of intellectual respect that he is accorded, not least by Tariq Ramadan, who himself is perversely celebrated by intellectuals who think of themselves, less than reliably, as the liberal left.

March takes the view Ramadan has lately tried to “dissolve” the notion of Islamic law in favor of an active Islamic ethics, which is presumably what March has in mind in saying, against Ramadan himself, that Ramadan has lately pulled away from salafi reformism. I can agree that, at first glance, Ramadan’s more recent writings do seem to emphasize ethics over law. On second glance, unfortunately, Ramadan’s call for an Islamic ethics turns out to be a call to revere people like Qaradawi. This is why I regard Ramadan’s notion of an Islamic ethics as worthless. Andrew F. March responds by observing that I am not an expert on Islamic ethics. Does he mean to suggest that Islamic ethics are fundamentally different from ethics per se?

I don’t see why a sincere champion of Islamic ethics would have any trouble issuing a forthright condemnation of violence against women, given how large and well-known is the problem—the terrible social issue that is symbolized by the practice of stoning women to death in the name of religion. Surely a sincere champion of Islamic ethics would call on Muslims and on everyone else to think for themselves on topics like these—to weigh the moral and ethical issues at hand, and to condemn the barbaric practices and violence.

What Ramadan actually calls for, however, is a continued obeisance to the structures of authority within the salafi reformist movement. He proposes a “moratorium” on stoning because he wants to organize what he calls “fatwa committees” to discuss the matter first. His first concern is to maintain the structures of religious hierarchy. And who will be the authoritative members of his proposed new fatwa committees—the people who will speak for the religion of Islam? A reading of Radical Reform makes it obvious that Ramadan would staff his committees with the various “salafi reformists” whom he praises in the book—the authors of the “seminal” works of salafi reformist analysis, who would never in a million years come out against stoning. I conclude that Ramadan’s call for a moratorium resembles all too clearly his larger call for an Islamic ethics. It is a sham.

Andrew F. March emphasizes that I am not an expert on Islamic law, and this is true. But it is irrelevant. Ramadan’s writings are accessible to anyone with a conventional Western education. The suggestion that you need to command an expertise on Islamic law in order to understand the doctrines of someone like Ramadan is a rigamarole that is trotted out to discourage everyone from reading and engaging in debate. Ramadan, in any case, is not an Islamic jurist. Nor does he present himself as one.

Ramadan presents himself as a religious philosopher, and I am happy to judge his work from this angle, not because I am myself a religious philosopher but because I take myself to be a proper literary critic, eager to read and to make observations about the history of ideas. Ramadan rests his calls for Islamic reform and ethics on his own reading of the esoteric theories of the medieval sage al-Ghazali. The esoteric theories, in Ramadan’s interpretation of them, allow him to assert everything and its opposite—the truths of modern secular research together with the sometimes contrary dogmas asserted by the oldtime Islamic scholars. In my book I offer my own reading of al-Ghazali and his legacy in later centuries. I conclude that Ramadan’s philosophical position is several hundred years out of date. But Andrew F. March has elected not to join Tariq Ramadan and me in our discussion of medieval philosophy and its bearing on the modern world.

Two last points. Andrew F. March says that I have set up a special set of standards for thinking about people from far-away cultures. March says of me, “he is entangled in an awkward set of questions which he thinks need to be raised about Muslim intellectuals: Should we trust him? Should we like him?,” and so forth. March has written yet another complaint about my book in the American Prospect, where he puts the issue more starkly. March says, “Is every encounter with strangers about sizing them up as friends or enemies once and for all?” The implication is that my approach to thinkers from remote parts of the world (Ramadan is from far-away Switzerland) and to Muslims in particular is policeman-like—a hostile friend-or-enemy approach, looking for people to arrest. By putting this question to me about strangers and friends and enemies, Andrew F. March implies that my distaste for the views of a single thinker, Tariq Ramadan, bespeaks a surly parochialism—a generalized bias or bigotry on my part, directed against vast portions of the human race. And so, the Yale professor who shies away from devoting even a single sentence to describing the new information about genocidal racism in The Flight of the Intellectuals has found a sophisticated way of insinuating that the bias is on my part.

The judgments that do need to be made have nothing to do, in my own estimation, with the religion v. atheism debate. All kinds of illustrious atheists from Muslim backgrounds are hard at work right now pushing their readers and audiences to think for themselves and to reflect on the most difficult of social issues, e.g., violence against women, and those people are some of the greatest heroes of our time. They are doing God’s work, so to speak. But the intellectual world is also full of religiously Muslim writers who are likewise the champions of thinking for yourself. I point something out, though. Any number of people from Muslim backgrounds who are right now arguing for independent thought and a genuine ethics, the pious and the impious alike, nowadays live in mortal fear of getting assassinated by fanatics from the ultra-radical wing of the salafi reformist movement. I realize that Ramadan is not going to assassinate anyone. Then again, on page 349 of Radical Reform you will find him quietly saluting the scholarly grandeur of Egypt’s leading proponent of assassinating free-thinking intellectuals in the 1990s. A war of ideas is going on, and Tariq Ramadan prefers, in short, to stand on both sides of it.

Last point: in his opening paragraph Andrew F. March puzzles over what sort of book I have written. Its theme and nature elude him. I will quote from the book’s second page. The Flight of the Intellectuals is a study of “a central debate of our moment—the debate over Islamist ideas in the Western countries, and over the reluctance of journalist and intellectuals from Western backgrounds to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas.” I have selected Tariq Ramadan as a representative figure in that debate. My book is therefore about Ramadan. And my book is about Ramadan’s reception among a certain kind of liberal intellectual, whom I criticize—the people who, faced with someone like Ramadan, are reluctant to identify what stands before their eyes; the people who, for fear of giving offense, will not speak openly about Nazi legacies; the people who will not describe Sheikh Qaradawi in full; the people who, out of a paternalism that pictures itself as anti-racism, want to tell us that Tariq Ramadan is the best that more than a billion Muslims are able to produce. The Flight of the Intellectuals is a book, that is, about Andrew F. March.

Read Andrew F. March’s Essay

Paul Berman, a member of the editorial board of Dissent, is a writer in residence at New York University and the author of, most recently, The Flight of the Intellectuals.