ArticleIntellectual Flights and Narrative Wars
The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, by Gilbert Achcar, Metropolitan Books, 400 pages, $30
The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman, Melville House, 224 pages, $26
Paul Berman’s important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed book The Flight of the Intellectuals is an old-fashioned polemic that takes aim at two main targets. The first are his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, whom he accuses of a witches’ brew of offenses involving white liberal guilt and displaced racism, abandonment of Enlightenment values, and craven cowardice in the face of Islamist bullying, and whom he considers emblematic of a widespread rot in the Western liberal intelligentsia. But to get to them, he has to go through Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim academic and activist who also happens to be the grandson of the founder of the original Muslim Brotherhood Party in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna, and the son of al-Banna’s second in command, Said Ramadan. So actually, the bulk of the book dwells on not only Ramadan but also al-Banna and, in great detail, his ally Amin al-Husseini, the onetime grand mufti of Jerusalem.
Berman does a very good job of explicating Ramadan’s highly problematic forebears and his troubling, albeit perfectly natural, fealty to the frankly baneful legacies of his grandfather and, to a lesser extent, his father. Describing al-Banna as the godfather of most political applications of contemporary Islamism, especially in the Arab world, is exactly right. But, he concedes, the son is not the father or the grandfather and needs to be considered on his own terms. Berman has contributed a significant degree of clarity to several important debates, and one of the most important effects his book could have over the long run is to prompt more Western intellectuals who write about Arab and Muslim issues to read more thoroughly what people from the Middle East, reactionary and liberal alike, are saying, and to subject those views to serious and critical analysis rather than assuming they already know them. Berman does a largely admirable and sometimes excellent job of critiquing Ramadan’s ambiguities, lacunae, and evasions, and he makes the case better than it has been made before. Berman is right that Ramadan basically seems to mean what he says and that his agenda is to create what amounts to a socially and religiously conservative Muslim counterculture, or at least subculture, in Western societies.
Probably the most telling line in Berman’s insightful portrait of Ramadan is his observation that “he wants to issue reassurances in every direction.” This habit was part of what led many to hope that Ramadan would be a positive influence when he first rose to prominence. The hope raised by initial readings of Ramadan’s most important book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, was that the effort to combine innovation with reassurance was largely designed to assuage the fears of conservatives, traditionalists, and even radicals in the Muslim community while engaging in some serious, substantive reform and modernization of thinking in Western, and possibly even international, Muslim religious circles.
Consider a simple but telling example how Ramadan tries to deploy this process of universal reassurances. First, he observes that all texts require interpretation (two steps forward) but that, “if there is an explicit Qur’anic verse whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation, no ijtihad [independent interpretation] is possible” (two steps back—and, of course, there is no such thing as a text whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation). Finally, he observes that “the great majority of the verses in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature” (one step forward, but only if the subsequent interpretations are genuinely reflective of rather than reactionary toward universal human values and the enlightened interests of Western and other Muslims).
Here is Ramadan always issuing reassurances in every direction, even in his methodology. 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. The problem is that 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. Unfortunately, both Salafist and liberal Muslim reformers would both have to rely on this kind of textual and doctrinal flexibility to overturn traditionally dominant interpretations that are, respectively, too permissive or too restrictive for their liking. So promising processes can just as easily turn out to be alarming ones.
Berman is absolutely right when he concludes that Ramadan “is imprisoned in a cage made of his own doctrine about his grandfather and his grandfather’s ideology” and that he “wants to make his cage look like anything but a cage” but “cannot figure out how to unlock the cage.” Berman’s damning and persuasive conclusion is that Ramadan “cannot think for himself. He does not believe in thinking for himself.”