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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The incumbency of violence

'About his father, Tariq Ramadan writes, in a passage that has been translated less than gracefully: "Often, he spoke of the determination in his commitment, at all moments, against colonialism and injustice and for the sake of Islam. This determination was though never a sanction for violence, for he rejected violence just as he rejected the idea of an 'Islamic revolution.'" The rejection of an "Islamic revolution" in this context means the rejection of armed uprisings or coups in favor of the slower, more cautious, yet still militant proceedings of the Muslim Brotherhood. Violence does not offer the road to success, from this point of view. But the passage continues. The time frame is evidently the late 1940s:

'The only exception was Palestine. On this, the message of al-Banna was clear.
Armed resistance was incumbent so that the plans of the terrorists of Irgun and
of all Zionist colonizers would be faced up to. He had learnt from Hassan
al-Banna, as he said it one day: "to put one's forehead on the ground." The real
meaning of prayer being giving strength, in humility, to the meaning of an
entire life.

'So there is an exception. It is violence against Zionists--against the plans of all Zionists and not just the Zionist extreme right wing, the Irgun (who were in fact terrorists, just as al-Banna says). But the peculiar note in that passage emanates from a single word, "incumbent"--a word suggesting that anti-Zionist violence is obligatory. A duty, not just a tactic. Moreover, a duty linked with prayer, forehead on the ground. A duty that gives meaning to an entire life. A religious duty.

'That is a heartbreaking passage. The entire tragedy of the Palestinian people can be found in statements such as this one--the ideological dogma that has led so many Palestinians to look on violence as a principle, therefore as something that can never be abandoned. If only the Palestinian national movement had been able to look on violence as merely a tactic, the movement's leaders, and not just a handful of freethinkers and pragmatists, might have noticed after a while that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were proving to be counterproductive and ought to be exchanged for better tactics--perhaps something that might actually succeed in building a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, as could very likely have happened years ago. But if violence is obligatory, if it is "incumbent" on the partisans of al-Banna's Islamic renewal, if violence is an obligation that (as al-Banna observes) distinguishes anti-Zionist struggles from all other struggles against colonialism and injustice, well, there can be no question of surrendering a principle, regardless of the practical cost. And so it has been, in the history of the Palestinian movement; and the cost has been terrible, to the Palestinians above all.'

- from an article on Tariq Ramadan, currently perhaps the most prominent western Muslim 'public intellectual', by Paul Berman in the New Republic (n.b. Hassan al-Banna, founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood, was Ramadan's grandfather). It's a long, wide-ranging and thoughtful piece, critical but by no means a crude hatchet job (and in fact more critical of some of Ramadan's non-Muslim admirers than of the man himself). Worth spending an hour or two on (hat tip: Mick Hartley).

By the way, the surprising and very disappointing contribution of Timothy Garton Ash to the trahison des clercs has also been noted by yours truly.

A digression before I get to the quoted passage. I'm very much with Berman in rejecting soggy multiculturalist relativism. Where I can't go along with him is in his rather triumphalist identification of universal values with a post-Enlightenment liberalism which consistently frames morality in terms of individual rights alone. To take one example: I naturally have no difficulty in agreeing with Berman that stoning as a punishment for adultery (or for anything else) is barbaric, and that no quarter should be given to Ramadan or anyone else who equivocates on this point. But I suspect that in arriving at this point of view Berman (and, doubtless, the average TNR reader) has one big advantage over a devout Muslim: he doesn't, ultimately, think adultery is such a big deal. Obviously I don't mean this on a personal level - Berman is very likely a devoted husband who would be devastated to discover that his wife had been playing away. But the point is that for the liberal adultery is, precisely, a private, personal issue, a lifestyle choice. The notion that it might have such consequences for the wider community as to merit punishment simply doesn't have even a marginal place in this discourse. However much it may, for example, devastate children's lives, adultery remains part of the individual's right to sexual self-determination.

So I think it's worth saying that for Christians a cosy accommodation with this position is as much a betrayal of the gospel as an accommodation with Muslim stone-throwers would be. For it must be clear that this is not at all the sense of Christ's intervention to save the woman taken in adultery from stoning (John 8, 1-11). Her judges are challenged to strip off the veneer of hypocritical self-righteousness and confront their own shortcomings. But the woman remains a sinner called to repentance and in need of forgiveness - 'go thy ways and sin no more'. Jesus does not patronize her by trivializing her sin; rather, through forgiveness, he opens up for her the liberation of repentance.

End of digression. I've exerpted a passage which cuts to the heart of what left-liberal opinion believes it knows about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the myth through which every piece of news is filtered. There is an original sin committed by the Israelis in 1948/67, and there are Palestinian reactions to what has been done to them. Thus the violence of the suicide bomber expresses 'despair' over oppression. And so the greater the violence, the greater the despair must be, and thus the greater the Israelis' offence. The bad things Israelis do show how bad they are, and the bad things Palestinians do show how bad the Israelis are.

It never seems necessary to explain why other oppressed peoples do not resort to this method of expressing despair. Or is it, quite simply, that nobody else is oppressed as the Palestinians are? Nor what young men from Bradford are despairing about when they blow themselves up on the London Underground, or Sunni Arab Iraqis when they self-destruct in Shi'ite market-places. How, exactly, does the overthrow of a dictator and his replacement by an elected government make life no longer worth living?

Once we see terrorism as the product of an ideology, and one, moreover, which was in process of formation years before 1948, things become simultaneously intellectually clearer and morally more complex. For within this ideology the grievances created by the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and the occupation of 1967 are not the heart of the matter, however useful they are for propagandist purposes. The primary, non-negotiable, grievance is the presence on part of Islam's patch - no matter how small a part - of Jews who refuse to play the subordinate role which Islam traditionally allots to them.

Add to this an obligation to rectify the situation by violence, and the logical consequence is to make it entirely predictable that a full Israeli evacuation from the Occupied Territories and a right of return for the 1948 refugees would lead to more violence, not less. Just as the withdrawals from Gaza and South Lebanon brought fresh attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah in their train.

This is not to say that there are no genuine grievances created by ethnic cleansing and occupation. Of course there are, and so long as they are not redressed they act as recruiting sergeants for the terror groups. The point is that the Islamist ideology, with its core grievance, is an actor in its own right, and that there can be no peace worthy of the name that does not involve its defeat. Not unless you are prepared to attach the label 'peace' to the aftermath of the wiping of Israel off the map.

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