A few comments on Marc Lynch’s review of Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals in this July’s issue of Foreign Affairs.
Berman’s book attempts to highlight the growing sense of unease experienced by Western intellectuals at what can best be described as Islamism’s non-violent strains, heretofore largely ignored in favour of concentrating on the immediate threat from violent Islamist groups such as al-Qa’idah.
Lynch is rather charitable towards Berman, whose shoddy research and preconceived animus towards the enigmatic Tariq Ramadan at times hinder what is otherwise an important contribution to scholarship.
Elsewhere, Lynch himself makes some uncharacteristically tendentious and unproven assertions of his own, particularly in his depictions of political Islamist organisations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood:
“What to make of the popularity and electoral prowess of Islamist movements across the Muslim world? It is impossible to support democracy without being prepared to defend the rights of Islamist movements to participate in and win elections.”
From Kuwait to Morocco, and from Baghdad to Jakarta, political parties and movements with an Islamist agenda have seen their support fall away in election after election. Only in the tiny strip of land known as the Gaza Strip have Islamists seized the reins of power via the ballot box; and then, faced with a desperately poor, disproportionately young electorate, Hamas have only been able to maintain authority with the use of tactics reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.
Furthermore, Lynch would have us believe that true democrats, when faced with Islamists who have embraced the letter (e.g. the electoral process), but not the spirit of liberal democracy, should support their malevolent aspirations even if it should mean withdrawing support for the universal respect of human rights. This is patently absurd and smacks of the worst kind of moral and cultural relativism.
I agree with Lynch that Berman’s breathless pursuit of Ramadan, particularly his ‘interrogation’ of him at a seminar in which Ramadan was asked to denounce views falsely attributed to his grandfather that had been largely concocted by Berman, has blinkered his quest to unravel the ‘real’ Islamic intellectual beneath .the polemic. Whilst his criticism of Berman is valid, Lynch continues to attribute liberal pronouncements to Ramadan which Ramadan has not made; on Islamic inheritance law, for example:
“For example, when Salafi opponents have confronted him [Ramadan] with Koranic verses dictating that women receive only half the inheritance of men, Ramadan has argued that these passages should be reinterpreted given the modern changes in family structure and the fact that many women today raise children alone.”
Although Ramadan did state that this passage in the Qur’an should be reinterpreted for the modern context in which Muslim women often find themselves, in the same interview, he was unequivocal about whether this same injunction should be consigned to the history books as anachronistic:
“It is not possible to remove these clear-cut verses from the Koran…”
This suggests, much like Ramadan’s much vaunted support for a ‘moratorium on stoning’ that, should the ideal conditions return (a future to which much of the wider Islamic renaissance movement is working towards), the literal interpretation of this passage would be possible and, indeed, necessary.
And in the very same interview with Qantara.de, when asked explicitly whether women should have the right to lead prayers, Ramadan evades the question; preferring instead to couch his answer in terms of religious authority.
Lynch also creates a false dichotomy when he places Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. It’s true that the majority of those who would self-identify with Salafism would reject what they consider as the narrow partisan agenda of the Ikhwan; but this does not make these currents polar opposites. Indeed, within Salafism itself there are various schools of thought ranging from a total rejection of secular politics to an enthusiastic embrace of the structures and institutions of a secular democracy. It would be much more accurate to characterise both movements as manifestations of the wider Islamic renaissance. Most importantly of all, both movements subscribe to renewal as opposed to reform, meaning that they share the same broad aims even if their tactics differ and sometimes appear to conflict.
Much of what Lynch writes on political Islamists is informed by his own primary research and, in particular, his knowledge of Arabic. Unfortunately, he is mistaken in his assumption that non-violent Islamism speaks for the majority of Muslims, particularly in North Africa, the Levant and parts of South East Asia. Islamists do not, generally, respect the notion of universal human rights, preferring instead to accuse Western nations of violating them whilst simultaneously advocating their complete rejection by the Muslim populace as contradicting the tenets of Islam. If Islamism really represented the Muslim mainstream, why then have its adherents failed so abysmally at the ballot box?