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WIth Apologizes to Trotsky: The Dangerous Romanticization of Muslim "Moderates"

July 1, 2010 1 comment
In Foreign Affairs, Marc Lynch writes a thoughtful critique of Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals. Berman’s book (which I haven’t read yet) describes the way that Western intellectuals have balked from criticizing Islam and even defended illiberal ideas. I read Berman’s 2007 “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” piece in The New Republic, which Lynch says the book is based. Berman blasts various Western intellectuals and journalists who profile of Ramadan without exposing his more toxic history and beliefs. Here’s an encapsulation of Berman’s view of Ramadan (which he believes many miss):

The problem lies in the terrible fact that Ramadan’s personal milieu—his grandfather, his family history, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition—is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theoretical justification for religious suicide-terrorism. Yet what can Ramadan do about this horrific reality—turn against his family? He is his family’s prince. He has timidly offered jurisprudential proposals contrary to Qaradawi’s; but Ramadan, unlike Qaradawi, is a university philosopher, a secular figure (in spite of everything), and not an authoritative theologian. Ramadan’s opinions are opinions; Qaradawi’s opinions are law. What is Ramadan to do, then? To challenge Qaradawi’s authority would mean challenging the system of authority as a whole, which is something well beyond the salafi reformist idea. So Ramadan writes op-eds, which are not fatwas. And he devotes his life to burnishing the prestige of his father and grandfather and their works, and to promoting the cause of salafi reformism, which means promoting the authority of true and authentic Islamic scholars such as Qaradawi.

And his final message, therefore, ends up calling for—but what is his final message with regard to violence? It is a double message. The first message condemns terrorism. The second message lavishes praise on the theoreticians of terrorism. (my emphasis)

Even Ramadan’s personal beliefs shouldn’t make liberals comfortable. Take his view on the stoning of women. In a debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan argued that a “moratorium” should be in place on stoning women for adultery until a “true debate” can take place. Berman points out that many commentators see that view as “progressive.” Of course it is only progressive when judged next to the views of extremist muslims. Unfortunately, I suppose, much of the muslim world needs to engage in just that sort of debate – but there is nothing “moderate” or “progressive” about it in a Western liberal context. It’s ghastly.

Marc Lynch himself writes, “Ramadan’s call in 2005 for a moratorium on the implementation of hudud penalties — including the stoning of adulterers — is mocked relentlessly by Berman as too little, but in fact it posed an intensely controversial challenge to the heart of Salafi political agendas and jurisprudence.” I suppose a similar argument is often made for Christian figures like Rick Warren who hold shockingly ignorant and repellent views on gays and women but are a little nicer than Jerry Falwell or Fred Phelps so he gets more mainstream praise. It all just seems condescending to me, “Oh look at their faith communities, they can’t be expected to be completely reasonable!” When did anything short of outright violence become a commendable standard?  


Lynch does notice some of the danger Berman illustrates, here he gets it:

This does not mean that liberals should not have misgivings about Ramadan’s project. He defines sharia — the system of Muslim jurisprudence — not as the law of the land but as a personal moral code, sustained by the faith of the believer. Why should such a belief be alarming? After all, this is how many people of faith have reconciled themselves to civic states. But in practice, this evangelical project of societal transformation through personal transformation — changing the world “one soul at a time” — is more deeply radical than what violent extremists envision. Anyone can seize state power through violence and then impose his will by force. True power lies in the ability to mobilize consent so that people willingly embrace ideas without coercion — so that they want what you want, not simply do what you want. Nonviolent Islamists excel at this level of soft power and, in doing so, have succeeded in transforming public culture across the Muslim world. Walking the streets of Cairo today, for example, it is hard to believe that only a couple decades ago, few women covered their hair. (my emphasis)

Lynch’s main criticism appears to be “Berman’s lumping together of different strands of Islamism,” which would cause the West to “shun all Islamists.” I’m not sure if Berman has actually called for that, if so, I wouldn’t support it. I hope not to be accused of black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us thinking myself, but let me offer an imprecise parallel of what I see going on. Take the ideologies of Trotsky and Stalin. Since Trotsky’s and Ramadan’s ideologies remain on the official unemployment roles they seem less frightening. The easy romanticization of any jobless (not necessarily uninfluential) ideologue always softens the hasher reality of their beliefs. Fully realized libertarianism would have its faults glaringly revealed like every other ideology. The relatively reactionary Ramadan like the radical Trotsky hasn’t had to chance to fully implement their ideas into practice, which obscures their more hideous features. Ramadan’s philosophy is even more susceptible to this rosy blurring due to religion’s innate ability to be read ambiguously and Ramadan’s uncanny ability to weave perceptual burkas on naive and credulous Westerners through euphemism, “double discourse,” and evasion.


Trotsky’s undeniable ability as a thinker and writer made him a particularly appealing idol. Yet Robert Service, biographer of Leon Trotsky, peered upon the high pedestal and argues that many Trotsky’s ideas “overlap with those of Stalin.” Had Lenin got a chance to give control to Trotsky over Stalin (which he wanted to do after a change of mind) how much suffering would be mitigated? It is cliche to remark that the perfect shouldn’t get in the way of the good, but should we have hoped the bad get in the way of the terrible? If the Ramadans replace the Bin Ladens, Lynch is right, we’re better off (who would argue otherwise?). Well, we’re less worse off – but in a liberal renissance we’re not.

In our counterfactual history, the Soviet Union may have less anti-Semitism with Trotsky, but the same isn’t so easy to see in our alternate modern Islamic nations. Of course, Service believes that the “risks of bloodbath in Europe would be drastically increased.” (my emphasis) Yet, that may have preempted Hitler and saved the world from the horrors of Nazism. Now we’re getting a bit too far down the road of “What If” history, but the point should be clear: we should be careful boosting any unsavory figures just because they’re moderating such an extreme. Service uses the phrase “Gentle Stalinism” for Trotsky; does Ramadan exhibit “Gentle Talibanism?”
Are Trotsky’s ideas more “moderate” than Stalin’s? Sure, but that’s a breathtakingly thin use of the word – you can almost hear the letters collapsing in on themselves. Berman seems to appreciate this and calls out journalists for being insufficiently critical. 

The equanimity on the part of some well-known intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the journalistic inability even to acknowledge that women’s rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism; the inability to recall the problems faced by Muslim women in European hospitals; the inability to acknowledge how large has been the role of a revived anti-Semitism; the striking number of errors of understanding and even of fact that have entered into the journalistic presentations of Tariq Ramadan and his ideas; the refusal to discuss with any frankness the role of Ramadan’s family over the years; the accidental endorsement in the Guardian of the great-uncle who finds something admirable in the September 11 attacks—what can possibly account for this string of bumbles, timidities, gaffes, omissions, miscomprehensions, and slanders?  

Two developments account for it. The first development is the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism. (my emphasis)



If Berman’s critique is reserved for intellectuals and journalists, I’m with him. Futhermore, Lynch is right that we can’t group disparate groups together or engage in binary thinking. I’m certainly not saying Ramadan and others like him are just like the Taliban or Bin Ladan or even Trotsky. As a matter of diplomacy, counterinsurgency, military, or political strategy it is probably of enormous use to carefully align ourselves with more “moderate” and “reformer” and nonviolent figures in Islamic civilizations. Yet our media or our universities and we as citizens and as skeptics have an obligation to the unveiled truth. Our intellectuals, as Berman believes, shouldn’t and needn’t be so diplomatic. Religious moderates have a role to play in curbing the more violent tendencies of fanatical Islam – and they aren’t a greater threat. But Western liberals who truly hold dear the values of the Enlightenment must be wary of, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “the soft mainstreaming of Islamic imperialism.” Journalists, public intellectuals, bloggers, community leaders all have to fight for our values and our culture against bigotry, barbarity, and those that seek to undermine the greater Enlightenment project of equality, liberty, secular rationality, and honesty – we won’t do that by biting our collective tongues with the teeth of political correctness.  

Lynch counters Berman writing that “ Ramadan may not present the only path to such an end — but he does present one.” Sadly, Lynch dismisses the heroic Ayaan Hirsi Ali writing, “real moral courage does not come from penning angry polemics without regard for real-world consequences.” May I offer that Ali may not present the only path for intellectuals to take – but she does present an honest one. 

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Understanding Cause and Effect

The Tea Party has grown partly in response to ballooning deficits and what they see as irresponsible government spending. Well, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities graphs data from the CBO to illustrate where our massive deficits originate. While partly to settle the “blame game,” this also helps us figure out how best to combat the deficit (if that’s really someone’s concern; looking at you Tea Party). 

Any fair observer can see that the economic recovery measures (lighter blues) are not the cause of out of control long-term deficits. The economic downturn and Bush’s tax cuts are the major issue. My solution: fix the economy (ok, easier said than done) and raise future taxes with a VAT. It should be clear that if solutions to fix the economy involve spending money that should not be a valid concern – a healthier and productive economy will help diminish the deficit more than any spending will contribute to it.

Although I agree to a certain extent that the Obama administration shouldn’t focus on blaming the Bush administration for the deficit, The New Republic points out… they’re not wrong.

Now, I think it’s fine for a story to eschew “balance”when one side is making an unsupportable or hypocritical case. But Obama’s case isn’t wrong — it really is true that the economic and budgetary problems we’re facing were inherited from the previous administration. What’s false is the Republican effort to imply that Obama caused the problems — an argument that collapses upon the slightest empirical pressure. But somehow the standard here is not what’s correct but what’s polite, and it’s impolite for Obama to blame Bush.

The Pull of Polls

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

It seems the “observer effect” has an influence beyond the micro-world of quantum mechanics.  Don’t worry I’m not talking Deepak Chopra-style nonsense and making unwarranted claims about the nature of our universe.  I was discussing the passage of the healthcare bill with a coworker and he revealed the main reason he thought the plan should have been rejected was not due necessarily to its substance (although he wasn’t thrilled with that either) but because it didn’t receive a majority of the public’s support or a single Republican vote. He argued that by-definition that made the bill too extreme. Furthermore, he didn’t support it because those reasons. It may be one thing to think a democratic body should bend to public opinion, but for an individual’s opinion to change on the merit of the bill because of public opinion seems perverse. Once people like my coworker see public opinion their opinion changes, which further changes public opinion – in a crude self-reinforcing political version of the observer effect. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic explains why lack of Republican support also is poor indicator of anything other then the potential partisanship/extremism of the current Republican party. 

The Republicans’ second measure is the lack of Republican support. It’s true, no Republican supports Obama’s plan. Republicans like Bennett site this fact as ipso facto proof that the plan is extreme. This definition inherently rules out the possibility that Republicans are opposing a moderate plan out of some combination of partisanship and ideological extremism. Suppose Obama decided to embrace the Republcian proposal as his own, and then every Republican subsequently abandoned the proposal, making it a Democrats-only plan. (This may sound ludicrous, but it happened in 1994.) By the Republican definition, the lack of GOP support would prove that Obama was supporting an extreme proposal.

Moreover, public opinion and Republican Congressional support are also problematic measures of a bill’s moderation because the two can interact. As Mitch McConnell has explained, the fact of united Republican opposition has helped turn the public against the bill:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview

So I’d propose that the ideological character of the plan can only be determined by referring to its policy content.

This illustrates the problem of polling. It isn’t just a measure of public opinion but it shapes public opinion. We have the advantage of living in a constitutional republic which helps mitigate some of these problems. But only if our politicians don’t just act as mere proxy voters for majoritarian opinion. Madison didn’t promote elected representatives to simply save the nation the hassle of holding national votes on every issue. Our elected officials need to govern how they think best serves our interests – if we don’t like the results we vote them out. That’s the deal. 

Partisanship Poisons Everything

March 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Ever ask why climate change, a scientific issue, became a partisan political issue? The New Republic looks at the recent partisanship citing a new Gallup poll:

That skepticism about global warming is almost exclusively on the rise among political conservatives. Two years ago, for instance, 50 percent of conservatives believed climate change was already happening—that’s now down to 30 percent.

The post considers a few possible reasons for the increase, but I’m curious why the issue ever became a political issue. I understand different scientists having different opinions on the matter but why, for example, would liberals and conservatives have different opinions on the underlying science not just on the best course of action? The libertarian think-tank CATO for as long as I can remember has been skeptical of climate change. 


I suspect that because if greenhouse gases truly have a large effect on climate change, the government (gasp!) has to correct the “market failure,” which puts no price on such a huge negative externality. That doesn’t easily fit with libertarian and conservatives prejudices. They need to get over it. I always wanted to ask CATO if you were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that climate change is real and is a problem, would you acknowledge the need for government intervention? Their time could be better spent advocating more market friendly solutions. 


(HT: The Daily Dish)

Sore about Tora Bora

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

The New Republic publishes a must-read account of the battle of Tora Bora where Osama bin Laden reportedly narrowly escaped.

What really happened at Tora Bora? Not long after the battle ended, the answer to that question would become extremely clouded. Americans perceived the Afghan war as a stunning victory, and the failure at Tora Bora seemed like an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise upbeat story. By 2004, with George W. Bush locked in a tough reelection battle, some U.S. officials were even asserting, inaccurately, that bin Laden himself may not have been present at the battle.

The real history of Tora Bora is far more disturbing. Having reconstructed the battle–based on interviews with the top American ground commander, three Afghan commanders, and three CIA officials; accounts by Al Qaeda eyewitnesses that were subsequently published on jihadist websites; recollections of captured survivors who were later questioned by interrogators or reporters; an official history of the Afghan war by the U.S. Special Operations Command; an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and visits to the battle sites themselves–I am convinced that Tora Bora constitutes one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.

We need less common cents.

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

As I’ve argued before, the penny needs to go. The New Republic makes the case that President Obama should follow through with his campaign promise to consider abolishing the penny.

[T]he other (arguably stronger) case for abolishing the penny–saving time lost to fumbling cashiers–remains as solid as ever. Considering that pennies add 2 to 2.5 seconds to each cash transaction, economist Robert Whaples has calculated this country’s penny-induced productivity loss at $300 million annually. Former Bush economic adviser Gregory Mankiw puts the figure at $1 billion, while anti-penny activist Jeff Gore argues that it’s actually in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

Now that pennies cost more to make than they are worth there is every reason to rid our monetary system of this zinc-plated environmental disaster.
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