The Flight of the Intellectuals and Tariq Ramadan

FlightoftheIntellectuals Andrew F. March and Paul Berman debate Berman in Dissent. March:

PAUL BERMAN has written an odd book. It is not intellectual history–he rightly does not claim for himself any expertise in Islamic legal, theological and political thought, and he makes no effort to fully explicate Ramadan’s own doctrines in light of those traditions. It is not political biography–he is not telling Ramadan’s personal story except in select snippets. It is not quite political argument–he is not giving an analysis of the social and cultural situation of Muslims in the West and telling us What is to Be Done. It is not even a plea for vigilance–he insists in numerous places that Ramadan is not an Islamist extremist and certainly no threat to anyone.

What is Berman’s book about, in the end? It is an attempt to arrive at a judgment about a very important public intellectual while admonishing educated Westerners about how we treat Muslim dissidents. In doing so, the book discusses Ramadan’s thought and the wider phenomenon of Islamic militancy, but it takes a skipping-stone approach to the subject: glancing off many various surfaces and edges rather than patiently probing the depths. Berman is aiming at a profile-cum-exposé of Ramadan, but he is entangled in an awkward set of questions which he thinks need to be raised about Muslim intellectuals: Should we trust him? Should we like him? Should we praise him? Should we support him? Berman never explicitly discusses what kind of judgment we need to make about a figure like Ramadan, but my feeling (a standard Berman uses often in his own appraisal of Ramadan) is that Berman wishes he could prove to us that we shouldn’t trust him and that we are permitted to condemn him, but since he can’t prove that, he has to settle with showing us that we should not like him.

Berman responds:

MY SKEPTICAL eye alights upon Andrew F. March’s fourth paragraph, where he explains that, in The Flight of the Intellectuals, I spend 100 pages recounting “the often stomach-churning history of Arab and Islamic attitudes towards Israel, Jews, Hitler, and the Holocaust.” He suggests that I have slandered Ramadan by family association with the stomach-churning history. But March devotes not one sentence to describing or summarizing what is said in those hundred pages.

Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was the original expression of the political movement known as Islamism, which, in its different versions, has gone into bloom in many parts of the world. In the hundred pages that Andrew F. March abstains from discussing, I explain that Tariq Ramadan has written a book largely devoted to Hassan al-Banna, called Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, which I translate as The Roots of the Muslim Renewal. The book emphasizes that Ramadan is, in fact, al-Banna’s grandson—a fact that is announced in the book’s opening dedicatory words: “To my mother, the eldest daughter of Hassan al-Banna.” But what chiefly matters is of course Ramadan’s intellectual filiation from al-Banna and his place within al-Banna’s current of fundamentalist theological interpretation, which is called “salafi reformism.” I judge The Roots of the Muslim Renewal to be Ramadan’s finest book, from a strictly literary standpoint. It expresses Ramadan’s philosophical ideas and heritage more clearly than any of his other books. I also judge the book to be gravely and even deliberately misleading about his grandfather.