May 29, 2007


Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?: The Islamist, the journalist, and the defense of liberalism. (Paul Berman, 05.29.07, New Republic)

Everyone knows by now that Al Qaeda can trace its roots to a splinter tendency within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1960s and even earlier, and this history raises an awkward question, which Ramadan has had to answer more than once in the years since September 11. He answered the question one more time in Buruma's Times magazine profile in February. He acknowledged that, yes, Al Qaeda emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood. But not from Grandfather al-Banna's legacy. Al Qaeda drew its inspiration, instead, from Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who enlisted in the Muslim Brotherhood only after al-Banna's assassination. About al-Banna and Qutb, Ramadan said, "They didn't even know each other"--which is true, narrowly speaking. Buruma quoted the remark and had every reason to do so (though it was odd of him not to mention how misleading was Ramadan's observation, seen from a broader angle--a point to which I will return). Still, Buruma did go on to quote Ramadan's account of his grandfather's un-Qutb-like political goals. Al-Banna, in Ramadan's phrase, "was in favor of a British-style parliamentary system, which was not against Islam."

This second observation, though--is it equally correct, from a narrowly factual angle? In the Times magazine, Buruma elected to be wryly noncommittal. "This may or may not be an accurate representation of Hassan al-Banna," he observed--which is the mark of Buruma's charm as a writer, his gift for understatement and indirection. Even so, understated indirection is not always the best way to inform the public. He might have pointed out that Ramadan, in his book Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, or The Roots of the Muslim Revival, in 1998, devotes some two hundred pages to al-Banna and his visionary ideas. Ramadan concedes that al-Banna did want to replace the multi-party system in Egypt with a single national council, which might appear to be a one-party state--but Ramadan explains that, because of the fundamentally democratic nature of Islam, al-Banna's proposal was tantamount to a multi-party system. Such is the interpretation in The Roots of the Muslim Revival. And Buruma might have pointed out one of the principal alternative interpretations of al-Banna and his ideas, if only to offer a little perspective on Ramadan and his way of thinking. According to this second interpretation, al-Banna is best described as a fascist.

This used to be a fairly common judgment on the Arab left, not to mention among European Marxists--maybe in some cases because "fascist" is every left-winger's favorite insult, and for no larger reason. Still, something called "clerico-fascism" (to use the traditional term) is an old concept on the left, dating back to the 1920s in Italy, where it used to refer to the militant wing of the Catholic extreme right. And the applicability of that sort of label to al-Banna's new movement in Egypt did seem, at least to some people in the past, hard to miss--an obvious applicability based on the populism and demagogic emotionalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, together with its authoritarianism, intolerance, violence, invasiveness, and a certain kind of giddy twentieth-century-style utopianism, not to mention some of the direct influences that wended across the Mediterranean Sea from fascism's original home in Europe. Then, too, in the eyes of a fair number of scholarly and journalistic observers today, a fascist label, or some reasonably similar term, seems faintly applicable--or more than faintly--even now.

You can see a sophisticated political-theory presentation of this analysis in the writings of Bassam Tibi, the Syrian-German scholar, though in regard to al-Banna and his legacies, Tibi, in his precision, prefers the loftier Arendtian word "totalitarian" (which, anyway, was coined by Mussolini) to the label "fascist" (likewise coined by Mussolini). A discussion of al-Banna's fascism turns up repeatedly in the current literature on Tariq Ramadan. Paul Landau, in The Saber and the Qur'an, describes al-Banna, in his position as chief guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a figure comparable to Il Duce and the Führer. Landau attributes a lot of importance to al-Banna's friendship with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem--who, as Hitler's ally, helped organize a Muslim division of the Waffen-SS and then, after the war, when he was wanted for war crimes (owing to his SS division), succeeded in escaping to Egypt, thanks to help from al-Banna himself. Ian Hamel reprises Landau's point about al-Banna and the mufti of Jerusalem in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan--though Hamel's purpose is normally to knock down everything said by Landau, if he can. Even Hamel describes al-Banna as a man with a "totalitarian organization and an extremist program."

Caroline Fourest offers a more striking observation in Brother Tariq by pointing to al-Banna's Epistle to the Young. The epistle lays out, under the six clauses of his slogan ("God is our goal; the Prophet is our guide; the Qur'an is our constitution; struggle is our way; death on the path of God is our ultimate desire; God is great, God is great"), the five stages of his program. To wit: the creation of a properly Muslim individual person, in thought and belief; of a properly Muslim family; of a properly Muslim people or community; of an Islamic state; and, finally, the resurrection of the ancient Islamic Empire--which al-Banna describes by referring admiringly to what he calls the "German Reich" and to Mussolini's dream of a resurrected Roman Empire, though naturally al-Banna regards his own resurrected Islamic Empire as vastly preferable and theologically more legitimate than anything Mussolini could have contemplated.

Back in the early 1940s, the British authorities in Egypt took this sort of sentiment seriously enough and, in the hope of avoiding anything resembling the pro-Axis coup d'état that took place in Iraq in 1941, presided over al-Banna's arrest more than once. But the pointed aspect of Fourest's discussion of al-Banna and his Epistle lies in her observation that Ramadan, in presenting the Epistle in one of his own popular audio recordings, has omitted the fascist references--which raises anew the question about forthrightness.

Among the present-day commentaries on al-Banna and fascism that I have lately stumbled on, the most eye-opening turns up in an essay by the Iranian scholars Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, which appears in an anthology called Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg. The Boroumands (who are sisters) arrive at a grim evaluation: "The man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna." By "totalitarian ideology," the Boroumand sisters have in mind the doctrines of the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, whose influence on al-Banna they underline. And they point out the disastrous consequences: "From the Fascists--and behind them, from the European tradition of putatively transformative' or purifying' revolutionary violence that began with the Jacobins--Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as a political art form."

There is nothing especially novel or bizarre in noticing that al-Banna displayed an eager interest in the aesthetic cult of death. The classic history of the Muslim Brotherhood, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, by Richard P. Mitchell, which appeared in 1969, was quite lucid on this topic even then. Al-Banna came up with a double phrase about the importance of death as a goal of jihad--"the art of death" (fann al-mawt) and "death is art" (al-mawt fann). This phrase became, in Mitchell's description, a famous part of al-Banna's legacy. Stringing together his own paraphrases with al-Banna's words, Mitchell wrote: "The Qur'an has commanded people to love death more than life" (which, I might add, is a phrase that we have heard more than once in terrorist statements during the last few years, for instance in the videotape that was made by the Islamist group that attacked Madrid in 2004). And al-Banna continued, in Mitchell's presentation: "Unless the philosophy of the Qur'an on death replaces the love of life which has consumed Muslims, they will reach naught. Victory can only come with the mastery of the art of death."

But what might strike some people as novel or controversial is the Boroumand sisters' observation that al-Banna borrowed these grisly ideas from Europe, instead of deriving them, as al-Banna himself claimed to have done, from Qur'anic tradition. Hassan al-Banna, seen in this light, did something dreadful to Islam. He founded the modern vogue for suicide terror--the cult of death as political art form par excellence--and he attached this cult to Islam. This interpretation of al-Banna corresponds to Bassam Tibi's view, though Tibi emphasizes that al-Banna served mostly to clear the way for Sayyid Qutb, and it was Qutb who played the crucial role. [...]

Ramadan's various opinions and interpretations ought not to be conflated with Islam itself--and this point, as I have learned from experience, requires emphasis, and even double emphasis. When I wrote about Ramadan some years ago, I noticed that all too many non-Muslim readers are quick to seize on any disagreeable or troubling statement by a Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole--even if these readers are warned not to do anything of the sort. So I stress the point. Nor does Ramadan himself claim to be speaking for every last Muslim on the planet. He identifies several modern currents of Islamic thought or Muslim self-identification, even apart from the ancient denominations that have transfixed everybody's attention right now, and he knows that all these currents do not accord with one another. In the Times magazine, Buruma very properly asked Ramadan to specify which of the currents is his own, and Ramadan answered with a simple phrase. His own current of Islamic thought is the one that goes under the paradoxical-sounding label of "salafi reformist."

Which means? Buruma came up with a definition by plucking a sentence out of Ramadan's Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. A "salafi reformist," Buruma explained, quoting Ramadan's book, is someone who aims at the following goals: "to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level, and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs." This quotation is accurate, in a fashion--I have located it on page 27 of Ramadan's book, as well as in a slightly different setting in To Be a European Muslim--but, then again, less than accurate because of the way that Buruma has severed the quoted words from some other remarks on the same page and the previous one. Taken by themselves, the quoted words make salafi reformism sound like an earnest and slightly dowdy do-good effort to adapt Islam to the modern liberal world. But that is a mistake. It is an old mistake, too, that journalists persist in making, as both Fourest and Landau point out with a lot of exasperation in their respective books. In a footnote on the topic of "reformism" in his book The Roots of the Muslim Revival, back in 1998, Ramadan himself halfway acknowledges the potential for misunderstanding, though he thinks he is justified in using the term anyway.

Salafi reformism, in his usage, signifies something precise, which has nothing to do with liberal reformism in the conventional sense. Buruma asked Ramadan to list his two favorite Muslim philosophers. Ramadan duly named Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh--the late nineteenth-century figures whom Ramadan regards as the progenitors of Hassan al-Banna's Islamic revival and the Muslim Brotherhood (though other people would insist rather sharply that al-Banna's Islamism, in its radicalism and rigidity, departed fundamentally from those nineteenth-century thinkers). Anyway, not many readers of the Times magazine are likely to have recognized these nineteenth-century names. And yet if Buruma had thought to ask Ramadan about some more recent thinkers in the salafi reformist mode, Ramadan could have gone on listing names, and some of those additional names would, in fact, be recognizable to a good many readers. Ramadan has already listed the names in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam--has done this, as it happens, in the paragraph directly preceding the one from which Buruma has plucked his misleading definition.

Here, on page 26, is Hassan al-Banna; and Abul Ala Mawdudi from the South Asian subcontinent, whose activities Tariq's father, Said Ramadan, coordinated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Khomeini's fellow thinker in Iran. And here is Sayyid Qutb, one more influential reformist among the others, listed without comment--even if Qutb's legacy, in one of its offshoots, did lead to Al Qaeda. In Ramadan's usage, salafi reformism turns out to be the philosophical underpinning for modern Islamism in the sundry versions that descend from al-Banna's (and Mawdudi's) original idea. Naturally, these sundry versions do not always chime with one another, and this, too, Ramadan carefully spells out. In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he divides the descendants of the original reformist idea into subcurrents or tendencies--though in order to distinguish among these tendencies, you have to inspect his account rather closely, unto the fine print, meaning the footnotes. And this kind of close inspection is worth undertaking, not just to shed a little light on Ramadan's philosophy but also to cast an extra glance at the related but different theme of Ramadan's image in the press.

So, then, the subcurrents of salafi reformism, as per Tariq Ramadan. One of these subcurrents turns out to be his own: the outspokenly Western variant, the version whose particularities Ramadan defines with the attractive language that Buruma has mistakenly applied to the entire movement--a language of preserving Muslim identity and becoming loyal citizens of democratic countries. Ramadan's subcurrent is not the principal one, however. The principal subcurrent flourishes only in the Muslim world (and, in Ramadan's book, only in the footnotes)--though "flourishes" may give the wrong impression, since, as he observes with a touch of bitterness, the organizations and movements within this subcurrent "are almost everywhere, though in different degrees, subjected to imprisonment, torture, and persecution." Plainly, Ramadan is writing here about the Muslim Brotherhood, together with (I suppose) its several national and sectarian variations and offshoots--the Muslim Brotherhood in the Muslim countries themselves, where martyrdom has come to figure as part of the movement's identity. The intention of this, the most prominent current of the salafi reformists, is fully revolutionary: it is to establish an Islamic society.

And then, in his honesty, Ramadan somewhat ruefully cites still another sub-current that flows from the salafi reformist source--though, in his view, this final tendency has emptied salafi reformism of almost all of its original content. This final tendency, he tells us, has gone over to "strictly political activism," joined to "a literalist reading" of the sacred texts, leading to "radical revolutionary action." Ramadan describes this tendency as "political literalist Salafism"--which Buruma in the Times magazine mentions by name, though without identifying it as an offshoot of the salafi reformist idea. Ramadan explains that political literalist salafism has attracted "a lot of public attention"--though it is represented in the Western countries only "by structures and factional networks." This last phrase is incomprehensible to me, but it communicates an impression that, in spite of the public attention, political literalist salafism does not count for much. Ramadan disapproves of this tendency, owing to its textual literalism and its unspecified departures from salafi reformist principles--though he also rushes to ascribe the tendency's errors not to any elements intrinsic to its salafi reformist roots but to the ghastly way that Muslim governments have suppressed the mainstream salafi reformists.

As to why the political literalist salafists should have attracted "a lot of public attention," Ramadan says nothing at all in his main text. Only in a footnote does he mention "violent and spectacular actions," and not even there does he remark on any sort of radical departure from basic morality. Nor does he define any relation that might exist between this sort of thing and the legacies of Qutb. A veil of timidity and euphemism hangs over the entire discussion, which could lead a sleepy reader to miss his meaning altogether.

And yet it is obvious what Ramadan is talking about in this particular passage. Political literalist salafism is the doctrine underlying the terrorism that has emerged from salafi reformism--the vast wave of random murder, the vogue for "violent and spectacular actions," that has swept across so many regions of the Muslim world and beyond. That is what he means by "radical revolutionary action." He does refer somewhat cautiously in a footnote to "a section" of the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria, by which he must have in mind the people who went about slaughtering whole villages in Algeria during the 1990s and who are evidently not finished yet. But mostly he is the sphinx. At least Ramadan does not deny the estranged sibling relation between his own wing of salafi reformism and the champions of "radical revolutionary action"--these different currents that descend from the same source. Ramadan is, on this particular theme, more straightforward than his Times profiler.

Still, Ramadan has left out a few details, and these do add up to something. On the topic of al-Banna and Qutb, for instance, it is true, yes, that in spite of being exact contemporaries, the two men never did meet in person. Al-Banna was a salafi reformist from the start, but Qutb, in his younger years, was a secular intellectual, a poet, and a literary critic--which meant that al-Banna and Qutb disapproved of each other. Still, they did not live on opposite sides of the earth. Qutb, as I learn from a biography by Adnan A. Musallam called From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism, adhered to a school of Romantic poetry in Egypt, influenced by Coleridge among others, and his ideas about poetry led him to seek truth in his own heart (as opposed to following the traditions of established schools) and at the same time to yearn romantically for death. Qutb's poetry took an apocalyptic turn as well--which, though his biographer does not make the point, could be compared stanza for stanza with some of the apocalyptic poetry of the fin-de-siècle European Symbolist poets. And all of this, the Romantic and Symbolist literary impulses, mirrored al-Banna's Islamic thinking pretty closely.

What was salafi reformism, after all, if not a belief that truth could be obtained directly from the Qur'an and the seventh century (as opposed to following the traditions of the established schools of Islamic jurisprudence)? And what was al-Banna's phrase about "the art of death" and "death is art" if not an Islamic variation on Qutb's Romantic-poetry yearning for the eternity of the tomb? As for Qutb's Symbolist-poetry apocalyptic fantasies--well! This was Islamism itself, in its Mussolinian, Third Reichstyle yearning for the final showdown. Seen from this angle, Qutb's Romantic secularism and al-Banna's Romantic Islamism were variations on a theme.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 29, 2007 8:42 PM

"What was salafi reformism, after all, if not a belief that truth could be obtained directly from the Qur'an and the seventh century (as opposed to following the traditions of the established schools of Islamic jurisprudence)?"

Ah, yes, sola scriptura. They're Protestants.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 29, 2007 9:28 PM

For those who might want to bushwhack through the verbiage, here's Tariq Ramadan for Dummies.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 30, 2007 2:57 AM

Jim is on to something. The childish fatuity of sola scriptura is but a cynical ploy to suck in the religiously motivated naif to the political agenda of the pretended "reformer."

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 30, 2007 3:50 AM

Should have been "...might not want to..."

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 30, 2007 5:19 AM

Hey Lou, look what this religious waif found in his bible:

"Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar." (Proverbs 30:5,6)

Posted by: Randall Voth at May 30, 2007 5:59 AM


Yes, but what the Protestant Reformers and contemporary jihadis alike didn't/don't understand is that scripture (a) is a product of tradition -- just who decided what got included in scripture (why, it was the Church) (b)it needs to be interpreted, ie there needs to be hermeneutic in which it's read (and again we're back at tradition)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 30, 2007 7:46 AM

Ah, Randall, you make it too easy.

What then, are the writers of the New Testament scriptures , the Evangelists and Apostles, themselves accursed, because they surely added to the word of God some time after King David.

And how do we know that the pseudographia are not part of our Bible? The present mania for heretical false scriptures exposes this absurdity. Do we accept the "Gospel" of Judas? How about that of Mary Magdalene? If not, why not?

Are we to believe that the New Testament just appeared out of thin air, that it had been dictated by an angel in a cave, or was found on gold plates in an Indian gold field, as this or that quack might posture?

Or do we rather understand that the Fathers of the Church, the disciples of the disciples of Our Lord, were empowered to weigh each would-be graphe against the paradoka, the things handed down, namely the traditions of the Church, and to decide thereby which wrtiings were to be admitted. Of course this what the Bible itself teaches us to do, for the Fathers and the early Church councils chose well.

The point remains, that sola scriptura had been a cynical ploy by worldly men, princes, no more than this, to pull the teeth of the Church, to strike the shepherd and scatter the sheep.

The above article tells of how this process was used to hijack Islam away from natural reformation; not Islam only.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 30, 2007 8:40 AM

That was dancing around the truth, worthy of Bill Clinton. Hassan Al Banna, was the original theoritician of the movement, Marx to Qutb's Lenin. His son, Said, organized the Muslim Brotherhood's over seas operation, presumably would have the beneficiary of a Post Suez Egyptian
government. Not to by chance, did Daniel Silva name the urbane academic Al Queda recruiter,
"Tariq" Massoud, in his last potboiller.

Posted by: narciso at May 30, 2007 9:40 AM

That was dancing around the truth, worthy of Bill Clinton. Hassan Al Banna, was the original theoritician of the movement, Marx to Qutb's Lenin. His son, Said, organized the Muslim Brotherhood's over seas operation, presumably would have the beneficiary of a Post Suez Egyptian
government. Not to by chance, did Daniel Silva name the urbane academic Al Queda recruiter,
"Tariq" Massoud, in his last potboiller.

Posted by: narciso at May 30, 2007 9:41 AM