In his recently published The Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House Publishing, 2010), Paul Berman, writer in residence at New York University, sets out, via a reading of the thought of  Tariq Ramadan, to investigate how Western liberals—especially journalists and intellectuals—speak about Islamism and Muslim dissent.  Berman takes issue with the favor that Ramadan receives (seemingly at the expense of figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Ibn Warraq) amongst Western intellectuals, and attempts to dislodge that favor by presenting Ramadan’s links to Islamist thinkers and groups, and, by extension, association with anti-Semitism, Nazism, and fascism. As Carlin Romano, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, notes, “If it’s dangerous to zap Islamism these days, it’s not easy being a Muslim reformist thinker, either.”

In his review of the book, Romano highlights the associative work that Berman performs, the bulk of which is based on Ramadan’s familial ties to Hassan al-Banna and praise for the work of Yusuf al-Qaradawi:

[. . .] it’s only fair to give considerable weight to what Ramadan writes, and to require guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” when the guilt involved is guilt by association. What a philosopher expresses in his own books is not obiter dicta. Would Ramadan’s father or grandfather have written, as Ramadan does in What I Believe, that “domestic violence contradicts Islamic teachings,” that true Muslims must oppose other Muslims when they “stigmatize the other, produce racism, or justify dictatorship, terrorist attacks, or the murder of innocents”? Would they share Tariq Ramadan’s biting view that “Islam has no problem with women, but Muslims do clearly appear to have serious problems with them”?

Meanwhile, at Dissent, where Berman is a member of the editorial board, Andrew March, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University, presents similar criticisms of Berman’s appraisal of Ramadan:

Berman gives what seems like a sympathetic spin to all of this. Of course, this is a very convenient form of “sympathy.” It means that we need not loathe Ramadan, but since “he is hardly going to turn against his family” (204) we are permitted to dismiss him and give in to our suspicions and discomfort. We need not fear that maybe he has broken with his family’s legacy in his own way.

Berman’s Ramadan is a tragic figure. Ramadan is not himself a man of anger, loathing, resentment, and violence; it’s just that he is trapped by biological destiny. By nature, he probably wishes things were different. But by birth, there are limits to his freedom. Yet since his family is precisely the epicenter of all the horror, unless he openly betrays his family we simply have no use for him.

Thus, in this way, because Ramadan refuses to define himself negatively in terms of what he has denounced, Berman’s Ramadan becomes a shadow on a cave wall: a figure defined primarily in terms of what he has not denounced. This does an injustice not only to Ramadan, but also to all those more secularized Muslims (up to and including Hirsi Ali) who are now only defined in terms of being non-violent and anti-fundamentalist Muslims.

March identifies specific moments of failure in Berman’s presentation of Ramadan, and ultimately levels the charge that “Berman’s mistakes leave two fatal lacunae: we get no real sense from Berman of what Ramadan’s works are all about, and no real sense of how we should read an author like Ramadan—with what methods and in pursuit of which judgments.”  It appears, at least according to March’s reading, that this lack of hermeneutic self-awareness on Berman’s part, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the hermeneutics of Islamic jurisprudence, leads to Berman’s confusion over the nature of Ramadan’s project and the ends of his work:

Berman’s book [. . .] takes the form of an investigation, with no real crime at the center of it. His avowed aim is to look more closely and deeply at Ramadan than others have, to make a judgment about what he stands for and what he is up to. But the problem is that he never really explains what kind of judgment he is trying to make about Ramadan and for what purpose. Presumably, all judgments about Ramadan will be a mixture of intellectual and moral ones. But he never makes explicit what he thinks we need to be able to say about Ramadan, and thus never considers why his questions are the right ones and his judgments the ones we ought to be searching for.

In response to March’s critique, Berman recounts “‘the often stomach-churning history of Arab and Islamic attitudes towards Israel, Jews, Hitler, and the Holocaust'” (to which “March devotes not one sentence to describing or summarizing,” and defends his ability, as a non-expert on Islam, to judge the significance of Ramadan’s thought:

Andrew F. March emphasizes that I am not an expert on Islamic law, and this is true. But it is irrelevant. Ramadan’s writings are accessible to anyone with a conventional Western education. The suggestion that you need to command an expertise on Islamic law in order to understand the doctrines of someone like Ramadan is a rigamarole that is trotted out to discourage everyone from reading and engaging in debate. Ramadan, in any case, is not an Islamic jurist. Nor does he present himself as one.

Ramadan presents himself as a religious philosopher, and I am happy to judge his work from this angle, not because I am myself a religious philosopher but because I take myself to be a proper literary critic, eager to read and to make observations about the history of ideas. Ramadan rests his calls for Islamic reform and ethics on his own reading of the esoteric theories of the medieval sage al-Ghazali. The esoteric theories, in Ramadan’s interpretation of them, allow him to assert everything and its opposite—the truths of modern secular research together with the sometimes contrary dogmas asserted by the oldtime Islamic scholars. In my book I offer my own reading of al-Ghazali and his legacy in later centuries. I conclude that Ramadan’s philosophical position is several hundred years out of date. But Andrew F. March has elected not to join Tariq Ramadan and me in our discussion of medieval philosophy and its bearing on the modern world.

Read Romano’s review here, March’s article here, and Berman’s response here.