As the debate over the meaning of a just war in Islam plays out, a parallel dispute has split the mostly liberal Western scholars and intellectuals who theorize about war and justice. The key issue: What sort of dialogue with Islam is both prudent and possible?
In a recent essay in the Italian journal Reset, Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University, defended the "politics of dialogue" and sharply criticized other prominent writers for singling out Islam for unwarranted opprobrium. Refusing to find a common ground to talk with today's Muslims — including those who may be anti-American — is "reductionist and somehow deceptive," she wrote. Not only does it set up an us-them divide, but it is politically dangerous, unwittingly driving rank-and-file Muslims into the arms of extremists like Osama bin Laden.
Michael Walzer, a prominent political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study, responded with circumspection. "We should be happy to talk to Islamic intellectuals and academics, though we are not bound to 'dialogue' with people whose public position is that we should be killed (or who make apologies for the zealots who hold that position)," Walzer wrote.
When asked about the core of his disagreement with Urbinati, Walzer says that "to an extent, I agree" with her position: "After all, who can be against dialogue? It is like being against brotherhood." But he went on to explain that he believed that the most effective form of social criticism is the work of insiders. "Muslim dissidents have to dissent in Islam, in their own countries, and in their own languages. And Western liberals who want to oppose Islamophobia or to make life easier for Muslim immigrants have work to do in their own countries," he said. "Any meetings between them are less important than that work."
The current argument over whether — and how much — to engage Muslim intellectuals, Walzer adds, "arises out of the debate about Tariq Ramadan." Perhaps it is inevitable. The Swiss-born Ramadan — a research fellow at St. Anthony's College at the University of Oxford, well known in the United States for being denied a work visa in 2004 to accept a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame — is fluent in French, English, and Arabic. He holds degrees in Western philosophy (his Ph.D. thesis was on Nietzsche) and also spent a year studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the pre-eminent academic institution in Sunni Islam. In others words, he is a bridge between East and West.
Ramadan's call for a religious renewal that reconciles Islamic tradition with the contemporary world has won him numerous followers among Europe's Muslim communities. But it has also set some Westerners on edge. "Ramadan's project is important. He can provide the intellectual or analytical tools for Muslims to integrate into European societies," says Malise Ruthven, a writer and historian of Islam. "But he is an activist-scholar in the sense that he is trying to take a constituency with him. He is not interested in dispassionately analyzing the data in a nontendentious way."
Khaled Abou El Fadl worries that it is precisely that commitment to activism that imperils Ramadan's standing. "He has a good, sharp mind and could do a lot of good if he didn't possess such blurry angles," says Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Paul Berman, a lecturer in journalism and distinguished writer at New York University, is one of Ramadan's most dogged and thoughtful American critics. Last summer he laid out his indictment in a sweeping 28,000-word essay that took up most of one issue of The New Republic. Berman zeroed in on a notorious 2003 debate Ramadan had with Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior in France. When Sarkozy asked him whether women found guilty of adultery should be stoned to death, as stipulated in the Koran, Ramadan called for a moratorium on the practice — not an outright ban. That response left Berman cold. He was also troubled by the fact that Ramadan had contributed prefaces to two books published in France by Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent scholar and television personality who once famously proclaimed that suicide terrorism by Palestinians against Israelis was honorable. Berman is at work on a more expansive critique of Ramadan and what he sees as the general failure of Western intellectuals to wage an effective war of ideas against radical Islamists. Titled The Flight of the Intellectuals, it is due out from Melville House Press later this year.
Ramadan, who could not be reached for comment, has explicitly condemned terrorism on numerous occasions. And yet the whiff of suspicion clings to him.
Ian Buruma, a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College, has questioned whether Ramadan would use force in a just cause — like fighting terrorism. In an article in The New York Times Magazine this past winter, Buruma concluded that while Ramadan's views are "neither secular, nor always liberal," they do offer "an alternative to violence, which is, in the end, reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear."
Another prominent intellectual has echoed the call for engagement with contemporary Islam. In his own article last summer in the Times magazine, Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, set out three possible scenarios by which political change might come about within Islam: An impulse to liberalize may emerge from within the fold of Muslim tradition; a secularizing ethos may take hold; and strident advocacy on behalf of Western ideas about human rights and liberalism may shake up Muslim political thought.
Lilla considers the last option the most attractive, but also the least likely to succeed. Reform, he says in an interview, is more likely to emerge from within Islam by way of reinterpretation rather than as a wholesale embrace of Western liberal values. And so Ramadan, with faults that Lilla readily acknowledges, appears to him a likely agent of change.
The debate about Ramadan, and the possibility for real dialogue between Middle Eastern and Western intellectuals over the direction of Islamic political thought, has been going on for several years now. The latest dust-up indicates it's not likely to be settled any time soon.