MANTUA, Italy— A literary festival in the ancient capital city of Lombardy is as good a place as any other to survey the question of whether there is such a thing as "Western civilization" and whether it is worth defending. Here the poet Virgil was born, and here you can see the frescoes of Andrea Mantegna, painted for his feudal patrons the Gonzagas. But the great sacking of the city, which left Mantegna's work as almost the only surviving treasure, was undertaken by a Christian emperor. And it was here, in 1459, that Pope Pius II held a "diet" to proclaim yet another crusade—this time against the Turks.
I had come here to defend atheism and secularism in general but also to have a debate with Tariq Ramadan, an Islamist academic domiciled in Geneva, who has emerged as the most sinuous and dexterous of the "interpreters" of Muslim fundamentalism to the West. He eventually declined our original debate, but there was nothing to stop me from attending his event and trying to re-stage our canceled confrontation from the floor.
French author Caroline Fourest has made an intensive study of Ramadan's discrepant appearances in Europe and in the Muslim world, and has concluded that he speaks with a forked tongue and deliberately gives different impressions to different audiences. Having listened to him, I would say that the problem is not quite that. He possesses a command of postmodern and sociological jargon (of the sort that you may easily recognize by its repetitive use of the terms space and discourse to delineate the arena of thinkable debate), and he has a smooth way with euphemism.
Thus, he tells Egyptian television that the destruction of the Israeli state is for the moment "impossible" and in Mantua described the idea of stoning adulterous women as "unimplementable." This is something less than a full condemnation, but he is quick to say that simple condemnation of such things would reduce his own "credibility" in the eyes of a Muslim audience that, or so he claims, he wants to modernize by stealth.
His day-to-day politics have the same surreptitious air to them. The donations he made to Hamas (donations that led to difficulties receiving a visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame, a position he eventually resigned) were small gifts directed to Hamas' "humanitarian" and "relief" wing. He did not actually say that there was no proof of Osama Bin Laden's involvement in the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001; he only warned against a rush to judgment. He often criticizes the existing sharia regimes, such as that of Saudi Arabia, especially for their corruption, but such criticism is as often the symptom of a more decided Islamist alignment as it is a counterindication of it.
In Mantua, he was trying to deal with the question of dual loyalty, as between allegiance to Islam and allegiance to the democratic secular European governments under which Muslim immigrants now choose to live. He redirected the question to South Africa, where, he said, under the apartheid system there was a moral duty not to obey the law. After sitting through this and much else, I rose to ask him a few questions. Wasn't it true that the Muslim leadership in South Africa had actually endorsed the apartheid regime? Wasn't it evasive of him to discuss the headscarf in France rather than the more pressing question of the veil or niqab in Britain? Wasn't it true that imams in Denmark had solicited the intervention of foreign embassies to call for censorship of cartoons in Copenhagen? And was it not the case that he owed his position as an informal cultural negotiator to the fact that his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, had been the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist organization of which his father had also been a leader in Egypt?
He described my last question as too "offensive" to deserve an answer. He gave quite a good reply on the Danish point, saying that the imams in question had been a minority and should not have received support from foreign governments. He completely dodged the question of the veil in Britain, ignored my request that he give any reason to believe that women were wearing it voluntarily, and he admitted that the Deobandi Muslim leadership in South Africa had indeed been a pillar of the old regime. On the other hand, he added, some Muslims had been anti-apartheid, and these were the "real" ones. Indeed, on everything from stoning to suicide-murder to anti-Semitism, he argues that the problem is not with the "text" itself, or with Islam, but with misinterpretation of it. How convenient. Ramadan often relies on the ignorance of his Western audiences. He maintained that there was no textual authority for the killing of those who abandon their fealty to Islam, whereas the Muslim hadith, which have canonical authority, prescribe death as the punishment for apostasy in so many words.
When I went to Ramadan's event in the Palazzo d'Arco, I had just finished reading Osama Bin Laden's latest anniversary prose-poem. Here, too, are signs of an act being cleaned up. He brags of the murders of Sept. 11, of course (thus inconveniencing all those who attribute them to Mossad or some mysterious other agency), but he does not forget to cite Noam Chomsky, CIA maverick Michael Scheuer, and the Oliver Stone theory of the JFK assassination. He also exhibits concern for the global-warming crisis, the fate of American Indians, and even the recent collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Everything he says about the war in Iraq, right up to the affected concern for the civilian and military casualties, is presented as if he had hired one of Michael Moore's screenwriters as a consultant. Most unctuous of all, he reminds his audience that the Quran has a whole section in praise of the Virgin Mary, an ecumenical point that I had noticed before. (It is typical of monotheisms to plagiarize each other's worst features, from Abraham onward.) I think that this pitch is probably too crude and crass to work, but it's exactly the crudeness and crassness of Bin Laden that require the emergence of more "credible" middlemen to allay anxiety and offer reassurance. Only six years on, and already the soft mainstreaming of Islamic imperialism is under way.