A bonfire of vanities is breaking out in the American political punditry about one single Muslim. Not a terrorist, but a European intellectual — scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan, the Oxford professor who argues that Islam has a positive, ethical contribution to make to Western culture, and who was named one of the top innovators of the 21st century on the impeccably non-radical Time.com.
Fresh fuel for the fire comes from The Flight of the Intellectuals, a new book accusing American and European intellectuals of pandering to Islam, specifically to Ramadan, while ignoring signs of his extremism.
It will appear to be a splendidly principled debate, with everyone taking impassioned positions in defense of liberte, egalite, and if not fraternite, certainly sororite. Women in Islam, that is. As usual, male Western intellectuals get most worked up about “the question of women” in Islamic societies, thus presenting themselves as comfortably situated white knights in shining armor, armchair warriors protecting the innocent from barbarism.
It will also be a peculiarly sophomoric debate, essentially asking “who’s our Muslim intellectual?” Is it Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose book Infidel rejected Islam outright and led to her flight for safety to the US, where she’s now at the American Enterprise Institute? Or is it Tariq Ramadan, who has consistently argued for a “third way” blending traditional Islamic values with western democratic ones?
In books like What I Believe, Ramadan advocates greater democratic political involvement by western Muslims. This may seem reasonable enough, but reason, for his critics, is just a mask. His hidden agenda is an extremist one, they say; see how he refuses to outright condemn punishing women for adultery (he only says he opposes it) or antisemitism (oops, strike that one, he did).
In fact the language used about Ramadan has a distinctly antisemitic tint. He’s shifty, they say; he’s two-faced; he hides his true loyalties — all the sort of things said about Jews in 1930s Germany. They point to Ramadan’s “connections” (his grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, so obviously the grandson is carrying out the grandfather’s program). So what if Ramadan is a charming and sophisticated European intellectual? That very charm and sophistication make him suspicious. (There’s a strong tint here of “who does he think he is? he’s just a Muslim putting on airs”). He has to be a fifth columnist in the ranks of naive post-Enlightenment scholars who have no idea of the treacherous and devious depths of Islamic thinking.
The ultimate insult for such critics seems to be that Ramadan is a religious man. A pious Muslim, as they see it, cannot possibly be a liberal intellectual; his whole argument that Islam and social democracy are not necessarily opposed can thus, ipso facto, only be false.
What they’re really saying is that the only kind of Muslim intellectual who’s acceptable is one who’s absolutely kosher. One who, like Hirsi Ali, has renounced all ties with the demon Islam. One who has repented, seen the error of his/her ways, and accepted the superiority of the secular.
Perhaps that’s why the bonfire: the language, attitudes, and assumptions behind this debate all seem to me to bear the distinctly pious fervor of Inquisition.