Radical Islam’s Fellow-Travellers

They swoon at the feet of Tariq Ramadan and pour scorn on those who question his motives, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Features Islam Politics The West War on Terror
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Clarity of writing and purpose; Tariq Ramadan: Islam's Luther or poster boy for the Muslim Brotherhood?

Contemplating with his customary scorn the artists who had embraced the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wondered what it would take to break their attachment to a cause that would eventually murder many of them — and kill Trotsky too, although he was yet to know it. “As regards a fellow-traveller,” he said, “the question always comes up — how far will he go?” Would the barbarism of the dictatorship of the proletariat persuade him to “change at one of the stations on to the train going the other way”? Or would he stay on for the rest of the ride?

As Trotsky implied, fellow-travelling with communism was not always akin to endorsing the creed. Communists accepted crimes committed in the name of the revolution without hesitation. The fellow-traveller looked away from communism’s victims and invited others to do the same. Communists damned “bourgeois democracy”. It disillusioned communism’s fellow-travellers, too, but not enough to persuade them to give up on democratic politics completely and join the revolution. They wished the Soviet Union well and found its experiments on the human race bracing. But in the words of David Caute, the best historian of fellow-travelling, their support was a “commitment at a distance”. 

The reception given to Tariq Ramadan when he arrived in New York in April showed that today a type of fellow-travelling with radical Islam has spread from Europe to America. From the applause he drew, it seemed to me that no one involved would be changing trains for a while. The willingness of Ramadan’s admirers to ignore the victims of totalitarianism was familiar but everything else was different. The readers of the New York Review of Books and the Nation, like the readers of Le Monde Diplomatique and the New Statesman, are not committing to radical Islam, even at a distance. They do not believe in the subjugation of women, the murder of homosexuals and apostates, the Jewish conspiracy theory and the creation of a theocratic empire in the way that communism’s old fellow-travellers in socialism believed to varying degrees. The best they can manage is a feeble relativism. “But it’s their culture to oppress women,” they insist. “It’s imperialist to impose Western human rights standards on others.” For good reasons as well as bad, they hate the policies of their own governments. I accept that their denunciations can often give the impression that they want the Iranian mullahs or the Taliban to triumph. But with the exception of the far Left which has merged with the Islamist far Right, most don’t think about what Islamism represents, let alone what a victory for Islamist forces would entail.

The absence of a positive commitment sets them apart from the intellectual friends of communism in the early- and mid-20th century. Modern fellow-travellers go along for a ride with ideas they would find repugnant if they could ever bring themselves to confront them.

The contortions the new ideology necessitates were on display at the Great Hall of Cooper Union College in Manhattan. The audience treated Ramadan as if he were a victim of oppression, which in a small way he was. The Bush administration had refused him permission to enter America in 2004. Citing the “ideological exclusion provisions of the Patriot Act”, the State Department claimed that he had supported charities linked to Hamas. Ramadan did not suffer greatly. Oxford University, now a home for reactionary causes, made him its Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies, while the Labour government consulted him about how to deal with Islamic extremism. Quite properly, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American branch of PEN successfully lobbied the courts to have his travel ban lifted. They argued that their fellow citizens were grown-ups who were entitled to hear what Ramadan says.

Defending freedom of speech is one thing. Permissively — or passively — agreeing with the speaker is another. At the end of his session, a questioner asked Ramadan for his response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s feminist critique of Islam. Ramadan was scathing. Hirsi Ali believed that the only way to be a Muslim in an open society was to be an ex-Muslim, he replied. Her assertion that democracy and secularism were incompatible with Islam was very close “to what I get from racists” who target you “because you are a Muslim”.

(Getty Images)

Racism is it now? Well, there’s a charge to send a shiver of indignation down the spine of a well-bred liberal. The well-bred crowd in New York duly felt a righteous tingle run down theirs. They did not protest that Ramadan was making the schoolboy howler of confusing ethnicity — which no one can change — with religion, which is a system of ideas that men and women ought to be free to accept or reject. They did not reflect that in many countries dictatorial gangs asserted that because religion was an unalterable facet of a believer’s personality, they could sentence to death those who chose of their own free will to change or reject it.

Nor did an angry official from PEN, an organisation dedicated to protecting writers from censorship, march on to the stage to tell Ramadan that if he wanted to talk about “targets” and “racism” then he ought to remember Ayaan Hirsi Ali had been targeted by Islamists trying to inflict the ultimate form of censorship on her. She first received death threats after protesting against the “honour killings” and female genital mutilations inflicted on immigrant women in Holland. She made a short film with the Dutch director Theo van Gogh in which he projected misogynist verses from the Koran on to the bodies of actresses playing abused women. For this, Mohammed Bouyeri slaughtered him in the street. With his dagger he pinned a raving letter to Hirsi Ali on to the bloodied corpse. Over five sheets, he explained that she must die because she was “a soldier of evil” doing the work of her “Jewish masters”.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a Somali asylum-seeker from a Muslim family. By speaking out against the oppression of women, she underwent a supernatural transformation. In the eyes of her potential murderers, she at once became a Jew or a Jewish dupe, the agent of a diabolical, and familiar, conspiracy by the Elders of Zion to annihilate Islam and control the world. Ever since, she has had to live with that threat that other murderers will make good on Bouyeri’s promise to kill her. When I last saw her in London, an IRA man who had gone over to the British side was using his knowledge of the terrorist mind to organise her security. No one present thought she was being over-cautious or that he was making a fuss about nothing.

Her plight is well known, even in Manhattan, but not one timorous voice objected to Ramadan accusing a woman whose friend had been murdered by racists and who still needed security guards to protect her from racists, of being close to being a racist herself. The audience instead gave him a hearty round of applause.

The unthinking immorality of their reaction, its parochialism and boorishness, provides a fitting backdrop to the controversy about how Western liberals are responding to the challenge of armed and belligerent reaction. Ramadan and Hirsi Ali both have new books out. Meanwhile, Paul Berman has produced a lucid assault on the double-dealing of the Anglo-American intelligentsia. He weaves its response to Ramadan and Hirsi Ali into the history of how Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, mingled the ideas of European fascism with religion in the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood to produce the one of the first authentically Islamist movements. Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House) has in turn provoked a furious and unintentionally revealing reaction from the New York literary press, which I have no doubt will have led a delighted Berman to hug himself and say “I told you so”.

When picking your way through the argument, it is as important to keep your eye on the critics of liberal orthodoxy as the orthodox themselves. Unlike many of his opponents, I do not believe that it is now fair to describe Ramadan as an Islamist. Whatever he believed in the past, no militant in the Muslim Brotherhood could have written a book like his latest, The Quest for Meaning (Allen Lane). It does not seek to cast a cloak of academic respectability over the justifications for wife-beating, female genital mutilation, the execution of homosexuals and the mass murder of the Jews that come from the Brotherhood’s pre-eminent scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. It does not appear to be the work of any kind of sectarian, but rather of a turgid ecumenicist. Platitudes stumble through its pages like weary travellers looking for rest. “We have to become adults whether we like it or not,” he says of growing old. “The first steps are indeed the hardest,” he says of the spiritual journey he wishes us to follow. After reading the first chapters, I had to concede he was right. He examines competing religions and finds in true Thought for the Day fashion that what unites them is more important than what divides them. If only everyone recognised the common ground, we would understand “the other as he is, his way of thinking, his emotional and affective reactions from where he stands without prejudging anything”. Like Dr Casaubon, Ramadan has produced a Key to All Mythologies, which is as dry and pedantic in life as it was in George Eliot’s fiction.

Only if you read him closely do you grasp why so many French thinkers regarded him with suspicion before he moved to Britain. For what does he mean when he says we should not prejudge “the other”? Ramadan studied at Geneva University and the continental school of philosophy rarely teaches its students the virtues of clarity. On one question, however, Ramadan speaks plainly. The religious tolerance of the Enlightenment is not good enough for him. Tolerance means suffering the presence of “the other”, he says. Only when we move from tolerance to respect will we “recognise that the other is as complex as we are; he is our equal, our mirror, our question”. 

Forget the sanctimonious sentiments for a moment. Forget, too, that Ramadan refuses to condemn or even mention the religious oppression and violence in much of the Muslim world, and consider what he is asking us to throw away. Religious tolerance received its classic Enlightenment definition in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1777: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion.” 

Jefferson’s key phrase was “by argument”. Toleration did not limit debate but removed the barriers of state and church that had stood in debate’s way. Argument is not in its nature always respectful of “the other’s” point of view. At its best, it is robust and demanding. Ramadan’s insistence on “respect” is a way of erecting new barriers in place of old, of ruling debates off limits. 

He has been saying throughout his career that we must bite our tongues. He left France after Nicolas Sarkozy challenged him on TV to condemn outright the stoning to death of adulterous women. Ramadan could not do it. The best he could manage was to mutter that he wished to see a “moratorium” on religious murder. The French journalist Caroline Fourest described his tendency to look liberal while refusing come out against anti-liberal causes as “Ramadan’s double-speak”. He appears not to condone Qaradawi’s cruelty, then appears to ally with Qaradawi. He appears to condemn Islamist violence to one audience, but not to another. 

The BBC provided an example of what replacing argument with respect means in practice when it invited him to debate the burqa and niqab with the Anglo-Egyptian campaigner for women’s rights Mona Eltahawy. She complained that Western governments had abandoned Muslim liberals and allowed Wahhabi and Salafist ideologues to impose their dehumanising ideas on Muslim women. To shroud them in black. To make them invisible. Europe left the public sphere “completely uncontested to the Muslim right wing which does not respect anyone’s rights whatsoever except for this one right to cover a woman’s face. No one has pushed back against the Muslim right wing. I detest the political right wing [she meant European nativist and racist parties] but I equally detest the Muslim right wing and I will not sacrifice women to it.”

Ramadan’s response was instructive. He refused to accept that there was a reactionary strain in Islam — the “Muslim right wing” to use Eltahawy’s term — and brushed her complaints away with impatience. Some scholars supported covering up women, he said. He disagreed with them. He was, after all, an Oxford don and darling of the ACLU and PEN crowd. However, he insisted that not only was it illiberal for states to legislate against the burqa, a position I have sympathy with, but that it was wrong to take on the “Muslim right wing” or even to admit that a “Muslim right wing” existed. Contrary to Jefferson, Eltahawy could not engage in argument and “maintain opinions in matters of religion”. Respect prohibited it.

Accusations of betrayal, of selling out or of becoming a craven compromiser flow too readily from leftish lips. Tony Blair was on the receiving end of this kind of abuse when he was in power. Barack Obama is now getting the same treatment from American liberals. In matters of violent religion, however, large swathes of liberal opinion are desperate to sell out. Ever since Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the murders and atrocious injuries Islamists inflicted on the translators of The Satanic Verses, they have known that standing up for liberal values takes a physical courage they are not sure they possess. Since 9/11, they have noticed how widespread support for elements of Islamism has become not only in the Middle East and Asia but in European immigrant communities too. They know that there are many people out there who might take a shot at them if they stuck their heads above the parapet. They rarely admit it, but they are frightened of what challenging conspiracy theories and the oppression of women might entail. 

They welcome Ramadan because he gets them out of the hole. He gives them liberal-sounding reasons in reassuringly clunky PC language to excuse the abandonment of liberal causes. Just as pleasingly, he helps them find novel ways to condemn those who stay true to liberal values as culturally insensitive neo-cons, who are close to being racists. 

Berman maps the consequences. With a justifiably brutal relentlessness he shows how fear of Islamism leads liberals to turn on men and women. As a case study, Berman contrasts the indulgence offered to Ramadan with the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma in the pages of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times. 

Unlike Ramadan, Hirsi Ali is straightforward. You do not have to consult a dictionary or phone a friend before trying to guess her meaning. She is a liberal feminist, and does not attempt to hide it. She has no need for artifice or double-talk. The clarity of her writing reflects the clarity of her purpose.

Her feminism comes from experience. She has described her own genital mutilation and the botched genital mutilation of her sister, her horror, as a girl, at seeing the women of Saudi Arabia for the first time, their faces hidden by veils and their black robes hanging so shapelessly that you had to see which way their shoes were pointing to know which way they were looking. She has written of the shelters for abused Muslim women in Holland, of the terrors of refugee existence and the double terrors of refugee existence for women. “All these passages express something that can never be detected in a certain kind of high-minded cerebral journalism today,” says Berman. “It is a visceral anger at oppression…You do not have to wonder: where does she stand on the ques-tion of stoning women to death? Or on the obligation for husbands to beat their wives? Read one page by her and you will know the answer.”

Liberals hated her for her moral clarity. Buruma and Garton Ash denounced her for being crude, zealous, strident, humourless, ineffective and contemptuous of others. She was an “Enlightenment fundamentalist”, as bigoted in her insistence that women should not be stoned to death as those Islamist fundamentalists who insisted that they should.

Parallels with the 20th century struck me on every page. Susan Sontag, a former president of American PEN who defended Rushdie with a vigour her successors cannot match, scandalised leftish New Yorkers when she addressed a town hall meeting as the Soviet empire was starting to crumble under pressure from Poland’s Solidarity trade union. Imagine, she told the assembled fellow-travellers as she tried to dissolve their illusions, “the preposterous case of somebody who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and somebody else who read only the Nation between 1950 and 1970. Who would be getting more truth about the nature of communism? There’s no doubt it would have been the Reader’s Digest reader.”

Berman pays an unwitting tribute to Sontag when he concludes by noticing that Garton Ash had patronised Hirsi Ali in the New York Review of Books by implying that the attention she received owed more to her striking beauty than the quality of her thought. Why, Garton Ash snickered, Glamour magazine had made her its “hero of the month”.

He left an open goal and Berman tapped the ball into the net. “I can’t help observing that Glamour magazine nowadays offers a more reliable guide to liberal principles than the New York Review of Books,” he replied. 

If I were editing the New York Review of Books, I would take a long sabbatical if anyone had been able to say that about pieces I had commissioned. (Even Garton Ash recoiled at what he had done and apologised to Hirsi Ali.) But I would still protest that Ramadan, Garton Ash and Buruma might have a case when they said that only Muslims could reform Islam. It might not be true — wider cultural changes might be more important than disputes among the faithful — but at least it is not a disgraceful viewpoint, and that makes a welcome change. The New York Review of Books maintained that Ayaan Hirsi Ali ruled herself out of the argument because she manifested her intolerant “Enlightenment fundamentalism” by responding to the mutilation of her genitals, the murder of her friend and threats to her life by giving up on Islam and becoming an atheist. Unfortunately for them, at no point did they go on to say that across Europe, there remained avowedly Muslim politicians, writers, artists, journalists and activists who have tried to oppose Islamists and received death threats and physical assaults in response. Their cause ought to be a liberal cause, but the evidence from the New York Review of Books’ most recent take on Ramadan, Hirsi Ali and Berman is that liberals have yet to learn that it is their moral duty to support them against their enemies. 

Malise Ruthven, who once wrote perceptive books on the sociology of religion, denounces Berman in its pages. (I suppose it was asking too much to expect a rave review in the circumstances.) He has no time for Berman’s argument that Islamism was something new in Islam’s history because it was an amalgamation of religion with ideas and methods taken from European totalitarianism. And, by extension, no time for the notion that the victims of Islamism are the victims of clerical fascist movements.

Berman is guilty of “ignoring nuances”, Ruthven says gravely. He constructs a crude “totalitarian model” to explain the thinking of al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Jama’at-e-Islami, the Brotherhood’s South Asian sister party. 

Ruthven’s mention of Jama’at made me pause. I knew it to be the ancestor of the Islamist groups that terrorise Pakistan and India and have a pernicious influence on British Islam. In Dacca, war crimes prosecutors have just reminded us of its dark history in Bangladesh and indicted several of its Bengali leaders on charges of participating in the Pakistani army’s campaign of mass murder and mass rape in the 1971 war of independence. I knew I had read a good description of Jama’at’s totalitarian nature — but where? I reached for my bookshelf and by good fortune found a copy of A Satanic Affair, Malise Ruthven’s 1991 account of the persecution of Rushdie. Jama’at began the bloody riots against The Satanic Verses, he explained. No one who had studied the thought of its founder should be surprised that it attracted know-nothing book-burners to its ranks. “Strongly influenced by the political climate of the 1930s, Maududi cited Italian Fascists, German Nazis and Russian Communists as examples of small, informed and dedicated groups capable of seizing power and exercising it effectively,” Ruthven explained. “While disagreeing with their ideologies, he admired their methods.”

In 1991, he was able to recognise totalitarianism and call it by its real name. In 2010, he condemns those who follow the example of his younger and better self. Like so many others, he has boarded the train. I hope that a few of his fellow-passengers will jump off soon, while accepting that the lesson of history is that most of them will.