Keywords: Paul Berman; Tariq Ramadan; Muslim Brotherhood; Ian Buruma; Timothy Garton Ash; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; atheism; Islam
What a fight is going on in my living room! This is an old-fashioned war of religion, being waged in books and magazines by top-flight intellectuals — all of whom I admire. But they clearly do not admire each other, and I’m still trying to figure out what my own position is in this brawl.
It began today when I downloaded a long article from The New Republic by Paul Berman, “The Islamist, The Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism: Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” Though he starts off writing with balance and delicacy, as he works his way through the evidence, Berman turns ferocious. He is out to get Tariq Ramadan (see photo) whom he describes as “a charismatic and energetic Islamic philosopher in Europe who has become popular and influential among various circles of European Muslims...”
Ramadan was educated in Switzerland and has been teaching at Oxford, gaining fame as the kind of person who may be able to envisage a moderate Islam that will be acceptable as a middle-ground for the millions of European Muslims who, frankly, need some alternative to the radical, fundamentalist variety.
Sounds good to me. But during this 80-page article, Berman makes us wonder whether Ramadan is quite the guy we’re looking for. It seems that his grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Well, no one should be blamed for his grandparents’ mistakes — so what does Ramadan believe himself? As Berman probes deeper and deeper into his writings and public statements, he finds it increasingly difficult to be sure what the man stands for.
But next it is not only Ramadan who is being investigated, but Ian Buruma, who has written a flattering profile of him. Berman thinks this image is not based on sound, accurate scholarship. Buruma is a Dutchman who investigated not only Ramadan but also the murder of Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic in Amsterdam. According to Berman, he elided some details about Ramadan that would have seemed off-putting to most readers. Most of Berman’s long article consists of allusions to the way Buruma took it too easy on Ramadan in his profile. These Muslim Brotherhood blokes were, in a word, fascists, and Ramadan is apparently still hasn’t taken an explicit stand about that.
I’ve never seen Ramadan or Buruma, even on TV, so I wasn’t emotionally aroused by this fight. However, I did get engaged with the brawl as we moved toward the end of the article, when Berman brought in some new tag-team fighters: Timothy Garton Ash and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’ve been a long-time admirer of Ash, mostly because he was totally committed to the dissidents in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Communist regimes. And I’ve seen Ms. Ali on television recently and was impressed with her courage in breaking, flat-out, from Islam. Her new book is titled “Infidel,” referring to herself. She was making the film with Theo van Gogh for which he was murdered, and in Europe her own life is in danger. So I really like both Ash and HirsiAli, but they apparently don’t like each other much. As it happened, before I finished reading the article I turned on the TV and saw Ash give a stimulating lecture here in Toronto. He’s great – so why doesn’t he like Hirsi Ali?
It seems that these teams have definite compositions now. Buruma likes Ramadan and so does Ash, who presumably knows him because they both teach at Oxford. Ash is bending over backward to be liberal-minded in his attitude toward Muslims. (In a Q and A session on the TV, he said, “If Muslims don’t feel at home in Europe, we’ll be in deep trouble.”) I guess Ash likes Ramadan because he’s trying to help Muslims feel at home in Europe.
But Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t feel at home in Islam – for damn good reasons. She had to flee for her life, after her genitals were mutilated by her grandmother. A radical Islamist killed her co-worker and would have killed her as well, if he’d been so lucky. So she became an atheist and declared herself as such.
(look, I’m not an atheist, but faith in the divinity of the universe doesn’t entail obedience to brutal and stupid traditions of any type whatever. I’d call myself an atheist too if I thought God had anything to do with these crazy, perverse human customs.)
But Ash and I find ourselves on opposite sides, oddly. He is an atheist, but he doesn’t like for her to be one, or to break from Islam. This is bizarre. He’s the guy who used to stand up for the Charter 77 dissidents. What’s he doing now making excuses for persecuting women?
The issue of women comes into the debate because Ramadan and Ash alike oppose the French initiative to ban headscarves in high school. They say they are acting for the sake of liberty: Women should have the right to choose hijab if they want. But I’m on the side of Berman, who claims that the real issue here is whether girls and women in France have the right not to wear hijab. The reason they wear it is because they are pressured to do so. I trust Hirsi Ali’s experience more than Ramadan’s or Ash’s theories. They could put scarves on as soon as they leave school, but inside those walls should be a hijab-free-zone.
I tracked down some of Ash’s recent writings, including one Guardian article, “We Are Making a Fatal Mistake By Ignoring the Dissidents Within Islam.” Here he gave Berman the perfect occasion to KO him. Ouch! Here, once again criticizing Hirsi Ali, he mentions having gone to visit an Islamic scholar, whom he admiringly considers a “dissident within Islam.” This is Gamal al-Banna, Ramadan’s great uncle, who displays serenity and tolerance in his conversation with Ash, repeatedly insisting that the Koran never said (as Hirsi Ali claimed) that there should be any penalty for withdrawing from Islam. Ash ask his readers rhetorically,
“Which do you think reveals a deeper historical knowledge of Islam? Which is more likely to encourage thoughtful Muslims in the view that they can be both good Muslims and good citizens of free societies?”
Berman must have been chortling when he wrote the following riposte:
“On the very day that Garton Ash’s favorable comparison of Gamal al-Banna with Ayaan Hirsi Ali ran in the Guardian, the Middle East Media Research Institute known as MEMRI, issued its own report on Gamal al-Banna, and the MEMRI report put Sheik al-Banna in a rather less flattering light. This was chiefly because of Sheik al-Banna’s praise – it is terrible to have to report these things – for the September 11 attackers and, in al-Banna’s words, their “extremely courageous” action, which was “dreadful and splendid,” in opposition to the “barbaric capitalism” of the United States. Nor was this the whole of it. Sheik al-Banna expressed a few thoughts in support of suicide terror among the Palestinians, too. ”
Poor Garton Ash! He walked right into that.
And even if he had not made this embarrassing comparison, I’d vote for Hirsi Ali’s view. She says that Europeans need to decide what aspects of Islam are compatible with their own culture and tell the Muslims. What is not acceptable should be spelled out. This does sound a bit draconian, but if you’ve had your genitals mutilated, your co-worker murdered for criticizing Islam, and have had relatives try to force you to marry someone you don’t like, you also might want to have some clear rules spelled out to protect yourself from a religion you abhor. So would I.
In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea anywhere else either – including Canada. A few months ago a small town in Quebec welcomed Muslims to come and live among them, so long as their basic standards were observed – including no beating of women, for example. This was publicized as an insulting position for a town to take, but I think it might make matters go more easily.
I have reason to think so, as a host who once took in a refugee family for five years. We got along fine. However, over time the father of the family became a leader in his ethnic group in Canada, which was still engaged in the civil war from which his family had fled. He is now the spokesperson for his warring community, which collects (sometimes extorts) money in Canada from other refugees and sends it back to pay for the weapons that his group is using in battle. I think the government of Canada should make it clear when people enter that they are welcome, but they must leave their wars behind them instead of pursuing them while here. Spelling out the rules would solve a lot of problems and save a lot of lives.
Having said that, I still respect Garton Ash. I just think that he’s changed sides. Instead of protecting victims, he’s trying to make sure that their oppressors feel at home in Europe. I think he’s mistaken, but I like him.