Ideas: The Gentle Jihadist

If French President Jacques Chirac thought he'd burnished his reputation in the Muslim world for having opposed the Bush administration's war in Iraq, he must have been surprised to find himself recently vilified in public squares, mosques, and universities from Cairo to Tehran. The proposed ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, from French state schools has enraged a fair portion of the world's 1 billion Muslims. And yet the ban, which prohibits overtly religious symbols like yarmulkes and "large" crosses, is not so much directed at French Muslims as intended to check France's growing fundamentalist, or Islamist, movement.

Chirac is right to be concerned: In Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world, Islamists read the number of veiled women as a vital statistic through which they can calculate their power and advertise it. A large surge in those women's numbers indicates a big problem for the ruling government. Unfortunately for France, banning the hijab will only give credence to the Islamist assertion that their faith is under attack.

France could have stopped the Islamists before they grew so strong, but that would have meant a serious effort to integrate young North Africans, or beurs, into French society. The beurs were born Muslim, but they were not born Islamist. French-Algerian pop culture throughout the 1980s and '90s may document their alienation from mainstream French culture, but it also records their desire for it. Young North African men wanted jobs, money, clothes, maybe some worldly success, and, like the rest of the known world's male population, French women. In those songs and movies, the Islamists were typically cast as sexually frustrated hypocrites and/or incompetent criminals. The Islamists assassinated some of the beurs' heroes, like Cheb Hasni, a Rai singer gunned down in Algeria in 1994 for his songs about girls and beer. That Chirac is managing to drive these kids into the Islamists' fold is frankly astounding.

Now France's Islamists, both empowered and feeling themselves besieged, have initiated their violent campaign of terror. Their attacks on Jews have now evidently been joined by attacks on other Muslims as well. Recently, a government-appointed Muslim prefect luckily escaped injury after his car was rigged with a bomb. Collaborators with the "regime," especially officials of state-sponsored religious authorities, are always high on Islamist hit lists, as are intellectuals and journalists.

This, then, is the context in which the Tariq Ramadan affair took place. Ramadan, a Swiss national, is a well-respected professor of philosophy at a Swiss university and a German one, and Europe's most prominent Islamist intellectual. In an article posted on a Muslim Web site,, last fall, he accused several French writers of forsaking their reputations as "universalist" thinkers by taking positions based on narrow, sectarian, or what the French call "communitarian," concerns. How else to explain that Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Bernard Kouchner, among several other popular intellectual figures, failed to condemn the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the war on Iraq, which Sharon also favored?

Ramadan's argument rests on a feeble premise: that the failures to condemn Sharon or to protest the war in Iraq are not plausibly rational positions. The reason for holding such views must therefore be extra-rational, or emotional. To Ramadan, these thinkers took these positions because they are Jewish.

The piece touched off a firestorm. Levy rashly compared the article to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, editorial writers condemned Ramadan, and several politicians who worked with the philosopher in the anti-globalization movement publicly distanced themselves from him. The controversy hit on a number of sensitive issues, namely Islamist tactics and, of course, anti-Semitism.

But all the attention seems only to have enhanced Ramadan's reputation as a "moderate." This January, the University of Notre Dame named him the Henry Luce Professor at its Joan B. Kroc Center for International Peace Studies. As the center's director, Scott Appleby, told The New York Sun, "If we are going to avoid a violent conflict with radical Muslims, we will do so by taking the risk of understanding their point of view, their criticisms of the West, and also having the authority to talk with them." Evidently, American academics have come to the same conclusion their French intellectual counterparts reached: Better someone like Ramadan than a jihadist. But as his new book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, makes clear, he is in fact a jihadist -- not a violent one like Osama bin Laden, but a jihadist nonetheless.

Ramadan's grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, one of the major figures of the Islamist movement. In 1928, he founded the Arab world's oldest and still largest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Given that the brotherhood's history is replete with violence, including a cycle of killings and government reprisals that ultimately claimed al-Banna's life, many of Ramadan's critics cite this as a reason for concern. That's not quite fair: Ramadan never advocates violence. Furthermore, al-Banna was hardly a gangster. He was an able writer, teacher, and one of 20th-century Egypt's most talented political activists. What Ramadan does share with his grandfather is an essential insight into the state of contemporary Muslim life: Muslims, they both believe, need to get back to true Islam. The difference between them is the context.

Al-Banna, living in Egypt during the English occupation, thought that beginning with the Ottomans, centuries of foreign rule had separated Muslims from their genuine faith. Ramadan, born in the West, believes the problem is that cultural accretions having nothing to do with the Muslim faith -- even though they may be found in Muslim cultures, be they Arab, African, or Asian -- have injured true Islam. All of the evils associated with Islam -- sexism, anti-Semitism, tribalism, and the like -- are cultural, not Islamic. Once these influences are purged, you have the real Islam, an Islam that Western secularists, leftists, and multiculturalists all like because it repudiates scary, violent Islam. Except it also affirms a very anti-multicultural position. If, say, famed ethnographer Clifford Geertz thinks that there are as many Islams as there are Muslims, Ramadan sharply asserts, "There is one Islam."

The essence of Ramadan's most provocative idea is that it is in the Western liberal democracies that this one Islam can manifest itself, far from the cultural habits and authoritarian politics of the Muslim world. It's a novel twist on the perpetual ambition of Islamism to return to the faith's original state.

But that's hardly all. It's not just that the West is the future of Islam; Islam is the future of the West. Ramadan believes that the problem with the West is its spiritual malaise. "The Jewish or Christian origins have faded or simply disappeared," he writes. Unlike traditional Christian and Jewish thinkers who merely lament the loss of religious life in a culture of abundance, Ramadan has an answer. The solution, as the Muslim Brothers like to say, is Islam.

To understand fully the scope of Ramadan's conception, it's important to understand that for the Islamists, Islam is not just one of the three monotheistic faiths, nor is it merely the completion of the Abrahamic tradition. As Ramadan writes, it "corrects the messages that came before it." Islam doesn't complement the Torah and New Testament; it supersedes them. Today in the West, the Jews and the Christians have again lost their way, much as they did 1,400 years ago. That's why he calls the West dar al-dawa, or the place for "inviting people to God." Ramadan quotes a source as saying that in the eyes of the first Muslims, "The Arabian peninsula was dar al-dawa." The West is awaiting the call to Islam, just as the 7th-century Arabs were.

And as life was hard for the first Muslims of Mecca, so has it been for the Muslim immigrants to the West. Ramadan writes, "It is certainly quite normal that, during the first decades of their new presence in the West, Muslims should have sought principally to protect themselves; they had no choice."

This is wrong. Political refugees may come to the West to protect themselves, but the vast majority of immigrants don't. To be sure, the first wave of any immigrant group keeps close, but the idea has always been to break out of the ghetto and succeed on your own merits. As for America specifically, life has been harder for Muslims than it was before September 11, but new mosques have been built, prayers said, and veils worn to public schools. Perhaps most tellingly, and contrary to almost everyone's most fearful assumptions, there has been no unbroken string of suicide attacks that was going to make Manhattan look like Tel Aviv. This isn't about homeland security; it's a story about immigration and how the Muslims who come to America come to partake of its telling.

This is what the beurs wanted, and the French betrayed them. Moreover, it's what Europe's Jews did before Europe extinguished them. It's convenient for Ramadan to suppose Muslims are Europe's first wave of non-Christian immigrants, as though no one's been through this before. Recognizing and publicly remembering the history of European Jews, who once numbered in the tens of millions, would afford Ramadan's thought a large and much needed dose of the universalism he finds absent in the work of Jewish intellectuals.

That Ramadan believes Islam will replace Judaism and Christianity may come as a surprise to those who thought he was just saying Islam is compatible with liberal values (it will certainly surprise the fathers at Notre Dame). Rather, Ramadan is a cold-blooded Islamist who believes that Islam is the cure for the malaise wrought by liberal values. His revision of the jihadist paradigm -- peaceful but total -- is brilliant in its way, and he may well turn out to be a major Islamist intellectual, far surpassing even his grandfather's influence. His cry of death to the West is a quieter and gentler jihad, but it's still jihad. There's no reason for Western liberals to try to understand that point of view.

Whether or not Islam is after all compatible with liberal values is a vexing question. Still, it's an abstract issue that is overshadowed by the fact that a lot of Arab and Muslim individuals do subscribe to liberal values, regardless of how the compatibility question is finally to be answered. Many are pressing for them in their home countries, while others have fled to the West to find them here. To the extent that Western liberals see Ramadan as an "authentic" spokesman of Arab and Muslim culture, while dismissing Arab and Muslim liberals as too Westernized, they've forgotten their own universal values.