I read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism in 2004 with a mixture of respect and caution. I always note when the expected party line is not towed, and Berman seemed to me to be making a fairly responsible hawkish case, but ostensibly from the American left. This, I grant, is not all that left by some standards, but as this was during the Bush years when Democrats were trying to present a united front, it was enough to make me notice. I was also impressed that he had "gone to the sources," done his homework on Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual credited with laying many of the foundations of modern Islamist thought. Berman notes that he could find only three volumes of Qutb's enormous commentary In the Shade of the Qur'an translated into English. A couple of years after Berman's book was published, a few cheap paperback editions of translations of brief works by Qutb began trickling through the used book store where I worked, a development I think can be partly credited to Berman. At the time he was writing, few American intellectuals had tried to inform themselves of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamism, and to the degree that they are better-informed now, it is largely due to Berman's example.
But I was not wholly swayed. There was something about the tone in which Berman addressed his fellow liberals, people who couldn't get behind the White House's call to arms because they were worried about "America’s imperial motives, about the greed of big corporations, and their influence in White House policy; and could not get beyond their worries." Note: not "They had ill-founded worries," nor even, "they had worries that were respectable, but here are the answers to them." Rather, they couldn't get beyond their worries, they were stuck in some (emotional) concern that maybe the hoist-the-flag-boys rhetoric we were suddenly hearing again was maybe drowning out something more subtle we should be paying attention to? In other words, the anti-war case reduced to fretful shudders, a kind of being scared of the dark.
This is of course a polemical ploy, a way of infantilizing one's opponents. And there is no question that Berman considers himself engaged in a polemic.
Much, much later I read a quite bewildering array of reviews on Terror and Liberalism. It seemed to be one of those books that prompted the question, Will the real [title] please stand up? Evaluations fell out in more or less predictable ways: if you supported the war, you liked the book; if not, thumbs down. No one I remember admitted to having had their minds changed by it (I'd love to hear from someone). And, as it turned out, my respect for Berman's scholarship somewhat lagged, particularly due to one exhaustive review. What has remained is my sense of him as a fighting man.
His latest book, with the Benda-esque title The Flight of the Intellectuals, has been getting compared of late to the old glory days of intellectual sparring back in the '40s and '50s, back when you could choose if you liked to be "wrong with Sartre rather than right with Aron." The first notice I saw of it, in the NY Times, cites Ron Rosenbaum in Slate likening it to "those old Partisan Review smack-downs." Everyone who mentions the book seems to like this comparison, which indeed seems invited by Berman himself when towards the end of his original article in The New Republic, which is in some ways the core of his book, he compares Ramadan to Sartre in just such a context. It's as though we were getting a whiff of an old scotch whose last bottle we just found down in the cellar. Are we really that nostalgic for the days when intellectuals had clout?
The object of Berman's pungent critique is mainly Tariq Ramadan, with some disdain also reserved for Ian Buruma, whose N.Y. Times Magazine interview with Ramadan Berman singles out as pulling its punches, being charmed by Ramadan's smooth presentation, and failing to probe enough. (This despite Buruma's calling Ramadan on more than one error of judgment including at least one that could be construed as anti-semitic). Berman's New Republic article is a fuming piece of journalism-cum-jeremiad, part righteous indignation and part forensic analysis, in which he scrutinizes Ramadan's right to look like a reasonable, "moderate," friend and critic of the West and of Islam, with a foot in both worlds. Ramadan dissimulates, Berman claims, about his family's ties to the very extremism from which he tries to distance himself in the public eye. His grandfather Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Qutb was a member); his family is connected through both well-established fact and innuendo to Hamas and possibly Al Qaeda. He was barred from entering the U.S. (and so prevented from accepting a visiting position at the University of Notre Dame) for suspicions of contributing money to terrrorists, and granted a visa, after a drawn-out court battle, only earlier this year.
I don't know how sincere Tariq Ramadan is; how heartfelt his calls for a "European" Islam that embraces a kind of universalism while remaining true to its spiritual vision. I don't know if he is a misogynist, or an anti-Semite, or a covert fellow-traveler of terrorists. I do think the answer matters. But I do think Berman is playing a pretty low game, no matter how nostalgic it may make us for the old smack-down days.
One has to grant that Berman has a good eye for the righteous cause and knack for picking the right opponent. Buruma is a casualty, but Ramadan is exactly the right size; an intellectual who's moving between Muslim and European worlds, who can thus be called out for hypocrisy when he speaks like a Muslim to Muslims and like a Westerner to Westerners. He cites both postmodernists and imams (the worst of both worlds, one might think). Importantly, he has made strong criticisms of Israel. And his notoriety is rising ("one of the world's top 100 contemporary intellectuals", said Foreign Policy in 2008); he is just about due for being taken down.
The New Republic has a penchant for this sort of thing; a while ago editor Adam Kirsch tried to rally folks against Slavoj Žižek even calling him "the most dangerous philosopher in the world;" the most impressive thing about the piece was its bestowing this sobriquet upon Žižekwith a straight face. Now that Jacques Derrida is dead, I can think of no safer intellectual in the world to denounce than Žižek. A more craven example of preaching to the choir would be hard to find. Could it have been supposed that any of the readers of The New Republic might have been on the fence about Žižek? They already knowthat they hate the radical left and the "incomprehensible" cant of Hegel-Marx-Lacan that Žižek writes in. Kirsch scores for looking brave at stepping up to the big brazen loudmouth, with extra points for the Emperor-has-no-clothes shtick, while never having to risk that anyone among the people who count for him will seriously call him on his pose. It's cowardice posing as David-versus-Goliath. Nice work if you can get it. And if you can still respect yourself.
So, credit where it's due: Paul Berman actually does take some risks with his attack on Ramadan, who is not yet so assured of his place in the pantheon of modern intellectuals (though he's getting there) as Žižek; and it's possible that some readers might be fence-sitters. In other words, there are real stakes here. But they may not be the stakes Berman says.
Berman's opening rhetoric tracks his opponent, as though leafing through a file. He recounts Ramadan's early itinerary as a series of tactics:
in 1995...Ramadan had already established his social base in Lyon, at the Union of Young Muslims and the Tawhid bookstore and publishing house. These were slightly raffish immigrant endeavors, somewhat outside the old and official mainline Muslim organizations in France. Even so, the mainline organizations seem to have welcomed the arrival of a brilliant young philosopher. He built alliances. He attended conferences. His op-eds ran in the newspapers. He engaged in debates. Eventually his face appeared on French television and on the covers of glossy magazines, which introduced him to the general public in France, a huge success. And yet—this is the oddity about Tariq Ramadan—as his triumphs became ever greater, and his thinking came to be more widely known, no consensus whatsoever emerged regarding the nature of his philosophy or its meaning for France, or Europe, or the world.Note the build-up; a young intellectual making ordinary choices in his academic career is "building alliances," as if carefully crafting the machinery that will position him eventually to make his coup. There's even the hint of something strange happening behind the scenes--Ramadan is "welcomed" by the establishment despite his "slightly raffish...endeavors." And "eventually," all his maneuvering pays off, he has acheived something of prominence--here he is on magazine covers, on T.V.! The "general public" is starting to eat out of his hand, he's "a great success." And all while--if only we had noticed this "oddity" earlier!--there's been this slipperiness, this imprecision about what he actually means, for (note again the ascending buildup) "France, for Europe, for the World." Ah, the clarity of hindsight. Thank God we have Paul Berman. It may not be too late.
This is very subtle, but it is not far from character assassination.
Here's another interview with Ramadan, this courtesy of The Immanent Frame. (The link goes to an excerpt; click here for a more extensive version in pdf.). Fairly early in this interview (page 4 of the pdf), Ramadan refers to an episode that has been certainly one of the defining and haunting moments in his career so far. In a televised debate (the excerpt I quote below is from Berman's article) with Nicholas Sarkozy, then the French Interior Minister, Ramadan was asked about his brother, Hani Ramadan, also a Muslim intellectual but of notably more conservative stripe, who had the year before written an editorial in Le Monde condoning the stoning of women for adultery. Sarkozy inquired what Tariq thought of this same issue. Ramadan responded that there should be a "moratorium" on such punishments, whereupon the surprised Sarkozy interrupted:
Berman remarks: "The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights. A moment of barbarism. A thrill." To Berman it is clear: Ramadan's mask has slipped.
Sarkozy: A moratorium.... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?
Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.
Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?
Ramadan: No, no, wait.... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community.... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, “Me, my own position.” But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr. Sarkozy. It’s necessary that you understand....
Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan....
Ramadan: Let me finish.
Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.... But that’s monstrous—to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It’s necessary to condemn it!
Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable—that’s clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world.... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That’s too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, “We should stop.”
Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.
But is it really so hard to grasp what is happening? Ramadan is strategizing about creating a context in which one could condemn, and be heard and listened to in condemning, the stoning of women, rather than rejected out of hand by the very community that needs to come to this conclusion--a conclusion that Ramadan no less than Sarkozy believes must be reached. He is aiming for a situation in which the Muslim world itself condemns the stoning of women.
Sarkozy, on the other hand, is eager to make it stop, stop now! By any means necessary! Who can blame him? Who would prefer to have a single woman stoned to death for the sake of some "pedagogical" process by which imams came to decide to call off stoning once and for all, if we can stop stoning once and for all with a condemnation and a law fashioned in good parliamentary fashion?
It is clear that what offends Berman in this exchange is precisely Ramadan's strategizing. Because Ramadan must "present different faces" to the Muslim world and the liberal West, and if he's on our side, he must, absolutely must, tell us what he means, tell us straight. Does he condemn stoning, yes or no? And Ramadan's position is precisely that he's not going to give us his position, because "my position doesn't matter here;" it's the position that is going to emerge from the community that's going to matter.
The irony is thick here. What is it that liberalism stands for? What is the watchword of the well-intentioned West? Gradual change. To the indignant protesters every May Day, to those who marched in Seattle demonstrating against the WTO, to those who said No over and over again even as United States was turning Iraq upside-down and shaking it to find weapons of mass destruction, the assurance has always been: Things are getting better! Yes, there are problems, but look, the turn of the last century, women couldn't even vote in the U.S.! Blacks were being lynched! There was no minimum wage! And now...look! Look at all the progress we have made! Yes, there are still sweatshops over there...[waves vaguely]...and yes, China may have invaded Tibet, but you see we have to work in the real world, we're working on these things behind the scenes, we have to be careful not to offend or we'll lose the ground we've gained. There will someday be a solution in Gaza, there will someday be a thriving rainforest and a restored ocean, there will someday be "an end to hunger" and a "green economy" and Victory in the War on Terror. But you must be patient. Change is gradual.
What "gradual" means is on our terms. (And to whom does this "our" refer to?) "Gradual" means, at the rate we specify. Immediate or glacial, so long as it causes us no inconvenience. And thank you for recycling.
What is, in fact, accomplished by the "condemnation" that Sarkozy declares? Does it save women's lives while Ramadan's snail pace leaves them to be buried under rocks? Or did it, just possibly, serve to buttress the Interior Minister's popularity and appeal to the "general public" and get his face on a few more magazine covers, with an eye to an election a few years later?
Berman, at any rate, knows what the righteous position is. He's aghast that Buruma doesn't press Ramadan on the matter, that he lets him have the last word; that other intellectuals can't even get their story straight about why Ramadan was right but are all sure he was. This is the trahison des clercs that Berman sees and calls out. Not only Ramadan but, by implication, all the other academics and journalists in his fan club, have, in the name of some elusive and slippery and ultimately meaningless respect for the abstract "other," failed to respect the concrete other; in this case, the woman targeted by extremism and hatred.
Berman's primary example here is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch citizen (and former Member of Parliament), who has quite vocally left Islam and become an outspoken critic of it, though Berman feels that this aspect of her work is overplayed. An enormous amount of Berman's article veers from Ramadan to condemn Buruma for his "attacks" on Hirsi Ali, especially in his book Murder in Amsterdam: the death of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance. Theo van Gogh was a filmmaker whose last work was a film with Hirsi Ali called Submission. Famously including Qur'anic verses projected onto female nudes, this was a film calculated to provoke and offend the radical Muslim. It succeeded. Van Gogh was gunned down in broad daylight in November of 2004 by a Moroccan-born Muslim. Pinned to van Gogh's body with a knife was a note promising that Hirsi Ali was to be next.
Hirsi Ali has also led a courageous campaign to end clitoridectomies (sometimes wrongly called "female circumcision.") This ancient and barbarous practice has little to do directly with Islam (and indeed is held in a number of traditions), has, in the words of this smart article by Yael Tamir in the Boston Review, become
the trump card, taking over the role once played by cannibalism, slavery, lynchings, or the Indian tradition of Sati. "Is this the kind of tradition you would like to protect?" liberals ask embarrassed multiculturalists.... Clitoridectomy defines the boundary between us and them, between cultures we can tolerate and those we must condemn.In his New Republic article, Berman doesn't make so much of this campaign (there may be more in the book); what he notes is the apparent failure of the intelligentsia to defend Ali with the same aplomb that he remembers coming back in the days when Salman Rushdie fell afoul of the Ayatollah Kohmeini. Instead, when Hirsi Ali spoke in a public documentary about having lied when she applied for refugee status and Dutch citizenship (she told a false story about why she was applying, and used a different name), it was said that she ought not to have received citizenship. Ultimately her citizenship was not revoked, but Hirsi Ali resigned her seat in the parliament.
Berman more or less accuses Buruma of saying that Hirsi Ali had her death threats coming, and of shrugging off her fate. She was rude, what did she expect? He approvingly quotes the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner's article accusing Buruma of harboring "the racism of the anti-racists;" Buruma has responded, and also commented on Hirsi Ali's citizenship case; it's very hard to glean from his words any waffling about the right to dissent or to criticize Islam or any other religion. (See too his recent volume Taming the Gods.) In Murder in Amsterdam, Buruma does have stronger words for Hirsi Ali. Is his attitude tinged with sexism, with racism? Not irrelevant questions. Nor simple questions to answer. Not questions that I think need to go unasked.
And yet. And yet, I can't help notice that when Berman turns his fury against Buruma, the focus of his article starts to falter. The target here is Tariq Ramadan, right? Why all this animus against someone who published one interview with the man?
It turns out, it's the contrast Berman needs, between Hirsi Ali and Ramadan.
Hirsi Ali’s books raise the issue of women’s rights, and not from an outsider’s point of view, regardless of how many times she has been denounced for making herself an outsider to Muslim life. Hers is a story marked by knives—the knife at her own genital mutilation, and at her sister’s; the knife at the murder of her friend and colleague, pinning to his chest the sheet of paper threatening her own life. This is not a Swiss professor! Here is the actual insider; the real thing. ...Something about those knives takes away the quality of abstraction that allows a social issue to be shrugged off. It is always good to be subtle and nuanced, but Hirsi Ali’s writings have the effect of making a large number of nuanced subtleties look ridiculous.And here we are, at the issue itself. Berman wants no ambiguity on liberal values--the sorts of things we might find in a declaration of universal human rights--and Hirsi Ali allows him to ask, "What, and you do?" Hirsi Ali is more than his expert witness; she is his his exhibit A. Authentic victimhood and authentic indignation. "The real thing!" (Not a Swiss professor!) Enough of this nuance, enough of being subtle.
About Hirsi Ali we do not have to wonder: where does she stand on the question of stoning women to death?
Tariq Ramadan himself disapproves of terrorism. But there is a cost in having it both ways, in noisily affirming his place within the salafi reformist tradition while pretending that terrorist components of the movement belong only to a distant offshoot; or in affirming his own disapproval of violent action while exalting his grandfather’s memory; or in condemning the terrorist aspects of the Palestinian resistance while still revering Qaradawi and even, with his prefaces, bedecking himself with Qaradawi’s prestige, and bedecking Qaradawi with his own prestige. The cost is a little smudge of ambiguity in Ramadan’s own position. It is the little smudge that makes the various allegations regarding the Ramadan family...look not more convincing than before, but also not outlandish.Well, there's nothing unsubtle or nuanced about that, is there? No insinuations, no sly half-alluded hints. The ellipsis in the above block quote is a long parenthesis that names names, in good old plain-talk fashion:
(in connection with the al-Taqwa Islamic bank in Switzerland, accused and later cleared of financing Al Qaeda, though the lawyers for some families of September 11 victims have lodged a lawsuit; in connection with a Qaeda financier who has been jailed in Spain since 2002, under the authority of the great Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet; in connection with a Qaeda militant who came from the Lyon region; and so forth)Hmmm, what's this? (Thumbing through the file again): "Accused and later (ahem) cleared..." "lawyers for some families have lodged a suit..." "the judge who also ordered the arrest of Pinochet..." (what's he doing in there?)... "in connection with...." Ah, real intellectuals coming out swinging. Just like Partisan Review.
What Berman can't abide here is the "smudge of ambiguity." Ramadan did his dissertation on Nietzsche, that master of masks, and while I don't concur with his reading in every respect, I suspect he's putting to work a thing or two he learned about "esotericism," as Strauss would have said.
Ramadan's family is indeed implicated as Berman suggests; his grandfather founded the MuslimBrotherhood; Qutb (a figure not unlike Strauss in some ways) was a member. And as Strauss knew, "esotericism" in philosophy has deep Islamic roots. Tariq Ramadan is every bit "the real thing." I don't say that Berman should get beyond his worries. He may be right; perhaps Ramadan is a dangerous, or a hypocritical, man. But he's far more likely to be listened to by the ones who want Hirsi Ali dead than is Berman.
"Ambiguity" per se isn't what makes Berman uncomfortable; it's a swear word. For the slow process or "hard choices" (like, say, the invasion of a foreign nation) that he happens agree with, he'll say, "careful consideration" or "weighing" or "getting beyond worries." Well, if he wants to argue with philosophers, he'd better get used to ambiguity. But in fact, there may be even better reasons.
I understand very well the kind of smudgey ambiguity Berman finds so objectionable. It is indeed a feature of any religious thinking when it directs its discourse both inward towards those who share it, and outwards to those who do not. I argue in different ways when I speak to fundamentalist Christians or to "liberal" ones; in different ways still when I address Jews or Moslems, or again Buddhists or Jains or Hindus; and in still different ways when talking with friendly or hostile atheists. One's concerns are different in each of these cases. The much-misunderstood notion of taqiyya (roughly Arabic for "guarding") has been interpreted by some both with in and without Islam to mean that the Muslim may lie to an "infidel" without compunction. Faced with this, Ramadan is asked in another interview, why should anyone take what he says seriously?
And what is the alternative? To wait for every last Muslim to apostatize?
Ramadan may be one of the hundred most important intellectuals today, if such a rating has any meaning at all, which I doubt. But his "rock-star" status (to use a cliche one hears from time to time regarding him) probably does count against his being one of the most important intellectuals of all time. (Can anyone imagine Kant or Confucious being called rock stars?) Berman's creepy ressentiment notwithstanding, though, Ramadan's thought warrants some heed, and not because it's some siren-song lulling us to doze off before the box cutter gets to our throat. Let us suppose Ramadan is indeed being less than forthcoming, is snagged on some conflict of interest or some limit to what he can admit; faults of his grandfather, perhaps, or faults of Islam itself. He would not be the first important thinker to be caught in some bad faith. (I know my position is not universally held, but I'm not ready to throw Heidegger over either, despite some, um, lapses of his.) It is even just conceivable that Ramadan doesn't mean a word of what he says about a tolerant Islam, a reasonable Islam, an Islam that has made its peace with multiculturalism and feminism and critical hermeneutics. Even supposing this were the case, even if this program contradicts every word Ramadan says when he speaks in Arabic, I believe one could take these outlines of Ramadan's and run with them. In fact, I think, we'd damn well better.