Fellow Travelers?

The Flight of the Intellectuals
Paul Berman
Melville House, $26, 299 pp.

Paul Berman, writer in residence at New York University, has returned to the theme of his 2003 book, Terror and Liberalism, in this study of the Swiss Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan and Ramadan’s admirers in the Western press. These admirers turn out to be the title’s intellectuals in flight, principally Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. Both have written sympathetically about Ramadan and acerbically about Somali-Dutch feminist and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 

Ramadan, who was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2004 when he was going to teach at the University of Notre Dame (about which institution Berman has some sardonic comments), had his visa restored in January 2010. But he has meanwhile settled in Oxford and will not be migrating to South Bend anytime soon. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali took flight for the Netherlands in 1992 as a political refugee from the most unstable country in Africa. It later emerged that she was actually fleeing an arranged marriage. During her years in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali was involved politically with the filmmaker and provocateur Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered by a Moroccan-Dutch fanatic in 2004. Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament but nearly lost her Dutch citizenship when it was discovered in 2006 that she had originally entered the Netherlands under false pretenses. Eventually she found a warm welcome in the neoconservative Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, an appointment that comes with a green card. 

The Dutch-born professor and journalist Ian Buruma, the first of Berman’s intellectuals in flight, is faulted for asserting that Ramadan has more to say to the poor but devout Muslims who live in London’s East End than does Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who openly proclaims her atheism. The British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash, Berman’s other example of alleged intellectual cowardice, finds more to praise in the writings on feminism by Ramadan’s granduncle, Jamal al-Banna, than he does in the atheistic feminism of Hirsi Ali. Both Buruma and Ash find much to admire in the moderate “Salafi reformism” of Tariq Ramadan. Berman himself, however, never clearly recognizes the significance and originality of the two poles—Salafi and reformist—in Ramadan’s description of his own thought. 

The Salafi movement, originally a modernist scholarly agenda of the late nineteenth century, aimed to strip from Islam the incrustations of the medieval period. It also set itself against the encroaching European colonial powers in the Ottoman Arab world, principally France and Britain. The founder of the movement was the philosophically inclined Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97), who was born Iranian and Shiite but always pretended to be a Sunni from Afghanistan. Among his principal disciples was the Egyptian scholar Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905). Both Afghani and ‘Abduh sought to understand the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition in rationalist categories. Furthermore, not unlike the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century who sought to return Christianity to what they construed as New Testament faith and practice, the original Salafis wanted Islam to return to the ways of the first three generations of Muslims. They repudiated much of what they considered mystical or obscurantist developments in later Muslim intellectual history.

Quite different from the Salafis were the adherents of the so-called Wahhabi movement, which originated in what is now Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century. They repudiated not only the mystical developments of medieval Islam but also philosophy of any sort. The rationalism of Afghani and ‘Abduh is particularly abhorrent for those of a Wahhabi tendency today. But, with the dramatic growth of the oil-based economy of Saudi Arabia over the past half century, some Salafi thinkers, less loyal to the rationalist tradition of Afghani and ‘Abduh, have become closet Wahhabis calling themselves Salafis.

In his new memoir, What I Believe, Ramadan underlines the difference between these two types of Salafis. The first group is made up of Salafi reformists like Ramadan, who “want to return to the faithfulness of the first generations of Muslims (the salaf) and recapture the energy, creativity, and boldness of early scholars who did not hesitate to suggest new approaches to new contexts.” Ramadan exemplifies this tendency when he asserts, as he did in his 2007 interview with Ian Buruma, that Islam is his faith but his culture is European. But the “literalist Salafis,” Ramadan writes in his memoir, “advocate a return to rigid, literal interpretations of the past.” There is no place in their worldview for a distinction between faith and culture. Such totalitarianism typifies Wahhabi militants like Osama bin Laden and his followers in the caves of Tora Bora.

Berman returns obsessively to the family background of Tariq Ramadan, and especially to the opinions of his Egyptian maternal grandfather, Hassan al-Banna (1906–49), the founder in 1928 of the Muslim Brothers. Originally modeled on the YMCA, the Muslim Brothers eventually became more political and militant, challenging the decadent Egyptian monarchy. Agents of that monarchy assassinated Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1949, thirteen years before Ramadan’s birth in Switzerland. Ramadan has written admiringly of his grandfather’s intellectual legacy, associating him with the progressive views of Afghani and ‘Abduh. Berman prefers to dwell on the friendship between Hassan al-Banna and the Nazi-loving Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Berman’s obsession with Ramadan’s grandfather and his sinister buddy becomes a kind of leitmotif. At one point, however, Berman has a flash of genuine insight: “Anyway, Ramadan is not his grandfather.” No, he’s not. Nor should one confuse Hassan al-Banna with the Wahhabis, as Berman does in his bland reference to “the Saudi version of Islam which is also Hassan al-Banna’s version.” Not as intellectually acute as Afghani and ‘Abduh, Hassan al-Banna nevertheless took his heritage from the same modernist school of thought, one very different from the prevailing ideology of Saudi Arabia.

Berman has read much about both Ramadan and his grandfather in European languages, but he seems to be relying too much on translations available on the Internet for his account of the opinions of Hassan al-Banna. Berman does not find in these translations of al-Banna the same commitment to democracy and humanistic principles that Ramadan does, but Ramadan, of course, is reading his grandfather’s voluminous and windy writings in Arabic. In his forays into Islamic thought, Berman generally seems like a very glum tourist trying to find his way in a strange land without a reliable map or compass. He describes the Shiite modernist Ali Shariati (1933–77) as “the grand theoretician of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran.” Had Shariati survived into the era of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini would have had Shariati’s neck in a noose, along with all the other quasi-Marxists who had agitated against the misrule of the Shah. Khomeini himself was the one and only grand theoretician of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He insisted that the deliberations and decisions of those charged with democratic rule in post-1979 Iran must finally be subject to the approval or disapproval of one legal specialist (“jurisconsult”), the Supreme Guide. From 1979 to 1989 that was Imam Khomeini; since 1989 it has been the less awe-inspiring Imam Khamene’i.

Inadequate as are Berman’s estimates of Hassan al-Banna and other twentieth-century Muslim thinkers, he displays his unfamiliarity with the intellectual history of Islam most dramatically when he gets onto the subject of Ramadan’s great intellectual hero, the medieval Muslim mystic and intellectual Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111). Turning against philosophy, al-Ghazali wrote a long refutation of that discipline as he knew it. Berman thinks of this as an attack on Plato and Aristotle, but al-Ghazali was more concerned with the work of Ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna (980–1037). Both a philosopher and a believer, Avicenna nevertheless held views about creation, resurrection, and God’s knowledge that al-Ghazali found seriously deficient, to say nothing about Avicenna’s frank admission that he sometimes took a little wine to stimulate his speculative powers.

What Berman and other critics of Tariq Ramadan find most disturbing about this modern Muslim thinker is Ramadan’s questioning of the intellectually dominant secularism that is taken for granted in so much of Europe and in certain circles in North America as well. In this questioning Ramadan has much in common with the present pope. Voltaire remains a hero for such secularists, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Paul Berman, who refers to him several times. Voltaire, of course, famously quipped that “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In this book, Berman has felt it necessary to do some inventing of his own in casting Ramadan, Buruma, and Ash as naive or worse regarding the nature of Islamic extremism. In doing so, however, it is Berman who shows himself to be in over his head.

 


Related: Islam & Modernity, by Patrick J. Ryan
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Topic page: Muslim-Christian relations

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About the Author

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.