Last year I posted a somewhat disjointed critique of Paul Berman's attack on Tariq Ramadan. My reaction was to a long essay Berman published in The New Republic; I want to point now to a more measured review by Hussein Ibish of Berman's book The Flight of the Intellectuals, "important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed," of which the article in question is a sort of core.
Ibish makes a mostly positive assessment of Berman's attack on Tariq Ramadan. He concurs that Ramadan tries to "reassure" everyone (Muslims moderate and radical, westerners liberal and conservative), and that he has conflicting intellectual loyalties (to the traditions laid down by his grandfather and father, and to the enlightenment values of tolerance and reason). On the other hand, he strongly dissents from Berman's portrait of Ramadan as an apologist for terrorism. I think he puts things too strongly when he agrees with what he calls
Berman’s damning and persuasive conclusion is that Ramadan “cannot think for himself. He does not believe in thinking for himself.”Ramadan is attempting, and may well be failing at, something not easily pulled off. This is the marriage of a traditionalism, and a non-western traditionalism at that, with post-Enlightenment rationalism. The former quite expressly has a very different evaluation of (and perhaps even meaning of) "thinking for oneself" than does the latter. The effort to weave these two strands together is not a simple one; it may be doomed to failure. But certainly it cannot be judged simply by the standards of one or the other. To offer such judgment is simply to prescind from the effort in the first place.
Ibish gives an example from Ramadan's book Western Muslims & the Future of Islam, in which Ramadan lays out some of the principles of Qur'anic exegesis, especially as regards ijtihad or legal interpretation (especially independent interpretation). After a two-sentence summary of a fairly detailed account of this centuries-old (and far from unanimous) tradition, Ibish sums up:
Modern minds are reassured that even religious texts require interpretation; traditionalists are reassured that explicit texts do not allow for interpretation; and everybody is reassured that there are, in fact, very few genuinely explicit texts and that lots of interpretation will be necessary.This cavalier dismissal is all too brusque. Ramadan's work is a serious effort to describe a tremendously complex and contentious process that has unfolded for more than a millennium and generated dozens of competing schools; it is almost transparently tendentious to read it in light of Berman's remarks about "reassurances in every direction." Ibish is on somewhat surer ground when he remarks that Ramadan's principles here are methodological and thus do not necessarily have any results that wary westerners might welcome; the principles are all on the meta-level, not the practical. Ibish is vague but critical on Ramadan's contribution here:
having described the process, Ramadan has almost always failed to play a positive role in shaping the interpretation in the right direction, which renders his contribution, at this point anyway, largely pointless, if not negative.This may be true (I am not familiar enough with all of Ramamdan's work to say), but it is also a bit unfair. Methodological concerns have a legitimate, and not negligible, role in exegesis and application of traditional texts. It is indispensable, even if it is not enough (and who would say it is?) to remind people of what one would think is obvious but is all too readily forgotten: that interpretation is called for, that scriptures do not read themselves. The misapprehension that the meaning is plain that does not create fundamentalism, but correcting it can combat fundamentalism. A fundamentalism that must interpret, and defend its interpretations, is one that is no longer taken for granted. And that is no small gain.
Ibish then gives a mostly critical take on Berman's reading of Palestinian nationalism, which I don't feel qualified to assess. But as regards Berman's attack on Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, for (berman thinks) their failure to see through Ramadan, and especially what he sees as their craven abandonment of decency in their negative view of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibish is very apt.
Berman views their negative evaluation of Hirsi Ali as symptomatic of a kind of Western liberal self-hatred, because he sees her as a champion of humanist and Western values, and more important, of the Enlightenment and its values. But Hirsi Ali is, alas, an anti-Muslim bigot.[...] When asked, “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?” She replied, “No. Islam, period.” She explained, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.... There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” She concludes: “There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.”This sort of talk does not really trouble Berman, though. As Ibish notes,
Berman asks, “What if it were true [that Hirsi Ali has been] hurling a few high-spirited insults at her old religion?” suggesting that such comments are somehow reasonable, understandable, or harmless,and most tellingly, this
soft-pedal[ing of] Hirsi Ali’s aggressive, intransigent, and intolerant attitude toward Islam and Muslims...is precisely what he accuses Buruma and Garton Ash of doing with Ramadan.Ibish has little to say about Berman's analysis of Buruma and Garton Ash's motives. He thinks Berman's accusations of cowardice (they must be afraid of extreme Islamism, and so avoid criticizing it) are unconvincing (why wouldn't they just talk about something else altogether?); he makes less criticism of Berman's charge that they are suffering from a kind of overwrought liberal guilt. He points out, as above, that it does not take such guilt to want to recoil from rhetoric like Hirsi Ali's, but grants that such guilt probably does characterize and motivate some westerners. What the right answer to this is is another question.
Berman may well have a good point about a certain type of Western liberal intellectual who fails to defend humanist and Enlightenment values in the face of presumed non-Western authenticity, but if he has gotten the diagnosis right, his prescription is no improvement on the disease.The latter half of Ibish's review is of Gilbert Achcar's book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, partly as a corrective for what he sees as Berman's overemphasis upon Naziism in the formation of Arab attitudes towards Israel. But he subjects Achar's book, too, to scrutiny and critique. I haven't read Achar so don't have an impression of the fairness of his judgment (predictably, not all reviewers have been so even-handed in their assessments), but I commend the whole review (despite having a higher evaluation of Ramamdan than Ibish has) for the reading he gives of the history in question, and for his the measured and even tone, which manages even when calling a book seriously flawed to give it credit for being a serious contribution.