Modernity and the Muslims
Posted by paulipoldie on July 29, 2010
Paul Berman, Judith Miller, Fred Siegel, Lee Smith, Ibn Warraq
FRANK J. MACCHIAROLA: I would like to welcome you and the people from the Manhattan Institute to St. Francis College. First, I will introduce Fred Siegel, our visiting professor. He has been at the Manhattan Institute, is a contributing editor of City Journal, and is a fantastic addition to our faculty. We’re really grateful to have him. And we’re really grateful for the support of the Manhattan Institute, which, as many of you know, is a wonderful organization, trying to advance questions of public policy, sometimes from a conservative perspective; but as a Blue Dog Democrat, I have no trouble affiliating myself with anything that the Manhattan Institute does.
FRED SIEGEL: Islam, like any other religious tradition, comprises a variety of strands. Understanding Islam is made all the more difficult because Islam does not distinguish between a ritual law in the Western sense, ethics, and good manners. I hope that we will distinguish a bit of that now. But, painting in broad strokes, it’s fair to say that tension between the Arab Islamic world and the liberal versions of modernity is one of the central issues, if not the central issue, of our era.
It’s not that the Middle East has been hostile to all versions of modernity; at different times, Fascism and Communism have taken hold among Arab and Islamic intellectuals and political leaders. In the case of Iran, it was Khomeinists and Communists who came together to overthrow the Shah in 1979. The issue of Islam, Arabism, and modernity is directly and indirectly the subject of three new books, whose authors we have with us here. Whatever their failings, their courage and their intelligence are undeniable. These new books are intellectually interconnected, each dealing with the same issue of Islam and modernity, but from three strikingly different perspectives. One perspective is theological, one is ideological, and one is anthropological. I’m not going to label which is which, but keep those three strands in mind as you’re listening. I think it will make sense of what they’re arguing.
Let me first introduce Paul Berman, who is a writer in residence at NYU. He writes about literature and politics for The New Republic, Slate, and the New York Times. He has written a book about modern totalitarianism called Terror and Liberalism. He has written a two-volume history of the generation of 1968, A Tale of Two Utopias and Power and the Idealists, with a preface written by Undersecretary of State Richard Holbrooke. Mr. Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, has just been published, and St. Francis is the first venue where it will be publicly discussed. The timing of his book is particularly apt because the subject of The Flight of the Intellectuals is the Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who recently spoke, with great fanfare, at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. Ramadan’s approach has been to Islamize modernity rather than modernize Islam.
The second speaker, Lee Smith, is the author of The Strong Horse, which came out a few weeks ago and got a very nice review in the New York Times. Mr. Smith has contributed to The Tablet—a new and worthwhile publication where he writes the “Agents of Influence” column—The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Slate, and many others. Originally from New York, Mr. Smith moved to the Middle East after 9/11, living in Cairo and Beirut. He now makes his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Ibn Warraq is a senior fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. He is the author of five books on Islamic and Koranic issues, including The Origins of the Koran, What the Koran Really Says, and the forthcoming Which Koran, all from Prometheus Books. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and City Journal. He has addressed distinguished bodies all over the world, including the United Nations in Geneva and the members of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague. Ibn Warraq’s book Defending the West has been described as “a glorious work of scholarship.” His new book, due out shortly, is entitled Virgins? What Virgins?
The fourth member of our panel is the famed journalist Judith Miller. She will comment on the three presentations. Ms. Miller is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, formerly with the New York Times and now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a commentator on Fox News. She has written extensively on the Middle East and on the dangers of biological and germ warfare. Her 1996 book, God Has 99 Names, was an eye-opening work.
LEE SMITH: It’s a pleasure to be on this panel. I lived in this neighborhood, near heavily Arab Atlantic Avenue for about a decade and a half; not surprisingly, this is where I first became interested in the Middle East. I moved to Cairo after 9/11. I was there for about a year, returned to Brooklyn, and then moved to Beirut. Lebanon is a particularly important place to me, and it features prominently in my book.
Fred Siegel was talking about modernism. In Lebanon, what we saw and continue to see is real conflict between what I would consider the forces of a positive modernity, in terms of the pro-democracy March 14 movement—a positive manifestation of Arab/Islamic modernity—and its enemy Hezbollah. This is a place where you see most clearly these two different versions of modernity, the liberal and the antiliberal.
I tried to write not so much about Islam in my book for a number of reasons. Some have argued that political Islam is a deviant form of Islam, not the true traditional Islam. That’s not a discussion that I want to get involved with. That is an argument that has gone on in the Middle East in the Muslim world for 1,400 years. What’s the real Islam? Is it the Sunni Orthodox version, or is it the Shi’a version? Wouldn’t the world look better if the Shi’a version of the world were true and if the hidden Shi’a imam returned? Instead I wanted to draw a picture of how we got to where we are now.
It starts in the beginning of the nineteenth century as a reaction to Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. It was then that Muslim activists, ideologues, and journalists—very interesting people, such as Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din Afghani, the founder of contemporary Islamism—come to the fore. These men, like the subjects of Mr. Berman’s book—Tariq Ramadan and Hassan al-Banna—are all products of Islamic modernism; they were part of what can be discussed. Another way to think of it is in terms of an Islamic reformation. The Strong Horse provides a history of this particular movement, and to say that it is not deviant is a legitimate, serious intellectual current.
No one has taken this intellectual current more seriously than Paul Berman. I trust that he will talk about that during his presentation. The reason that I didn’t want to talk about Islam so much is that I now live in Washington, and I hear the way a lot of people talk about policy. I knew a lot of people in the Bush administration, for better and for worse. I don’t know so many people in this administration. But insofar as our policymakers and our elected officials have talked about policy in terms of Islam, it’s been a mistake. We’re getting no purchase on it, and it’s terrible.
I do not think that this president or the last president, as the chief executives of secular republics, have the expertise or the prerogative to talk about what they think is the true Islam. It’s none of their business. I’m very happy that President Obama actually said that he didn’t want to use terms like “jihad” and “Islamic terrorism.” But his idea of outreach to the Muslim world was a very big mistake because we do not deal, as a nation-state, with large blocs of people in terms of how they identify themselves. We deal with other nation-states diplomatically, politically, even militarily. That’s how we operate in the world. Everyone gave Bernard Lewis a hard time for his notion of a clash of civilizations. But if we have a president who is reaching out to the Muslim world, and he sees it in terms of the West and Islam, he is putting it in terms that everyone said less than a decade ago was retrograde and conservative. So I think this is a big mistake.
What I wanted to do in the book was look less at Islam and more at Arabism. I look at the issue as one of Arab nationalism, Arabism, Arab tribes, all the developments that went on before Islam. Having spent time in Lebanon, I see that there are Lebanese Christians, and a lot of different things that we would say are issues that trouble the region and Muslim societies, many of these same issues affect Christian societies as well, so that’s why I wanted to look through the lens of Arabism. The biggest reason that I wanted to take it away from Islam is that we need to look at it in terms of nation-states. The last administration and this administration have both dropped this thread of recognizing that the problem of Islamic terror is a function of nation-states. It’s about state sponsors of terror. We’ve done almost everything within our power to ignore this fact, and it is deeply dangerous.
The last administration did okay until a certain point—the administration conceded something relating to the nexus. You never heard of this because they never made it public. This is how badly they made their case. The problem, as they perceived it, was that the threat to U.S. national security was that of a nexus, which is where state sponsors of terror and transnational terror groups met weapons of mass destruction. Once they got into Iraq and found no weapons of mass destruction and could not make their case that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida had a relationship, they were in deep trouble. People thought that they were blaming Saddam Hussein for 9/11—that is never what they said, but they were not able to make their case. Because of that, this very important case has gotten lost, and it’s a disaster for us that we do not hold states accountable.
Last week, the Syrians were caught shipping Scud missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon; this is very bad news, and it’s very dangerous. Unfortunately, the administration restrained the Israelis from doing anything about it. We need to make states responsible, whether these are Shi’a states like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sunni states like Egypt, or Arab nationalist states like Syria—the problem is that they’re states that sponsor terror. That is why I wanted to move away from Islam. I wanted to talk about state sponsorship of terror, which is an enormous issue. The reason that we still are at great risk is the states that are fighting us through cutouts. What I mean by a cutout is someone who is not in uniform, someone who is essentially a privateer. None of these states—not the Iranians, the Syrians, or the Saudis—is able to control entirely what these different outfits do, but their interests intersect, and none of these outfits can exist for long without some state support.
You can find all sorts of people who will place a bomb around their waist, board a bus, and kill a whole bunch of people. But these groups cannot sustain or reproduce themselves in places like Afghanistan without the support of states. They need money, weapons training, and logistical support. They receive political and diplomatic support. That’s what this war is about, and it really is a war. Every time you hear people say that it’s asymmetric warfare or a war like we’ve never seen before, that’s nonsense. No one is seduced who doesn’t want to be seduced. Everyone is imagining that it’s something different, but it is exactly the way it looks. It’s about the Syrians, it’s about the Iranians. The Saudis are a little different because that regime is largely incompetent, but many members of the 5,000-member Saudi royal family, while they benefit from U.S. support, are also waging war against the United States and its interests.
I’ll leave you with a quick teaser: at this particular moment, the national interests of the United States and the national interests of Israel are in direct conflict. This is what you’re seeing unfolding over the region over the last month, and this is why the White House has been very angry with the Netanyahu government.
IBN WARRAQ: I’d like to thank Fred Siegel, the Manhattan Institute, and St. Francis College for inviting me. Unfortunately, the book that I’m going to talk a bit about tonight is not yet ready. The title of this book—Virgins? What Virgins? and Other Essays—refers to an article I wrote soon after 9/11 for the British daily newspaper the Guardian. It was the first discussion in English of the work of a scholar known as Christoph Luxenberg, who tried to show that the Koran was probably originally a document belonging to a Judeo-Christian sect written in Syriac, a language of the Near East. The article was picked up by a journalist at the New York Times, where it hit the front page, and then went around the world. The idea was that crucial passages in the Koran had been mistranslated, so that the martyrs—mistakenly called suicide bombers, but they’re essentially martyrs—found awaiting them in paradise not 72 virgins, but 72 raisins.
I wrote my first book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, in reaction to the Salman Rushdie affair. I felt that that many intellectuals blamed Rushdie for bringing the infamous fatwa back in 1989 onto himself. I thought that the same intellectuals were not willing to defend some basic principles, like freedom of expression, and especially freedom of speech. This shocked me so much that when I was given the opportunity to write, I jumped at the chance, and I have carried on ever since. By training, I’m a teacher. I taught in a primary school in London for many years, and then in France at the University of Toulouse. Apart from the exceptions like Christopher Hitchens, Fay Weldon, Susan Sontag, and Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie was really left to defend himself. In an essay in this present book, I take to task another leftist intellectual, Michel Foucault, who notoriously became a cheerleader for the Iranian revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini and made a complete fool of himself.
The other strand running through my book is Koranic principles. I thought that the Koran has not been subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the Bible has been subjected to since at least the seventeenth century with Spinoza. In subsequent books I wrote on the Koran—in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad and What the Koran Really Says. These are essentially anthologies of articles critical of various aspects, but on a more technical level, various aspects of the language of the Koran, the origins of Islam, the traditional story of the origins of the Koran, and so on. They were very critical, and I thought that it was time that we started applying the same sort of criticism of the Koran that had been applied to the Old and the New Testaments. Many of these books were rather long—What the Koran Really Says runs to 782 pages—and I felt that perhaps the introduction which I wrote for that particular book was really meant for the general public. It was nearly 100 pages, but it was really meant for anyone with an intelligent interest in the theological discussions about the origins of the Koran. Several of these articles, which were introductions to these books, have been reproduced in Virgins? What Virgins? so you don’t have to wade through 782 pages of rather recondite Arabic theology.
Several themes emerge in these essays. One is the need to criticize Islam and its doctrines and its Holy Book, and another is the defense of certain values that I associate with the West. I debated Tariq Ramadan at the Intelligence Squared debate in London in 2007. The speech that I gave at that debate is included in this collection, as is a review that I wrote of Caroline Fourest’s book on Tariq Ramadan. The values of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and so on, which one would have thought intellectuals would defend—because their very livelihood depends on them—have surprisingly not been defended. As one of my colleagues at the Intelligence Squared debate, Douglas Murray, said, this kind of debate wouldn’t be possible in the Islamic world. So we should recognize and appreciate the freedoms that we enjoy, and we should certainly defend these freedoms. That’s the point that I make in several of these essays. Unfortunately, political correctness has made it difficult to continue to look critically at Islam and the Koran. And with the capture of the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which silences its critics with the charge of Islamophobia, the need to defend freedom of speech and conscience becomes a moral obligation for all those concerned with human rights.
PAUL BERMAN: Listening to my colleagues on the panel brought to mind a couple of thoughts, and one of them has to do with my own student days. I was a rioter at Columbia University in 1968. Among my professors there, with whom I studied the following year, when I was a sophomore, was the greatest professor I ever had and the one who most influenced my intellectual development because of how brilliant he was as a teacher and because of the approach to ideas and the history of ideas that he taught me to appreciate. This was Edward Said, who gave a course on modern literary criticism, which I took extremely seriously. I’ve come away thinking that Said was an outwardly contradictory man. He was someone who respected and loved what we call Western literature; yet he also managed to develop an ideology of his own after the period in which I studied with him. He developed an ideology, expressed in his book Orientalism, which in effect took all the great issues shaking up the Middle East and, by extension, other parts of the world, and attributed them to Europe or to the West or to Western imperialism. Said managed to create an ideology in which people in the Middle East, or the great majority of the people in the Middle East, lost responsibility for their own situation, which could be attributed entirely to the actions of the West. As everyone knows, Edward Said left a tremendous intellectual legacy. He has tremendously influenced thought in the United States and all over the world, and it occurs to me that my two book-writing colleagues here have both responded to Said in their books. First, let me mention Ibn Warraq’s book Defending the West. Fred Siegel said that the book has been described as a “glorious work of scholarship”; I may be remembering incorrectly, but I think that is my own blurb on the back of the book. If it isn’t, I wish I had written it.
Ibn Warraq is a major world figure among intellectuals. If you go through his books, you’ll be astounded at his erudition. The depth of knowledge that he brings to questions of Islam and Islamic culture in various languages: there is no relation to the depth that Edward Said brought to these topics. Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West is, in effect, one of the most devastating demolitions of an intellectual giant that I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that the book has so far been fully appreciated; it’s a book that will take some time to sink in. But I do think that Ibn Warraq has written a book that will turn out to be of historic importance in demolishing the ideological system that Said created.
Lee Smith, it seems to me, has also written a book that’s fundamentally a response to Said. He describes meeting Said early in his book, and goes on to draw up his own description of the Arab world in various currents, partly as a political interpretation that he offers and partly as first-person journalism and anecdotal stories, a mosaic of writers of this sort, in order to create a picture of the Middle East. The purpose of his book is, if I interpret it correctly, to interpret the Middle East in its own terms, not as a victim or puppet or creation of the West but as a creation of itself. He has tried to interpret the political culture in various countries in the Arab world in their own terms, in reference to their own history. In doing so, he, too, has tried—with considerable success—to counter the effect of the ideology that was created most powerfully in our country by Edward Said.
My own book is a bit different but bears a resemblance to these other books and the influence of Said in at least in one way. My book is principally a study of the philosopher Tariq Ramadan, whom Ibn Warraq just mentioned, and of the reception that Ramadan has received in the Western press and among Western intellectuals. It’s a book about a Middle East topic; but fundamentally, it is a book about Western intellectual currents. Ramadan insists, quite correctly, that Islam is a Western religion. He, in any case, is a French-speaking Swiss, so I take him as a kind of French intellectual, which I think is fair to do. I try to read him in this way and take him seriously and understand what he’s saying in reaction.
Ramadan is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever encountered and one of the most interesting people on earth. It’s because he finds himself, as I interpret him, in a kind of Shakespearean situation: he is the son and grandson of very significant people, and he is loyal to his family and tradition. At the same time, he is at odds with his family tradition. If you listened to him at the Cooper Union the other day, where he was received by PEN, Ramadan explains himself as a kind of liberal. This is not his word because he uses a French vocabulary, but in the United States we would use the word “liberal,” as a Muslim or Islamic liberal—someone who wants to bring together traditional religion and the liberal values of modern civilization. If this were his position, I would be writing essays in his praise. There is nothing I’d like to do more than to write essays about people I admire; if you look through my books, they’re full of such essays.
I would gladly write dozens of such essays of praise of Tariq Ramadan if I thought that what he claims is his position is actually his position. But his actual position—and this is where Shakespeare ought to come in—is much more complicated because on the one hand, he does seem to believe the ideas that he presents; on the other hand, he definitely believes that he ought to be, and is, loyal to his father, Said Ramadan, and to his father’s father-in-law, Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna. Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, an organization that, as I interpret it, reflected the political and ideological currents of the 1930s and 1940s, as it grew, so it managed to become a mass movement combining elements of Islam with inspirations that are fundamentally Fascist in origin—and, in some cases, Nazi in origin. Ramadan’s problem is to square these two things—his own professed liberal values and the values upheld by his father and his grandfather—and to try to explain why they all add up to a coherent whole. Of course, if you read closely enough, you find that he cannot do it. He’ll create one argument on the page and the second argument in the footnotes.
I’m not one of those who believes that Ramadan is fundamentally a deceiver or someone who conceals what he really thinks. I’m his close reader. I think that he says what he really thinks. I’ve offered an interpretation in my own book. But I think that what he really thinks is utterly contradictory: he thinks A, but he also thinks B. He is an enemy of anti-Semitism, but he also wants to teach the world to revere Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who advocates the extermination of the Jews and praises Hitler. He is the enemy of terrorism, but, if you read his book on jihad, he explains why terrorist actions are unavoidable—and indeed, in some cases, religiously incumbent. You can examine each of his thoughts and discover that the thought for which he is most famous among his champions—the liberal side of his thoughts—is countered by its perfect opposite somewhere else on the page or in the footnotes or in some other passage of the same book. Usually, you don’t even have to go to another book to find the opposite thought.
All this makes perfect sense from the point of view of his actual personal situation. Ramadan interests me because of the nature of his Shakespearean predicament. What strikes me as particularly interesting—and this is where Edward Said may come in—is the reception that he has gotten, first in France and then in Britain, Holland, other countries, and now in the United States. The reception has been, from his point of view, that all his liberal thoughts are taken as his real thoughts, and all his antiliberal thoughts are taken as slanders that are attributed to him by his enemies, who are motivated by unstated agendas. So the man is presented in a false way. The whole phenomenon seems to have been distorted by an ideological lens that we can trace back to the attitudes of Edward Said that he developed in his book Orientalism and other works of that sort.
JUDITH MILLER: I would like to thank St. Francis College, and I’d like to thank Fred Siegel and my three co-panelists for raising some very important issues and also for what they’ve written. I have a bit of history here, having made my first trip to the Middle East in 1971 and having watched the arc of Islamism come into fashion, become a true movement that went across borders, and now begin to end. How we talk and write about Islam and Islamism, Islamic extremism, or whatever we choose to call it, has shifted dramatically over the years.
A convenient demarcation point is before and after 9/11. I wrote a book about the growth of Islamic militancy in ten countries in 1996, and I discovered then what I discovered with my first book about the Holocaust: timing is everything. Never discover the Holocaust before Steven Spielberg does. The same was true about Islamism; that’s what I chose to call it because I wasn’t happy with what scholars were then calling it, which was “fundamentalism.” That was a word imported from Christian doctrine, which was inappropriate in many ways. But the people who were writing then about Islamism and the dangerous trends were very few; and the ones who did were very courageous because even though no one noticed, they were under enormous pressure in their own society.
I was very taken by the fact that if you had asked intellectuals, even students of the Middle East, people who studied Arabism before 9/11, who Sheik Qaradawi was, who Hassan al-Banna was, who Maududi was, who Sayid Qutb was, they couldn’t have told you. Today, after 9/11, we know who these figures are. As Mr. Smith wrote in his book, there has been a struggle among Muslims primarily for the control of their religion. One thing I greatly admire about his book, which has just come out, is that he says something that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, aren’t used to hearing: folks, this is primarily not about us. I know that we think it’s about us, but it’s not; this is a civilizational struggle taking place within Islam. That theme resonated with me because that’s what I had found back in 1996, before Osama bin Laden was well known even in his own country or in the region. Post-9/11, our attitude toward and our interest in Islam changed dramatically, and many people now think that they know a lot about Islam. I would suggest that they know less than they think that they do.
We have to thank Ibn Warraq for his extraordinary work, and I would second Mr. Berman’s comments in praise of it. To write a book called Why I Am Not a Muslim, at the time that Mr. Warraq did, with passions running so high, takes true courage. One thing that struck me and made me very afraid of this militancy that I was covering in every Arab country was that it didn’t have much to do with America. In fact, it didn’t even have very much to do with Israel, but it had a lot to do with what kind of society these people wanted to live in.
The people who were proposing an Islamic alternative were, by and large, the people who were trying to silence the voices that were calling for debate, tolerance, and a multiethnic Middle East, and they were doing so using the Koran as their weapon. The ultimate expression of this became al-Qaida, an organization that has nothing to do with Islamic values other than its rhetoric and its desire for power. But since 9/11, because of the writings of people like Paul Berman, Lee Smith, and Ibn Warraq, Americans and the world know a lot more about this clash taking place, though in the Western world we are really bystanders. We can affect things by aggravating and irritating people, but we’re pretty much bystanders except when we choose to get directly involved. That doesn’t mean that we’re not a target; we are.
But the good news, if I have any, is that these three people can sit here without bodyguards, without a threat of fatwas—which would mean that their books would not be published. Most of these books will be published, now even in Arabic. The climate is changing and shifting. If history is running in any direction, we’re now seeing a huge reaction within the Muslim world—and I don’t even like the term “Muslim world” because each country is so very different from the others. But the mistakes committed by al-Qaida, the extremists, the people who issued the fatwas: the people in these countries are turning against these movements because they’re reading books and because they have seen the excesses of the al-Qaidas of the world, the beheadings in Iraq that were carried out in the name of Islamic virtue, and because they’ve seen what extremism does within their own societies. They understand that if they want to modernize, then Iran and Sudan—the only two countries that have adopted an openly Islamic form of government—are not models for any kind of happy societies or prospering societies that people would want. So there has been a huge educational learning curve.
Perhaps I’m overly optimistic at this point. I was recently in Saudi Arabia, and while what is going on there should not be confused with social change, what was extraordinary was the mobilization of that society against the very people whom they once not only tolerated, but supported. It’s not only a question of opening a “rehabilitation center” or teaching people alternative interpretations of the Koran. It’s a question of understanding that in the concept of the Sirat al-mustaqim—the straight path that permits no deviance and no debate—lies only authoritarianism, misery, and failure. When most Muslims come to believe that, no matter where they are, we will be making our way back to a better place where we can begin to have a calm discussion about Islam and about the issues that Mr. Warraq, Mr. Berman, and Mr. Smith have been raising in their books.
One thing that disappoints me tremendously—which Mr. Berman has noted, which is why I think what he’s writing is so important—is that I cannot say that intellectuals have been in the forefront of the fight against Islamic militancy. Because so many intellectuals were opposed to everything that the United States was doing, they tended to see America as responsible for all the currents that were playing out. I remember hearing again and again in Egypt about the impact of colonialism. Episodes like that do leave an extraordinary impact on a society, but I reminded them that it happened about 70 years ago and that they have had pretty much one pharaoh or a couple of regimes since then, and that their problems lie elsewhere. I think that most Egyptians now agree with that. So I’m more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time by what I see occurring in the Middle East.
Mr. Berman, how should we have responded to Tariq Ramadan? Do you think that he should have been permitted to come into this country? He is still on the terrorist list, and Hillary Clinton, our secretary of state, wrote the waiver for him to come here. What kind of threat does he pose, or do you think it’s good that people are exposed to his ideas?
Mr. Smith, you talk and write a lot about Lebanon, but surely Lebanon is now one of the most troublesome examples of a country in which Islamism has found a way to exploit its militancy, not only to express itself but actually to become part of the political system, which I think is its next evolution. We’re going to see them saying, we’re Tariq Ramadan writ large—we’re just good, old-fashioned moral people who want everyone to think the way we do—and suddenly Hezbollah is not just a terrorist organization; it’s a political party with seats in the parliament and with demands. So is that the direction that this movement is working in?
Mr. Warraq, who do you think is the most dangerous militant intellectual writing in the Arab world and the Muslim world now? Do we know him or her? What do you think Americans don’t know and don’t fully appreciate about the intellectual evolution of Islamic militancy?
PAUL BERMAN: The Bush administration was very foolish to keep Tariq Ramadan out of the United States, and Hillary Clinton has done the right thing in letting him in. That is because there is an intellectual or ideological dimension to all these issues, and insofar as there is an intellectual dimension, the proper response is debate and discussion. So it is in the interest of everyone to have the widest possible debate and the broadest possible discussion. If someone is actually a terrorist or is actively promoting terrorist organizations, that would be a different story, but I don’t see Ramadan that way. I see him as an intellectual, as someone who ought to be engaged, if I could use that word—except that the word has become distorted. The word “engaged” has come to mean that you should lie down like a rug in front of someone and be walked on. But I take “engaged” to have a different meaning in that you engage someone, perhaps like two boxers engage. In any case, you take someone seriously, and you argue. That is what ought to have been done with people like Ramadan, and it would be good if it could happen now. So far, it has not happened because at first the PEN greeting of Ramadan was a bit peculiar. Some objections to him were made.
Of course, Ramadan’s main critics—for example, Ibn Warraq—were not invited, which was noted. The meeting ended on a very curious note, which I don’t think anyone has observed. It ended with a question that was put to Ramadan from the audience and read by the moderator, Jacob Weisberg. The question concerned Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is a woman from Somalia who went to Holland. She’s a citizen of Holland, although barely, because there was an effort to deny her citizenship. She has taken up a strong atheist position, but above all, a very strong argument in favor of women’s rights, protesting a variety of oppressions. She has been very articulate on these matters. But she has suffered a rather bizarre fate, which is that as early as 2002, she was coming under death threats in Holland. A couple of years later, her colleague in the making of a small film, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamist extremist, who left pinned to his body a very eloquent, poetic death threat aimed at Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself. Ramadan was asked a question about Hirsi Ali and proceeded to denounce her as a racist. What was unnerving about this is that the death threat was written by someone named Mohammed Bouyeri, who belongs to a Salafist organization whose ideological nature, if you study the death threat, was influenced by Said Qutb—who was published by Tariq Ramadan’s father, Said Ramadan—and descends ultimately from Hassan al-Banna. The death threat accuses Ayaan Hirsi Ali of being an agent of the Jews, who were defined as a cosmically evil organization.
So it was a racist death threat that was racist against the Jews, stated in an ideology that descended in various ways from the father and grandfather of Tariq Ramadan—and Tariq Ramadan is now denouncing this woman, who lives in hiding and is protected by bodyguards in the United States because she has had to flee to the United States. She is denounced by the grandson of the man who founded the ideology that led to the murder of her colleague. She is denounced as a racist by Ramadan. The leader of PEN does not rush out onto the stage in order to denounce Ramadan and protect Ayaan Hirsi Ali. On the contrary, Ramadan is celebrated as a sort of hero. So I think that it is right to bring Ramadan into the United States, but it would also be right to challenge him; and to do that, we need a different set of intellectuals.
LEE SMITH: Remind me why we have to listen to him, though. The way you conclude this, I agree entirely; I think that you are exactly right. Somehow we as Americans have to prove that we are devoted to principles like freedom of speech by giving Tariq Ramadan a visa, which was crazy. If he is going to come here, fine. If he is going to say those things, that’s the problem, no one was going to say those things then, no one was going to challenge him. They didn’t invite you, and you’re America’s premier Ramadanologist. Obviously, they didn’t want to have someone who was going to challenge him. No one is going to challenge him while he is here. Do you want to see Tariq Ramadan challenged? Then read Paul Berman’s book. But aside from that, they weren’t going to challenge him.
PAUL BERMAN: He did end up getting challenged by George Packer, so part of the discussion was very good. Everything should be done to further discussion, but there is an ideological dimension to these things. The strictly intellectual debate is itself good, and one should never give up the idea that on certain questions, it is possible to convince people: it is possible to engage in debates and win. If you follow the rise and fall of Communism, you realize that Communism arose because Communist writers won—or appeared to win—certain debates. Many people were influenced; some here were influenced in different ways. Then serious counterarguments were raised by some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. If you would have asked in 1948, is it worthwhile arguing with Communists or Stalinists, a lot of people would have said no, there’s no point; they’re utter fanatics, and they’re not going to listen. But those counterarguments won. It took a long time, but they did eventually triumph, and in this form: the Communists themselves came out against Communism.
Someday—and I hope Ms. Miller’s optimism is correct—the Islamists themselves will come out against Islamism. I don’t have her reportorial experience in the Middle East, but in one respect I share her optimism, and this has to do with Iran. We can see now that the Islamist militants—the very people who led the revolution of 1979 to create the Islamic Republic—are thinking their way through the contradictions of their own ideology, and some of those people are beginning to end up on the liberal side of that argument. The whole experience of the twentieth century should tell us that those people are going to win eventually. I wish the United States would act differently from the way it does, but ultimately it’s up to them. So these arguments do have a meaning, and intellectuals can play a role. Intellectuals are usually wrong, but some of them are sometimes right; and the ones who are right sometimes win.
LEE SMITH: I am not an optimist about Iran. If you look at the way the region is tending right now—and this has, in large part, to do with the United States—it is tending toward the extremists. The so-called extremists are the people riding a powerful wave. Hezbollah is a wave of the future; these people will take more and more power. That is what is going to happen. And not only is the United States not doing anything, but we are deterring Israel from doing anything about an outfit like Hezbollah. And it’s not just Israel and Hezbollah. If you look at what happened in Lebanon, during the last administration and this administration, we paid lip service to moderates. We want to engage the Muslim world as a bunch of moderates and to encourage moderation. But when real political facts unfold on the ground, we turn around and sell out the moderates again and again. In Lebanon, the prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, was a major Sunni leader and a major regional figure. He was assassinated in 2005, and we know who did it: the extremists, the forces of extremism.
JUDITH MILLER: The Syrians.
LEE SMITH: Yes, the Syrians.
JUDITH MILLER: Syrians are not militant Islamists; it’s the state.
LEE SMITH: I agree. So again, that’s why I try to take it away from Islam; but if we look at it as an issue of extremism and of people who are willing to resort to violence, those are the people in the region who are going to win. They’re winning now because we are in retreat. That is the way they see it. I don’t think that they are necessarily wrong. So if we want to reward and encourage moderation, we need to protect moderate friends and punish the extremists like Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, and tell them that it’s safe to come out and do better things. What Hariri did was pay for people to go to school. He paid for young Lebanese, Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, and Druid people to get educations around the world, in the United States and Europe. This was a man who was killed, shot by the bad guys, blown up in a car bomb with 22 other people. And what did we do? Well, the tribunals kicked it along for about five years, and it’s not that big a deal. What the Obama administration is going to do instead is engage the Syrian regime that killed him. So again, this talk about moderation and extremism, who we’re going to engage in the Muslim world, how do we do all these nice things—it’s nonsense because politically, that is who we encourage: the bad guys, and they have a sense that they’re winning. I wish I were more optimistic, but I’m not right now.
IBN WARRAQ: In reply to Ms. Miller’s question: No, I don’t think any of the recent writings in the Islamic world have the profundity or the influence of people like, say, Qutb or Maududi. We used to hear a lot about people like Hassan Turabi in Sudan, but he seems to have faded away completely. Awlaki, the mentor of the accused killer at Fort Hood, was someone in Yemen, not particularly an original thinker. I have no idea what sort of a following he will eventually acquire. But there is a contradiction. Newspapers like the New York Times, which I no longer read for this reason, lament the fact that there is no Islamic reformation or, better still, Islamic enlightenment, and then they refuse to give space to people who might even bring about this enlightenment—that is, the dissidents, the ones who are willing to stand up and criticize the unacceptable aspects of Islamism.
There are a considerable number of moderates. I recently acquired a book called The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular, edited by Zeyno Baran, a Turkish woman. We need to give more space to them—we need to provide them with prestigious chairs and so on, and not fete and lionize devious individuals like Ramadan. There is always a tendency to say that anyone who criticizes Islam cannot be an authentic Muslim. This is the kind of fallacious thought that Michel Foucault famously indulged in when he was approached by a group of Iranian women who asked him: Why are you praising this regime, which is a disaster for the position of women? He dismissed them all. He had nothing but contempt for them and said that they were inauthentic and that they were too Westernized and didn’t understand the revolutionary impact of this wonderful, spiritual, political movement. One must get away from this absurd thought that only an Islamist can criticize Islamism. It leads to an absurd situation, where only a Fascist can criticize Fascism. Of course, Islamists are the first to criticize, for example, Christianity. So we must not fall into this power scheme. We must look at the evidence and weigh the validity of the arguments. This is, in effect, throwing out charges of Islamophobia. Anytime that anyone criticizes Islam, he is considered an Islamophobe. This is just a way of silencing criticism. We must keep on criticizing.
FRED SIEGEL: Would anyone like to ask a question?
QUESTIONER: Why do we continue to pursue Syria after all that has been said and all that we know? Why do we still want to send an ambassador? And why does this administration think that the key to solving all the problems in the world is stopping a few Jews from building a few houses in East Jerusalem, when the administration seems to turn their heads to the Iranians building a nuclear bomb, which someone could bring into a subway in New York?
LEE SMITH: The Syrian question is dear to my heart. I look at the audience and see my Lebanese friends smiling, just dying to be able to answer that question themselves. Let me come back around to that. What I did want to talk about is: what was important to the Bush administration was winning Iraq. Did they win in Iraq? No. How do we know that they didn’t win? Because what they say is that we cannot attack the Iranian nuclear program without the Iranians retaliating against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That simply means that you don’t win, right? That someone else can shape your strategic environment—that means you don’t win a war.
The Obama administration is not that different from the Bush administration. The Obama administration doesn’t care as much about the victory. What the Obama administration wants to do is withdraw from Iraq. Again, what will stop that from happening is an attack on the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration has all but announced that it believes that it can move toward containment and deterrence, which is ridiculous. It’s not going to move toward containment and deterrence because that means the end of an era. The architecture that we had in the Persian Gulf in the last 65 years has been designed precisely to prevent a breakout such as the one that the Iranian nuclear program represents. The Iranian nuclear program is a catastrophe. That means it’s bad for U.S. interests, which should ideally be our chief strategic interest, to preserve our position in the Persian Gulf. But it’s not: getting out of Iraq safely is.
The Israelis believe, as we should, that their chief strategic interest is in preventing the Iranian nuclear program. But you see where this conflicts with U.S. interests. The Israelis want to move on the Iranians, as we should, not for the sake of Israel but for the sake of our own position in the region. We’re deterring them from doing anything about it. You see how that is going to operate because if you saw what happened the other day—again when the administration said no, don’t attack the Syrian convoy sending Scuds over—that’s exactly what’s going to work. The Syrians are building up deterrents in Lebanon, so if the Israelis decide to hit the Iranian nuclear program, they are going to have a big issue coming out of Lebanon now. It’s not just going to be rockets that have a 60- to 80-mile range; it is now 430 miles, so that’s what they’re allowing. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but if you’re the American administration and you want to keep the Israelis from attacking the Iranian nuclear program, then it’s okay to have Scuds in the hands of Hezbollah, because that will work toward deterring the Israelis from attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities. It’s preposterous; it’s perverse and insane. The only question is how long it will take for the Gulf Arab states to throw us out of the region.
QUESTIONER: You talk about the difference between Islam and Islamism. Mr. Smith, you said that you don’t want to deal with it. We have the Islamic Conference, which Ibn Warraq mentioned, and 56 nations are promoting the so-called Cairo Declaration of 1992, which is basically an Islamic replacement for the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So is the Islamic version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Islam or Islamism? What’s the difference?
IBN WARRAQ: I often think that this is a way of skirting the question. I prefer to bring in the nuances of history. I like to make a distinction that I actually owe to Bernard Lewis; oddly enough, Lewis, to my knowledge, has never made use of it. It’s a very useful distinction that he made between Islam One, Two, and Three. Islam One is what’s in the Koran, what the Prophet Mohammed did and enjoyed. Islam Two is the sharia and the theological construct that we call Islam, as developed by the theologians over the centuries. Islam Three is Islamic civilization, which is what Muslims actually did do as opposed to what they should have done, what actually happened in Islamic history. Often Islam Three—that is, Islamic civilization—was far more tolerant than what Islam One and Two demanded. For example, until very recently, Islamic society (Islam Three) was far more tolerant about homosexuality than the West was, whereas Islam One and Islam Two more firmly condemned it. There are several ambiguous passages in the Koran, but certainly Islam Two, the sharia, condemns homosexuality.
Islamic history has never been a relentless series of theocratic governments; it has varied from century to century, ruler to ruler. Sometimes it has been very intolerant, and sometimes it has been very tolerant. Just look at some of the poets who were given free rein—for example, al-Mahawi, an Iraqi who was certainly an agnostic and very probably an atheist, but he was very critical. He was left alone; no one bothered him, so this is witness to the period of tolerance. This is, for me, the best way to approach the situation. For example, some of the terrorists are taking literally what is in the Koran. There are all sorts of intolerant passages in the Koran about killing infidels and not taking Jews and Christians as friends. It’s undeniably there, and you can’t get away from it. Chapter four in the Koran: you can’t get away from the fact that it gives men the power to beat women. It’s no good pretending that somehow the real Islam is tolerant, the real Islam is feminist, and so on. There is a great deal of confusion because people do not want to tarnish with the same brush a billion believers. We don’t want to be too crude in our defamation. We don’t want to call all Muslims terrorists, so the best way is this distinction between Islam One, Two, Three.
QUESTIONER: You’ve all spoken eloquently about the need for pluralism in the Islamic world. However, I’m not clear on how you think we should go about achieving that. Should we, for example, support the dissidents who are in the streets in Iran? Should we lean on the Saudis, a purported ally, to stop the spread of Wahhabism and madrassas? What specific steps do the U.S. and the West take to try to bring about the more pluralistic world you spoke of?
JUDITH MILLER: Yes, we definitely should be supporting the dissidents. One of my objections to what the Obama administration has done—and it’s very hard to understand—is that they have downplayed the role of the dissidents and their own societies. They haven’t given them the support that George W. Bush gave them. It’s just night and day. They feel it, and they respond to it. The dissidents know that they are fighting alone, and it is very difficult. First, we should support the voices of the people who claim to believe in what we believe, and we can do that in a way that doesn’t challenge the authority of the state unless and until the state puts someone in jail or represses him or kills him. It’s a return to a kind of realpolitik that I find very disheartening.
Second, part of the problem with Saudi Arabia now is that it’s not very good. It’s one of the most closed societies that I’ve ever operated in. For example, it used to be that if you were a journalist, you would get a visa if there was an Arab summit or something happening there; then you would write something and they would go crazy, and you would be banned for the next year. Now, a journalist can get multiple entry visas right here from the embassy in Washington, but no one knows that. They understand that they have a problem. Our leaning on them to, say, do more about their textbooks is helpful, as long as we do it privately and within diplomatic channels, because they are well aware of what the Wahhabists do. Their problem is structural. Their kingdom is the result of the deal between their religious establishment and their political establishment. Both know that if they go at each other tooth and tongue, their kingdom falls apart.
But Saudi Arabia is, as an entity—not as a modern kingdom but as an entity—older than the United States, so let’s not talk about fragile states. These places are tough, and they do what they must to survive. You can support our friends and dissident voices, and you can support—I do not use the word “moderate” with these people. People who do not let women drive and who say that you cannot open a church in my country are not moderate, but they are pragmatic. You can work with them to minimize the threat to them that also threatens us; that is, I think, what Obama is trying to do. I’m not happy with the way he is doing it or with the language that he is using because I don’t think that we should not call this Islamism. It is an extreme form of political violence that uses religion as a cover. I want them to face the choice that they have to make—anything we do to bolster the forces of pragmatism and tolerance is good in the region, even if it means working with a state that we have some problems with.
QUESTIONER: What can be done about the New York Times?
JUDITH MILLER: I left.
PAUL BERMAN: I have written as a freelancer for the New York Times for many years, and I sympathize totally with Ms. Miller’s situation. I’ll say a few things about her. I have in my files a New York Times Magazine from the late twentieth century, with an article by Judith Miller about the suffering of the Kurds in Iraq. I thought it was brilliant, courageous reporting. It influenced me, so I stuck it away in my files and thought that I would look it up as soon as I needed it (I needed it today, and I couldn’t find it!). I point this out because the New York Times has published a lot of great stuff over the years, and I hope that it will continue to do so. The New York Times has its own slant on things sometimes, and at other times it ought to be regarded as a public square that gives voice to different views. A lot of pieces make me want to tear my hair, but every now and then, I will appear in it—and I think that’s great! So I don’t think it’s good to jump on this one institution.
But the question allows me to address another question, which does bear on the Times and other institutions: What can be done about the dissidents in the Arab and Muslim world who are suffering extreme oppression? Our government has in some ways abandoned them lately, which I regret. But we live in the kind of society where we are not completely dependent on the government. We ourselves, whether we work for the New York Times or some other periodical, or we have an organization like the Manhattan Institute or a college like St. Francis, or are connected with some other institution, or are freelance writers—we ourselves can do something. If you’re in a position to do something, you can offer people jobs or chairs, as Ibn Warraq was urging, or you can write about people who ought to be written about, or you can print what people have written. Also, you can address the enemies of these people. I’m sorry that PEN didn’t manage to rise to the defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and instead rose to the defense of Tariq Ramadan, but some people do stand up for people like Hirsi Ali. That is something that can be done on a very large scale. It doesn’t matter how modest or grand your own resources are. It’s something that we can all do now, regardless of what our government’s policies may be.
JUDITH MILLER: I want to say one more word about the New York Times: as much as we all love to complain about it, just imagine what this city would be like without it. It is one of the last papers that is totally committed to having foreign bureaus. The Pulitzers were a sad affair this year because there were so few papers left to invest in foreign reporting. When people think that Ethan Bronner is not doing a great job—from Jerusalem—and try to get him fired because his son is going into the IDF, the Times has a long, tortured, internal investigation. The public ombudsman says that this correspondent—who I think is brilliant and doing a fair-minded job—ought to be fired. Bill Keller disagrees and says that his work speaks for itself. We can take issue with positions and certain articles, but here is a paper with resources that is investing in foreign reporting, when most Americans no longer want to hear even about Iraq and Afghanistan. We would be much poorer without it. So as angry as we get at the Times, remember what’s at stake here.
Paul Berman is a writer in residence at New York University. Frank J. Macchiarola is the chancellor of St. Francis College. Judith Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Fred Siegel is a visiting professor at St. Francis College, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor of City Journal. Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. Ibn Warraq is a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. This discussion was transcribed by Jacob Siegel, a Brooklyn writer.