Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?
Paul Berman examines the thinking of the "Salafist reformer" Tariq Ramadan, and through his account, describes the attempts of the European Left and Islam to get to grips with each other. Berman's account winds up being an history of both. The unstated question behind his inquiry is whether modern European thinking and Islam, more widely considered, can live with each other. Berman asserts that at the minimum, there will be difficulties; difficulties made all the harder by an inability to acknowledge that real contradictions exist or wishing them away in a synthesis European intellectuals hope will unfold in the next decades. But the difficulties will not be wished away, and Berman relates a television exchange between Nicolas Sarkozy and a first-rate Muslim intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, on the licitness of stoning adulterous women to illustrate how great they are. Here is the exchange:
Sarkozy: A moratorium.... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?
Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.
Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?
Ramadan: No, no, wait.... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community.... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, "Me, my own position." But my own position doesn't count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr. Sarkozy. It's necessary that you understand....
Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan....
Ramadan: Let me finish.
Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.... But that's monstrous--to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It's necessary to condemn it!
Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable--that's clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world.... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That's too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, "We should stop."
Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.
Berman remarks: "Some six million French people watched that exchange. A huge number of Muslim immigrants must have been among them--the very people who might have benefited from hearing someone speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan couldn't do it. Here was his Qutbian moment, the moment of frisson. The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights. A moment of barbarism. A thrill. The whole panorama of Muslim women suddenly deployed across the television screens of France--the panorama of violence that is condoned, sanctified, and even mandated by the highest authorities. And here was Sarkozy, recoiling in horror: the bourgeoisie, shocked at last."
Reading the exchange between Sarkozy and Ramadan evoked in me a reaction rather different from that of Berman's. It recalled nothing so much as those impassioned debates over the South's Peculiar Institution by the politicians who battled heart and soul for the Compromise; the men who saw the Tragedy coming with one eye and sought with the other a way out. 'Give it time', those men argued, 'and slavery will wither away of its own accord. It will pass out of fashion if only we don't ask for its abolition. Because if we do it will force the issue in a way we shall regret.' In Ramadan's case a different word is used but the logical construction is the same. To address the question of stoning, Ramadan argues, give the Ummah a moratorium and the problem will disappear. But please Allah, Ramadan continues, do not ask us to renounce it now; for that is to ask too much. One cannot help but feel sympathy for Ramadan. He understands but perhaps understands all too well, and hesitates upon the brink in an era where the discovery of Arabian oil may have reprised the role of the cotton gin in extending the life of slavery in the South. But two things were asked in that one exchange between Sarkozy and Ramadan. One of the West and the other of Islam. And the issue that is never answered, neither today nor then, is of whom the concession is too much to ask.