Summer 2010

Islam's Political Problem

– Jay Tolson

In the annals of well-meaning ineptitude, Western efforts to locate and support moderate Muslim voices deserve a place of distinction.

In the annals of well-meaning ineptitude, Western efforts to locate and support moderate Muslim voices deserve a place of distinction. The story begins in the smoky rubble of Manhattan’s Twin Towers and the dawning awareness that Islamist zealots who styled themselves holy warriors were the masterminds of this startling act of mass murder. Such acts had to be understood either as something frightfully sick about Islam or as a radical distortion of Islam. Most reasonable people chose to see them as the latter. But if Islam was being hijacked, who within the Islamic world would resist?

Voices of moderation were hastily sought. Understandably, mistakes were made. Even among the Muslims mustered to stand in solidarity with President George W. Bush at the 9/11 memorial service in Washington National Cathedral were a couple whose credentials as champions of moderate, mainstream Islam were questionable. But if that was forgivable because of haste, later missteps were less so.

Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson deftly recounts one such fiasco in a recent issue of Foreign Policy. In 2005, the U.S. State Department cosponsored a conference with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that brought American Muslims to Brussels to meet with 65 European Muslims. The State Department followed up by bringing European Muslims, many of whom had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood—the world’s oldest and arguably most influential Islamist organization, dedicated to making Islam a political program—to the United States for an ISNA-led summer program and imam training. The rationale was that European Muslims, thought to be less integrated into their adopted countries than American Muslims, would learn something valuable about assimilation. All well meaning, of course, but comically misguided. As Johnson notes, “ISNA was founded by people with extremely close ties to the European leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

This initiative was only the beginning of protracted efforts by U.S. officialdom to court a number of Brotherhood or Brotherhood-related Islamist organizations and leaders. Instant experts on political Islam from both liberal and conservative Washington think tanks advocated the idea of engaging Islamists who eschewed violence (except, in some cases, violence against Israelis) and endorsed the democratic process, if not liberal values. European officials were wary of this approach, but even the CIA gave a go-ahead.

The folly of this kind of thinking is a major concern of the books under review. In an essay in The Other Muslims, Yunis Qandil, a Jordan-born Palestinian and a lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Intellectual Studies in Beirut, goes to the heart of the problem: “In the long term, the strengthening of ideological Islam and the granting of official recognition to its ‘moderate’ organizations against jihadism create more problems for us than solutions.” Moderate as these Muslim groups in Europe and America may seem, Qandil explains, they represent what moderate, traditional Muslims fight against in their countries of origin: “the instrumentalization of our religion through a totalitarian ideology.” While paying lip service to the values of Western societies—notably, the tolerance that allows them to operate—these Islamists fundamentally view such societies as the “archenemy of Islam.” So why, Qandil reasonably asks, are European governments “still selecting the adherents of this particular type of Islam as their privileged partners and the recognized representatives of all Muslims”? The same question applies in the case of America.

The Muslim leaders who are most likely to speak for all Muslims are those with a political agenda.

The answers are many, ranging from ignorance of political Islam to a resigned cynicism that throws up its hands and says, “Well, maybe these really are the spokespersons for most Muslims around the world.” Such cynicism reflects an ignorance of one of Islam’s great virtues: the diversity within the religion. The fact is that most traditional Muslims practice varieties of the faith that are highly inflected by sectarian differences (Sunni or Shia, for example), local traditions and practices, and their interaction with other religions. Indeed, the only thing unifying most Muslims is adherence to their core beliefs, the Five Pillars of Islam. Lacking a clergy in the Christian sense of the term, Islam is truly a faith of believers. To be sure, a scholarly hierarchy exists within both the Sunni and Shia traditions, but scholars themselves adhere to many schools of theological jurisprudence and are generally modest about their authority.

Broadly speaking, the Muslim leaders who are most likely to speak for all Muslims are those with a political agenda: that is, the Islamists. (Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, of al-Jazeera fame, a noted Muslim Brotherhood leader who once praised Adolf Hitler for doing God’s work by putting Jews “in their place,” epitomizes this presumptive authority to speak for all Muslims.) And the contemporary brand of Islam most strongly under the influence of Islamism is a deracinated and homogenized species, dubbed “globalized Islam” by the French scholar Olivier Roy. Possibly more prevalent in non–majority-Muslim countries than in most Muslim-majority ones, globalized Islam often claims the second or third generation within Muslim immigrant families. These mostly youthful purists of the faith (some of whom call themselves Salafists, after the first Muslim followers of the Prophet Muhammad) claim that they are the only correct and true Muslims. Many view their own parents as apostates or innovators who have lost touch with the true way. To the children of Islamism, sharia (Qur’anic law) is not so much an ethical code informing man-made laws as it is a set of divinely ordained rules governing every aspect of life.

This is a simplification, of course, but not a distortion. Many, if not all, of the contributors to The Other Muslims have been on the receiving end of attacks from self-styled “true” Muslims in prominent organizations such as ISNA and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). I personally heard a spokesperson for CAIR’s Florida branch describe some of these contributors, who were attending a conference on secular Muslims in Tampa, as “not real Muslims.” In certain parts of the world, such words are tantamount to a death sentence. Even in the West, they carry a sting.

Some of the best essays in The Other Muslims are testimonies of Muslims who have passed through Islamist phases themselves. Cosh Omar, a British playwright and actor of Turkish Cypriot origins, nicely details his passage from the broad-minded Sufi orientation of his father through involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir (an international group dedicated to reinstituting the caliphate) through his restoration to something close to his father’s faith. Omar does not call for banning Islamist organizations. That would only drive them underground and possibly make them more violent. Instead, he insists on letting the zealots defend their beliefs in the marketplace of ideas, where their views will “be subject to denunciation by the very people that are targeted.”

One can only hope that Omar’s confidence is well placed. Unfortunately, much 20th-century history testifies to the seductive power of bad ideas. And Islamism is particularly seductive, because there is often a fine line between a serious dedication to Muslim values and practices and a more strictly political ambition to make Islam the constitutional basis of the civil-political order—between religion and a religion-based ideology. To be sure, there has always been a greater mix of religion and politics in the history of Islam and Islamic institutions than there has been, historically, in Christendom, at least in theory. In practice, Muslim theocracies rarely survived because leaders with more worldly interests (often generals) tended to seize the reins of power, even in the medieval caliphates. But the fantasy of the early-20th-century founding fathers of Islamism was to make their religion into a political ideology as comprehensive as the fascist and communist ideologies they observed, and often greatly admired, from a distance. For the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, Islam was, quite simply, “the answer.”

The rise and spread of Islamism figures large in Paul Berman’s book The Flight of the Intellectuals. Expanding a long essay he wrote for The New Republic, Berman, a journalism professor and writer in residence at New York University, takes as his primary focus the enigmatic career of the European Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of al-Banna and the son of Said Ramadan, an active Muslim Brotherhood official who proselytized throughout the Middle East and eventually settled in Geneva, where he founded the Islamic Center. Athlete, scholar, community activist, Tariq Ramadan soon rose to a prominence that outshone his father’s, producing essays, books, and cassettes, and delivering endless lectures on the challenges and possibilities facing Muslims living in the West.

Active in France, he crossed swords with such critics as the young interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy as well as a number of leading intellectuals. (Ramadan, in a debate with Sarkozy in 2003, said he opposed the practice of stoning and other forms of corporal punishment in some Islamic traditions but—in order not to foreclose discussions with Muslim scholars—would only call for a moratorium on such practices rather than condemn them outright.) The debates Ramadan sparked often boiled down to variations on one question: Was he the ideological son of his father and grandfather, a smoother-talking version of the true-believing Islamist with an ultimately political agenda? Or was he only their biological descendant, and otherwise just a devout Muslim dedicated to making his coreligionists fully integrated members of Western liberal societies?

The number of words that have been devoted to this question is astonishing. It was given added urgency in 2004, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revoked Ramadan’s visa just before he was to take up an academic post at the University of Notre Dame. The press vigorously recycled unfounded charges that had been leveled against Ramadan over more than a decade. Eventually, Homeland Security revealed that Ramadan had given money to a blacklisted organization that provided support to Hamas, a terrorist group. That was true, but he had no idea that the organization funneled funds to Hamas, and in any case he had made his contribution well before the organization was blacklisted. L’affaire Ramadan became a cause célèbre. But it is still hard to imagine that a man whose writings and ideas are so astonishingly pedestrian would end up being so widely scrutinized. (“Following the example presented by Yusuf al-Qaradawi in his book on the problem of poverty, we should reflect on the sources and on the reality of our societies nowadays,” he writes stirringly in Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity.)

For Berman, the controversy over Ramadan is really a study in the failure of Western intellectuals. Berman rejects the view that Ramadan is a militant Islamist who should be kept out of the United States. (Ramadan’s U.S. visa has in any case been restored under the Obama administration.) But he insists that Western intellectuals have given a pass to Ramadan and his murkier ideas on the grounds that, even if he is an Islamist of some stripe, he is an authentic Muslim thinker with a large Muslim audience, particularly in the West.

With an unflagging energy that has earned him a position at Oxford University as well as seats on conciliatory committees and councils throughout Europe, Ramadan issues pronouncements of such ponderously vague yet annealing worthiness as to satisfy large swaths of the globalized Islam crowd while reassuring leading Western liberal intellectuals. Those same intellectuals, Berman points out, have dealt far less generously with truly independent-minded Muslim thinkers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in some cases dismissing them, in the manner of CAIR executives, as inauthentic Muslims hardly worthy of the world’s attention. How far Western intellectuals have fallen, Berman laments, even since that not-so-distant time when they stood behind Salman Rushdie in defiance of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s death-mandating fatwa.

Don’t ban the Islamists, insist Berman and the writers in The Other Muslims, but do expose their ideas for what they are—including their elaborate borrowings from fascist, Nazi, and communist ideologies. It should not be forgotten, Berman reminds us, that leading Islamists of the 1930s and ’40s forged relationships with Third Reich officials. The fierce strain of Nazi anti-Semitism infused them with a lethal hatred of Jews, particularly Jewish Palestinians, that was truly something new in the world of Islam. That toxic anti-Semitism now vents itself with near impunity on the nation of Israel. Make no mistake, these books argue: Islamism is inimical to the spirit of compromise and tolerance. And without that spirit, neither true democracy nor peaceful coexistence among nations is possible.

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Jay Tolson is the news director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He was editor of The Wilson Quarterly from 1989 to 1999.

Reviewed: The Flight of the Intellectuals by Paul Berman, Melville House, 299 pp, 2011.

The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular edited by Zeyno Baran, Palgrave Macmillan 211 pp, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Omar Chatriwala