The Quest for Meaning by Tariq Ramadan
John Gray is frustrated by an idealistic treatise that mistakes poetic vagueness for pluralism
The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism
by Tariq Ramadan 224pp, Allen Lane, £14.99
“Time is linear or cyclical. The paths are steep, and sometimes there are mountains, plains and vast expanses of desert or water. We go on, in order to make progress or simply to go and then come back, and we learn to be, to live, to think and to love.” This short passage captures the flavour of much of Tariq Ramadan’s latest book. Before it is anything else, The Quest for Meaning is an exercise in rhetoric – something in which, Ramadan seems to think, clarity should be avoided wherever possible. He tells the reader that time is linear or cyclical, but which is it? Can it be both? Similar questions arise throughout the book, which contains few clear statements of any kind. One can read tens of pages, even whole chapters, and come away without recalling a single straightforward assertion.
Ramadan’s equivocating style has made him the target of fierce attack. Neo-conservatives and some liberals have taken the Swiss Islamic scholar to task for failing to denounce human rights violations, while in his wildly hyperbolic The Flight of the Intellectuals the US writer Paul Berman has accused Ramadan of promoting a new kind of totalitarianism. Criticism of this sort is hard to take seriously. Anyone who sees Islamist movements as posing a threat on the scale of Nazism and communism has forgotten what these regimes were really like, and unless one subscribes to absurd theories of clashing civilisations, dialogue with and among Muslims can only be useful. Engaged in a type of intellectual diplomacy that places him at the most sensitive points of conflict between Islam and the west, Ramadan surely has a part to play.
The danger comes when the inevitable hypocrisies of public dialogue are presented as a coherent philosophy. In politics, compromise is unavoidable and often desirable. In the life of the mind, it is a recipe for a dangerous kind of woolliness. Ramadan claims to be developing a philosophy of pluralism, but that means looking for ways in which rival worldviews can coexist – a goal that cannot be achieved by blurring their differences or seeking an imaginary totality in which their conflicts are conjured away. Part of what is needed is old-fashioned tolerance – the willingness to accept that others be free to hold views you believe are mistaken or abhorrent.
Ramadan is having none of this. In a rare display of unambiguous clarity, he writes: “When it comes to relations between free and equal human beings, autonomous and independent nations, or civilisations, religions and cultures, appeals for the tolerance of others are no longer relevant.” The idea that tolerance is obsolete because it presupposes a position of power or superiority has become a commonplace. But it is also nonsense, because the need for tolerance comes from something deeper than shifting power relations. It comes from the fact that we will always have to put up with ideas and people we loathe.
Ramadan wants to replace this practice with a high-minded attitude of mutual respect. Each of us, he writes, must accept that “the presence of the other within my own conception of the world is both a fact and a necessity”. I am not sure what this means – assuming it means anything and is not just hot air – but if Ramadan is suggesting that in order to tolerate repugnant views one must empathise with those who hold them, he is plainly wrong.There is a conventional view that says we can despise someone’s beliefs while respecting them as individuals, but there are plenty of people who deserve contempt. If we tolerate the hateful views of Holocaust deniers, the reason is not that we think such people have any kind of moral worth. It is because free speech is much too important to be compromised for their sake.
While Ramadan rejects the ideal of toleration, he does espouse a kind of liberalism. The Quest for Meaning draws heavily on the postmodernliberal relativism fashionable some years ago, in which all values were seen as cultural constructions. Aside from its Islamic trappings, there is not much more to Ramadan’s philosophy than this dated relativism; if he adds anything, it is only a greater degree of unreality. His vision of a world that no longer needs tolerance is a postmodern utopia – an indeterminate condition that, if realised, would transcend anything that has ever existed.
Mesmerised by this empty dream, he is scornful of talk of civilisation. “The definition of the term ‘civilisation’, he writes, “is very relative.” But stoning women and gay people is an atrocity no matter how many cultures have sanctioned the practice. Torture is abhorrent whether it is inflicted by the Taliban or by Americans in Guantánamo. Civilisation comes in many forms, but barbarism is always the same.
In a final burst of rhetoric near the end of the book, Ramadan writes: “The deep silence speaks to us and summons us. This is a quest, an initiation, and we have to set off. Really set off . . .” Well, I for one won’t be following him anywhere. The habit of tolerance may not satisfy Ramadan’s utopian yearnings, but for me it is part of anything that can be described as freedom (or civilisation, for that matter). It would be a pity to throw it away in a fit of bad poetry.
John Gray’s Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings is published by Penguin. To order The Quest for Meaning for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.