I've been following Marc Lynch’s Twitter feed pretty closely ever since I came across the following ‘tweet’ of his on July 28, 2010:
“Bibi: continuing settlement freeze will topple my governnment [sic] http://bit.ly/bQcVV1 and the problem is...?”
Despite commenting on a whole range of topics related to the Middle East, it’s not often (if ever) that Lynch speaks endearingly about the prospect of a government’s collapse (let alone, that of our closest ally). But as Elliot Abrams recently observed, Lynch has a problem: a blame-Israel-for-everything problem. Yet, Lynch has a far more dangerous problem, one that threatens the very foundations of Western Liberalism and the cores of Democracy. I am referring to his tactless embrace of Islamism, exemplified in his recent essay (Veiled Truths) for Foreign Affairs Magazine. On August 18th, Lynch tweeted that his essay was ‘holding up pretty well,’ that is, until now…
Lynch asks, Is ‘Moderate Islam’ an Oxymoron, or so the title of his article suggests. To deal with this question, Lynch treats Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, as an example of how not to address the question because it “poorly serves those concerned about the rise of political Islam.” According to Lynch, Berman is guilty of conflating all Islamist groups under a single flag that obscures, for example, “the fierce war between the Salafi purists who call for a literalistic Islam insulated from modernity and the modernizing pragmatists who seek to adapt Islam to the modern world.” On this, Lynch may be right, but his review ultimately reveals more about his personal wishes for the future face of Islam than his critiques of Berman's book or the timely question that the title of his article poses.
In his introduction, Lynch points out that Berman’s book is “based on a 28,000-word essay published three years ago in The New Republic,” which uses Tariq Ramadan as a foil for addressing the much more serious concern of ‘moderate Islamism.’ Rather than thinking that violent Islamists pose the greatest danger to Western ideals, Berman instead asserts that it is “their so-called moderate cousins, who are able to draw well-meaning liberals into a poisonous embrace” that are most dangerous. Since Ramadan is Berman’s ‘lodestar,’ Lynch hopes to undermine the foundation of Berman’s argument by saying that Ramadan is actually a modernizing force of good, whose real enemies are “not liberals in the West but rather literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslims communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to Western Europe.” As a book review, Lynch’s strategy perhaps works, but in addressing the larger question that Lynch poses, it is not only unsatisfactory but dangerous.
When Lynch extrapolates from the persona of Ramadan to the generalized movement that he represents (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood), we are told that “the Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged women to wear the veil, but only so that they can demonstrate virtue while in universities and the workplace [Emphasis Added].” We are asked to empathize with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood because they perform social services and offer “meaning to those who are confined to gloomy urban ghettos,” effectively dismissing the recent Supreme Court decision in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project and legitimizing groups like Hezbollah and Hamas (which Lynch implicitly calls moderate). “True liberals,” we are told, should choose Ramadan (and so the Muslim Brotherhood), because they “offer a model for Muslims of integration as full citizens at a time when powerful forces are instead pushing for isolation and literalism.” But in so doing, Lynch has left the reader with a false dichotomy, a perversion of the word ‘Liberalism,’ and, by implication, a misunderstanding of Berman’s intentions.
For Lynch, we must choose between the less violent Muslim Brotherhood and the literalistic Salafists. But why should we have to choose either? Berman wants neither and true Liberals should not be satisfied between choosing the lesser of two evils, but should strive toward a better alternative. For Berman, this ideological ideal is personified by Ayan Hirsi Ali, whom Lynch is dismissive of because she “represents only a small slice of Muslim societies.” Lynch thus proves that he is neither a moralist nor a Liberal, but instead a political realist who oddly couches his argument in moral terms. Demonstrative of this worldview is Lynch’s conclusion that “real moral courage does not come from penning angry polemics without regard for real world consequences.” In Lynch’s view, morality is synonymous with pragmatism – an odd and incongruous definition of morality indeed.
When not creating self-serving definitions, Lynch assumes the role of religious scholar and opines that “puritanical versions of Islam that have taken root in many Muslim communities” should be considered “the great theft,” a term he borrows from Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA. But even Lynch’s own argument undercuts this premise—if large swaths of the Muslim community have chosen such piousness, why should this be considered “the great theft”?
In his cursory analysis of Berman’s treatment of ‘Islamic fascism,’ Lynch is dismissive. According to Lynch, using the phrase is a “profound insult to [the faith and identity of virtually all Muslims],” so we must either discard the ominous link between Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler or we must speculate that this alliance was only “couched in Islamic terms in an effort to win over mass support” – the same sort of speculation that Lynch abhors in Berman’s opinions of Ramadan.
Although Lynch concedes that the Islamist position “may be troubling,” he comforts us by adding that “it defines the mainstream Muslim position.” Even as he admits that Ramadan alters his positions by “anticipating Arab and Muslim views,” Lynch does not take this unsettling reality to its necessary conclusion. What happens if mainstream Muslim opinion goes the way of the Salafist literalists that Lynch fears?
Perhaps most unsettling is Lynch’s unwillingness to entertain the possibility that Ramadan or the Muslim Brotherhood are only using democratic procedures in order to undermine Western foundations from within, despite a plethora of evidence affirming these intentions. For example, Muhammed Akram Adlouni, “a key player within the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S.,” wrote An Explanatory Memorandum: On the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America for the Shura Council of the Muslim Brotherhood, with section four stating:
“The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house...so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”
In Lynch’s opinion though, we are told that democracy is meaningless if we do not allow Muslims to peacefully pursue their interests and advance their ideas. While it’s true that we must ensure that Muslims are able to partake in the democratic process, we must also be wary that this fundamental right is not abused by Islamists seeking to undermine the foundations of democracy from within. It is this very real possibility – this most dastardly subterfuge – that would render democracy meaningless.
So we are indeed faced with a decision: Lynch is Pangloss, while Berman is Candide. Let us choose the latter, lest we are content with legitimizing the dangerous and oxymoronic label, “moderate Islamism.”