Marc Lynch

Debating Non-Violent Islamism

I have just published an essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs which uses Paul Berman’s polemic against Tariq Ramadan, Twilight of the Intellectuals, as a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the challenge of non-violent Islamism. I finished drafting it over a month ago, and since then several excellent review essays ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I have just published an essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs which uses Paul Berman’s polemic against Tariq Ramadan, Twilight of the Intellectuals, as a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the challenge of non-violent Islamism. I finished drafting it over a month ago, and since then several excellent review essays have appeared including one by Pankaj Mishra  in the New Yorker and another by Yale University’s Andrew March in the American Prospect.  I found much to criticize in the book, including Berman’s exceedingly thin engagement with the vast scholarly and historiographical literature, his still-puzzling obsession with Ramadan, and his tiresome infighting with a few liberal Western journalists such as Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma.  But looking past the polemics, there’s a serious debate to be had about how to think about non-violent Islamist activism in Europe and the United States, the Middle East, and throughout the Muslim communities of the world.  In the end, I argue, Berman  "flags important debates about Islam’s impact on Europe and the world, but he is an exceedingly poor guide to navigating them."  

I am not going to reproduce the parts of the Foreign Affairs essay here which deal with the historiography or with Ramadan himself.  I urge you to read the full essay for those parts.   Here, I want to focus on what I see as the more fundamental issues raised about understanding the challenge posed by Islamism, about which legitimate and genuinely significant differences exist:

Berman gets Ramadan’s struggle backward. Ramadan’s primary adversaries are not liberals in the West but rather literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslim communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to western Europe. For Salafists, a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood is too political, too accepting of civil institutions, and insufficiently attentive to the formalistic and public rituals of Islam. They urge Muslims to separate from Western societies in favor of their own allegedly pure Islamic enclaves. The Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged women to wear the veil, but only so that they can demonstrate virtue while in universities and the workplace. The Salafists, meanwhile, want women at home and strictly segregated from men. True liberals should prefer Ramadan because he offers a model for Muslims of integration as full citizens at a time when powerful forces are instead pushing for isolation and literalism.

Ramadan has not couched his challenge to the Salafists in abstract language or kept it from public view. For example, when Salafi opponents have confronted him 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. Therefore, Ramadan argues, Muslims should "try to keep the justice instead of literally implementing verses, pretending faithfulness to the Koran but in fact creating injustices on the ground." This is a sharp challenge to the Salafists, the significance of which Berman does not recognize. Similarly, Ramadan’s call in 2005 for a moratorium on the implementation of hudud penalties — including the stoning of adulterers — is mocked relentlessly by Berman as too little, but in fact it posed an intensely controversial challenge to the heart of Salafi political agendas and jurisprudence. 

Ultimately, Ramadan disappoints his liberal interlocutors because they are not his most important point of reference. He has made a strategic calculation that embracing the political passions of the Muslim mainstream is the only way for his reformist agenda to gain any sort of credibility or traction with the Muslim audiences that really matter. And although his vision may not be a classically liberal one, it is a fully legitimate guide for how Muslims — or any persons of faith — can participate in a liberal and democratic system. As Andrew March, a political theorist and professor at Yale University, has argued, the cultures of political liberalism in the West should be able to accommodate peaceful, law-abiding citizens who are motivated by explicit religious faith. The United States, which boasts its own powerful religious communities and fundamentalist political forces, should of all places be able to understand how this works.

This does not mean that liberals should not have misgivings about Ramadan’s project. He defines sharia — the system of Muslim jurisprudence — not as the law of the land but as a personal moral code, sustained by the faith of the believer. Why should such a belief be alarming? After all, this is how many people of faith have reconciled themselves to civic states. But in practice, this evangelical project of societal transformation through personal transformation — changing the world "one soul at a time" — is more deeply radical than what violent extremists envision. Anyone can seize state power through violence and then impose his will by force. True power lies in the ability to mobilize consent so that people willingly embrace ideas without coercion — so that they want what you want, not simply do what you want. Nonviolent Islamists excel at this level of soft power and, in doing so, have succeeded in transforming public culture across the Muslim world. Walking the streets of Cairo today, for example, it is hard to believe that only a couple decades ago, few women covered their hair.

Later in the essay, I elaborate on the stakes of this struggle inside Islamist politics:

Those, such as Berman, who see Islamism as flat and uniform claim that Islamists of all varieties — despite differences over the use of violence or the value of democratic participation — ultimately share a commitment to achieving an Islamic state. But this is misleading. There is a vast and important gap between the Salafi vision of enforced social uniformity and the moderate Islamist vision of a democratic state, with civil institutions and the rule of law, populated by devout Muslims. The gap is so great as to render meaningless the notion that all Islamists share a common strategic objective. Ramadan stands on the correct side of this gap, and by extension, he stands on the right side of the most important battle within Islamism today: he is a defender of pragmatism and flexibility, of participation in society, and of Muslims’ becoming full citizens within liberal societies.

Ramadan’s defense of participation places him opposite the literalists and radicals with whom Berman attempts to link him. The hard core of the Salafi jihadists view all existing Muslim societies as fundamentally, hopelessly corrupt — part of a jahiliyya, which means "age of ignorance," from which true Muslims must retreat and isolate themselves. Ramadan, by contrast, calls for change from within. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood offer clinics, charities, schools, and other services, while pursuing the dawa, or "spiritual outreach." Their approach would be familiar to anyone who has engaged with American evangelicals — the polite conversation, the pamphlets and other literature, the self-presentation as honest and incorruptible. There is an obvious difference between a woman who is forced to wear a veil for fear of acid being thrown in her face and one who does so to show respect for God. But there are other forms of coercion — peer pressure, societal norms, and economic need — that can be difficult to detect from the outside. These are topics for serious study.

But Berman does not even try. He sees only a radical mob of fanatics, not individuals who find meaning in their lives given particular contexts and specific challenges. As Berman sees it, blank-faced cyphers impose a grim conformity on passive communities that are unable to resist (presumably because their will has been weakened by an Ian Buruma essay). It does not occur to him that Islamism might offer meaning to those who are confined to gloomy urban ghettos or that Islamist groups might be the only ones working on the ground to improve certain people’s lives. For many Muslims around the world, Islamism may offer a better life in the here and now — and not just in the hereafter — than do many of the alternatives.

This point should not be misunderstood. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly distinct from al Qaeda, it is not the uniformly "moderate" organization that its supporters often say it is. The organization’s character and goals often vary from community to community, and its rhetoric sometimes betrays a number of worrisome "gray zones," in the words of a 2006 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Its members generally avoid making clear statements on contentious issues, such as the place of non-Muslims in the Islamic state, the toleration of secular Muslims, or where the authority to interpret Islamic law should reside. And the Muslim Brotherhood’s rejection of violence at home does not extend to areas where Muslims live under occupation, such as the Palestinian territories or Iraq. Such positions may not please many Americans, but they do — like it or not — represent the mainstream of much of the Muslim world.

But, I conclude, the problems with Berman do not mean that there are no problems with non-violent Islamists:

Berman highlights a very real dilemma. Put bluntly, Islamists have shaped the world around them in ways that many liberals in the United States and Europe find distasteful. Even moderate Islamists prioritize religion over all other identities and promote its application in law, society, culture, and politics. Their prosyletizing, social work, party politics, and organization of parallel civil societies have all helped transform societies from below. This frightens and angers secularists, liberals, feminists, non-Muslims, and others who take no comfort in the argument that the political success of the Islamists simply reflects the changing views of the majority. The strongest argument against accepting nonviolent Islamists as part of the legitimate spectrum of debate is that they offer only a short-term solution while making the long-term problem worse. These Islamists may be democrats, but they are not liberals. Their success will increase the prevalence and impact of illiberal views and help shape a world that will be less amenable to U.S. policies and culture.

But this is precisely why Berman’s lumping together of different strands of Islamism is so harmful. Ramadan may not be a liberal, but he offers a realistic vision of full participation in public life that counters the rejectionist one posed by the ascendant corps of Salafi extremists. Pragmatists who hope to confront the disturbing trends within the Muslim world do not have the luxury of moral purity.

And finally:

Secular Muslims, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the Somali-born writer and former Dutch politician — are a sideshow to the real struggles taking place between reformers and traditionalists, Muslim Brothers and Salafists, rulers and oppositionists. The real challenge to the integration of Muslims in the West comes from Salafists who deny the legitimacy of democracy itself, who view the society around them as mired in jahiliyya, and who seek only to enforce a rigid, literalistic version of Islam inside whatever insulated enclaves they are able to carve out. The liberals to whom Berman is drawn represent a vanishingly small portion of Muslim-majority societies. They are generally drawn from well-off urban elites that have become ever more detached from their surrounding environments and would not fare well in the democratic elections that the United States claims to want. Meanwhile, granting such prominence to ex-Muslims who support Israel and denounce Islam discredits other reformists in the real terrain where figures such as Ramadan must operate. Supporting them may offer the warm glow of moral purity — and they may be more fun at parties — but this should not be confused with having an impact where it counts.

At the end, Berman offers an impassioned defense of Hirsi Ali, whom he portrays as a classic dissident who has been betrayed by the leading lights of the liberal West. He feigns bewilderment at why these liberal authors, to whom he devotes so many pages, might find her problematic. Berman appears unbothered by the frightening march toward a clash of civilizations promoted by al Qaeda and fueled by anti-Islamic culture warriors in the West. Nor is he concerned that expressing extreme anti-Islamic views and embracing only those Muslims who reject Islam might help al Qaeda by antagonizing those hewing to the Muslim mainstream and perhaps convincing them that bin Laden is right after all. Berman portrays himself, Hirsi Ali, and a select group of others as the defenders of moral courage in a world where too many have fallen short. But real moral courage does not come from penning angry polemics without regard for real-world consequences.

The most helpful strategic victory in the struggle against Islamist radicalism would be to undermine the narrative that the West is at war with Islam. There should be no tolerance for Islamist extremists who threaten writers, intimidate women, or support al Qaeda’s terrorism. But defending Hirsi Ali from death threats should not necessarily mean embracing her diagnosis of Islam. Berman’s culture war would marginalize the pragmatists and empower the extremists. Muslim communities are more likely to reject such extremists when they do not feel that their faith is being attacked as fascist or that they can only be accepted if they embrace Israel and the policy preferences of American conservatives.

The Muslims in the West are not going away. It is therefore imperative to find a way for these communities to become full partners in the security and prosperity offered by Western societies. If democracy has any meaning, it must be able to allow Muslims to peacefully pursue their interests and advance their ideas — even as the liberals who defend the right of Muslims to do so are also free to oppose them. Ramadan may not present the only path to such an end — but he does present one. And that is why his liberal proponents in the West, who so infuriate Berman for promoting Ramadan, emerge as more compelling guides to a productive future.

There is a lot more in the Foreign Affairs essay, which I hope you’ll read in its entirety.  

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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