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February 20, 2004


Lee Smith

Dear Abu Aardvark, thanks again and no problem on what you called your 'purple prose'--though I have to say the 'breathless prose' charge stung in your first posting.

I would generally agree with your description of Ramadan as an interesting Islamist thinker, and I like how he talks about women, Muslims integrating into Western societies, etc. and I frankly admit I think his refiguring the West as dar al-dawa is a brilliant piece of Islamist revising. But it seems to me that many of these are intramural issues, to be discussed and decided on by other Muslims. It's great that there's debate among Islamists and other Muslims about interpretation and understanding of Islam and I'm interested in it as I find it a really intellectually compelling theological and political project. But that's very different from my concern about how Islamists, or other communities of faith, conduct dialogue outside those communities.

Regarding Islamists, you use the phrase "application of public reason," and go on to note that it's telling for you whether "they accept the principle of internal critical argument, or do they insist on a literalist, authoritarian mode of discourse?" I believe Ramadan failed your litmus test when he accused Levy, Kouchner, Finkelkraut et al of succumbing to "communitarian" thinking. There are many ways to argue with the positions these writers held; to reduce his criticism of them to the notion that they thought the way they did because they are Jews indicates to me that at present at least Ramadan's applications of public reason are limited.

You wrote that "One of the things that makes the American experience of liberalism work has been the ability to maintain political discourse across different beliefs and faiths." I agree, and think this is because liberalism has established certain de facto ground rules about its own political discourse--namely, that exclusivist discourse will be excluded. As for the tendency of some of these communities of faith to hunker down into narrow identity-based politics, I don't think there's much liberalism can do to address that. I don't know that my willingness to keep an open mind is going to moderate the beliefs of a fellow who believes that unless I accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I will not be swept up during the rapture. Giving the President of the United States a very visible platform didn't soften his views on Gay marriage, for instance. To the extent that not entering a dialogue with the Islamists might shape the directions of the movement, I don't know what to do about that. If they became less moderate, I guess I'd suppose they were less inclined to moderation than they said they were.

While I think the situation in the US is different from that of the Muslim world, or even France, your analogy to Egypt and the Islamist movement there is interesting. But it's not clear to me that dialogue with the Islamists has done much for Egypt's small band of liberals or political discourse in general. Farag Foda entered dialogue with an apparently moderate Islamist who later testified on behalf of Foda's assassins. That's obviously an extreme example, but I don't know if there are any counter-examples, where Islamist discourse was shaped by talking to liberals.

So, what I believe as a liberal is that everyone should be given a lot of room to say and do what they want. This was my point in the original American Prospect article that the French had done a miserable job of this, basically humiliating the beurs and thus pushing them to the margins of French society. This hasn't happened in the US and I believe it won't. I am happy in my Brooklyn neighborhood to see young muhagibat going back and forth to their public schools every day. So, I argue for leaving tons of room in the middle and letting the exclusivists push themselves to the margins. Once they're out there, it's their responsibility to come back to the center. Liberals have better things to do than trying to draw the exclusivists back.

At any rate, it's good to correspond with you.

Yours, Lee Smith

the aardvark

For examples of how dialogue can change Islamists, the first place to look, I think, would be at the explosion of "democracy" discussion within Islamism in the last decade. If you listen to mainstream moderate Islamist discourse - Ray Baker's new book, Islam Without Fear, gives a nice (if perhaps a bit overly generous) account of the Egyptian arena - they are deeply concerned now to explain how Islamism can be compatible with democracy. Yusuf al Qaradawi is only one among many who has put forward detailed, closely argued defenses of the position that a true Islam requires democracy. Now, we can disagree about whether this version of Islamist democracy is "really" democratic, but my point would be that it is the engagement with the West which has pushed these thinkers to accept the basic premise that they need a position on democracy, and that democracy should be seen as a good thing. Slamming the door in their faces might not discourage them from continuing those explorations - and claiming their democracy talk as a victory for American foreign policy will probably be the fastest way to shut them up - but there is just no doubt that ongoing dialogues with Western thinkers has had a real impact on the way mainstream Islamists think about democracy now.

Lee Smith

You have a point, but another way to look at the explosion of democracy talk in Islamist circles is as a reult of the fact that there's only one superpower left in the world, and since it talks about democracy the Islamists have found it prudent to follow suit. Also, I was under the impression that talk of democracy and Islam had a pretty well established pedigree in places like Egypt. Wasn't al-Aqqad's Democracy in Islam published in 1952? It seems that the way a lot of Islamists talk about democracy may come as much out of that tradition, defending Islam against vague generalizations and the essentializing tendencies of Western orientalists, as dialogue with democrats or liberals today.

As for what constitutes "real" democracy, I don't know what that would be, but I'd likely concur with anyone, liberal or Islamist, who said that transparent elections and abiding by the decision of the majority are what counts. That's why I've tried to argue on behalf of liberalism, which, among other things, provides for a free press and the equal rights of all citizens. Whether the centrists described in Baker's book have managed to reconcile their belief in equal rights with their desire for sharia is I think unclear from Baker's book. What is clear, from, among other things, the use of the phrase "extreme secular intellectual," is that there's plenty of speech the centrists mean to limit. That's a perfectly legitimate position as far as I'm concerned, and while I'd even support their right to hold that belief in the States, I wouldn't call it liberal, and I wouldn't want to live in a place that made that belief the law. Further, their desire to limit the speech of "extreme secular intellectuals" suggests that there are, as I've been saying, limits to dialogue with Islamists.

Abu Frank

There's liberalism and liberalism. The point of political liberalism, as it relates to religion, is that it supports peaceful coexistence between those who believe that Christianity is the One True Religion, those who believe that Islam is, and the rest of us. Not to mention between Salafi and Shii, Roman Catholics and Calvinists, and so on. As long as Ramadan is politically liberal -- and on the evidence presented he seems to be -- he can be as religiously illiberal as he likes without being a menace to society.

Religious liberalism -- univeralism rather than eternal damnation, for instance -- is a whole different issue. In a liberal political order religious liberals and illiberals both have the right, within broad limits, to proselytise. Condemning Ramadan for religious illiberalism is politically illiberal.

Lee Smith

Dear Abu Frank, I agree that Ramadan is entitled to be as religiously illiberal as he likes, and I support the similar wishes of Calvinists, Roman Catholics, etc. to pursue the inevitable theological and political conclusions of their faiths as they like. My point, again, is that while liberals should support his right to hold his illiberal religious beliefs, they should not accomodate his political beliefs, which I think we disagree about. I do not think he is politically liberal. Insofar as Ramadan dismissed the arguments of the French thinkers noted above as communitarian suggests he is not politically liberal, but rather arguing from a position of identity-based politics. I believe, by the way, this is a perfectly legitimate intellectual position, but not by any means liberal. If Ramadan has elsewhere given evidence of a liberal position expressed in public discourse, I'm interested to know about it. In the meantime, I suggest liberals stand against Ramadan's political stance not because he is an Islamist, but on the basis of his illiberal arguments. Further, I suggest liberals take the same stance against born-again Christians, Roman Catholics, etc. and anyone who would exercise similar identity- or faith-based beliefs in the political realm, whether they're held by Tariq Ramadan or the current President of the United States.

Yours, Lee Smith

Abu Frank

Lee Smith:

The difference in political principle between you and Ramadan continues to elude me. You condemn a "position of identity-based politics", he a "souci communautaire"; you seem to differ not over the principle but over its application to cases.

I agree with you that Ramadan makes some weak arguments; he would do better IMO to confine himself to his substantive charge against Taguieff, Finkielkraut, etc., that they "[relativisent] la défense des principes universels d'égalité [et] de justice", than to impugn their motives. I happen to believe that you make some weak arguments too, but that seems to me poor grounds for condemning either you or Ramadan as anti-liberal.

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