Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 3/7

Attacks on Tariq Ramadan and Noam Chomsky are de rigueur in the literature of Decency; and perhaps their critics no longer care whether the elementary rules of evidence and argument are being followed if you’ve got one of those two in your sights. So let’s move on. What about religion? This is a book about the West and Islam, among other things. How does Berman cope with religion? Answer: not very well.

At the start of chapter two, it looks as if Berman is heading towards an interesting discussion of Tariq Ramadan (again!) on Albert Camus. “So, Ramadan disputes Camus. Fine. It is a quarrel between a Swiss and a Parisian, which, seen from another vantage point, is a quarrel between two North Africans. In the modern world we are all hyphenated personalities.” [p.26]. But then he starts to fall apart, beginning at the bottom of the same page:
“Now, in Ramadan’s view, this particular impulse, the urge to rebel, marks the exact place where Western civilization and Islam diverge. In Western tradition, there is a place for skepticism and doubt. These two attitudes, skepticism and doubt, are elements of faith – the elements that prove the authenticity of belief in God. The God of the Old Testament instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and Abraham doubts the instruction and struggles to resist it, for a little while - and Abraham's doubt and his struggle testify to the sincerity of his belief. In Ramadan’s opinion, the impulse to rebel in Western culture follows directly from the esteem that is accorded to skepticism and doubt. You begin with skepticism and doubt, and you push those attitudes one step further, and you arrive at full scale rebellion. And those particular traits – skepticism, doubt, rebellion – have, in the end, produced a lot of misery in the Western countries today.

“Muslim tradition does not have those traits. In Islam, Ramadan tells us, there is no impulse to rebel. The Koran recounts the same story about Abraham and Isaac, but the Koran puts no emphasis on Abraham’s skepticism and resistance. In the Koran’s version, Abraham hears God’s instructions and readies himself to comply. There is no struggle, no temptation to rebel. In Islam, submission is all…” [pp.26-7]
That’s a long quote (sorry about that). Pay attention to the way in which Berman is repeating the phrase “skepticism and doubt”, and associating these with Western religion, while associating Islam with “submission”. This prepares the reader for p.46, when he describes the totalitarian ideal (“It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission”), and for the discussions of Islamic varieties of fascism that dominate the rest of the book. And while we’re on the subject of Berman’s rhetoric, and before we go any further, it might be worth pausing for a moment to imagine that you’re being seduced by this kind of prose. Berman presents himself to Anglophone readers as an experienced guide to Francophone intellectual debate, and he switches from existentialist philosophy to Biblical exegesis apparently without effort as he comments on what looks to be an interesting disagreement between two interesting guys. And it’s all bound up with the Greatest Intellectual Struggle of Our Time! No wonder Nick Cohen found quite so much to admire here. And if what Berman was saying were accurate, then there would, indeed, be quite a bit to admire. But it isn’t, so there isn’t. Let’s have a look.

Here’s a snippet of a religious text, and here’s a question. The question first: is this taken from the Old Testament, or from the Koran?
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
If we had only Berman to guide us, we’d have to say that this was the Koran. “In the Koran’s version”, says Berman, “Abraham hears God’s instructions and readies himself to comply”, just as happens here. We’ve been told that the Old Testament version is marked by Abraham’s doubts, and by his struggle against what he’s been asked to do, and we also know that “Abraham's doubt and his struggle testify to the sincerity of his belief”, and there’s no sign of any of this. But this passage is, of course, Genesis, 22:1-3.

Yes, there’s a difference between the Jewish and Islamic presentations of the story. In the one, Isaac asks “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”, and he gets the reply that “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (thus making pretty obvious what the Standard Christian Interpretation of this passage is going to be). In the other, Abraham tells his son (Isaac? Ishmael? sources disagree) that he’s for the chop, and gets the reply, "My father, do as thou art bidden; thou shalt find me, God willing, one of the steadfast” [Qur'an, 37, 101-9]. But the differences in the presentation of the Abraham story don’t have anything to do with doubt or skepticism, or with what these two might have to do with faith. In all three of the Great Monotheistic Religions, Abraham is celebrated for his faith, for his willingness to do what God demands of him, up to and including the sacrifice of his son.

We might try to come to Berman’s defence here by saying that he’s only expounding Tariq Ramadan’s discussion in this passage, and so the faults are likely to be his – but this really won’t do, and they aren’t. Ramadan’s discussion of Camus and the Abraham story can be found at pp.210-214 of his book, Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, and it doesn’t make the same mistakes at all. Ramadan, writing in the shadow of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, uses a language of “tension” and “trial” and “tragedy” to describe Abraham’s predicament, and that strikes me as about right, in a way that Berman’s language of “skepticism”, “resistance” and “doubt” just isn’t. And Ramadan makes it clear a few pages later that he locates the “skepticism and doubt” of the Western tradition in its philosophy (“from Socrates to Kant, from Kierkegaard to Marx, and from Nietzsche to Husserl”, p.219), not – as Berman has been suggesting – in its foundational religious texts.

All of which helps to generate the entertaining thought that Berman’s source for his version of the Abraham story may not have been the Book of Genesis after all, or even Tariq Ramadan, but Bob Dylan. Paul Berman is also author of an earlier and far better book, A Tale of Two Utopias, on the political journey of the 1968 generation, and it seems to me that this child of the 1960s has been taking “Highway 61 Revisited” a bit too seriously, as the song has all the skepticism, doubt and resistance that you could possibly want to find.
“God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God said, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you’d better run."
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61."


Blogger Chris said...

Hah! As I was reading the post, I was actually wondering whether he got his Biblical exegesis from Bob Dylan, too.

Great set of posts, by the way.

4/16/2006 10:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forget the old testament. There couldn't a more striking difference between the new testament and the Koran - Paul Berman is absolutely right.

Are you really claiming that Islam isn't a religion much more about following rules and submission to god? You may be able to find a few contradictions in Paul Berman's work but I'm sure, having read the book, you would agree he is fundmentally right.

4/16/2006 11:25:00 PM  
Blogger Juke said...

And a thousand telephones that don't ring

4/17/2006 03:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading through this commentary with interest.

I'm not sure your observations on Berman's interpretation of the Abraham story are entirely fair. It's right to say that the actual scriptural texts aren't that different, but the three "religions of the book" are also interpretative communities (and stress in fact that understanding of scripture is based on interpretation). In that context, it's pretty fair to say that interpretative communities within both Judaism and Christianity have frequently stressed Abraham's turmoil and anxiety as much as his faith in the Lord--that they have interpreted the meaning of the story to be that one must trust in God even when what he asks of humanity seems difficult, even with turmoil in our hearts. There is a difference in some long-term exegetical traditions within Islam on the same story (and on the general issue of submission to God). Narrowly you're right about Berman's reading; broadly speaking, it seems to me he has a point, and you're being somewhat tendentious in your response.

4/17/2006 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

Thanks for this, Anonymous.

Your "turmoil and anxiety" seems closer to Ramadan's "tension, trial and tragedy" - which I said I liked - than to Berman's "skepticism and doubt", which I don't like, either as a paraphrase of what Tariq Ramadan is trying to say about the Abraham story, or as a general characterisation of the tradition of Christian and Jewish interpretations of that story.

More generally, Ramadan makes the kind of points you make (and with which I agree) in his discussion of all of this, pp.211-214 of his book about different traditions of interpretation, and so on. And if Berman had given an accurate summary of what he'd said, which wouldn't have been a difficult thing to do, I wouldn't be complaining. My complaint is that he didn't.

4/17/2006 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger PithLord said...

Berman is probably referring to Genesis 18, where Abraham does negotiate with God about the number of righteous there need to be in Sodom and Gomorrah for God to spare it. (As it turns out, even though Abraham haggles Him down to 10 righteous men, Sodom apparently doesn't even make that, because it is destroyed in the next chapter.)

That incident suggests a bit of spirit on Abraham's part. Interestingly, Abraham does *not* try to negotiate with God when asked to sacrifice Isaac.

4/27/2006 09:43:00 PM  

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