Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lynch Against Berman (and Herf): The Flight of the Intellectuals (And Note my Note, Poor Thing That It Is, Coming Up the Rear)


July/August 2010
Veiled Truths
The Rise of Political Islam in the West

Marc Lynch//Foreign Affairs:

MARC LYNCH is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

This spring, Tariq Ramadan arrived in the United States nearly six years after being denied a visa by the Bush administration. The U.S. government had previously refused Ramadan entry on the grounds that he had donated to a French charity with ties to Hamas. Then, last January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Ramadan was welcome. His appearance in the United States seemed to manifest the White House's changing rhetoric about the Muslim world. In June 2009, President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo of reaching out to Muslims with "mutual interest and mutual respect." Figures such as Ramadan -- symbols of a nonviolent Islamism long shunned as enablers of extremism -- may now represent a bridge across previously intractable divides.

Paul Berman will have none of this. His book The Flight of the Intellectuals, based on a 28,000-word essay published three years ago in The New Republic, mounts a furious counterattack from the bygone days of the Bush administration. Too many in the United States and Europe, Berman argues, are confronting the wrong enemy. Violent Islamists do not pose the greatest danger; instead, it is their so-called moderate cousins, who are able to draw well-meaning liberals into a poisonous embrace. Their rejection of violence is both partial -- not extending to Israel or to U.S. troops in Iraq -- and misleading. In Berman's telling, the Islamist project of societal transformation from below does profound violence to the individual Muslims who are forced to live in an increasingly constricted milieu. The only defensible response is to repel the stealth Islamism of putative moderates with a morally pure vision of liberalism.

But such a polemic, in fact, poorly serves those concerned about the rise of political Islam in the West. Berman does flag important debates about Islam's impact on Europe and the world, but he is an exceedingly poor guide to navigating them. His reading of Islamism, based on a narrow selection of sources read in translation and only a sliver of the vast scholarship on the subject, fails to grasp its political and intellectual context. He is blind to the dramatic variation and competition across and within groups -- above all, to the fierce war between the Salafi purists who call for a literalistic Islam insulated from modernity and the modernizing pragmatists who seek to adapt Islam to the modern world. This blindness feeds the worst instincts of those hard-liners who are fomenting an avoidable clash between Islam and the West. His obsession with Nazism is distracting, and his dissection of Ramadan approaches the pathological. His caustic rhetoric toward writers such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash does not suggest the liberal or tolerant ethos to which he claims allegiance.

This is a pity, for Berman does raise several powerful and troubling questions. Islamists, even nonviolent ones, do often challenge Western liberals by advocating social norms and political agendas that run against the historical tenets of liberalism. What accommodations can be made for religious conviction without betraying core Enlightenment principles? 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. Yet the religious and cultural agendas of many of these groups should trouble Western liberals, even if these movements support the peaceful democratic aspirations of Muslims across the world. If a culture war against Islam is not the answer, then how should Western liberals respond to genuinely popular and nonviolent Islamist movements that are committed to working within democratic institutions but that promote values at odds with progressive standards of freedom, equality, and tolerance?


Berman's lodestar for addressing these questions is Ramadan, a Muslim public intellectual born in Switzerland in 1962. Ramadan descends from vaunted Islamic stock: his maternal grandfather was Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, and his father was Said Ramadan, a high-profile figure in the Muslim Brotherhood who fled repression in Egypt. Berman searches for the true Ramadan in his biography (researching Banna and Said Ramadan), in his intellectual influences (looking into the Doha-based Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi), in his (unpublished) dissertation, in his books, in his public exchanges, and in the growing library of critical books about him -- but not, apparently, by speaking to him directly. Nonetheless, after years of effort and a couple hundred pages of inspection, Berman finds Ramadan to be an elusive figure. Berman is sure that Ramadan is hiding his true agenda, although he can never quite produce a smoking gun. He allows that Ramadan is not "engaged in some kind of elaborate conspiracy or . . . acting on a secret plan" and that his ambition, "so far as [he] can judge, is what he says it is." But it is precisely that ambition -- the nonviolent project of Islamic revival in Europe -- which troubles Berman.

Berman's unease lies in the very different notions found in the democratic societies of the West and the often authoritarian systems of Muslim-majority countries of how Muslims should understand their identities, practice their faith, and engage in politics. Ramadan is a pragmatist, seeking a way for European Muslims to be both fully European and fully Muslim. His 2003 book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, which Berman reads as concealing the truth beneath "a veil of euphemism," in fact lays out a sophisticated argument for how Muslims can be full citizens of their countries while retaining their religious identity. In What I Believe, Ramadan is even more clear: "I state firmly that we have multiple, moving identities and that there is no reason -- religious, legal, or cultural -- a woman or a man cannot be both American or European and Muslim." This is a positive obligation, he argues: "It is up to Muslim individuals to be and become committed citizens, aware of their responsibilities and rights."

But this is an option from which Berman recoils. He prefers Muslims to be secular and does not want to see the kind of bridge Ramadan is constructing. His truncated understanding of the diversity of Islamic politics causes him to miss the significance of Ramadan's exhortations to European Muslims to participate in politics as full, engaged, and equal citizens. Berman similarly underplays Ramadan's doctrinal rejection not only of terrorism but also of narrow, Salafi jurisprudence. Ramadan has little use for the puritanical versions of Islam that have taken root in many Muslim communities and crowded out other forms of piousness -- a process that Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, has called "the great theft."

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.


In trying to understand Islamism, two approaches are possible. The first sees Islamism as essentially a single project with multiple variants, in which the similarities are more important than the differences. In this view, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda represent two points on a common spectrum, divided by tactics rather than by goals. Such an understanding makes it possible -- if not unavoidable -- to see Osama bin Laden lurking in the figure of Ramadan.

The second approach sees consequential distinctions in the ideology and behavior of various Islamist strands. In the years since 9/11, the United States has moved from the former camp to the latter. The United States' experience of cooperating with nationalist Iraqi insurgents against al Qaeda in Iraq has led many U.S. policymakers to favor a strategy that identifies differences among Islamists and uses them to accelerate al Qaeda's marginalization. Many observers in the United States and elsewhere adopted a similar tack after watching the Muslim Brotherhood contest elections and defend democracy in countries such as Egypt, even as the Brotherhood opposed U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Berman proudly takes the first approach, of lumping Islamist groups together. For him, the faces of Islamism range from the wild-eyed assassin of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the anonymous bearded radicals who terrorize their communities, and from the "monstrous" Qaradawi to the smooth Ramadan. Yes, Ramadan has criticized bin Laden and condemned terrorism -- but Berman is unmoved, since he sees violence only as a manifestation of the deeper intellectual problem of the Islamist project. Liberals, Berman argues, should not be fooled by the mild rhetoric or democratic inclinations of nonviolent Islamists or think that engaging with them does Muslims any favors. "Muslim liberals take umbrage . . . at well-meaning observers from outside the world of Islam who, in a misplaced effort to sympathize with the oppressed and stigmatized Muslims, agree to regard the heritage of Hassan al-Banna as the authentic and respectable voice of Islam," he writes. He is right about the suspicion of Islamists among many Muslim liberals and secularists. But these groups -- however much Berman and I both might wish otherwise -- represent only a small slice of Muslim societies. By focusing on them, Berman disregards the more important battles that occupy the Muslim mainstream.

The evolution of these struggles can be seen in the experience of Qaradawi, who plays a decisive role in Berman's book. Ramadan's "reverence" for Qaradawi, a preacher and television host linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, serves as Berman's coup de grâce. Qaradawi has achieved infamy for his fatwas in support of Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians. If Ramadan reveres such a "monstrous" figure -- and does not understand him to be monstrous -- then surely Ramadan's worldview must be fundamentally flawed. But Berman renders Qaradawi so crudely that few Muslims would recognize him in the caricature.

In fact, Qaradawi is a pivotal figure who straddles the divides within today's Islamist world. He is a fierce advocate of democratic participation and a critic of al Qaeda, which makes him an icon to mainstream nonviolent Islamists and an object of outrage among Salafi jihadists. He is best known for his doctrine of wasatiyya, or "centrism," which lays out a middle ground between secularism and fundamentalism. He rejects the doctrinal extremism of the Salafists and the violent extremism of al Qaeda -- in a recent book, he dismissed al Qaeda's efforts as a "mad declaration of war upon the world." At the same time, he often takes issue with U.S. foreign policy and is certainly hostile toward Israel, not to mention being a highly successful proselytizer of the Islamist worldview. This potent mixture may be troubling, but it largely defines the mainstream Muslim position. Indeed, one of the keys to Qaradawi's popularity is his ability to anticipate Arab and Muslim views; like Ramadan, Qaradawi is a barometer of Muslim opinion as much as a cause of it.

Berman argues that Ramadan's respect for Qaradawi prevents him from making the breaks with Islamist orthodoxy necessary to becoming a truly reformist figure. But Berman fails to notice that Ramadan has already made such breaks, at some personal cost to himself. Ramadan and Qaradawi have clashed several times in recent years. Ramadan has rejected Qaradawi's suggestion that Muslims in Europe should relocate to Muslim-majority lands; he has also criticized Qaradawi's defense of Palestinian violence against Israel, insisting that Palestinian opposition should take the form of nonviolent civil disobedience.

These arguments demonstrate not only that Ramadan is flexible but also how Qaradawi has changed. Over the last few years, his rulings have become more conservative, literalistic, and orthodox. Arguably, this is because the winds of Islamism have been changing. Salafists are gaining in influence everywhere, driven largely by the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood's model of political participation and the continued flow of Gulf oil money to literalistic institutions and individuals. The purity of Salafism offers simple answers to Muslims in Europe, many of whom are facing profound crises of identity and alienation. Qaradawi senses these changes but has struggled to adapt. This spring, he lost control over his own creation, the popular Islamist Web site Islam Online, when Salafists took over editorial control and forced out a number of staff members sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. When Qaradawi tried to intervene, he was dismissed from the editorial leadership by the site's owners in Qatar -- a startling fall for one of the pillars of Islamist activism over the last three decades.

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.


Many of the valuable debates that The Flight of the Intellectuals could have sparked are drowned out by Berman's ludicrous efforts to construct an intellectual and organizational genealogy linking Nazi Germany and contemporary Islamism. His insistence on the usefulness of the concept of "Islamic fascism" -- despite the fact that virtually all Muslims consider it a profound insult to their faith and identity -- is one of the surest clues to his indifference to Muslim reality in favor of intellectual gamesmanship.

In a lengthy chapter drawn almost entirely from the recent book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, by the like-minded historian Jeffrey Herf, Berman highlights what he calls the mutual admiration among Banna; Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem; and Nazi leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Arabs had virtually nothing to do with the Holocaust, of course, but Berman attempts to create a trail of implication by devoting long passages to Husseini's connections to the Nazis and Banna's support for Husseini. In the 1930s, Husseini saw Nazi Germany as the most convenient ally in a war against the British mandate and the surging Zionist immigrant community; he then couched this alliance in Islamic terms in an effort to win over mass support. But such history is less titillating to Berman than is the idea that "the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem might have been onto something, and the mufti's case for an Islamic-Nazi alliance stood on reasonably solid theological ground." Berman goes on to cite Mark Cohen, a professor at Princeton University and historian of Jews in the Muslim world, who posits (but ultimately rejects) the idea that "the mufti was engaged in a fundamentally perverse and unnatural effort to twist Islam in a new direction." Berman dances to the brink and then backs away, leaving readers confident of where he hopes they will end up without actually saying where that is.

Berman's cartoonish tale misses far more significant historical developments that shaped today's Islamism. In the 1950s, the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, combined with the rise of Sayyid Qutb, the radical Islamic intellectual imprisoned and later executed by the Nasser regime, created a schism that was pivotal to the evolution of modern Islamism. Whereas Banna contested seats in the legislature and maintained an organized armed wing, much as did other political parties at the time, Qutb's generation had to choose between fleeing Egypt or suffering the torture of its prisons. Banna hoped to work within the architecture of the state -- he was a proto-Ramadan, truly, in this sense -- but doing so was impossible for Qutb. To Qutb, contemporary society was populated by hypocrites and apostates who had substituted the rule of man for the rule of God. The Muslim Brotherhood eventually rejected Qutb's views, and by the 1970s, it had turned to enthusiastic participation in the public realm across the Arab world. Qutb's acolytes, meanwhile, retreated toward violence. Yet Berman simply dismisses this split. In response to the fact that Banna and Qutb never even knew each other, Berman concludes that they "knew" each other in the metaphysical sense. This is indefensible and cause enough to dismiss the entire enterprise.

Berman's invocation of the Nazis is, of course, meant to validate the controversial concept of Islamic fascism. He demands that Ramadan denounce the roles played in World War II by people such as his grandfather and the grand mufti, and he takes Ramadan's dismissal of such demands as evidence of something darker. But Ramadan's exasperation with this line of questioning is easy to understand: the role Husseini played in World War II may be of burning concern to Berman, but it holds little relevance for Ramadan's own thinking or beliefs. It is a pity that the truly important questions posed by nonviolent Islamist movements in liberal societies are lost amid the heat and noise of the polemics.


Still, 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.

There are other reasons not to simply shun all Islamists. First, there is the question of democracy and political freedom. In many Arab and Muslim-majority countries, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist movements represent the largest and best-organized political opposition. When there are free and fair elections, they tend to win. Their opponents are generally not liberals but authoritarians. The arsenal of repression that these regimes deploy against their Islamist challengers strikes against the democratic and political freedoms that liberals proudly defend. The Muslim Brotherhood may be a force for illiberal values, but its members are found in the prisons of repressive regimes. Defenders of human rights and democratic freedoms cannot overlook those depredations if they wish to remain credible and effective.

Second, nonviolent Islamists are among the most effective rivals of al Qaeda and similar organizations. This is one of the lessons of Iraq, where the rejection by nationalist jihadist factions of the more extreme, globalist cadre of al Qaeda's Iraqi franchise helped turn the tide in favor of the United States. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has helped keep al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in the country. In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas protects its rule from radical Salafi opponents who do not consider the group religiously conservative enough. Disciplined and politically organized groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are well positioned to keep Salafi jihadists from moving into mosques. In this sense, moderate Islamic political movements can serve as a firewall against radicalization, capturing the pious with a disciplined and nonviolent organization and fighting off more extremist challengers.

Third, there is hope that these movements will become more progressive. Within groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood there are real struggles going on between reformists and traditionalists. The struggle within the Muslim Brotherhood burst into view a few years ago when, inspired by a political opening, a group of young Brotherhood bloggers pushed for more transparency, more sustained political engagement, increased cooperation with other protest movements across ideological lines, and a less austere approach to cultural issues. The mere fact that these movements can be influenced in positive directions offers a powerful reason to try and do so. To be sure, these currents move in both directions, which suggests the risks of disengagement: in places such as Egypt and Jordan, hard-liners have moved back into the leadership of Islamist movements after sustained campaigns of government repression against them. Political conditions clearly affect ideology: when such groups are allowed to participate, they generally become more moderate, and when they are excluded, they become more radical.

Fourth, there is the matter of the bruising battle within the Muslim world. 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.

Berman and Herf and more Lynch:


Paul Berman

In "Veiled Truths" (July/August 2010), Marc Lynch's suggestion that clever U.S. diplomats ought to play rival factions of the Islamist movement against one another has a ring of common sense, which I applaud, even if the idea is not exactly novel. But I worry that Lynch's one intelligent remark may lull readers into supposing that his other comments are equally sensible -- for example, his judgment that Hamas is a "moderate" movement, useful as "a firewall against radicalization." But mostly, I worry that this one comment may lull readers into believing anything that Lynch writes about me or my book The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Lynch's complaints about me are large and various, and they rise to a climactic sentence: "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 [Osama] bin Laden is right after all." If you disentangle the complexities of the gerunds and clauses in the sentence, you will see that Lynch has accused me of being an anti-Muslim extremist whose writings are fodder for terrorism. Here, I conclude, is a less than positive review. And yet what dreadful thing have I done?

It has lately been argued that the United States should "engage" with Islamists. I agree. Therefore, I have engaged with the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan. I have done this by taking him seriously as a thinker, by reading his work closely, by examining his philosophical assumptions, and by arguing with him at length. This is not an incitement to terrorism. This is a way to clarify ideas and reduce misunderstandings. To be sure, my study of Ramadan's work has not aroused in me feelings of admiration. But I have laid out in full the reasons for my poor opinion, as critics, unlike diplomats, should always do.

Lynch has immersed himself in Ramadan's world of intra-Islamist debate. But I fear that in doing so, he has succumbed to a common syndrome of academic regional specialists: he has ended up adopting several of the intellectual assumptions that ought to be his topic of study. He denounces me as an unreasonable extremist because he cannot imagine how a reasonable person could read Ramadan in a different light than he does. And he fails to notice that by taking some of the Islamists' assumptions as factual reality, he has lost the ability to make elementary judgments. His depiction of Hamas as a moderate and helpful organization can serve as one example, and I will point to another.

The name of Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Islamic scholar and al Jazeera televangelist, pops up repeatedly in my book because it pops up still more frequently in Ramadan's major books on Islamic philosophy. Lynch judges my description of Qaradawi to be drawn "so crudely that few Muslims would recognize him in the caricature." Lynch would prefer Qaradawi to be described as "an icon to mainstream nonviolent Islamists and an object of outrage among Salafi jihadists" -- which makes Qaradawi sound admirable, or at least minimally acceptable, even if, as Lynch acknowledges, Qaradawi "often takes issue with U.S. foreign policy and is certainly hostile toward Israel."

From reading Lynch, however, or from reading Ramadan (who has always treated Qaradawi as a revered mentor, even when respectfully disagreeing with him), one would never guess that Qaradawi is a genocidal anti-Semite. In Qaradawi's televised opinion, Allah inflicted Hitler on the Jews "to put them in their place." And Qaradawi has called for a renewal of Hitler's efforts: "Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one."

Lynch observes that I describe Qaradawi as "monstrous," with the quotation marks signifying Lynch's wry opinion that I have rendered Qaradawi cartoonishly. He scoffs at my insistence on noticing a Nazi influence in Qaradawi's thinking. But Lynch is able to scoff only because, like Ramadan himself, he hides behind euphemisms -- in this case, his phrase "hostile toward Israel," when what he really means is "Hitlerian."

These television speeches by Qaradawi were translated and posted online by the Middle East Media Research Institute in January 2009. A few months later, Ramadan published the most recent of his serious philosophical books, Radical Reform -- and in this book, exactly as in the past, Ramadan repeatedly cites Qaradawi in a spirit of deference and reverence. My impulse is to be horrified. Lynch's response is to say that if someone in this debate is an extremist, it is I. Who is right? I will only observe that Lynch should not expect people with reactions like mine to pipe down anytime soon.

Lynch complains that I rely on translations, but this is not true in regard to Ramadan, whom I have read in his own language of French. Lynch writes that "Ramadan has criticized bin Laden and condemned terrorism." But Ramadan, in his untranslated book Jihâd, violence, guerre et paix en Islam, specifically limits his criticism to bin Laden's opinions, not addressing his actions -- given that, in Ramadan's view, there is no "definitive proof" of bin Laden's role in 9/11. And Ramadan explains that Palestinian terrorists have "no recourse" but terrorism -- which, to my eyes, undoes his condemnation.

In The Flight of the Intellectuals, my discussion of controversies over the phrase "Islamic fascism" derives from yet another untranslated book: Sortir de la malédiction (To Escape the Curse), by Abdelwahab Meddeb, a prize-winning French Tunisian author. My discussion of this topic concludes with commentary on a novel by the Francophone Algerian writer Boualem Sansal called The German Mujahid, which pertinently asks why people shrink from noticing the obvious links between the Nazi past and the Islamist present. Lynch appears to think that Francophone writers such as Meddeb and Sansal count for nothing in the world of modern ideas -- not to mention the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun or scholars such as the Syrian German political theorist Bassam Tibi (just to cite some writers whose work directly influenced my book).

But what makes Lynch so sure? Ramadan's single most interesting thought is his prediction that European Islam will someday prove to be the center and not just a marginal element of worldwide Islam. When that day comes, however, the truly influential thinkers and writers will turn out to be the very people whom Lynch dismisses as inconsequential -- the European (and North American) liberals from Muslim backgrounds, freethinkers and pious believers alike. These people, the anti-Islamists, are right now composing brilliant and lasting works of literature and philosophy -- but their achievements will never be recognized by Islamism's apologists in Western universities.

PAUL BERMAN is a writer in residence at New York University. His most recent book is The Flight of the Intellectuals.


Jeffrey Herf

Marc Lynch writes that Paul Berman's "obsession with Nazism is distracting, and his dissection of [Tariq] Ramadan approaches the pathological." This sentence -- which dismisses concern about Nazism and makes an ad hominem attack on an accomplished public intellectual -- reflects badly on Lynch and this magazine. Lynch's essay also presents more substantive issues, which merit a fuller reply.

Lynch refers to "Berman's ludicrous efforts to construct an intellectual and organizational genealogy linking Nazi Germany and contemporary Islamism." I share in this supposedly ludicrous endeavor: since 9/11, I have argued that the rhetoric and ideology of contemporary Islamism draws in part on the history of Arab and Islamist collaboration with Nazi Germany. Contemporary Islamism draws on paranoid and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that resemble those used to justify mass murder in the 1940s. And in their hatred of Western modernity and democracy, as well as in their suppression of women, Islamists do recall the Nazi and fascist ideologues of the previous century.

These are not new arguments, nor am I alone in making them. The link between Nazism and Islamism was first explored during World War II, in reports issued by the U.S. State Department, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and various military intelligence agencies. Mapping this intellectual lineage subsequently became a common theme in postwar scholarship. Classic works include Manfred Halpren's 1963 The Politics and Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa, which argued that "neo-Islamic movements are essentially fascist movements," and Lukasz Hirszowicz's 1966 The Third Reich and the Arab East, which revealed the enthusiasm with which Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, regarded Nazi Germany. In recent years, German, Israeli, and U.S. scholars, some of whom have used Arabic and Iranian texts, have made additional contributions. Clear echoes of the kinds of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that were at the heart of Nazi ideology can be found in a range of Islamist statements, such as the 1988 Hamas charter, proclamations by al Qaeda, speeches by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and recent declarations by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In writing Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, which documents the Third Reich's conscious propaganda campaign aimed at the Middle East and North Africa, I drew on several thousand pages of translations of Nazi Germany's Arabic-language radio broadcasts to the region. The translated collection of these texts, called "Axis Broadcasts in Arabic," was produced by a team assembled by Alexander Kirk, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1941 to 1944, and later overseen by Pinkney Tuck, Kirk's successor in Cairo. The files of the U.S. embassy in Egypt were placed in the U.S. National Archives in Maryland and were declassified in 1977. For 30 years, scholars and experts on the Middle East managed to avoid making any mention of these crucial documents; it was only in 2007, when I came across the translations in the course of my research for Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, that they entered the scholarly debate. If there is anything "ludicrous" about documenting the extent of Arab and Islamist collaboration with Nazi Germany, it is that scholars who study the history and politics of the modern Middle East managed for so long to avoid confronting such crucial evidence.

The history of this collaboration was not always viewed as a distraction. In the years during and after World War II, some U.S. diplomats and military officers were interested in -- and worried about -- this relationship and its aftereffects. In a report from June 1945, analysts at the OSS ruefully noted that "in the Near East the popular attitude toward the trial of war criminals is one of apathy. As a result of the general Near Eastern feeling of hostility to the imperialism of certain of the Allied powers . . . there is a tendency to sympathize with rather than condemn those who have aided the Axis." CIA officials were sufficiently worried that they continued to follow the activities of Husseini and other Arab and Islamist collaborators with the Nazi regime into the 1950s. Yet as the anti-Hitler coalition gave way to the altered fronts and affiliations of the Cold War -- and to realist arguments about access to Middle Eastern oil -- interest in the Arab and Islamist collaboration with Nazism faded into the background.

Since Lynch is unable to deny that Husseini collaborated with the Nazi regime, he repeats the common apologia, describing the collaboration as a matter of calculation rather than belief -- as if this would somehow be less objectionable. In fact, by the 1930s, Husseini was already a collaborator of the heart as well as the head. He played a central role in propagating a distinctively anti-Semitic reading of the Koran and its commentaries. Rather than couch his alliance "in Islamic terms in an effort to win over mass support," as Lynch writes, Husseini won a significant following precisely because -- in contrast to more moderate Arab and Palestinian leaders -- he connected his opposition to Zionist politics to the ancient hatred of the Jews that emerged from his distorted reading of Islamic texts. It was this conception of Islam that made him appealing to Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and other high-ranking Nazi officials. In their view, Husseini offered a point of entry for Nazi Germany into a popular current of Islamist sentiment. Yet for Lynch, this is all a "cartoonish tale."

Lynch dates the Islamic intellectual Sayyid Qutb's radicalization to the Egyptian government's repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained full force after the group's failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. But Qutb wrote the essay "Our Struggle With the Jews" -- one of the crucial links between Nazi and Islamist ideology -- in the early 1950s, several years before Nasser began his crackdown. This viciously anti-Semitic text, which was published again by the Saudi government in 1970, repeats many themes from the Nazi radio broadcasts and from Husseini's ideology -- namely, that Jews have always been the "enemy" of Islam and sought its destruction and that therefore they deserved the punishments inflicted by Allah and carried out by Hitler. Over the years, Qutb's essay has become a canonical text for Islamists. In 1987, Ronald Nettler, a British historian of Islam, published an English translation of the essay in a book called Past Trials and Present Tribulations: A Muslim Fundamentalist's View of the Jews. Somehow, this text has also escaped Lynch's notice.

Islamism has always been a hybrid ideology. Its origins can be found in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa from the 1930s to the 1950s. However, one of the key chapters of that period was also written in Nazi-era Berlin. Although Islamism has various forms of expression, groups such as al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the current regime in Tehran -- which engage in terrorism and espouse radical anti-Semitism -- are inspired by its core themes. Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals raises a deeply disturbing question: Why do many intellectuals who think of themselves as liberals find it so hard to speak more plainly about Islamism, its past ties to Nazism and fascism, and its connections to terrorism today? Lynch's attack on Berman -- and his dismissal of the large and growing body of evidence on Nazism's influence on Islamism in the mid-twentieth century -- calls into doubt his own claims to expertise.

JEFFREY HERF is Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.


Paul Berman is correct to point to European Islam as a fundamental arena for the development of new ideas and models for how Muslims can live as citizens and believers. He and I share many concerns about trends within the Muslim communities of Europe and the Middle East, even if we disagree about how to understand and counter them. Those disagreements matter. Berman errs in framing the struggle within these communities as one between Islamists and "liberals from Muslim backgrounds," which is one, but not the primary, line of contestation today. Understanding the challenge of how Muslims in Europe and throughout the world will decide to participate in politics and society requires a sense of the ongoing struggle among Salafists, Islamists, and a vast middle ground of politically motivated but non-Islamist Muslims. Berman's call to embrace figures widely viewed as hostile by most Muslims and his demonization of those seen as mainstream feeds the most dangerous narratives of a war between the West and Islam; whatever his intentions, Berman is likely to empower the violent extremists whom we both hope to marginalize and defeat.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Islamist, exemplifies both our disagreement and its stakes. Indeed, Qaradawi has voiced extremely hostile views of Israel, and such rhetoric has made him an intensely controversial figure in Europe and the Arab world. But his views, particularly during the bloody years after the outbreak of the al Aqsa intifada, in 2000, are unfortunately well within the Arab mainstream. To understand why so many Arabs and Muslims do not view Qaradawi as an extremist requires exactly the kind of immersion in intra-Muslim debates that Berman denigrates. Most Muslims judge Qaradawi not by his views on Israel but rather by his influential redefinition of the "Islamic awakening," his doctrinal arguments against juridical extremism, his fatwas in support of democracy, and his antipathy to al Qaeda and to Salafi jihadism. Knowing all this does not excuse Qaradawi's views on Israel, but it does explain why reducing him to those views will strike most Muslims -- and academic specialists -- as an unacceptable caricature and why Tariq Ramadan's admiration for him is not the smoking gun that Berman claims.

Jeffrey Herf takes exception to my depiction of Berman's account of the Nazi influence on the Islamic world as "ludicrous." He protests that his recent book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, offers substantial evidence in support of Berman's claims. It does not. Through an analysis of newly studied U.S. embassy documents, Herf's book does offer fascinating details on the content of German propaganda broadcasts to the Middle East. But few students of propaganda and strategic communications would be so bold as to assume that a message sent is a message received. In order to prove that this propaganda decisively shaped the evolution of political Islam or attitudes in the Middle East today, one would have to look closely at the evolution of ideas and trends within contemporary Islamism.

This is where Herf, like Berman, falls short. It is not sufficient to search in U.S. government archives or to rely on an English translation of an essay by Sayyid Qutb to discover the ideas and influences of contemporary Islamism. It would be better to learn Arabic and read Qutb's work in the original and become immersed in the vast ocean of commentaries and debates that have consumed Islamist political thought over many decades. Similarly, it would be useful to travel to the region and talk to Islamists, ask about their influences and their priorities, observe their political behavior and interactions, and read their published and unpublished documents. One could even read the mountains of scholarship written about contemporary Islamists in English. But Herf writes about Islamism in the Arab world while citing no documents or literature in Arabic and while footnoting virtually none of the enormous secondary literature on the subject. This will not do.

Were there Nazi influences on the Middle East in the 1940s? Of course. The Germans, like the Allies, realized the strategic significance of the region and sought to mobilize support where they could. Arabs perceived a common threat posed by the United Kingdom and France -- along with expanding Jewish immigration to Palestine -- and some sought assistance from Berlin. As the conflict over Palestine escalated, many Arabs and Muslims became attracted to European ideas -- including, sadly, anti-Semitic ones -- which took root in new ground. But as The Arabs and the Holocaust, a recent book by Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese academic, makes clear, the argument for a decisive Nazi influence on contemporary Islamism remains thin. The suggestion that the rhetoric of the World War II era in some way validates the inflammatory concept of "Islamic fascism" simply does not hold up.

Ultimately, the historiographic debate is not the point. No matter what lay in the hearts of Haj Amin al-Husseini or Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood -- or in the hearts of the millions of Arabs and Muslims who have mobilized around the issues those two men raised -- those days are long past. Those arguments have little relevance to the more urgent question of how to best grapple with today's multifaceted and rapidly evolving Islam. It is not surprising that few Islamists or Muslims -- or academics, for that matter -- feel the need to return to the Nazi era to understand today's problems.

The attempt to draw a straight line from Hitler to today's Islamists leads directly to the kind of overgeneralization found in Herf's response, in which al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian regime are conflated despite the vast differences in their origins, ideologies, methods, beliefs, and memberships. In arguing that Islamists resemble the Nazis in their hatred of democracy, Herf is seemingly unaware that Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood routinely participate in elections and that Islamists -- including Qaradawi -- have developed elaborate theoretical justifications in favor of democratic participation.

That sort of misreading of Islamism has very serious costs: it misinforms publics, misguides policymakers into making potentially tragic mistakes, alienates Muslims who must be integrated into Western societies, and empowers the extremists opposed to such peaceful coexistence. Preventing such unnecessary tragedies should be a top priority for scholars and policymakers alike.


It's an interesting debate.

Berman and Herf do a good job pointing out that Lynch, who isn't without an arguable, nuanced position, at times sounds hysterical and excessive in the ways, for examples:

he effectively accuses of Berman of facilitating Salafist extremism;

he calls Berman's attention to Ramadan “pathological”;

he dismisses the arguments made by Herf and picked up on by Berman showing the infusion of Fascism into Muslim extremism as “ludicrous”;

he vaunts the moderating elements of Hamas as bulwark against something worse;

he displays his "balanced" views of Qaradawi--who Ramadan seems to venerate--who calls for Allah's help in smiting as many Jewish civilians as possible;

and he displays his "balanced" views of terrorism against Israel in his overall appraisal of the more moderate Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ramadan too, who says, when it suits him, depending on his audience, some bloody things about Israel.

Lynch seems to give himself ideologically away at points, as when he says, for one example:

...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...

I don't know why the views the Islamists under discussion take towards Israel should effectively be bracketed in considering their moderateness and their infusion with Fascism. That's especially so since their virulent anti Semitism is at the core of their Fascistic thinking. I'd argue that for as much as some Islamists are more moderate than crazies who want a return to a seventh century caliphate, their views on, and prescriptions for, Israel should be a touchstone for judging them, taking their measure and deciding whether to encourage and ally with them.

One last comment: either Ramadan's infamous call for a moratorium on stoning adulteresses while its rightness gets debated within Salafist councils is an outlier or it is a microcosm of the oxymoron of Islamist pragmatic moderation.

The oxymoron is that a voice like Ramadan's can't be righteously against stoning—while his brother in fact champions it—in no uncertain terms for fear of upsetting and alienating his Muslim audience. That trepidation is, I think, actually, fecklessness as pragmatism. As if the stoners will weigh the pros and cons, costs and benefits, of their stoning. As if they will engage in Oxford style debates. As if their fanaticism isn't a repudiation of any possibility of amelioration via rational argument.

On this point—as with terrorism against Israeli civilians—all moral clarity has left the building in calling for a stoning moratorium pending debte or in rationalizing such terrorism. Which leaving, I think, lies at the heart of Berman’s plea. Here Berman fixes Lynch, who argues for the moratorium, like a specimen insect wriggling on the impaling pin of "intra Muslim" debates.

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