Commentary on Malise Ruthven's NY Review of Books Article: The Contextualization of Radical Islam

by Lorna Salzman

A favorite word of Salafist pseudo-reformer Tariq Ramadan is "contextualization", a post-modern term that seems to have replaced the word "rationalization". Ramadan has used it to defend practices and beliefs that the nonMuslim world regards with distaste or horror.

While Malise Ruthven's review of Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Nomad, in the New York Review of Books (Aug.19, 2010) does not actually use this word, the review -which extensively deals with and quotes from Ramadan - would have had more credibility had it addressed Ramadan's employment of the word to justify the numerous atrocities and violations of human rights that characterize the practice of Islam today.

Though there is nothing overtly mendacious or misleading in the review, and while it confirms many of the accusations that Berman makes against Islam in his condemnation of American intellectuals, still there are some puzzling statements and omissions, amid some minor criticisms about some of Berman's own omissions with regard to Islam's history, specifically Berman's failure to note the pro-Nazi Subhai Chandra Bose who broadcast anti-British propaganda from India and fought with the Japanese in World War II and is now a national hero, or Finn Gustav Mannerheim who fought with the Germans and recruited for the Waffen SS and later served as Finland's president from 1944 to 1946.

Ruthven mentions these two examples because Berman had described the Arab region as "the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue, to boot, returned home in glory, instead of disgrace". The reference was to pro-Nazi Hajj Amin, who provided the Muslim Brotherhood (founded by Tariq Ramadan's grandfather) with Nazi funds and as grand mufti of Jerusalem broadcast numerous Nazi broadcasts, and visited Hitler who he assured of support for his campaign to exterminate the world's Jews.

This omission in no way detracts from or falsifies the ignominity of both Amin and Brotherhood founder Hasan al Banna. Yet Ruthven comes close to accusing Berman of deliberately suppressing the Nazi associations of these other pro-fascists by calling his vision "crassly ideological, containing facts that might interfere with his argument - such as al-Banna's stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam, as well as other complicating factors that are liable to be discarded or ignored".

Here it is Ruthven who ignores the facts that might interfere with the incriminating history of Al Banna, his close associate Amin, and the Muslim Brotherhood. While incompatibility of Islam with Nazi racial theories might be conceivable, the simple fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership (after Al Banna died, Al Qaradawi, Tariq Ramadan's idol, became its leader) were among the inciters of anti-Jewish riots in Egypt in 1945 and today reinforce the centuries=long edicts of Muhammad and the qu-ran to exterminate the Jews in order to reclaim Palestine.

More to the point in Banna's statement about the incompatibility of Nazi racial theories with Islam is the fact that Al Banna never actually CONDEMNED these theories. In much the same way, Tariq Ramadan, in his famous TV debate with Sarkozy, called for a moratorium on the stoning of women, to be followed by a discussion and consensus among Muslim leaders as to whether it should be banned entirely. Ramadan had a chance to PERSONALLY take a position against stoning but refused to do so. In both of these cases the Muslims involved refused to take a position on major moral issues: extermination of the Jews and the stoning of women accused of adultery. But this moral evasion evokes no comment from Ruthven.

In his book, Berman singles out Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton-Ash for what he terms moral cowardice, with which Ruthven takes issue by faulting him for not focusing on their "betrayals or corruption". I am not sure there is a difference here. A betrayal or corruption usually involves making an immoral choice, in my book. Then Buruma is quoted as saying that Ramadan's values are "neither secular, nor always liberal... (and) offer an alternative to violence". But Ramadan's condemnations of violence are timid and few and far between, and in any case, regardless of what he personally preaches, Islamic violence continues unabated, illustrating that Ramadan himself is powerless to stem it... or has chosen, again, to be silent

However, while the Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda, it is the philosophical, historical and ethical foundation of Islamic proselytism. It has spent and continues to spend huge amounts of money and time in spinning off affiliated mosques and so-called charities, all of which preach not only sharia law but the superiority of Islam to all other religions and the necessity of imposing this superiority on non=Muslim nations, in particular the United States, whose exorbitant civil liberties and freedoms allow it free reign.

This is a campaign of "stealth jihad", which is physically nonviolent but adept at using its power to defy, manipulate and exempt Muslims from secular civil law and American traditions. It is accompanied by continual frivolous lawsuits, termed "Lawfare", in which American law is used not only to promote privileges for Muslims but to undermine those same freedoms protected by law and the law itself. To date there is a complete absence of any preaching in Muslim mosques against the killing of nonMuslims, against the goal of a global caliphate, against the oppression of women, against expressions of anti-Semitism, and against any strictures on freedom of expression.

Ruthven then refers to an assault by Ramadan on several French Jewish intellectuals, published on the internet after major French newspapers refused the ad, in which he faults them for putting their "communal" sympathies for Israel before their duty to defend the universal human rights of Palestinians. Mon dieu! Ramadan is demanding that French Jews observe universal human rights... but where, one asks, has he made such a demand to Muslims...such as those who stone women to death, explode suicide bombs and kill innocent people, force children into marriages, and threaten those who criticize Islam FOR ANY OF THESE VIOLENT PRACTICES? Yet Ruthven does not see fit to mention Ramadan's hypocrisy.

Now let's get back to "contextualization". Ruthven writes that a Haaretz reporter asked Ramadan to comment on his grandfather's ideological legacy, including the attacks that he and the Muslim Brotherhood have led against Egyptian Jews. Here is Ramadan's response:

"It is necessary to present each of the positions, my grandfather's and my own, in their political and historical context....Clearly there is a difference between what he said in his day and what I am saying today...There are some things of my grandfather's with which I agree and others with which I don't agree". So precisely WHAT are the things you disagree with, Tariq? Silence. Yet this is Ruthven's comment: "The Haaretz interview is not an outright condemnation of his grandfather's views; but neither is it a wholehearted endorsement". Now take this comment and imagine a contemporary religious leader being interviewed about the Nazis and the Holocaust, who tries to explain the historic "context" that brought about Nazism and the Holocaust by issuing neither a wholehearted endorsement nor an outright condemnation.

This is, on the part of Ruthven, moral cowardice in that it lets Ramadan off the hook entirely. But wait, there's more. Ruthven then goes on to say that his comments are "not inconsistent with the accounts of leading Western historians....who have shown how the violence attributed to (sic) the Brotherhood's military wing...arose during the anticolonial struggle against Britain and the conflict in Palestine" Sound familiar? Yes indeed, it sounds like the justification that many liberals and leftists, Jews included, have offered of Palestinian suicide bombings, terrorism and rocket attacks against Israel. An anti-colonial struggle, in their view as much as in Ramadan's and possibly Ruthven's too, justifies the use of violence. This is the real meaning of "contextualization": a blatant rationalization for the use of violence.

Ramadan has reportedly condemned terrorism and suicide bombings against civilians, but has said that the situation of Palestinians makes these actions "understandable". One wishes that Sarkozy had heard this statement so he could have asked Ramadan directly whether the stoning of women accused of adultery was "understandable". I fail to detect much light between the words "justifiable" and "understandable".

Ruthven then goes on to criticize Berman for not granting that the Brotherhood or its offshoots are capable of "evolution in response to changing circumstances", i.e. renouncing violence. How long must the world wait for the tiger to evolve into the lamb? How many more violent deaths are "acceptable" as this evolution - as yet unstarted - unfolds? And why has Ramadan not planted himself firmly as the leader in this evolution?

One must look at Ramadan's proposal for how the issue of the stoning of women should be handled: there should be a group of Muslim leaders and thinkers gathered together, who would hold a long discussion about stoning, followed by a vote which, he hopes, would be a consensus, the preferred Muslim practice. But what if there is no consensus? Does this mean that stoning remains legitimate? What if the consensus declares that stoning is indeed legitimate and sharia-compliant? And how would Ramadan vote? When asked who he would select for this committee of about a dozen men schooled in Islamic thought (no women of course), Al Qaradawi was one of his choices: the man who pronounced suicide bombing to be not only necessary but MANDATORY for Muslims.

A review by Ruthven of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book,Nomad, follows, summed up by this statement: "...her fulminations against Islam are directed less at its theology than at the tyranny of patriarchal customs..". First, note the use of the word "fulmination", which means a fiery uncontrollable outburst, selected carefully to tar Ali with the taint of an hysterical female, as Buruma and Garton-Ash both did, justifiably earning Berman's ire.

But as all students of Islam know, there is no distinction between Islam and patriarchy. They go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin, because Islam is both the religion and the social structure. Women were and are subjugated in other religions and ethnic groups, but only two fundamentalist religions have made it inseparable from the rest of daily life and the mandates of the tribe or country: orthodox Judaism and Islam....and all of Islam at that, "moderates" included.

More "contextualization" follows, when Ruthven faults Ali for confining her knowledge largely to her own background in Somalia and Saudi Arabia and exhibiting "little interest in or understanding of the complex processes at work in the wider Muslim world".

Hmm. what world would that be? Al Qaeda? Taliban? Al Shabab? Muslim Brotherhood? The self-isolated Muslim communities in Minnesota that give birth to Somali suicide bombers? The American shoe bomber, the Muslim shooter at Ft. Hood, the Christmas Eve bomber? The Muslim cells that have made London Earth Central for Islamic terrorism? The physical abuse of Egyptian and Iranian women whose heads are not sufficiently covered in public? The Muslims who stone and bury women alive, behead their wives and knife their daughters to death for "inappropriate" behavior? The Muslim world that denounces all of western science and declares the superiority of "Muslim science"? The mosques in Michigan, Virginia, Colorado and elsewhere getting money from the Muslim Brotherhood via innocent-sounding front groups?

That "wider Muslim world" now includes western Europe, which Ali hardly ignores, when she talks of the brutal murder of her colleague Theo van Gogh, honor killings, and the bombings in London and Madrid, and the tribulations of Muslim women in the Netherlands whom she assisted on her arrival there. It is hard to find anyone more qualified to understand these "complex processes at work in the Muslim world", but astonishingly easy (and getting easier) to find journalists pronouncing moral judgments on events that they know about only from the internet or mass media.

So Ali's critics are upset because, unlike them, she has not written about topics second-hand and geographically distant from her Buruma and countless other couch pundits have done, presuming themselves sufficiently qualified to pass judgment on those who have suffered personally. Frankly, I am finding it pretty hard to contextualize Islamic violence and terrorism. Maybe I am missing something.

Ruthven, however, is an expert at this trick, summing up his reviews by calling Islamism not "totalitarian" but an expression of "the complexities of family power rooted in clan politics and kin patronage networks of a traditionally based society". This would serve well as the subtitle for a post-modern thesis on that venerable ol' time religion of Islam. How about the full title: "Honor Killings, Beheadings and Stoning: A Contextualized Study of the Complexities of Family Power, Clan Politics and Kin Patronage Networks in Contemporary Muslim Societies"? Sounds better already.

Clans in Minnesota and Michigan? In north London? in Chechnya? Does Ruthven really think Al Qaeda is a clan, with kin networks? What about the fact that Al Qaeda is happily recruiting American citizens, mostly black? Were these secret kin hiding out in Minneapolis or Buffalo or Ft. Hood, saving up enough money for their airfare to Afghanistan and Pakistan? Either that, or Al Qaeda is quite happy to pay for their airfare even if they aren't distant cousins. Very generous of them.

Ruthven may not be a secret Muslim but you need not be when you describe Islamism thusly: "All of the Islamist movements seek legitimacy by drawing on the symbolic capital sanctified by an ancient tradition". "Symbolic" capital sanctified? Are we dealing with the Roman Catholic church? No of course not; Catholics imbibe symbolic blood and flesh of Jesus but Muslims go them one better: actual slaughter of apostates, bad women, Jews, Christians; real global jihad to establish a worldwide Muslim caliphate. No fuzzy symbols for them.

There are similar ancient traditions and symbols in the Old and New Testament. Nonetheless, modern day Jews and Christians, with a few notable but minor exceptions that present no threat to the state, manage to conduct their religious observances freely while adhering to secular civil law, while Muslims are exhorted by their leaders to obey sharia law first and foremost and above all other civil laws of the state. This exhortation should frighten us all; after all, if we take the advice of Ramadan and "contextualize" Islam, it will make Islamophobes of us all, and quite rightly.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.