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Nothing to See Here

By: William Lippincott
April 2, 2018

rior to 9/11, Arab culture and the Muslim one-percent minority were virtually invisible in the U.S. Today, everyone’s first association with Islam is Islamic terrorism—even the progressive Left’s, though they’d never admit it. The total elimination of the threat of terrorism is essential for the West’s continued existence, yet our belief in religious toleration demands understanding and acceptance. Is Islam compatible with pluralistic Western culture? Islamic scholar and author Tariq Ramadan attempts to answer this in Introduction to Islam.

Ramadan walks us through Islam’s history, outlines its theology in detail, and attempts to work through contemporary challenges from a secular point of view. Ramadan’s objective is “to introduce readers…to Islam, to its principles, its rituals, its history, its diversity, and its evolution….” This covers a great deal of terrain. But no amount of detail and heft can obscure the schism between the author’s claims and hopes for Islam and his acknowledgement of “the numerous challenges facing Muslims today.” It is clear that the author’s sub-rosa objective is to bolster Islam’s image as an inherently peaceful religion fully capable of acculturating to secular Western society. He is aided in this by Western progressive opinion, which rates Islam as a priori peaceful and which considers all who demure to be “Islamophobic.”

Ramadan invokes various Islamic golden eras and “confident phases.” He describes confident Islam as having “opened its arms to intellectual inquiry, to the sciences and the arts” during such periods. For Ramadan, Islamic enlightenment was on the ascendant from the eighth through 13th-centuries, when the many developments ascribed to Muslim intellectuals occurred. The decline, however, of the tolerant, innovative Islamic golden age began as early the split between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims following Mohammed’s death. The process accelerated around the time of the 13th-century Mongol invasions of Central Asia and continued through the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Ramadan characterizes Islamic malaise as reactionary: “in times of crisis, [Islam] sought to protect itself through a natural but nonetheless questionable reflex, by favoring legislation and the imposition of limits.”

Islamic thought was further limited by two doctrinal assertions. The first, taqlid, is the doctrine that that past scholars exhausted the possibilities of thought, and so contemporary Muslims must concentrate on repetition and imitation. This is, for Ramadan, an “attitude of manifest regression, an attitude that is alive and well today in certain Islamic ideological currents.” Taqlid prevents Islamic thought’s evolution and promotes stagnation. Second, Islam became very insular: a fear of the corrupting influence of non-Muslim cultural or intellectual thought lead to Muslims seeing themselves as the “other” and closing their minds against outsiders. Ramadan considers these outcomes to be an inversion of Islam and “a deep crisis of collective psychology.”

Pundits often cherry pick the Koran to support their preconceived beliefs in either peaceful or hostile Islam. Ramadan himself omits an oft-cited hostile verse: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and his Messenger has made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth,” but includes a more peaceful one: "And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed—all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?”. Regarding Islam’s peaceful essence, Ramadan distinguishes between majority Muslim nations, which he acknowledges are dominated by dictatorships and strict textual interpretation, and nations in which Muslims are a minority. In the latter, he argues that the persistence of a Muslim minority in a Western secular context is proof that the Islamic “principles” are nonthreatening to the West and conducive to “a process of uneventful normalization.”

Introduction to Islam tries to find workable solutions to Islam’s clashes with the West over sharia, homosexuality, women’s rights, violence, and other controversial issues, but there is no disguising the chasm. Ramadan distinguishes, for example, between “legitimate resistance and violence when the colonialist or the oppressor wields it,” meaning the Intifada was legitimate, but doesn’t allow that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank might be. What are the prospects for peace or violence in Muslim-minority situations? Introduction to Islam cannot answer this question.

Ramadan’s ultimate solution is for Muslims to acculturate wherever they are:

It is for all Muslim women and men, wherever they might live, to attest to their faith and ethical principles by becoming committed citizens aware of their rights and obligations, accepting of the culture in which they find themselves and seeking out and actively promoting the good.

This is a noble assertion, but how well are western Muslims becoming acculturated?

Introduction to Islam shouldn’t be taken as the final word for an informed opinion on Islam. The author himself challenges credulity. A Swiss-Egyptian, Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and widely considered to be a polished apologist for Islam and its excesses. Writing about Ramadan in The American Prospect, the Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith argued that

Ramadan's most provocative idea is that it is in the Western liberal democracies that [the] one Islam can manifest itself, far from the cultural habits and authoritarian politics of the Muslim world. It's a novel twist on the perpetual ambition of Islamism to return to the faith's original state.”…But “It's not just that the West is the future of Islam; Islam is the future of the West.

Smith’s description is one of the more benign. Does Ramadan inform or mislead with Introduction to Islam? An important clue is the subject of Wahhabism, which he barely mentions. This 18th-century ideology rejects as heretical all knowledge and innovation since the seventh century. Today’s Saudi Arabia is the product of an eighteenth-century deal between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud, where they exchanged political protection for religious orthodoxy. Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia are as inseparable today as they were in 1744.

Importantly, Wahhabism is the wellspring for Islamic education throughout the world.  It is the predominate source of fundamentalist orthodoxy in both the Middle East and the West. Despite this, Ramadan doesn’t feel it deserves more than the passing mention. His minimal treatment of Wahhabism suggests an effort to anaesthetize Western attitudes. As so often seems the case, Islam speaks reform to non-Muslims and orthodoxy to the faithful. Which version to believe?

Regardless, Islamic terrorism must be countered by all legal means. Whether or not moderate Islam is compatible with the West, fundamentalist Islam is implacably committed to the subjugation or demise of infidels world-wide. Moreover, the extent to which the West ought to accommodate Islam is an open question. Ramadan carefully presents Islam as fully integrated with the West, while acknowledging Islam’s “ancient intellectual crisis [that is] visible everywhere, in Muslim-majority societies and among Muslim communities in the West.”

The key to tolerance for both minority Muslims and majority non-Muslims is live and let live. The question is whether Western Muslims can let live.