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February 19, 2004



Can you recommend some of Tariq Ramadan's books/writings in english?

Lee Smith

Dear Abu Aardvark--thanks for your respectful criticism of my American Prospect piece. If I may, I just wanted to briefly address what I think are your two main points.

1) My concern over Ramadan's idea that Islam replaces the two other monotheisms. It may have been as you write "one of the fundamental, basic precepts of Mohammed's revelations," but it's not the way that every Muslim has understood Islam. Taha Hussein for instance writes in The Future of Culture of Egypt that "Islam...came to complete and confirm the Old and New Testaments." Hussein's confirmation and Ramadan's replacing are two different ideas-- the former is inclusive and the latter is exclusive. I should add however that Ramadan's view is not exclusively Islamist, since this is how many Christians regard their faith--that Christ's life and death replaced the Jewish covenant. Christ may himself believed it, I don't know. What I do know is that liberal discourse in the West has moved away from this idea and instead put it in terms of a Judeo-Christian heritage. If Tariq Ramadan wishes to extend this and talk, as many Muslims do, of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage then I welcome it. But I don't see it in his published writing.

2) I have no problem with dawa in the US or anywhere in the West. My feeling is that anyone who is looking for spiritual direction, a thriving community of faith and a remarkable philosophical and theological tradition couldn't do better than accepting Islam. But you're right, I don't think liberals should waste their time trying to engage Islamist discourse. And since you mention it, I also don't think think liberals should engage Mormon, born-again Christian or Jehovah's Witness discourse. And indeed to the extent born-again beliefs have been given a place in US politics, it is important that liberals stand against them. Their ideas about religion, and the political beliefs that issue from their faith, are exclusivist. They may be right that their faith is the only path, I don't know. The problem is that it leaves a lot people out in the cold who believe something else, like Muslims.

So, finally, I'd just say I don't think people should be wilfully ignorant about Ramadan's ideas, which is why I wrote the article. I just believe liberals shouldn't waste their time trying to accomodate those ideas.

Yours, Lee Smith

p.s. By the way, I liked your article criticizing the US and the IGC for closing al-Arabiya's Baghdad bureau. I did a similar piece for Slate, where I also however criticized the PA for harrassing and bullying an Arabiya correspondent.


I also found Smith's article confusing, and had thought of writing a review, but you've done it better than I could. Smith's line There's no reason for Western liberals to try to understand that point of view is really bizarre, and I don't think his clarification in the comments (there's no reason to try to understand any relgious person's point of view, including, I suppose, George W. Bush) gives any additional succour.

But I thought Smith's biggest failing was identifying Ramadan as something other than a westerner. Ramadan wrote 'to be a european Muslim' -- to the extent Smith recognizes Europeans as westerners, Ramadan is one (as am I). Notre Dame is engaging a leading western relgious thinker, not an avatar of "the East".

Looking at it that way, his prescription -- engage liberals from muslim countries, is entirely besides the point. If ND wants 'balance', it ought to look for a secular european to counter Ramadan's religious European identity.

I don't think Smith was being intentionally Pipesian. Let's give the benefit of the doubt: maybe he is just an awoved secularist and a man confused by western Muslims.

(I note that Smith is apparently, after two years in Cairo, going to write a book on Arab Culture. A quick study, I guess)

the aardvark

Lee - thanks for the thoughtful response (and apologies for any overly purple prose in my original post... you know how people get carried away when writing blogs in the 15 minutes before going to teach class).

I think that your clarification makes your argument stronger - specifically, that you would want liberals to contest political religion in all contexts, in the US or in the Islamic world. But in other ways, your more clear argument becomes more troubling. 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. Given the proportion of Americans who do profess a serious religious faith, I would be troubled by a liberalism which would exclude them from the bounds of reasonable political argument.

I would hesitate on both normative and pragmatic grounds: normatively, a representative democracy which shuns the deeply held beliefs of a significant portion of its people loses much of its claim to democratic legitimacy; and pragmatically, shunning such groups will encourage their own tendency to hunker down into a narrow, isolated, and more extreme identity based on persecution and resentment.

The same applies, I think, to American dealings with Islamists. Since you lived in Cairo, you know that a very large stratum of Egyptian society takes Islamism seriously. Ignoring them as a matter of principle, or shunning them as beyond the pale, will not make them go away, nor decrease their influence... but it could shape the direction in which these movements develop.

Unlike you, I see considerable room for dialogue with some - but certainly not all - trends within Islamism. The distinction isn't only to do with their views on violence, although that's important. It also has to do with their attitude towards what I would call the application of public reason: do they accept the principle of internal critical argument, or do they insist on a literalist, authoritarian mode of discourse?

What bothers me about your perspective on Tariq Ramadan is that he seems to me to be very much in the former tradition: an important voice against literalist, authoritarian Islam. Like Yusuf al Qaradawi or Khalid Abou el Fadl, Ramadan has taken quite bold stances against the salafis, and has consistently advocated open public argument and debate. That's what makes him a "moderate" - not any particular political positions. And that's what makes him a potential partner for dialogue.

Let's face it - if you accept that the future of the Islamic world matters for Americans, as you clearly do, then American liberals just can't afford to adopt the kind purist position that you incline towards. By all means, we should talk to and encourage the kinds of secularist, cosmopolitan Muslims that you mention - but that should be in addition to, not at the expense of, talking to the most powerful social force in the Islamic world today.

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