Suspicion and divided loyalties

Perhaps the most damaging effect of 9/11 and all that has followed will be its role in making divided loyalties one of the most dangerous things a person can have. From the beginning, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still burning, any effort to hold non-trivial positions about terrorism and Islam were attacked. People opposed to the war in Iraq were branded as terrorist supporters, people unimpressed by a programme of reform in the Middle East imposed at the end of a gun were castigated, people who asked questions about whether there was more to things than “they hate us for our freedom” were branded as traitors.

Tariq Ramadan wrote a piece in Wednesday’s New York Times which must be read in this light. The key paragraph – the statement of where he stands – appears at the end:

I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world. To do this, we must become full, independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can help bring about freedom and democracy. That is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat to America.

But it is not that hard to see the threat in it. To encourage western Muslims to at once see themselves as having a place in the West and a role in the Islamic world is tantamount to asking them to divide their loyalties. To all too many people right now, divided loyalties are a synonym for treason. The charge of divided loyalties is an old one, and a very damaging one. It was once the most mainstream charge that people made against Jews. To see it revived today – against Muslims in Europe, against Mexicans in the US by the likes of Samuel Huntington, and yes, against Jews in many countries – is very, very troubling.

The power this charge has is one of the reasons why the hijab ban – which came into effect with the reopening of school in France last week – has been greeted with little more than resignation. Everyone who believes that an Islamic organisation is naturally a threat – and yes, I mean Daniel Pipes and those who agree with him – should have to explain the response to the kidnapping of Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot. Virtually every Islamic organisation and public Islamic figure in France has not only condemned the kidnappings but has asked Muslims to respond to the hijab ban in a calm manner, in order not to give any support to the kidnappers. Tariq Ramadan – who opposes the headscarf law – has made a statement that the French government should not give in to this “odious blackmail.” Across France the response to the reopening of school has been compliance with a law that even the many conservative figures of American society considered at best questionable.

This “Islamic Army of Iraq” seem to have scored an “own goal.” Their act has made resistence to the new school code impossible. Were one in the mood foir wacky conspiracy theories, one might wonder if the French government had arranged the kidnappings themselves. If all terrorists were this stupid, they would not represent any real threat.

Within a day of the kidnapping, a representation from the Islamic Council of France, including the heads of the National Federation of French Muslims and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, as well as a representative of the Paris Mosque, had dispatched a deligation to Baghdad to support efforts to secure their release. Not only did every significant player in French Islam weigh in against the kidnappings, but condemnations came in from across the Islamic world. The quite conservative Sunni Iraqi Council of Ulemas issued a statement demanding their release, the Arab League demanded their release, the Iranian government demanded their release, Muammar Qaddafi, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Muslim clerical organisations from across Africa and Europe have condemned the kidnappings. Even the Iranian Mujahedeen – which is forbidden as a terrorist organisation in France – issued a statement demanding the release of the two French journalists.

In this light, it gets harder and harder to take seriously claims that “moderate” Muslims are really just double agents, preaching peace and integration in one language and some form of holy war in another.

Tobias sent me to an article in this week’s Die Zeit on just this point. I received the article by e-mail and can’t find it on the Zeit’s Website, so I can’t link to it directly.

Der Doppelagent

Der Islamwissenschaftler Tariq Ramadan ist das Idol der Pariser Vorst?dte. Er k?mpft f?r einen modernen Islam und gegen ?j?dische Intellektuelle?. Die USA verweigern ihm nun die Einreise. […]

Es ist nicht der erste Skandal, der sich an Tariq Ramadans ?ffentlichem Wirken entz?ndet: […] In der Debatte um den Irak-Krieg und den neuen islamischen Antisemitismus in Frankreich meldete er sich im Oktober 2003 mit einer ?Kritik der neuen kommunitaristischen Intellektuellen? zu Wort. Prominente Kriegsbef?rworter wie Andr? Glucksman wurden von Ramadan als ?j?dische Intellektuelle? identifiziert, deren Engagement gegen Saddam Hussein einer ?Logik der Gemeinschaft? folge. Diese j?dischen Intellektuellen, suggerierte Ramadan, schieben ihre Menschenrechtsrhetorik vor, doch in Wahrheit vertreten sie die Interessen Israels. […]

Vielleicht ist die tiefe Ambivalenz, mit der Tariq Ramadan dem Westen begegnet, ein Erbe der Familienkonstellation, vielleicht ist sie auch Taktik, um auf beiden Seiten im Gespr?ch zu bleiben: In seinem Werk ringt die Anerkennung von Rechtsstaat, Rationalismus und b?rgerlicher Freiheit mit den alten kulturell-religi?sen ?berlegenheitsgef?hlen. Der Westen ist f?r ihn nicht, wie die Tradition sagte, das feindliche ?Haus des Krieges?. Er ist der ?Raum der Zeugenschaft?, in dem Muslime frei sind, ihren Glauben zu bezeugen. Mit einer trickreichen Unterscheidung isoliert er den ?eigentlichen Islam? von allen historischen Fehlentwicklungen, die er konkreten ?islamischen Kulturen? in die Schuhe schiebt. Unterdr?ckung der Frau, Unfreiheit und R?ckst?ndigkeit der arabischen Welt haben mit der vom Schmutz der Geschichte ges?uberten universalistischen Lehre nichts zu tun. Man f?hlt sich an ein Muster sozialistischer Apologetik erinnert. […]

Tariq Ramadan hat es geschafft, zum inoffiziellen Sprecher eines Euro-Islams aufzusteigen, der das gebrochene Selbstbewusstsein der Diaspora hinter sich l?sst und das Hier und Jetzt der westlichen Moderne als sein Wirkungsfeld akzeptiert. Das allein ist ein Verdienst, auch wenn es keineswegs ausgemacht scheint, ob er das Etikett des liberalen Reformers zu Recht tr?gt. Es w?re falsch, ihn aus dem Gespr?ch ?ber den langen Weg der Muslime nach Westen auszugrenzen. Es gibt nicht viele andere, die wie dieser Doppelagent des modernen Islams auf beiden Seiten Geh?r finden.

The Double Agent

The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan is the darling of the Paris suburbs. He fights for a modern Islam and against Jewish intellectuals. The USA has just refused him entry. […]

This is not the first scandal to come out of Ramadan’s work: […] In the debate surrounding the Iraq war and Islamic anti-Semitism in France, in October 2003 he put forward a critique of “new communitarian intellectuals.” Prominent war proponents like Andr? Glucksman were identified by Ramadan as “Jewish intellectuals” whose engagement in the anti-Saddam Hussein camp followed from a “communitarian logic.” These Jewish intellectuals, Ramadan suggested, put forward a rhetoric of human rights, but in truth are representing Israel’s interests. […]

Perhaps Ramadan’s ambivalence towards the west is an inheritance of his family’s millieu; perhaps it is also tactical so that he can stay on both sides of the debate: In his work on he acknowleges the struggle between he constitutional state, rationalism and civil liberty on the one side and old issues of cultural and religious superiority on the other. For him, the west is not, contrary to tradition, the “house of war” but rather a “space for witness” in which Muslims are free to testify to their faith. He makes sophisticated distinctions between “really existing Islam” and the mistakes of the past that force concrete “Islamic cultures” into their mold. The repression of women, the lack of freedom and the backwardness of the Arab world have nothing to do with the universal teachings cleansed of the stains of history. One is reminded of many apolgists for socialism.

Tariq Ramadan has established himself as the unofficial voice of a Euro-Islam that has left behind the tattered self-confidence of its diapora and accepts the “here and now” of western modernism as its field of action. By itself, his position is well deserved, even when it isn’t clear whether it can be rightly labelled liberal reformism. It would be wrong to fence him off from dialogue over the long way Muslims have to go towards inclusion in the West. There are not many others who, like this double agent, are able to get a hearing on both sides.

Indeed, the one charge against Ramadan that seems to carry some weight is his accusation in an article written in 2003 that some Jewish intellectuals have divided loyalties – the very same charge that is most frequently levied against him. This same claim, offered in more or less sophisticated forms, is the charge most frequently made against anyone who might be considered an Islamic moderate. No matter how many times one condemns what is wrong, no matter how many times one supports the right causes, there seems to be no way to both defend against a charge of divided loyalties and still retain any sort of nuance in one’s beliefs or proffer any sort of opposition to what one thinks is wrong with one’s own side. A defense against divided loyalties always seems to involve ever more self-defeating proofs of loyalty.

I have the strong suspicion that the Middle East is full of intellectuals sitting in exactly that position – people whose opposition to their local institutions and advocacy of other ones is hampered if not neutralised by that same problem of double loyalities. These are people who find they cannot advocate peace with Israel on any terms without accusations of abandonning the Palestinians to a harsh fate, or cannot propose gender egalitarianism without facing charges that they want to turn women into sex objects and near-prostitutes, or cannot advocate freedom of speech without accusations of being soft on blasphemy.

The author of the article at Die Zeit harkens back to the Cold War, when allowing yourself to be labelled Marxist or in any way socialist – or in some places anywhere left of centre – meant having to first condemn a long laundry list of things that were wrong with the Soviet Union and other “really existing” socialist states before you could express any opposition to policies or governments in the West. Unlike the Soviet Union, Islam is not on the brink of falling, and rather than repeat this inane exercise, let me offer an alternative: Fight for the right to divided loyalties. You have as much right to them as you have to freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom from oppression.

In this, I found very encouraging something from Ramadan’s recent interview in Muslim, Wake Up!, something that is an example of what I find appealling in Ramadan’s work:

MWU!: Some Muslims are very religious, while others are not. How should the community define itself — can religious and cultural identifications of being a Muslim co-exist?

Tariq Ramadan: We have to start with a principle – whoever, woman or man, says, I am a Muslim, and feels that he or she is a Muslim is a Muslim and should be considered as such. We have to stop judging each other.

Now we have different levels of practice. Take someone who says, “Oh, I am not a practicing Muslim.” When someone tries to stop lying, that is an ethical practice. The very moment that you stop lying, then you have an awareness, you are a practicing Muslim. You are already in a process. It is a state of mind.

We have to understand that we are not at the same levels and we are not following the same paths or schools of thought. We have to accept a diversity as to the level of our practice and to the schools of thought. We have to start with this mindset. There are some things that are clear in Islam, like the shahada, or the five pillars. Whether or not somene practices or not—99% of Muslims will acknowledge them.

This is for me the beginning.

Within the Islamic community, there is also a cultural diversity. The language of the Qur’an is Arabic, but the culture of Islam is not Arabic culture. Islam is not a culture; it is a set of principles accepting other cultures as long as it does not contradict the principles. I can remain an indigenous American, be a Muslim, and integrate everything in my culture that does not contradict those principles.

Be who you are! And be confident with your culture. It is important to promote this.

We have to avoid simplistic categories to judge others. We need American Muslims to understand that this common culture should help them to reach out to other people – let us start something new together and accept diversity. For example, I don’t follow literalist interpretations, but I accept that some Muslims don’t listen to music. At the same time, don’t tell me that it is more Islamic not to listen to music than to listen to music. We have different opinions. The idea of accepted diversity – different readings, cultures, and levels of practice – is critical.

Be who you are, even when that divides your loyalties, even when that leaves you confused about who is right, even when that means your loyalties conflict. Rather than defend against divided loyalties, admit to them. They are a part of who you are. I rather wish Ramadan had been more in line with that notion when he wrote his famous complaint about “communitarian” Jewish intellectuals.

Al Qaeda has helped take the prospect of living with divided loyalties away, both here in the West and in the Middle East. I cannot help but think that to likely be their goal. Terrorism does not overthrow governments and it rarely if ever changes policy, as recent events in France show well enough. But terrorism does a wonderful job of polarising, of destroying nuance and moderation, and of making people choose sides they might otherwise hesitate to join. The Middle East is full of contradictory regimes – with oil-rich Saudi Arabia as the archtype – that cannot easily survive a complete polarisation between Islam and the West.

It is this consideration that makes me uncertain we are winning any sort of war on terrorism, and makes me all too afraid we’re losing. If we can establish a right to divided loyalties and enshrine it in public discourse, then maybe this can all still turn out well. But to do so, we have to stop treating divided loyalties as source of suspicion by itself. The frequency with which a vocabulary of suspicion and treason is used to describe Muslims who preach moderation of any kind leads me to think this is not happening in the West. I hope the Islamic world is doing a better job of it, but I suspect it isn’t.

54 thoughts on “Suspicion and divided loyalties

  1. “In the formally publicized version it was indeed scarcely distinguishable from a device to stall the motion for the new resolution with a self-advertising bonus.”

    Now that was disingenious from you. After the Americans have rejected the plans even based on a newspaper article, and strongly objected to plans behind their backs, why would the French and the Germans present those already dead plans?

    The US government followed an “illogique de guerre”, or should we say they were hell-bent on getting their war. You should also recall that they foiled a Canadian, a Mexican-Chilean-etc. and another Franco-German plan, plus they rejected post-war Franco-German motions that would at least have limited the disaster the Occupation has become. Just imagine if the US had organised elections late last year, as France demanded – compare it to what we have now, and what prospects we have now, and then consider whether it was only about increasing France’s soft power.

  2. Michael S, as for your Halabja link, you failed to note that the guy referenced, Stephen Pelletiere, is one of the same three non-experts whose public report Dr. Rangwala dealt with. I don’t dispute his access to classified documents, but his (and the secret 1988 DIA reports’) interpretation. And his 1991 report was not even about who was responsible, but about how the Iraqis would fight. Nonetheless, it is interesting to learn that Pelletiere still held to his views just before the second war in 2003, using the exact same words about blood agents whose possession was ‘not known at the time’ – that at least paints him sincere even if mistaken in his beliefs.

  3. Reagarding Pakistan:

    “Semi-democratic meaning working with, ahem, semi-fairly elected bodies, rather than ruling by fiat.”

    Well, um, by that definition, most Middle Eastern countries are semi-democratic. In fact, Saddam’s Iraq was semi-democratic!

    “. Actually, after I posted this Musharraf surprised me by reneging on his pledge to quit his army post. I was under the impression that he already has.”

    Wellllll… he has a long line of such broken pledges with that impression 🙂

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