Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?

The Flight of the Intellectuals by Paul Berman Melville House, 299 pages, $26.00

For the past 15 years or so, Tariq Ramadan has been the most influential Muslim intellectual in Europe. Born in Switzerland to Egyptian parents and trained in Western philosophy as well as Islamic law and theology, Ramadan is a prolific author, a professor at Oxford, and a telegenic, multilingual, and charismatic presence in the European media. He is also the subject of an intense controversy among Western intellectuals who cannot agree on whether he is friend or foe.

The dispute about Ramadan arises because of what he says (and doesn't say) and because of who he is. Ramadan calls upon European Muslims both to remain Muslim and to embrace European citizenship enthusiastically -- to stop fretting that European law isn't based on Shariah and to recognize that obeying the social contract is what Shariah demands. Yet he does not explicitly repudiate his father and grandfather, who were key figures in the history of militant Islamism.

Ramadan's grandfather was Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fountainhead of many contemporary Islamist movements. And Ramadan's father, Said Ramadan, was also a major figure in the mid-20th-century "Islamist International" and an associate of Sayyid Qutb, the radical theorist of Islamic revolution and totalitarian governance.

This genealogy accounts not only for Tariq Ramadan's fame but also for the enthusiasm that he elicits from many European liberals and the skepticism that he arouses in others. Ramadan's liberal admirers see a scion of Islamist royalty breaking with that radical heritage and telling Muslims that unbelievers are not the enemy and that Shariah is about social justice and generic humanism rather than literal adherence to moral rules. They hear Ramadan saying that rather than recoil into self-protective ghettos, Muslims should bear witness to Islam's universalistic values while committing themselves morally to European societies.

Ramadan's doubters, in contrast, see a double-talking confidence man who by refusing to make a complete break with his Islamist heritage is merely offering an Islamism with a human face. They urge Westerners to reject Ramadan and instead rally behind those Muslims, or ex-Muslims, who wholeheartedly embrace Enlightenment traditions of individualism and equality.

Paul Berman leaves no doubt as to where he fits in this debate. In his earlier Terror and Liberalism (first published in these pages), Berman argued that Islamism was analogous to 20th-century European totalitarianism. In his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals -- a title that recalls Raymond Aron's attack on Marxism, The Opium of the Intellectuals -- Berman turns his fire not just on Ramadan but on liberal intellectuals such as Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma whom Berman regards as fellow travelers for promoting Ramadan as a reformer.

In Berman's view, Ramadan was not only born into a kind of original sin but has never atoned for it. Berman rightly finds unconvincing, if not downright disingenuous, some of Ramadan's characterizations of his grandfather's and father's views, as well as their connections to figures like Sayyid Qutb. According to Berman, Ramadan reveals where his ultimate commitments lie when he refers in his writing to authorities such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a scholar who has repeatedly endorsed Palestinian suicide bombing, or when he calls for only a "moratorium" in Muslim countries on the hudud punishments, such as stoning for adultery, rather than their complete abolition.

Berman acknowledges that Ramadan is no extremist. His case against Ramadan is instead that he is a gateway drug for young Muslims to more radical Islamist views; Muslims who hear him talk in glowing yet evasive terms about "Salafi reformism" will eventually be drawn to harder intoxicants. And Berman's case against other liberal intellectuals is that in their naiveté and post-colonial guilt, they have given Ramadan a free pass and mistreated other Muslims, such as Somali--Dutch refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who have truly broken with the darker sides of Islamic law or with Islam altogether.

Berman sees himself as another George Orwell, speaking plain moral truth to deluded intellectuals. But he has no evidence that Ramadan is insincere in his call for Muslims to embrace European citizenship. And while Berman accuses Buruma and Garton Ash of not reading Ramadan's books, Berman himself seems to have read those books only in a polemical search for hidden clues that Ramadan is a radical after all. A reader of Berman will get no sense of Ramadan's overall intellectual project or objectives.

Berman gets many things right about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially about its views of Israel and the Holocaust. But on his ostensible subject, he makes a lot of small mistakes and one big one. He fumbles concepts and connections from Islamic intellectual history, groups together thinkers and ideas in inaccurate ways, and fails to grasp, for example, how a term like Salafi reformism is for Ramadan not a codeword for fealty to the Muslim Brotherhood but rather license for a creative reinterpretation of Islamic ethics unmoored from strict adherence to Islamic law. Berman misinterprets Ramadan's scholarly citations to Qaradawi and misses the countless places in Ramadan's writings where he distances himself from Qaradawi, sometimes vociferously, albeit not by name.

Berman's big mistake is to suggest that Ramadan invites an "esoteric" reading that shows his failure to break decisively with the Muslim Brotherhood. By a decisive break, Berman means an open, bold declaration. But the real break is right under his nose.

Ramadan's entire corpus consists of a steady and unyielding assault on Muslim insularity, self-righteousness, and self-pity. He has been unceasing in his pleas for Muslims to abandon their fearful mistrust of all things infidel and stop clinging to the life raft of the symbols of Islamic religiosity. The single dominant theme in his writings is a rejection of legal formalism and dogmatism in Islamic ethics. The grandson of the man who taught Muslims that "the Qur'an is our constitution" spends page after page denouncing that outlook as superficial and harmful. Ramadan doesn't need to reject Islamic criminal law line by line or to criticize Islamist figures by name because he is playing a bigger, longer-term game of moving Muslims beyond their traditional conception of the Law. This is not lost on conservative Muslims, for whom Ramadan is a very touchy subject. If not for his genealogy, they would have hung Ramadan out to dry long ago.

Ramadan, it is true, is neither a Hirsi Ali nor a Salman Rushdie, who are both self-declared apostates. They have left the community and call to those trapped within. In contrast, Ramadan is an internal critic, to use Michael Walzer's term. Internal critics push their community to change, but they do so from within it, out of love. To follow Berman is to say that Muslims in their mainstream intellectual and religious traditions do not deserve internal critics. They deserve only apostates. As communism in another era had its Arthur Koestlers and Leszek Kolakowskis, so Islamic orthodoxy must have its Rushdies and Hirsi Alis. Islamism is so tainted by Shariah, the Brotherhood, and violence that we must view it as nothing more than another Stalinism or fascism and draw lines in the sand. According to Berman, we must tell Muslims, "Either you are pro-Enlightenment or you are soft on stoning."

But that is both blatant nonsense and pernicious groupthink. We also need to recognize the task of internal critics. As there were socialists who sought to recover a humanist young Marx as a response to Stalin, so there can be Muslims who try to use the resources of their faith to reconcile it with modernity. In short, instead of either Hirsi Ali or Ramadan, we can have both.

Berman wants us to see Ramadan as a gateway drug, but gates open both ways: Why might Ramadan not be a gateway from orthodox Islamism to something else? To be sure, he doesn't confront the darker practices of the Prophet and the Law or of his own grandfather. But while Ramadan's biography of Muhammad, for example, may be banal and artless, it is not pernicious. Internal criticism is not only about facing up to harsh realities; it is also about creative and fruitful forgetting. It is about inventing new stories about your tradition that open up a different future.

Are all good and decent people destined to converge on the same secular, Enlightenment principles? Is every encounter with strangers about sizing them up as friends or enemies once and for all? How should outsiders seek to influence the moral struggles of other communities, especially religious ones? These are not easy questions, and Berman is hardly the first to blink in the face of them and choose comforting pieties over curiosity, complexity, and humility.