The Limits of Muslim Liberalism


Zaheer Kazmi reviews two new books on the Middle East and Islam, one by Tariq Ramadan and another by Bassam Tibi, in the LA Review of Books:

As at the end of the Cold War, the recent tumult in the Arab world was not anticipated by weathered analysts. Neither was it foreseen by Muslim liberals who have staked their reputations on elucidating the Arab and Muslim “mindset” to Western audiences. Nevertheless, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan have both recently published books on the Arab Spring, which they believe has vindicated their respective bodies of work even as they concede they had not anticipated it. A Syrian-born German-based academic, Tibi came out of self-imposed retirement from public life, these events making him feel compelled to write his latest book, The Shari’a State. With several axes to grind — not only against his critics, but also against the whole enterprise of Islamic studies in the West — the light of his missionary zeal shines so brightly on the perils of his pet hate, the “double-speaking” Islamists, that at times it is difficult to discern anything other than the white heat of rage in his words.

As has become clear since the ouster of President Morsi in Egypt, far from “hijacking the Arab Spring,” as Tibi warns incessantly in the core message of his book, Islamists may now be set to be among its biggest losers, especially in the medium-term as the military, of which Tibi says next to nothing, reasserts its control. But this is only one of several profound misjudgments that plague the work, written with unapologetic emotion (“I do not claim to be detached,” he states early on), which, unsurprisingly, does not translate into analytical clarity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tibi’s odd assertions about his ancestral homeland, where, he insists, speaking as a “Sunni Syrian,” the threat of jihadism is a specter of Assad’s imagination, and the atrocities committed have been, more or less, one-sided. That he would prefer to live under the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood than Assad, despite viewing Islamists as an amorphous mass tied, in some vague way, to jihadists, only adds to the muddled thinking.

Most relevant for the latest US initiative in religious diplomacy, perhaps, is Tibi’s mantra of dealing with Islamists through a strategy of “engagement without empowerment.”

More here.