On Paul Berman, Tariq Ramadan and Islamofascism

In The Chronicle, Carlin Romano weighs in on Paul Berman’s new book about Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan is a well-known Muslim intellectual originally from Switzerland who has attained notoriety in recent years for teaching an interpretation of Islam that attempts to strike a balance between Western liberalism and a culturally sensitive understanding of Islamic doctrine. Berman has been one of Ramadan’s most vocal critics, including writing a review of his works in an article for the New Republic titled “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?

Romano’s review is mostly favorable to Berman’s position. One part really stuck out to me as objectionable:

The tension between the powerful, well-established story Berman recounts in The Flight of the Intellectuals about the Nazi influence on Arab leaders such as the grand mufti and Ramadan’s grandfather, and the puzzle of Ramadan’s mix of overt humanist beliefs and obeisance to his forebears, leaves one troubled. Berman’s retelling of the story of “Nazified Islam,” in his phrase, deserves nothing but applause—it remains far too unknown among the broad public. When Berman adds to it the eye-opening new scholarship by Jeffrey Herf (in such books as Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World), it shows that applying words such as “fascist” to modern Islamic extremism makes far more sense than historically uninformed critics of the term “Islamofascism” realize.

Ramadan’s grandfather was Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. This familial connection has been one of the main arguments that Ramadan’s critics have leveled against him, claiming that he continues to share a thinly-veiled sympathy to the Brotherhood’s totalitarian ideology. Admittedly, I am not an expert on the Brotherhood and I haven’t read the Jeffrey Herf book that Romano mentions. However, having some knowledge of twentieth century Islamic thought and the historical contexts out of which it arose, I continue to be very skeptical about the notion of “Islamofascism”.

Fascism is a notoriously difficult political concept to nail down. There are still major disagreements among historians  about its exact features and even whether there is such a thing as a generic Fascism at all. During the 1940s, Nazi ideology never really caught on among the Islamic political public in the Middle East, not least of all because the explicit racial hierarchy propagated by the movement did not allow for it to be easily appropriated by Arab and Muslim ideologues. Often, this is overlooked by those who wish to discuss the intellectual and political connections between Muslim nationalists and the National Socialists.

The Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini is commonly brought in as an example due to his meeting with Hitler and other German officials in 1941-42. However, in the specific case of the mufti, this is more the product of our continued fascination with Nazism and its traces in the present. Most of the Middle East historians I’ve read (Reinhard Schulze, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim) conclude that the mufti’s dealings with Hitler were not because of an explicit affiliation between Islamist and Nazi ideology, but rather as a result of his prior inability to make a convincing pro-Arab case to the British government in mandatory Palestine. His failure as a politician in that context left him with seemingly little choice than to court the Germans in the hope that a British defeat in the war would finally allow for an Arab state in Palestine. There is certainly a lot more to be said about the soundness of the mufti’s reasoning, but his ill-fated association with Hitler was, I believe, far more of an alliance rooted in expediency and not ideology.

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