Questions and Temptations

On Paul Berman’s long essay, “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?”

Let me say this up front: I kind of adore Paul Berman. I know, I know, I’m a bad liberal. But he seduced me, honest! Seduced me with his clear but magnificent prose, his full bodied paragraphs, and his exquisitely meandering arguments which carry you through dark forests of history, politics and the writings of intellectuals to reveal, at the critical moment, the great black tower of dangerous truth, undeniably solid. Like Chabon’s, his is writing that makes you smarter.

Berman is probably best known for being a “liberal hawk.” Liberal in his opinions on social and economic policy, but a hawk in his support, back in 2002 or so, for the invasion of Iraq (if not its execution). Almost two years ago I read his 2002 book Terror and Liberalism for a class. The book traced parallels between Fascism, Communism, and Islamism as three different totalitarian manifestation of the same terrifying impulse to rip down all the achievements of democracy and liberal society so that people might live purely and unmuddled, in apocalyptic utopia or in death. And given the mass killings and destruction that resulted from its predecessors, Berman urged us, America and the West, to confront Islamic totalitarianism with the same vigilance and vigor with which we fought Fascism in WWII and Communism in the Cold War.

I loved the book. It rather blew my mind. I read it again, and then again. Did I mention that I kind of adore this guy? So when I saw sometime back that Berman had written a long essay — 28,000 words long! — about the popular Islamist philosopher Tariq Ramadan, a figure discussed briefly in Terror and Liberalism, well, I just had to read it, didn’t I? So I tracked the piece down at The New Republic website and saved it to my computer, and there it sat for months, waiting for me to read it, which, yesterday, I did.

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss professor and the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which nearly all of the modern Islamist movement descends (including the Taliban and Al Qaeda). I should point out here that “Islamism” refers to the political ideology that wishes to organize society and government around the principles of seventh century Islam. Islamism, the modern political tendency with the -ism, should not be confused with the ancient religion of Islam (though of course one could not have the former without the latter). Tariq Ramadan is an Islamist, but hardly the violent sort. His primary concern — in his books, his lectures, his audio-recordings — is moving Muslims into the mainstream of European civilization, as both authentically practicing Muslims and citizens of free society.

I should make a second disclosure here: I have not read anything by Tariq Ramadan. But that’s okay, I think, because as much as this piece is about Ramadan, it is equally about the western journalists that have reported on him — journalists like Ian Buruma who profiled Ramadan in The New York Times Magazine. Tariq Ramadan is a controversial figure, and Buruma, in his reporting on Ramadan and on the decidedly not Islamist Somali women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has become something of a controversial figure himself.

Paul Berman is a nerd for this stuff, the quibbling and rivalries between intellectuals of the most high minded character that take place across newspapers, magazines and books. Terror and Liberalism was a book about big ideas and powerful movements. “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” is mostly about the ambiguities and hypocrisies of individuals, most of them European. This isn’t a bad thing, but Terror and Liberalism is undeniably a more compelling text, and one that lays out a whole great arc of thought on how to understand totalitarian movements and the sometimes troubled liberal response to them. “Who’s Afraid?” is more like bonus material or deleted scenes, and too often these deleted scenes make less sense without the complete movie. Berman uses phrases in his essay like “a vision in the mid-twentieth-century mode” that may seem innocuous but make vastly more sense to readers of Terror and Liberalism.

Ramadan comes out of the essay somewhat worse for the wear of course, for though Berman does occasionally have genuine praise for the man, he spends most of his time dissecting  deceptive ‘double discourse,’ pointing out troubling family ties, and shooting down all the different ways that progressive commentators have found to make Ramadan seem equally progressive. Still, Ramadan is a gray figure, not a true villain that should be hunted down or arrested or protested against, and that is the weakness of the essay. As one reviewer pointed out, with 28,000 words we should come out of it with rather stronger opinions about Ramadan than that he is “questionable.”

But then, I don’t think Berman finds Tariq Ramadan particularly scandalous. After all he is an Islamist philosopher. That he refused to outright condemn the traditional practice of stoning adulterous women may be deplorable, but it certainly isn’t the most surprising thing under the sun. For Berman the real scandal is Ian Buruma and a handful of other journalists. Buruma in his profile seemed more or less charmed by Ramadan. Buruma in his other writings has come off quite hostile to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as do similar journalists in theirs. Hirsi Ali, whose stance on stoning is not ambiguous at all, who fled to Europe to speak out against the female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and honor killings that defines life for millions of women in the Muslim world, and who still must travel with body guards for all the threats against her life. Buruma isn’t an Islamist; he isn’t even Muslim a tiny bit! What could possibly lead Buruma to embrace the questionable Ramadan while snubbing the unquestionably courageous Hirsi Ali?

This is the crux of Berman’s pondering, but by the time he finally gets to this crux the essay is over, and he leaves us with a rather glib, two sentence explanation: the rise of Islamism and terrorism. In Terror and Liberalism similar questions yield a discussion of the dark appeal of the macabre and the inability of essentially rational people to comprehend the essential irrationality of pathological movements. “Who’s Afraid?” simply ends without any such elaboration, and that is a shame, though of course the essay had to end somewhere and he did just write a whole book on the topic.

And what do I think of all this? I think ideology is more than what people say, and mean to say, and more even than what they think but never dare to say. It puts roots deep into the subconscious mind, roots of aesthetics and prejudices, of hope and hate and dreams. Tariq Ramadan may not say anything particularly dangerous, but I think his followers are bound to pick up on more than just his words. They will match the nuances of his perspective and his judgement: what he pays attention to, what causes he takes up, who he respects, what sorts of claims raise his skepticism, what he ignores, and what, like the stoning of adulteresses and Palestinian suicide terror, he will pay lip service to disproving but never truly condemn. I think in this he may indeed be pernicious.

I think that we deeply desire for the world to be better than it is, and for things to be easier than they are, and this desire can warp our good sense. Tariq Ramadan makes things look easy with his packed lecture halls and cosmopolitan charisma and talk of reconciling the West and Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with her scars and her true stories of rape and beatings and murder — she makes things look hard, and our better world terribly far away. How tempting it is to simply think the best of Ramadan and all those gentle Islamists that come to his talks. How tempting it is to ignore or belittle Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

I have read some opinions which argue that Islam has a different concept of temptation than the West. In the West we acknowledge the existence of temptation, but believe that it is the responsibility of the individual to resist. The way to prevent sin is to raise people to be strong and morally clearheaded. In Islam this is not the case, and instead society must be arranged to prevent temptation altogether. Hence the separation of the sexes and the oppressively “modest” dress expected of women.

But I believe in resisting. However tempting it might be to tweak our good sense to favor our optimism, we must resist. The world is not a pretty place, and averting our gaze does not make it more beautiful.

I think that nothing anyone writes is ever perfect, but I think that Berman is still a good read in books or in essays. And I think you should read this.

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