April 28, 2010
An ‘Intellectual’ Pursuit
Paul Berman’s new book a controversial polemic on religious fundamentalism
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
The alliance between al-Banna and the Mufti of Jerusalem is paramount. One of the propaganda lines heard in the past decades is that the Arabs are paying for the crime of Europe. Anyone who reads Berman (or the brilliant, chilling book he refers to, Matthias Kuntzel’s “Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11”) will see how implicated the Arab world was in the Nazi propaganda and planning during World War II. The Mufti of Jerusalem was one of the most vile, persistent and consequential anti-Semites of the 20th century. There is little doubt that a Nazi victory would have led to massacres of Jews on a grand scale in the Middle East. We should not forget that the blood libel may have been born in Europe, but the late 1800s saw it in the Islamic world, alongside the many persecutions and prejudices Kuntzel and others have documented.
Ramadan, who has consistently denounced terrorism, is trying to carve out a space for an Islam that can be true to its roots and to the Western values we hold dear. Berman does not doubt his desire to do this; he rejects the idea that Ramadan is secretly conspiratorial or violent; though Ramadan condemns terrorism, he “understands terrorism so tenderly he ends up justifying it.” Berman notes omissions in Ramadan’s recounting of his grandfather and culture’s views, yet when it comes to Ramadan’s own view, what is important then is to see those views when some intellectual pressure is exerted on them.
The morning I am writing these words, the newspaper reported that the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proposed a bill to ban the full veil. Sarkozy and Ramadan have an interesting history. The larger question is not the views of Ramadan or Buruma. Nor is the question tolerance of Islamic fundamentalism, which all Western intellectuals condemn. Rather it is a question of the scope of empathy. Here is a famous exchange, seen on television by 6 million Frenchmen, between Ramadan and Sarkozy, who was then France’s interior minister. In it, Ramadan refuses to categorically condemn the stoning of adulteresses. This exchange was first reported by Berman in The New Republic, then again in “Flight of the Intellectuals.” Read this carefully:
“Sarkozy: A moratorium ... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?
Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.
Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?
Ramadan: No, no, wait ... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community ... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, ‘Me, my own position.’ But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr.. Sarkozy. It’s necessary that you understand ...
Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan ...
Ramadan: Let me finish.
Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good. ... But that’s monstrous — to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It’s necessary to condemn it!
Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable — that’s clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world, and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world ... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That’s too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, ‘We should stop.’
Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.
‘You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things’ such as stoning women, Ramadan insisted.”
Ramadan’s point is that if he condemned the stoning outright, he would lose the possibility of speaking credibly within the Islamic community. For Islam has to go through its process — legal, juridical, deliberative — before a statement can be definitely issued that stoning is forbidden.
Berman documents that some people, incredibly enough, thought Ramadan came off well in that exchange. But on the face of it, this position puts Ramadan outside the circle of the West. More important, it makes clear that in order to speak “credibly” inside the Islamic world, one must renounce certain fundamental Western principles. Deliberation in the face of atrocity is atrocious. Relevant in this context is Ramadan’s explanation that, as Berman writes, “he favors an Islamic state in the Muslim-majority world.”
Hirsi Ali is uncompromising in her opposition to Islam. In this she is not alone: Ibn Warraq (a pseudonym, for fear of being targeted) and Wafa Sultan, Brigitte Gabriel and others take the same anti-Islamic position. But can someone speak in Western accents and still have a credible position in the European Muslim community? That may be the decisive cultural question in the first part of the 21st century.
As Berman records, both Buruma and Garton Ash have spoken slightingly of Hirsi Ali. Garton Ash dismissively commented that if the statuesque Hirsi Ali “had been short, squat and squinting, her story and her views might not have been so closely attended to.” Of course it is Hirsi Ali’s uncompromising rejection of Islam that troubles Garton Ash.