Islamismism: How Should Western intellectuals Respond to Muslim Scholars?

100607_r19701_p233 Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker on Ayaan Hirsi, Tariq Ramadan, and Paul Berman:

Berman deftly summarizes a revisionist history that emphasizes “centuries of Muslim cruelty toward the Jews,” challenging the conventional view that European-style anti-Semitism was unknown under the Ottoman Empire. But he misses an opportunity to enrich his genealogy of hate by setting it within the modern history of the Middle East and Asia. For instance, he makes a passing reference to Rashid Rida, a prominent Islamist thinker at the turn of the twentieth century and al-Banna’s revered teacher, expressing curiosity about his praise for early Zionist settlers, but doesn’t explore the matter further. Although, ultimately, Rida turned against Zionism as Jewish immigration to Palestine surged in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, he had been an outspoken critic of European anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus trial and made early attempts, including an exchange with Chaim Weizmann, regarding an agreement between “the Arabs and their Hebrew cousins.” Berman rightly points out that the mufti of Jerusalem showed an obscene eagerness to help extend the Final Solution to the Middle East, and hatred of British colonialists and Zionist settlers certainly provoked Naziphilia among many Arabs of the nineteen-thirties and forties. But it is worth noting that, by 1941, when the mufti sidled up to Hitler and, soon afterward, began to air his anti-Semitic rants on the radio, reactionary pan-Islamists like him had to contend with overlapping groups of liberal Westernizers, Marxists, and secular Arab nationalists; far from being representative of the larger Arab world, the mufti was a fast-diminishing figure even in his own small sphere of influence—forced out of Palestine by the British in 1937 and blamed for a series of political debacles there. Berman himself relates that Arabs comprehensively failed to respond to the mufti’s exhortations to kill the Jews.

What you wouldn’t guess from Berman’s account is how common it was for anti-colonialist leaders to stumble into such unlikely alliances. In the nineteen-twenties, Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu and pacifist, vigorously campaigned for the restoration of the caliphate. And in 1941 an old colleague of his, Subhas Chandra Bose, travelled to Berlin and enlisted Indian P.O.W.s who later fought in the Waffen S.S. The expedient notion that my enemy’s enemy is my friend even motivated the Jewish militant leader Avraham Stern to try, in 1940, to enlist Nazi support against the British rulers of Palestine. Bose, who went on to collaborate with Japanese militarists against the British in the Japanese invasion of India, remains a great nationalist icon, while Winston Churchill, the resolute anti-Fascist so admired in the West, is reviled as a crudely racist imperialist who delayed Indian independence as long as he could and inflicted death on millions with his callous policies during the Great Famine of Bengal, in 1943. These Janus reputations should remind us that what Berman casts as an epic moral struggle between liberalism and Fascism in the West has been experienced and remembered very differently in the East.

…In light of these alternative histories, “The Flight of the Intellectuals” seems to be laboring merely to underline the obvious: that a Muslim with a political subjectivity shaped by decades of imperial conquest, humiliation, and postcolonial failure does not share the world view of a liberal from Brooklyn. Yet there has long been such a chasm between Western intellectuals and their counterparts in formerly subordinate countries, an incompatibility of historical memories. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror have hardened prejudice and suspicion on all sides; now more than ever it is necessary for Western intellectuals to find real interlocutors among Muslim thinkers and activists. Tariq Ramadan may not be ideal, but the impulse to engage with him seems to exemplify the best kind of liberalism—unself-righteous and aware of its own inadequacies.