Philosopher and the Press

Paul Berman

His entrance into the Anglophone world began quietly enough. The Islamic Foundation in Leicester, where he studied and wrote in 1996–97, enjoys the distinction of having been the first and most vociferous Muslim institution in Britain to campaign against Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses back in 1988—before even Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa authorizing Rushdie’s assassination. Ramadan was not vociferous, though. He attracted no attention. In 1999 he published his book To Be a European Muslim with the Islamic Foundation. The book enjoyed a modest success. It was regarded as a thoughtful argument for healthy new relations between old-stock non-Muslim Europe and the new- stock immigrant Muslim population. Daniel Pipes in the united States, a sharp critic of Islamist radicalism, was among the expert observers who broke into applause at To Be a European Muslim—though, if you visit Pipes’s website, you will see that, ever since his initial review, Pipes has been posting additional remorseful observations about how wrong he was, and what could possibly have gotten into him? (You will also see that Ramadan, together with a like-minded journalist or two, has responded by promoting Pipes into the center of an anti-Ramadan conspiracy on behalf of the Jews.)

In 2001 the Islamic Foundation brought out Ramadan’s Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity. The new book was a philosophical study, and it attracted less attention. Even so, controversy went on working its wonders, and in faraway South Bend, Indiana, the university of Notre Dame offered him a professorship, beginning in 2004—partly funded, as it happens, by the Kroc family, which means the McDonald’s fortune. Ramadan accepted. He obtained a visa. He arranged for his family to move. But, at the last minute, the Department of Homeland Security balked at the prospect of admitting Tariq Ramadan into the united States. The State Department revoked his visa. The ACL, PEN American Center, and a couple of academic organizations rallied to his defense, as was their duty, and they kept up their lawsuits for the next several years. The man was barred, though, throughout the rest of the Bush era and through the first year of the Obama administration, too—which generated still more publicity, some of it hostile, of course. Still, the new round of publicity aroused a sympathy, as was only natural: a feeling of outrage on Ramadan’s behalf, an exasperation at American provincialism, a fearful recollection of the obtuse McCarthyite xenophobia of yore. A suspicion that here was indeed a bigotry against Islam: an Islamophobia, something shameful. Anyway, America’s nay, back in 2004, triggered a British yea. St. Antony’s College at Oxford stepped in with its own offer of a fellowship, beginning in 2005. Ramadan accepted.
The London terrorist attack took place in July of that year. Tony Blair was prime minister. His government organized an advisory commission. Ramadan was invited to participate. He accepted. And with one incident piling atop the next—his defeats, his victories—he was lifted, in 2007, to the pinnacle of American journalistic recognition: the sort of full-length profile and full-page photograph in The New York Times Magazine that half the writers of Europe dream of receiving one day, in the hope of achieving the impossible, which is to break into the American bookstores and the American conversation.
No popular magazine in the united States has done more in the last several years to illuminate the intellectual life of the Muslim world than The New York Times Magazine—always in a serious manner, with major resources, and at full length. In this instance the Times Magazine assigned its profile to the well-known journalist Ian Buruma, and this was an impeccable choice. Buruma is Dutch, though he generally writes in English and lives in the United States. He has reported from many parts of the world. In 2004 he and the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit joined together to write a book called Occidentalism, on the historical appeal of European fascist and other anti-liberal doctrines to people in non-Western regions of the world, and this book was a bril- liant achievement. It testified to Buruma’s expertise on wayward and totalitarian ideologies: a pertinent credential. Some of Occidentalism’s most illuminating pages examine the impact of Nazi and fascist ideas on the Islamist political movement in the Arab world—a still more pertinent credential in connection to Tariq Ramadan and his family history.

In 2006 Buruma published a book called Murder in Amsterdam, about the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist fanatic. Murder in Amsterdam testified to Buruma’s familiarity with the Islamist movement not just in the Middle East but also in its newer immigrant home in the run-down neighborhoods of Western Europe— still another pertinent credential. Ian Buruma was, in short, supremely suited to write about Ramadan for The New York Times Magazine. The editors had every reason to commission him. They published his article in the issue of February 4, 2007. The article bore the amusing title, «Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue.» You can find it on the New York Times website.

The article affected a quizzical tone. Buruma seemed bemused by his difficulties in pinning his subject down—even in scheduling an interview, though he did finally get one. The article rehearsed some of the political accusations that have been leveled at Ramadan in France: dark rumors, feminist shudders, complaints of bigotry, instinctive suspicions. But Buruma explained that, once he had looked into the accusations, they turned out to be groundless, or exaggerated and unjust, or distorted because the context had been omitted. On certain matters of controversy, Buruma expressed no opinion of his own and, out of courtesy, permitted Ramadan to rebut his critics. The rebuttals seemed firm, or at least plausible, even if Buruma now and then raised a skeptical eyebrow.
Buruma marveled over Ramadan’s ideological standpoint—his mix of anti-globalist fervor and ultra-conservative cultural views. «In American terms,» Buruma remarked, «he is a Noam Chomsky on foreign policy and a Jerry Falwell on social affairs.» Even so, Buruma looked on Ramadan rather more warmly than any comparisons to Chomsky and Falwell might suggest. Buruma explained that, in 2006, the French magazine Le Point invited him to debate Ramadan and, in the hope of seeing sparks fly, urged him to be aggressive. The debate took place. Ramadan was unflappable. The discussion failed to stumble across any serious differences at all. «We agreed on most issues,» Buruma wrote, «and even when we didn’t (he was more friendly to the pope than I was), our ‘debate’ refused to catch fire»—which suggests a congenial atmosphere that is hard to imagine if Buruma had ever come face-to-face with Chomsky or Falwell at a public debate. «We agreed on most issues»—no, this would have been an unlikely summary of any encounter with the anti-imperialist from MIT or the late tub-thumping evangelist of the Christian right.

Ian Buruma judged that, despite the controversies and accusations, Ramadan the philosopher offers (here I quote the Times Magazine profile) «a reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam,» based on «values that are as universal as those of the European En- lightenment.» Ramadan’s values, although «neither secular, nor always liberal,» offer «an alternative to violence, which is, in the end, reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.» This was not quite a ringing endorsement. Still, it was an endorsement. It conveyed the unmistakable implication that Tariq Ramadan, the worthy interlocutor, stands for more than himself, which is why engaging him might be useful—in the hope of discovering the human and philosophical principles that Muslim and non-Muslim hearts and minds might share, and of bridging the divisions, and of achieving, at last, a cultural peace between the West and Islam: the goals that every reasonable person yearns to see achieved, even if not everybody would assent too quickly to a vision of the world that consigns the West to one corner and Islam to another.

Such was the evaluation in The New York Times Magazine. It was tempered. But it was confident. And here, in a single magazine profile by an admired writer, the entire heap of well-established European journalistic platitudes that Caroline Fourest had catalogued and deplored three years earlier in France glided smoothly into American print, as if landing
at the airport. The European platitudes flourished, too, in their new American home. By the time Buruma’s defense of Ramadan had appeared, Timothy Garton Ash had already hinted at the entire line of argument in The New York Review of Books. Garton Ash is a rightly admired journalist, famous for having reported accurately and in depth from the Soviet bloc countries during the years of repression. His dispatches from East Germany and other communist countries used to run in those same pages, The New York Review of Books. He used to applaud the anti-communist dissidents. In 2006 he applauded Ian Buruma’s journalism on Islamist themes. And, in passing, he applauded Tariq Ramadan, too. He applauded Ramadan precisely along Buruma’s lines, except without the cautionary remarks.

A third journalist stepped forward. This was Stéphanie Giry, an editor at Foreign Affairs. Ramadan published a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. The biography came out in Britain under the title The Messenger and, in the united States, under the title In the Footsteps of the Prophet. Oxford university Press published the American edition, and The New York Times Book Review invited Giry to evaluate the book. Her evaluation was positive. She invoked the profile of Ramadan by Buruma that had just then appeared in The New York Times Magazine. She joined her applause to Buruma’s. She seconded Buruma’s dismissal of Ramadan’s critics. She looked on Ramadan’s book on the Prophet Muhammad as politically progressive: a book that «can help reconcile Islam with Western liberalism today»—which echoed Buruma’s verdict on Ramadan exactly.
It is not obvious to me that Buruma, in preparing his profile for The New York Times Magazine, had read very much by Ramadan, nor that Giry, in working up her evaluation for The New York Times Book Review, had read more than a single book, though she had met the man. As for Garton Ash, he intimated in The New York Review of Books that he based his estimation of Ramadan on having heard him speak at Oxford, where Garton Ash and Ramadan have been colleagues—which suggests that Garton Ash may have read nothing at all. Even so, a conventional wisdom had plainly convened. The conventional wisdom looked on Tariq Ramadan as a long-awaited Islamic hero—the religious thinker who was going, at last, to adapt Islam to the modern world. This was the reigning opinion in the New York intellectual press, back in 2006 and 2007. In the years since then, a number of subtler and more cautious judgments have made their way into print. Ramadan’s critics and skeptics have added their own pointed remarks, here and there. Still, those original American portraits of Ramadan, the ones in the New York magazines in 2006 and 2007, expressed a set of instincts and assumptions, and the instincts and assumptions have turned out to be enduring and influential—instincts and assumptions that are bound to go on shaping the ways that a great many people in the Western countries look on the Islamist movement, and how they look on the Muslim liberals, too, who are the Islamist movement’s greatest enemies.

And so, Tariq Ramadan, by acquiring a brilliant fame and refracting its rays in one country after another, has succeeded in brightly illuminating a twin development in the world of modern ideas. He has illuminated a large new trend among select circles of pious Muslims in Europe and in many other places around the world. And he has illuminated an equally remarkable trend among the normally impious journalists of the Western countries. A new twist in the modern history of Islam; and likewise in the history of the Western intellectuals.

Paul Berman