Will the Real Tariq Ramadan Please Stand Up?

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The New Republic recently published Paul Berman's excellent intellectual portrait of the Swiss-born Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan, arguably the most influential Muslim writing and teaching in Europe today. In what must be the longest single essay ever published in that magazine, Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, not only tells us what has been said about this controversial figure; he also goes to the trouble, rare among those who either celebrate or revile Ramadan, of reading his work closely.

Since a parsing of Ramadan's thought requires an understanding of the complicated pedigree of modern political Islam--now commonly called Islamism--Berman provides a thorough, nuanced critique of key figures responsible for this relatively modern ideological turn within the broader Islamic tradition. (One such figure is Ramadan's grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1922.) But Berman provides even more: He recounts a new betrayal of the intellectuals, marked by the eagerness of certain liberal thinkers like Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma to give Ramadan a free pass while subjecting other Muslims who are sharply critical of Islamist and fundamentalist perversions of Islam to surprisingly harsh and even illiberal scrutiny.

All of this is no small accomplishment, for which Berman and The New Republic deserve praise. But I do have a few quibbles. It seems silly at this point to recycle some of the baseless charges that have been levelled at Ramadan, including ones that were cited a couple of years ago when the United States denied him a visa and prevented him from taking up a positionat Notre Dame. Yes, Ramadan was barred from entering France on one occasion, but not because of anything he had said or done. French authorities had simply confused him with another Ramadan.

One of my objections rises above a quibble, however. Is Ramadan, finally and for all his inconsistencies and possible equivocations (some of which could be debated at great length), an Islamist? When asked that question directly--by me, in a much shorter profile for this magazine--Ramadan answered unequivocally that he was not.

Should we take him at his word? I would say yes, because it is an on-the-record acknowledgement of 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 promotion of social-welfare efforts) and even, as Berman shows, on some quite objectionable ones (i.e., his hesitation to come out clearly and squarely to condemn Islamically justified corporal punishment). By rejecting the Islamist label that was coined by his maternal grandfather, Ramadan rejects the totalitarian ambition of Islamism, including its ambition to impose Islamic sharia law on the political-juridical order of the modern state.

Berman is certainly right to tackle Ramadan on many of the more questionable aspects of his thought, some of which can plausibly lead to Islamist positions and even to justifications of violence. Berman is also right to point out the theological narrowness, not to mention 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 humankind lacks the freedom that the Koran declares that it possesses.

Ramadan is a work in progress--and to date, philosophically and theologically, a somewhat disappointing one. He spouts facile anti-globalist rhetoric like any third-rate politically correct academic. More important, his recent book on Muhammad rarely rises above polite blandness. It rarely touches on what is potentially the most radically liberating aspect of Muhammad's life: his attempt 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, potentially lethal challenge to Islam today is the effort of Islamists (encouraged in their small-mindedness by Saudi Wahhabi zealots) to shrink the religion--indeed, to "rebedouinize" it--to fit their ideological and political agenda. At the very least, Berman reminds us, liberal thinkers need to acknowledge and encourage those other courageous Muslims who are trying to resist this shrinkage.