Tariq Ramadan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

Tariq Ramadan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

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The Islamist question, in the forefront of European and American thinking, might be put this way:  Should support go to “enlightened fundamentalists” or to “Muslim dissidents”?  (I have some problems with referring to any believer as “fundamentalist”…)  Another way would be to ask, should we promote difference-based “multiculturalism” or resemblance-based “universalism”?

Pascal Bruckner unleashed a long, blistering tirade against the former–and a defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali–on signandsight.com.  Here are a few snippets:

There’s no denying that the enemies of freedom come from free societies, from a slice of the enlightened elite who deny the benefits of democratic rights to the rest of humanity, and more specifically to their compatriots, if they’re unfortunate enough to belong to another religion or ethnic group.


It is well known that in the struggle of the weak against the strong, it is easier to attack the former. Those who resist will always be accused by the cowardly of exciting the hatred of the powerful.


Thus the defenders of liberty are styled as fascists, while the fanatics are portrayed as victims! This vicious mechanism is well known. Those who revolt against barbarism are themselves accused of being barbarians. In politics as in philosophy, the equals sign is always an abdication. If thinking involves weighing one’s words to name the world well, drawing comparisons in other words, then levelling distinctions testifies to intellectual bankruptcy. Shouting CRS = SS as in May ‘68, making Bush = Bin Laden or equating Voltaire to Savonarola is giving cheap satisfaction to questionable approximations. Similarly, the Enlightenment is often depicted as nothing but another religion, as mad and intransigent as the Catholicism of the Inquisition or radical Islam. After Heidegger, a whole run of thinkers from Gadamer to Derrida have contested the claims of the Enlightenment to embody a new age of self-conscious history. On the contrary, they say, all the evils of our epoch were spawned by this philosophical and literary episode: capitalism, colonialism, totalitarianism. For them, criticism of prejudices is nothing but a prejudice itself, proving that humanity is incapable of self-reflection. For them, the chimeras of certain men of letters who were keen to make a clean slate of God and revelation, were responsible for plunging Europe into darkness. In an abominable dialectic, the dawn of reason gave birth to nothing but monsters (Horkheimer, Adorno).


Anyone with a mind to contend timidly that liberty is indivisible, that the life of a human being has the same value everywhere, that amputating a thief’s hand or stoning an adulteress is intolerable everywhere, is duly arraigned in the name of the necessary equality of cultures. As a result, we can turn a blind eye to how others live and suffer once they’ve been parked in the ghetto of their particularity. Enthusing about their inviolable differentness alleviates us from having to worry about their condition. However it is one thing to recognise the convictions and rites of fellow citizens of different origins, and another to give one’s blessing to hostile insular communities that throw up ramparts between themselves and the rest of society. How can we bless this difference if it excludes humanity instead of welcoming it? This is the paradox of multiculturalism: it accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. Instead: recognition of the group, oppression of the individual. The past is valued over the wills of those who wish to leave custom and the family behind….


Out of consideration for all the abuses they may have suffered, ethnic, sexual, religious and regional minorities are often set up as small nations, in which the most outrageous patriotism is passed off as nothing more than the expression of legitimate self-esteem. Instead of celebrating freedom as the power to escape determinism, the repetition of the past is being encouraged, reinforcing the power of collective coercion over private individuals. Marginal groups now form a sort of ethos-police, a flag-waving micro-nationalism which certain countries of Europe unfortunately see fit to publicly support. Under the guise of celebrating diversity, veritable ethnic or confessional prisons are established, where one group of citizens is denied the advantages accorded to others.


The Enlightenment belongs to the entire human race, not just to a few privileged individuals in Europe or North America who have taken it upon themselves to kick it to bits like spoiled brats, to prevent others from having a go. Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied – as is so often the case – by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn’t guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the “calamities” of progress.


Multiculturalism is a racism of the anti-racists.

And that’s just a little taste.  Bruckner spends most of his essay defending the free-thinking Hirsi Ali from what he sees as patronizing European critics, particularly Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Baruna, and reserves his most acid shots at Ramadan mainly in the footnotes.

But is there another side of this story?  Signandsight.com offers an array of responses to Bruckner’s piece.

Garton Ash’s rejoinder takes issue with just about every one of Bruckner’s claims.  It starts like this:

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. 

For instance, Garton Ash turns the essence of the critique back on Bruckner.  Bruckner has railed against the tactic of branding any critic of Islam as “Islamophobe racist.”  Fair enough.  Yet, says Garton Ash, Bruckner makes the same move by disqualifying Garton Ash’s disagreement the the Somali woman Hirsi Ali as inherently racist and sexist.

As so often happens in these sorts of debates, most of the response concerns disputes over ad hominems and about what Garton Ash has written.  But on the central philosophical and political question, “multiculturalism” or no, Garton Ash writes:

Having commented in my New York Review essay that “I regard it as a profound shame for Holland and Europe that we could not keep among us someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali” I went on to suggest that her approach “is not showing the way forward for most Muslims in Europe, at least not for many years to come. A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic. If the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European.” I continue to insist that this is an obvious truth, and an important criticism of the position adopted by both Ali and Bruckner.

While defending the fundamentals of a free society, such as freedom of expression, with an iron will, we also need a large tolerance for cultural diversity, the essential insights of Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, and an acknowledgment that religious believers can at the same time be reasonable persons and good citizens. In short: less Bruckner, more Pascal.

As it turns out, Bruckner’s original piece makes a similar point, this time in the guise of Enlightenment (Modernity) and Romanticism.

The entire history of the 20th century attests to the fanaticism of modernity. And it’s incontestable that the belief in progress has taken on the aspect of a faith, with its high priests from Saint Simon to August Comte, not forgetting Victor Hugo. The hideous secular religions of Nazism and communism, with their deadly rituals and mass massacres, were just as gruesome as the worst theocracies – of which they, at least as far as communism goes, considered themselves the radical negation. More people were killed in opposition to God in the 20th century than in the name of God. No matter that first Nazism and then communism were defeated by democratic regimes inspired by the Enlightenment, human rights, tolerance and pluralism. Luckily, Romanticism mitigated the abstraction of the Enlightenment and its claims to having created a new man, freed from religious sentiment and things of the flesh.

Today we are heirs to both movements, and understand how to reconcile the particularity of national, linguistic and cultural ties with the universality of the human race. Modernity has been self-critical and suspicious of its own ideals for a long time now, denouncing the sacralisation of an insane reason that was blind to its own zeal. In a word, it acquired a certain wisdom and an understanding of its limits. The Enlightenment, in turn, showed itself capable of reviewing its mistakes. Denouncing the excesses of the Enlightenment in the concepts that it forged means being true to its spirit. These concepts are part and parcel of the contemporary make up, to the point that even religious fanatics make use of them to promote their cause. Whether we like it or not, we are the sons of this controversial century, compelled to damn our fathers in the language they bequeathed to us. And since the Enlightenment triumphed even over its worst enemies, there is no doubt that it will also strike down the Islamist hydra, provided it believes in itself and abstains from condemning the rare reformers of Islam to the darkness of reprobation.

As Buruna writes in his own rejoinder to Bruckner, none of those who are arguing for dialogue and accommodation of difference are supporters of practices like revenge killing and oppression of women.  They are hoping to find a balance and a measured progress.  They worry, as an earlier generation worried over Marxist thought, about the dangers of the ideology of inevitable progress.  If the revolution is inevitable, why wait through all these historical stages?  If libertarian freedom is inevitable, why tolerate even so much as discussion of views critical of libertarian freedom?

Is the perfect the enemy of the good?  Or does resting comfortably with half-measures unnecessarily and unjustifiably deprive us of our ultimate fulfillment?  If you think the latter, the result will likely be Terror.  If you think the former, the result will likely be accommodation, compromose, homogenization, lowest common denominator, and eventually political correctness…which, itself, is well on the way to Terror.  Rock and a hard place….

Readers should also take a look at Paul Berman’s piece from the New Republic, “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” (linked to by Dissent).

But if I have to answer the question, Tariq Ramadan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?, (and I am not sure I do…), I would say:  Both, please!  And then some.