From The Ottawa Citizen
Radical or reformer?
Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan is described by many as a reformer, but the Swiss-born academic, who will be speaking Friday at Carleton University, has troubling allegiances to Islamist extremists, writes Robert Sibley.
By Robert Sibley, The Ottawa CitizenMarch 18, 2010
President of the European Muslim Network, Tariq Ramadan, has said his dream is to create a ‘European Islam’ where the continent’s Muslims can find a proper place. But lately many question the intellectual’s seemingly moderate stance.
Photograph by: Dominique Faget, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images, The Ottawa Citizen
Tariq Ramadan is often held up as the kind of Muslim intellectual able to build bridges between Islam and the West. The Swiss-born academic — “one of the most important intellectuals in the world,” says Slate magazine — is widely lauded as a “moderate,” a “reformer.”
Ramadan, a research fellow at St. Antony’s College in Oxford who lectures on Islamist thought, among other positions, is best known to North Americans for being denied a U.S. work visa in 2004 to take up an appointment at the University of Notre Dame. In Europe, though, he has spent much of the past two decades telling Muslims they need to modernize and trying to convince westerners they need not be suspicious of Islam. His purpose, he says, is to foster a “European Islam” where the continent’s Muslim population can find its proper place.
Ramadan will bring that message — or a variation on it — to Ottawa on Friday when he delivers the 26th annual Davidson Lecture at Carleton University’s Minto Centre. His talk, sponsored by the College of the Humanities and the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam, is entitled “Identity and Engagement: Western Muslims and the Public Sphere.”
On Ramadan’s previous visits to Ottawa, he’s praised the capital as a place where “there is goodwill and a better understanding of immigrants” than elsewhere. During a 2005 visit, he lamented the us-versus-them psychology that often characterizes relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. “If we are each obsessed with the extremists on the other side we are not going to build together.”
Such sentiments are always worth considering, of course. The question for Friday’s audience, though, is whether they are believable.
Ramadan’s reputation as a “moderate” has come into question in recent years, with some reputable commentators suggesting Ramadan is a master practitioner of the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya, or dissimulation.
“Ramadan is a dangerous radical who, far from modernizing Islam, is in fact attempting to Islamize modernity,” says Pakistani-born scholar and Muslim apostate Ibn Warraq.
“I don’t see anyone today who is as effective as Tariq Ramadan in furthering fundamentalism in France,” says French journalist Caroline Fourest, the author of a book on Ramadan.
Fourest says Ramadan is known for saying one thing to Muslims and another to western audiences. His purpose, she said in a 2004 interview with L’Express, is “to modify the secular state and help matters evolve toward ‘more Islam.’ Unfortunately, the Islam in question is not an enlightened and modern Islam, but a reactionary and fundamentalist one.”
Paul Berman, a journalist who teaches at New York University, and the author of studies on totalitarian ideology, offers perhaps the most rigorous analysis of Ramadan’s ideological background. Ramadan comes across as reasoned and moderate, Berman says in a recent essay, but his reformist image is compromised by his admiration of and abiding attachment to extremist Muslim ideologues, including his father and grandfather.
“The problem lies in the terrible fact that Ramadan’s personal milieu — his grandfather, his family history, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition — is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theoretical justification for religious suicide,” Berman writes.
Normally, you don’t hold a man’s family against him. In Ramadan’s case, however, it is permissible because he makes so much of his heritage.
Ramadan’s maternal grandfather was Hassan Al-Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood to promote Salafism; a term that refers to the dream of returning Islam to the strict practices of sharia that prevailed in the seventh century. In the late 1940s, when the UN voted to create Israel, the New York Times quoted him as saying, “If the Jewish state becomes a fact, (the Arabs) will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea.”
Tariq Ramadan’s father, Said Ramadan, was Al-Banna’s son-in-law and personal secretary. After being expelled from Egypt, Said went to Saudi Arabia and became a founder of the World Islamic League, a charity devoted to spreading Islam.
He then moved to Switzerland to raise a family — Tariq was born in 1962 — and establish the Islamic Center in Geneva to promote the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas.
Tariq Ramadan’s “heritage” has also been linked to those who promote terrorism. Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a scholar of Sunni Islam, directed funeral prayers for Ramadan’s father when he died in 1995 — a fact Ramadan proudly mentions in his book The Roots of the Muslim Revival. However, Qaradawi is better known to westerners for issuing a fatwa in 2003 justifying the use of women as suicide bombers. Nevertheless, as Berman notes, Ramadan “reveres Qaradawi above all other present-day Islamic scholars, and in one book after another he has left no room for doubt about his fealty.”
To be sure, Ramadan has never publicly condoned violence. But then he has never outright condemned terrorism. After the 9/11 attacks, he said, “we should condemn bin Laden’s statement and actions.” (Why “should”? Why not say outright he condemns the attacks? ) In an interview with the French magazine Le Point, he referred to the attacks on New York, as well as ones in Bali and Madrid that killed hundreds, as “interventions.” He’s said killing Israeli children in acts of terrorism is “morally condemnable,” but “contextually explicable.”
In light of such equivocation it is not unreasonable to wonder at Ramadan’s motives, particularly when you consider how proudly he proclaims his intellectual and spiritual attachments to those who endorse violence.
Jean-Charles Brisard, an internationally recognized expert on terrorism financing, says Tariq and his older brother Hani Ramadan “co-ordinated a meeting (in Geneva) in 1991 attended by Ayman Al Zawahiri and Omar Abdel Rahman.” Zawahiri would become the second in command of al-Qaeda. Rahman is serving a life sentence in the U.S. as the planner of the 1993 World Trade Center attack.
Perhaps, though, the most telling exposure of taqiyya was Tariq’s response to a statement by his older brother Hani, who once endorsed stoning to death women who commit adultery.
In a 2003 debate on French television, Tariq was asked to comment on his brother’s views. Did he agree? His interlocutor was none other than Nicolas Sarkozy, the then-French interior minister and now president.
“I am in favour of a moratorium so that they stop applying this sort of punishments in the Muslim world,” Ramadan said.
Sarkozy was stunned. “A moratorium … Mr. Ramadan are you serious? … We should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?”
Sarkozy’s reaction rattled Ramadan. He equivocated, asking about the meaning of “moratorium,” arguing that a “true debate” was needed so that “if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end.”
The future French president wouldn’t let Ramadan sidestep his moral incoherence. “You have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.”
Sarkozy was right. What is there to debate? You don’t seek a “consensus” on such a barbaric practice. What if you don’t get a consensus? Would Ramadan let the “moratorium” — which my dictionary defines as “a temporary ban on the use or production of something” — lapse? (In 2005, Ramadan again called for an “immediate moratorium” on the application of hudud– prescribed Islamic penalties — such as corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in all majority Muslim countries. However, nowhere in the announcement does he condemn stoning.)
Did Ramadan’s mask slip? Berman suggests this was the case. “Six million French people watched that exchange. A huge number of Muslim immigrants must have been among them — the very people who might have benefited from hearing someone speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan couldn’t do it. … The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights. A moment of barbarism.”
Might this “moment of barbarism” have something to do with the “heritage” of which Ramadan is so proud? In an interview with Le Monde diplomatique, Ramadan acknowledged his intellectual debt to his grandfather’s ideas. “I have studied Hassan al-Banna’s ideas with great care and there is nothing in this heritage that I reject.”
Nothing? If so, then it is not unreasonable for anyone listening to Ramadan to suspect he is engaged in taqiyya. His message, as Berman observes, “is a double message.”
This kind of doublespeak, says Fourest, confers an indirect legitimacy on the Islamist agenda, and thus, implicitly, justifies terrorism. Thus, Ramadan remains “scrupulously faithful to the strategy mapped out by his grandfather, a strategy of advance stage by stage” toward making sharia a reality in western liberal society. Along the way, Ramadan, soft-spoken, ever elegant, always charming, “disarms those who are wary of Islamism.”
Perhaps those attending Friday’s lecture will not be so disarmed, will not settle for dissimulation, will not let wishful thinking replace justifiable wariness.
Robert Sibley is a senior writer with the Ottawa Citizen.
Paul Berman, “The Islamist, The Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism,” The New Republic, June 4, 2007; Jean-Charles Brisard, “Tariq Ramadan: new links to terror, The Terror Finance Blog, Sept. 13, 2006. http://www.terrorfinance.org/the_terror_finance_blog/2006/09/tariq_ramadan_n.html; Caroline Fourest, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, 2008; Andrew Higgins, “Blame It on Voltaire: Muslims Ask French to Cancel 1741 Play,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2006; Ibn Warraq, “The Pious Fraud: Tariq Ramadan, Islamist and equivocator,” City Journal, Feb. 25, 2008.
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If You Go
What: Identity and Engagement: Western Muslims and the Public Sphere, Tariq Ramadan delivers the 26th annual Davidson Lecture. The talk is open to the public.
When: Friday from 3 to 5 p.m.
Where: The Minto Centre, Carleton University.
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