Tolerating intolerance -->

 Remember Tariq Ramadan? He’s a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. This charming organization lives by its credo: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” Ramadan has specialized in what the French writer Caroline Fourest calls “doublespeak”: saying emollient things to Western audiences, and rather more inflammatory things when he addresses the Muslim faithful. The Bush administration denied Ramadan a visa to enter the United States, quite rightly in our opinion. But that ban was recently lifted, and Ramadan has been making the rounds of U.S. college campuses.

When we reported on Ramadan in this space a couple of years ago, we noted that one of the things that has made him such a star among left-liberals is his apparent moderateness when it comes to the application of Islamic law. Note the word “apparent.” How the left swooned when, in 2005, Ramadan has called for a “moratorium” on the stoning of adulteresses and on other quaint punishments laid out for our edification in the Koran (or, if you prefer, Qur’an), e.g., the killing of Muslims who apostasize, cutting off the hands of thieves, etc., etc. We confess that Ramadan’s gracious offer of a “moratorium” didn’t do much to console us. As we noted at the time,

a “moratorium” is a temporary suspension of some activity or state of affairs. Should we be pleased that Ramadan wants his fellow Muslims to leave off stoning errant women until—when? Next Tuesday? After the New Year? Until Europe finally “goes Muslim” altogether and silly Western scruples like the prohibition against maiming criminals or protecting religious freedom can be dispensed with for good?

We’re not sure that Ramadan has addressed that question directly. But his recent appearance at Cooper Union in New York provided an occasion for some of his apologists to leap to his defense. Consider Joan Wallach Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, in New Jersey, who shared the podium with Ramadan at Cooper Union last month. As Peter Schmidt reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott, who identifies herself as a feminist, said “I actually think that his solution to the problem is not a bad one,” because … because why? Because (as Schmidt writes) “an end to stoning cannot be imposed on the Muslim world by the West.” Our emphasis.

“Because an end to stoning cannot be imposed on the Muslim world by the West.” When was the last time you heard something so fatuous? (“Just yesterday, actually, when I visited my local university.” OK, point taken.) Let’s rewrite that sentence: We can’t insist on an end to cannibalism “because an end to cannibalism cannot be imposed on the Amazonian world by the West.” Again: We can’t insist that Nazis (or, come to that, Muslims) stop killing Jews “because an end to killing Jews cannot be imposed on the world by the West.” What would this Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study have to say about that?

Two observations. First, about Professor Scott. As John Rosenberg notes at the excellent web site, Joan Wallach Scott is not just a “feminist.” On the contrary, she “personifies the preconceptions and biases of academic women’s studies,” above all in her embrace of the nihilistic, biased relativism that thrives in so many Western universities today. We call the relativism “biased” because it’s not an “all-cultures-are-equal” relativism. It’s an “all-cultures-are-equal-but-some-are-more-equal-than-others” variation on the species. It’s a relativism with a definite preference for non-Western, and especially non-American, societies and cultures. (We hasten to acknowledge that this preference is a largely theoretical activity. When it comes to such pedestrian matters as living arrangements, personal amenities, salaries, and pensions, you can still discern a marked preference for the Western way of life). Rosenberg quotes from Scott’s book The Politics of the Veil:

I have not used the word toleration to talk about how we should deal with those radically different from ourselves because, following political theorist Wendy Brown, I think toleration implies distaste (her word is aversion) for those who are tolerated. I want to insist instead that we need to acknowledge difference in ways that call into question the certainty and superiority of our own views… . A worldview organized in terms of good versus evil, civilized versus backward, morally upright versus ideologically compromised, us versus them, is one we inhabit at our risk.

You really can’t make it up. And remember that this woman is no Speaker’s-Corner polemicist: she occupies a place at the very pinnacle of her profession. What does it mean that a prominent American academic believes that even toleration is too conservative, too judgmental, a virtue? Professor Scott wants us to move beyond toleration, beyond even distinguishing between good and evil, to … what? To a place of absolute moral autism where a pretended superiority to such distinctions is a blind for the pernicious politics of radical chic. It’s the old story of liberal paralysis in the face of an illiberal ideology that would use and abuse the freedoms of liberalism only to abolish them.

For our second observation, let us turn to the manly, judgmental policy promulgated by Sir Charles Napier, the British commander in India in the early nineteenth century. Told that immolating widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands was a cherished local custom, Napier said “Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” What, we wonder, would Sir Charles have thought of covert apologists for barbarism like Tariq Ramadan or their “feminist” enablers like Joan Wallach Scott?

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 9, on page 3
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