"Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?"--critiques of Paul Berman's opus

Alan Wolfe
Jay Tolson


Alan Wolfe

With only a few words available to respond to so many, I will not dwell on how unfair Paul Berman is to Tariq Ramadan ("Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan," June 4). I wish only to add that, after I wrote an essay protesting the State Department's denial of a visa to Ramadan, I was informed by a well-known counterterrorism expert that, if I had ever seen the file he had on Ramadan, I could not have written what I did. I protested furiously, saying that he was obligated, if he wanted to criticize me, to share any information he had. He agreed to do so. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, damning in it; it was stuff cultivated from websites that I could have assembled myself.

Let me instead confine myself here to how radically unfair Berman is to Ian Buruma. When I find myself needing guidance on one of the most important issue of our times--whether the large number of Muslims living in West constitutes a threat to its values, let alone its survival--Buruma is one of those I most trust. He is, as Berman notes, a liberal well aware of the fragility of our way of life under contemporary political conditions. He is also European-born; in fact, he is the product of a country, Holland, that has seen the ugliest, most violent clashes between those upholding secular values and those upholding their particular understanding of Islam. Quite publicly--and, in his own quiet way, quite courageously--Buruma has refused to sign off on Islamophobia. He wants to look at the details of particular cases, and, in the case of Ramadan, he has concluded that this very complicated individual is more capable of doing good than wreaking harm.

Berman, by contrast, while an American, speaks in the tone of Europe, especially France. I do not trust the French authorities he cites nearly as much as I trust Buruma. French intellectuals have a tendency to see the world in black and white terms. Yes, they were right when they warned against the evils of communism before others. But this is no guarantee that they are right in the way so many of them think about Islam. One can be blinded by secularism as one can be blinded by religion.

Islam has its distributing features--all religions do--and Ramadan does not join in full-throated criticism of them. But Islam is a religion, not a political movement, and it helps us not a whit to conflate the two. Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash--another intellectual treated unfairly by Berman--recognize the need of liberal societies to welcome the faith, even as they must protect themselves against the threats that a tiny minority of its adherents may bring. Buruma and Garton Ash are writers who should be praised for their common sense, not condemned because they refuse to adhere to a cold war scenario that Paul Berman has imposed on a post-cold-war world.


Jay Tolson

The New Republic has done a real service to liberal thought by publishing Paul Berman's excellent intellectual portrait of the Swiss-born Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan. Not only does Berman tell us what has been said about this controversial figure; he has also gone to the trouble, rare among those who either celebrate or revile Ramadan, of reading his work--and reading it closely. Since a fine parsing of Ramadan's thought must perforce take on the complicated intellectual pedigree of modern political Islam, Islamism, Berman also provides an excellent, nuanced critique of some of the key intellectual figures (including Ramadan's grandfather, Hassan Al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) responsible for this relatively modern ideological turn within the broader Islamic tradition. But Berman offers even more: He recounts a new trahison des clercs--marked by the eagerness of certain leading liberal intellectuals to give Ramadan a free pass while subjecting Ayaan Hirsi Ali (and other Muslim thinkers openly critical of the Islamist and fundamentalist/literalist perversions of Islam) to surprisingly harsh and even illiberal scrutiny.

Against such an accomplishment, my quibbles are largely, well, quibbles. (Why recycle some of the flimsier allegations against the man without mentioning that they have been disproved? Ramadan was denied entry into France on one occasion not because of anything he'd said or done but because of a screw-up by French authorities.) One objection, however, does rise slightly above a quibble. Is Ramadan, finally and for all of his questionable inconsistencies and possible equivocations (some of which could be argued over at great length), an Islamist? When asked that question directly--by me, in a much shorter profile--Ramadan answered unequivocally that he was not. Should we take him at his word?

I would say yes, because by saying so he has signaled, on the record, a significant break between himself and his notorious forebears, with whom he is in agreement on many less objectionable points (i.e., their anti-colonialism and their concerns with social welfare) and even, as Berman points out, on some quite objectionable ones. The disavowal is crucial. By rejecting the label coined by his maternal grandfather, Ramadan rejects the totalizing ambition of Islamism, including its desire to impose Islamic sharia law (itself a field of broad intellectual and theological dispute) upon the social-juridical order of the modern state--that is, until the various modern Muslim states coalesce into a re-created community of believers, or umma.

That said, Berman is absolutely right to tackle Ramadan on many of the more questionable aspects of his thought, some of which can plausibly lead to Islamist totalitarian thinking and even to justifications of violence. Berman is also right to point out the theological narrowness, not to say absurdity, that sometimes appears in Ramadan's writing. If a true Muslim may forget God but never doubt God's existence, as Ramadan and some Muslims claim, then mankind does not have the freedom that the Koran says it possesses. Ramadan is a work in progress--and, to date, philosophically and theologically, a somewhat disappointing one.

He spouts anti-globalist rhetoric like any third-rate politically correct academic. More importantly, his book on Muhammad, as Berman notes, rarely rises above polite blandness. It barely touches on what is potentially the most radically liberating aspect of Muhammad's life: his desire to gesture beyond petty Arab tribalism (and the rigid strictures of customary Bedouin law) toward universal truths bequeathed not only to him but to other prophets in the Abrahamic tradition. The great, and potentially lethal, challenge to Islam today is the attempt of petty-minded Islamists (encouraged in their small-mindedness by Wahhabi zealots) to shrink the religion--indeed, to "rebedouinize" it--to fit their ideological agenda. At the very least, Berman reminds us, liberal thinkers need to acknowledge and, if possible, aid those courageous Muslims who are trying to resist this shrinkage.

By Alan Wolfe