Trying To Answer Paul Berman

On June 4th of this year Paul Berman published an extraordinary 28,000 word New Republic essay on contemporary Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University and his liberal apologists, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who write for the New York Review of Books. Berman’s essay was criticized by some for being too long, too meticulous, for being too concerned with ironing out any misunderstanding that might be wrung from his words. But the just published tepid reply by Scottish Malise Ruthven, a Scottish historian of Islam, for August 13th issue of the New York Review of Books suggests that, for now, Berman’s tack has cornered his would be critics.

Ruthven finds the US denial of a visa for Ramadan to teach at Notre Dame in 2004 inexplicable. The only mark against Ramadan, says Ruthven, is that he once donated money to a Palestinian charity later put on a terrorist watch list. This is disingenuous. Here’s Berman on some of Ramadan’s history:

As early as 1993, at the age of thirty-two, he campaigned in Geneva to cancel an impending production of Voltaire’s play Muhammad, or Fanaticism. The production was canceled, and a star was born – though Ramadan has argued that, on the contrary, he had nothing to do with canceling the play, and to say otherwise is a “pure lie.” Not every battle has gone his way. He taught at the college of Saussure, where his colleagues were disturbed by his arguments in favor of Islamic biology over Darwin. This time, too, Ramadan shaped the debate to his own specifications by insisting that he never wanted to suppress the existing biology curriculum – merely to complement it with an additional point of view. A helpful creationist proposal. But the Darwinians, unlike the Voltaireans, were in no rush to yield.


Ruthven refers to Ramadan’s books published by The Islamic Foundation in Leicester without refuting, or even noting Berman’s point that the Foundation “enjoys the distinction of having been the first and most vigorous Muslim institution in Britain to rally against Salman Rushdie back in 1988, even before Ayatollah Khomeini issued his religious decree authorizing Rushdie’s assassination.

“Part of the animus against him,” says Ruthven accurately, “derives from his family history: he is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East Sunni movement that originally advocated the establishment of an Islamic state.” Ruthven leaves it there. But Berman notes “At the University of Geneva, Ramadan wrote his thesis on his grandfather’s ideas – and his committee judged the work to be a partisan apologia, unworthy of commendation. Ramadan protested. A Swiss Socialist rose to his defense, and a second committee was convened, a rare occurrence. Even then, the thesis was accepted without honors. This was an academic dispute, but also more than academic. And it has never gone away.”

And how could it, it was the Brotherhood that spawned Al Qaeda, a development that doesn’t merit mention in Ruthven’s 6,000 word essay. The closest Ruthven comes to acknowledging Al Qaeda’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood is when he suggests, oh so indirectly in referring to Ramadan’s writings that “What is proposed here, one suspects, though this is not spelled out, is a “re-Ottomanization” of the Muslim world in which religious communities would once more enjoy a semi-autonomous existence such as they had under the sultan-caliph.”

Is this the best the editors of the New York Review can do to respond to Berman’s withering attack on their liberal credentials and intellectual integrity?

Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

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