28,000 Words Later


I did it. I read - with, okay, some skimming here and there - Paul Berman's behemoth of an essay on Tariq Ramadan. And you know what? There's a pretty good piece buried under all those words, one that uses Ian Buruma's favorable treatment of Ramadan, and his unfavorable treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to illustrate the tendency of Western liberals to prefer Islamists of a seemingly-moderate stripe to anti-Islamists, like Ali, who seem too strident. Such a piece would have been a valuable contribution to the debate over whether Western liberalism should seek dialogue with the more moderate elements within political Islam - with Ramadan a prime example - or pursue confrontation instead, along the lines suggested by Ali. I'm by no means certain which side of that debate I'm on, Buruma's or Berman's, but that's all the more reason for TNR to run an essay that contributes substantially to the argument.

But such a piece could have been about, oh, I don't know, 5,000 words long. A 28,000-word essay, by contrast, needs to do more than raise troubling questions about Tariq Ramadan (which Berman successfully does); it needs to demolish him, to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt the debt he owes to Qutbian thought and beyond Qutb to National Socialism, to lay bare his sympathies for global jihad and expose his desire to bring the whole edifice of European liberalism crashing down. It needs to include more meat, less hemming and hawing ("I have no way to resolve this quandary, except to hazard a guess that all these writers, friend and foe alike, may have arrived at a truth ...), fewer forays into portentous speculation ("And does he dream in secret of something larger? Maybe he does, on some theological level, which would not be unusual. All great religions dream great (and dangerous) dreams") and equally portentous understatement ("a fascist label, or some reasonably similar term, seems faintly applicable--or more than faintly--even now ...). It needs to include, above all, fewer passages like this one:

Caroline Fourest, in Brother Tariq, makes the argument that, in the end, the ambiguity in Ramadan's outlook can only serve to confer legitimacy on the revolutionary Islamist idea, which is willy-nilly bound, in turn, to elevate ever so slightly terrorism's prestige. Fourest pictures a young man from North Africa in France, attending a lecture by Ramadan, and she wonders what ideas somebody like that might take away. Hamel, in The Truth About Tariq Ramadan, scoffs at Fourest's argument and observes that, for all the accusations against Ramadan, nothing has ever been proved, and out of the many thousands of people who have in fact attended his lectures, only a single person, a man from the Lyon district, is known to have ended up in Al Qaeda's Afghan training camps. Who is right in this dispute?

Hamel, the scoffer, would carry the day in a court of law. Still, it is easy to imagine that, in a small way, Fourest may be on to something.

"Ever so slightly ... it is easy to imagine ... in some small way." When Berman writes of Ramadan's discussion of Salafist terror that "a veil of timidity and euphemism hangs over the entire discussion, which could lead a sleepy reader to miss his meaning altogether," he could just as easily be describing his own essay, which builds up great expectations but turns out to include nothing that could not have been argued more tightly, more briskly, and more convincingly at a fifth the length.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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