Amid the apologetics and invective over Islam, Paul Berman’s portrait of the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan in the June 4 New Republic stands out as a thoughtful critique. Professor Ramadan personifies the West’s bafflement before Islam; widely regarded as the thinking man’s Islamist and a bridge-builder between cultures, he was barred by the Homeland Security Department in 2004 from entering the United States to take up a professorship at Notre Dame University in Indiana. In a rebuke to the US, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, offered him a fellowship, which he now occupies.

Berman untangles the spaghetti-strands that tie Professor Ramadan to the terrorist ambience. He has trouble, though, making sense of what it is that Ramadan actually believes. Is he a 7th-century throwback (Salafi reformist), or an Islamic adaptation of Western totalitarian movements, or something quite different? We find an intriguing solution to Berman’s puzzle in the work of the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), who argued that pagan society everywhere always is “totalitarian” in character, and that Islam is a form of paganism masquerading as revealed religion. I put “totalitarian” in quotation marks because Rosenzweig’s sociology of paganism predates this neologism. I summarized Rosenzweig’s still highly controversial view of Islam in a 2003 review of a German-language volume on the subject. [1]

Following Rosenzweig, then, we may say that what ties Ramadan and his celebrated family to 20th-century totalitarianism is not association or influence, but rather commonality of spirit. Professor Ramadan, in a word, is a pagan, just as the Nazis (for example) were pagans. That does not prove by any means that Ramadan bears the taint of Nazi influence, for the normative Islam of Mohammed al-Ghazali (1058-1111), which Ramadan embraces, represents a much earlier form of paganism. I will explain, but some background is helpful first.

Ramadan famously is the grandson of the founder of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, the ideological inspirer of radical Islam. Ramadan’s critics accuse him of offering a reasoned dialogue to Westerners while promoting terrorism among Arabs, and the division of views among academics and journalists is as wide as the differences between the US and UK governments over his immigration status. His efforts to “Europeanize” Islam do not extend to such customs as wife-beating, which he recommends so long as it does not produce wounds. In a televised debate with now French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan refused to condemn the stoning of women for adultery as prescribed by Islamic law, offering only to institute a temporary moratorium on the practice.

Without spoiling Berman’s story in The New Republic, a subscription site, I can report that he has placed Ramadan in the midst of a web of terrorist associations. He does not advocate terrorism, by any means, but he defends many who do. Berman’s 30,000-word essay, really a condensed book, targets not only Ramadan, but the European and American journalists who admire him, for example Timothy Ash in The Guardian. What Berman dubs “the intellectual establishment” has decided, “Better the 7th century than Nicolas Sarkozy,” and attacks Muslim dissidents such as former Dutch Member of Parliament Hirsan Ali while cozying up to presentable Islamists like Ramadan.

An especially revolting example is found in Ash’s laudatory profile of Ramadan’s great-uncle, the cleric Sheikh Gamal al-Banna. Ash contrasted the aged Egyptian mullah favorably with the hapless Hirsan Ali, as it happened on the same day that Banna’s public endorsement of the World Trade Center attacks appeared on the MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) website. Comparing Banna to Hirsin Ali, the collaborator of murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Ash wrote, “Which do you think reveals a deeper historical knowledge of Islam? Which is more likely to encourage thoughtful Muslims in the view that they can be both good Muslims and good citizens of free societies?” It happens that Banna had praised the “extremely courageous” action of the September 11, 2001, hijackers, which was “dreadful and splendid,” in opposition to the “barbaric capitalism” of the United States.

Willful blindness in the face of undisguised intentions to do violence to the West, Berman writes, requires explanation. The physical threats that follow journalists who attack Ramadan and his homicidal family, he concludes, have turned some of the more timid members of the fourth estate. A simpler explanation is that left-wing journalists hate the United States and Israel so much that they relish the idea of terrorist attacks on civilians, the way that left-wing intellectuals in the West defend Josef Stalin’s terror. But that is another matter. On these matters, read Berman’s booklet for yourself.

Regarding the connection between Ramadan’s family and fascism, Berman observes:

Among the present-day commentaries on al-Banna and fascism that I have lately stumbled on, the most eye-opening turns up in an essay by the Iranian scholars Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, which appears in an anthology called Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg. The Boroumands (who are sisters) arrive at a grim evaluation: “The man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna.”

By “totalitarian ideology,” the Boroumand sisters have in mind the doctrines of the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, whose influence on al-Banna they underline. And they point out the disastrous consequences: “From the Fascists – and behind them, from the European tradition of putatively ‘transformative’ or ‘purifying’ revolutionary violence that began with the Jacobins – Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as a political art form.”

In fact, there is a vast literature evaluating the links between political Islam (Islamism) and fascism, including Marc Erikson’s 2002 series on this subject on this site. [2] The Rousseauvian paradise of paganism depicted in the anthropological writings of Margaret Mead or such films as Dances With Wolves do not square with the all-embracing, total control of the individual we encounter in paganism. In fact, Rosenzweig wrote, pagan society dissolves the individual into a mere instrument of race or state:

People, State, and whatever else the societies of antiquity may have been are lion’s caves before which one sees the tracks of the Individual entering, but not leaving. In fact, the individual human stands before society as a whole: he knows that he is only a part. These wholes, with respect to which he is only a part, these species, of which he is only a representative example, have absolute power over his ethical life, although they as such are hardly absolute, but are in fact themselves only examples of the species “State” or “People.” For the isolated individual, his society is the society …

In the thoroughly organized State, the State and the individual do not stand in the relation of a whole to a part. Instead, the state is the All, from which the power flows through the limbs of the individual. Everyone has his determined place, and, to the extent that he fulfills it, belongs to the All of the State …

The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears. The well-known difference between the ancient and all modern concepts of democracy rightly arise from this. It is clear from this why antiquity never developed the concept of representative democracy. Only a body can have organs; a building has only parts. [3]

That is precisely what Rosenzweig meant when he described Islam as pagan, and Allah as an apotheosized despot. He began, that is, with a general characterization of pagan society, that is, society in the absence of God’s self-revelation through love, and then considered Islam as a specific case of a paganism that parodies the outward form of revealed religion. God’s self-revelation as an act of love first makes possible human individuality: the individual human is an individual precisely because he is loved.

Berman seems shocked to discover that radical Islam promotes a culture of death. He writes:

There is nothing especially novel or bizarre in noticing that al-Banna displayed an eager interest in the esthetic cult of death. The classic history of the Muslim Brotherhood, The Society of the Muslim Brothers by Richard P Mitchell, which appeared in 1969, was quite lucid on this topic even then.

Al-Banna came up with a double phrase about the importance of death as a goal of jihad – “the art of death” (fann al-mawt) and “death is art” (al-mawt fann). This phrase became, in Mitchell’s description, a famous part of al-Banna’s legacy.

Stringing together his own paraphrases with al-Banna’s words, Mitchell wrote: “The Koran has commanded people to love death more than life” (which, I might add, is a phrase that we have heard more than once in terrorist statements during the last few years, for instance in the videotape that was made by the Islamist group that attacked Madrid in 2004).

And al-Banna continued, in Mitchell’s presentation: “Unless the philosophy of the Koran on death replaces the love of life which has consumed Muslims, they will reach naught. Victory can only come with the mastery of the art of death.”

Paganism everywhere and always is a culture of death, for the simple reason that pagans know that their time on Earth is limited. Again, Rosenzweig:

The peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customs have lost their living power.

And further:

War as it was known to the peoples of antiquity was in general only one of the natural expressions of life, and presented no fundamental complications. War meant that a people staked its life, for the sake of its life. A people that marched to war took upon itself the danger of its own death. That mattered little as long as the peoples regarded themselves as mortal. [4]

Extinction is the eventual fate of the Gentiles, which they postpone by perpetual war in defense of their land:

[Unlike the Jews] the peoples of the earth cannot be satisfied by the affinity of blood; they drive their roots into the night of the earth, itself dead but also life-giving, and take from the permanence of the earth their own permanence.

Their will towards eternity clings to the earth and its dominion, to territory. The blood of their sons flows upon the soil of their homeland; for they do not trust to the living community of blood-relation, were it not anchored in the steady ground of the earth. The earth nourishes, but it also binds, and where a people loves the soil of its homeland more than its own life, it remains subject to the danger – and this danger hangs over every people of the world – that even if that love saves the soil of the homeland from the enemy nine times, and with the soil also saves the life of the people, nonetheless the 10th time the soil will be more loved than life, and the life of the people will be spilled out upon it. [5]

Pagans fight to the death for their land and culture, knowing that each fight might be the last, and one fight inevitably must be; for that reason all pagan culture exalts death. Parenthetically Nicholas Wade, in his recent book Before the Dawn, cites new research estimating a 40% attrition rate due to war of men in primitive society.

When Western political scientists speak of “totalitarianism,” they refer to “modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior” (Wikipedia). Rosenzweig explains something deeper: the individual has no identity separate from the group and therefore cannot act in opposition to it. Arthur Koestler’s broken protagonist cannot help but admit absurdly false charges at his show trial; Socrates cannot help but drink the hemlock; the Germans cannot help but follow Adolf Hitler’s orders. Because the individual is merely an instrument of the totality, not an individual, there is no capacity for doubt.

And that is precisely what Professor Ramadan means when he says that there is no possibility of doubt in Islam. Again, here is Berman:

In Ramadan’s view, ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for the kind of tension or difference between the sacred and the non-sacred that exists in Western thought. The ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for a Promethean spirit of rebellion, and have never allowed for a sense of the tragic. That is because in Islam, as per Ramadan (and here he invokes the medieval philosopher Ibn Taymiyya), the zone of the sacred contains only a single concept, which is tawhid, or the oneness of God. Tawhid leaves no room for tensions, rebellions, or doubts. A deep and tragic sense of doubt is not even a conceptual possibility.

[Ian] Buruma in the [New York] Times Magazine pursued this philosophical matter sufficiently at least to ask Ramadan if he has “ever experienced any doubts himself.” Ramadan replied: “Doubts about God, no.” And Buruma seems not to have realized that, in responding with this easy certainty, Ramadan was surely offering more than a self-confident autobiographical observation. Doubt, in Ramadan’s interpretation, can exist only within the limits allowed by tawhid – meaning that, for a proper Muslim, doubts about God are literally inconceivable. A Muslim, in Ramadan’s formulation, may forget, but a Muslim cannot doubt.

This idea of oneness is an empty construct, a philosophical soap bubble that Western philosophers have popped as a preliminary exercise since the days of Parmenides. To pose unity is also to pose multiplicity, as we know from Plato’s Parmenides dialogue, Immanuel Kant’s antinomies, and a great deal in between and since.

As a “philosopher” Ramadan would not pass a freshman course. “Oneness” in the sense of tawhid derives from the all-consuming tyranny of traditional society. Ghazali’s use of the term is quite different from the Jewish motto, “YHWH is echad,” which means (as Michael Wyschogrod demonstrates clearly) “unique” rather than “one” in the Parmenidean philosophical sense. For the Judeo-Christian god to self-reveal through love, he must become differentiated, either through YHWH’s anthropomorphic love for Abraham, or through the Christian Trinity in which God becomes Man.

If we ignore Ramadan’s trivial philosophizing, we observe immediately that tawhid to Ramadan (and to normative Islam since no later than the 11th century) means the crushing of individual identity through the absolute demands of pagan society. For a vivid view of this from the inside of Islam, I recommend the works of the Arab world’s leading poet, Adonis, as I reported in a May 8 essay on his work. [6] Here, once again, is what Adonis said about oneness in a television interview this year:

I believe it has to do with the concept of “oneness,” which is reflected – in practical or political terms – in the concept of the hero, the savior, or the leader. This concept offers an inner sense of security to people who are afraid of freedom. Some human beings are afraid of freedom.

Interviewer: Because it is synonymous with anarchy?

Adonis: No, because being free is a great burden. It is by no means easy.

Interviewer: You’ve got to have a boss …

Adonis: When you are free, you have to face reality, the world in its entirety. You have to deal with the world’s problems, with everything …

Interviewer: With all the issues …

Adonis: On the other hand, if we are slaves, we can be content and not have to deal with anything. Just as Allah solves all our problems, the dictator will solve all our problems.

Precisely what relationship Professor Ramadan might have to Islamist terrorism, I will leave the experts to argue out. But his relationship to 20th-century neo-paganism is unambiguous: he preaches a much older form of paganism, next to which Europe’s 20th-century totalitarians were upstarts.

1. Oil on the flames of civilizational war, Asia Times Online, December 2, 2003.
2. Islamism, fascism and terrorism, four parts, ATol, November-December 2002.
3. Franz Rosenzweig, Stern der Erloesung (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt 1988), pp 59-60 (my translation).
4. Stern, p 366.
5. Stern, p 332.
6. Are the Arabs already extinct?, ATol.

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