Doug Ireland examines the reputation of Tariq Ramadan, the man widely hailed as the saviour of Islam
In the last decade, Tariq Ramadan has emerged as the most quoted person in Europe on Islam. His reach is global, as he criss-crosses the globe to present his vision for Muslims. In 2000 Time magazine named him one of the six religious figures likely to be responsible for Islam’s possible renovation in the new century. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair even appointed Ramadan to a government commission on preventing extremism.
Always elegantly dressed, extraordinarily articulate in French and English as well as Arabic, this 45-year-old Swiss-born son of Egyptian parents has even been embraced by elements of the anti-globalisation Left, for whom his opposition to Western-style capitalism and American imperialism is an attractive visiting card. And he’s become a familiar face on French and British television, where most often he deftly runs circles around his critics. At the same time, young European Muslims flock to hear this brilliant and powerful orator and to buy cassettes of his lectures. Ian Baruma, writing in the New York Times, last year called Ramadan “an Islamic superstar”.
Ramadan presents himself as a universalist intellectual and an advocate of modern “reform” for Islam. But doubts about him have gradually been emerging. As one of America’s leading dailies, the Boston Globe, put it, to his admirers he’s “Europe’s leading advocate of liberal Islam. To his detractors, he’s a dangerous theocrat in disguise.”
The most compelling case against Ramadan has been painstakingly built by the Arabic-speaking investigative journalist and feminist Caroline Fourest. The author of a number of works on the fundamentalist trends in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Fourest has analysed the 100 cassettes of Ramadan’s speeches and preachings, his 15 books and his hundreds of magazine articles and interviews. Her book Brother Tariq: the Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan was published four years ago in France, but is only now being published in English by the Social Affairs Unit. And it presents a radical critique of a man she accuses of hypocrisy, cant and contradictory postures.
For a start, far from being a reformer, she claims that he actually espouses a version of fundamentalist political theology formulated by his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the militantly fundamentalist Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, whose credo is: “God is our goal, the Prophet our model, the Koran our law, holy war our way and martyrdom our desire.”
“Ramadan,” Fourest writes, “is indeed a reformist, but a Salafist reformist (the word salaf in Arabic means ‘our pious ancestors’.) The term ‘reform’ indicates [Ramadan’s] willingness to renew our understanding of Islam, but the adjective ‘Salafist’ reveals in which direction this reinterpretation is to take us – namely backwards ... [Ramadan] considers the precepts formulated in the seventh century, in a specific historical context, to be ‘in essence eternal truths’ ... a way of refusing to modernise or rethink principles that date from the seventh century.”
Tariq Ramadan enjoys the prestige conferred on him in Islamist circles by being al-Banna’s grandson. And while he says, “I have studied Hassan al-Banna’s ideas with great care and there is nothing in this heritage that I reject,” he has always denied having any “functional connection” with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But he certainly has a suspiciously close kinship with it. The Brotherhood has been illegal in Egypt since 1954, when it was convicted of an attempt to assassinate Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser. Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, a disciple of al-Banna chosen by the Brotherhood’s leader to marry his daughter, fled that same year, eventually to Switzerland, where he founded the Geneva Islamic Centre, which serves as headquarters for the Brotherhood’s European operations, which Said headed. On Said’s death in 1995, Tariq’s mother Wafa al-Banna, Tariq and his brother Hani took over running the Centre.
But Ramadan’s close links with the Muslim Brotherhood go beyond family ties. According to Antoine Sfeir, a Lebanese-born, pro-Palestinian Arab, founder of the respected review on Middle East affairs Cahiers de l’Orient, and an expert on Islam, “He [Tariq] is no doubt one of the key figures of the Brotherhood.” Another respected journalist who shares that view is Radio France International senior editor Richard Labévière, author of a number of authoritative books on Islamist terrorism. In 1998 he interviewed the Brotherhood’s fifth leader, Mostafa Mashour, who told him: “The work carried out by Hani and Tariq [Ramadan] is totally in keeping with the purest traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood.” And, as one of the administrators of the Geneva Islamic Centre, a Brotherhood operation, Tariq does indeed have a “functional connection” to the organisation.
Moreover, most of Tariq Ramadan’s books, and all of the audio cassettes of his lectures in Arabic and French (which sell upwards of 50,000 a year, according to the French newsweekly L’Express), are published by Tawhid, a bookseller and publishing house in Lyon, France, which serves as a major Brotherhood propaganda arm. Tawhid pays Ramadan 2,000 Euros a year – another “functional connection”.
And it’s not just in his ambivalent attitude to the Brotherhood that Ramadan appears to make misleading and even false claims. For example, in signing an opinion piece in Le Monde on 29 February this year, he presented himself to the French as a “Professor at Oxford University”. In fact, he is only a much less prestigious visiting “research fellow”, a temporary appointment with library privileges but no teaching duties at all. This isn’t the first time he’s exaggerated his credentials because, on 31 March 2005 in the same newspaper, he claimed he was a “Professor of Philosophy and Islamology at the University of Fribourg” in Switzerland – when, in fact, he was only an instructor who gave a course of just one hour a week.
Ramadan has long been accused of double-speak, of deploying one discourse when talking to non-Muslim audiences and on television, and quite another when talking to Muslims. He is, in fact, a master of what Arabs call the art of taqiya, speaking one way to fool “non-believers” and “infidels” and another way to followers of Allah. When Cahiers de l’Orient editor Sfeir told a magazine in Lyon in January 2002 that the inflamed Muslim half of Ramadan’s double-speak resulted in a discourse which “can influence young Muslims and can serve as a factor inciting them to join up with those engaged in violent acts,” Ramadan – who could hardly deploy his habitual riposte to his critics of “Islamophobia” against Sfeir – sued for defamation. In May 2003, the Appeals Court in Lyon found against Ramadan and upheld the truth in Sfeir’s declarations. But in 2004, on the French public television broadcast Campus, when host Guillaume Durand said to him: “You lost your lawsuit against Antoine Sfeir,” Ramadan replied, “No, I won my lawsuit against Sfeir!” He simply lied.
And nowhere are his contradictions and equivocations more evident than in the cassettes he has produced for “friendly” audiences – so non-Muslims rarely get to hear them. But Fourest has studied these recordings in meticulous detail, and uncovered some far from liberal declarations.
Ramadan berates “the promotion of the individual that culminates in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man ... Lapsing into individualism is dangerous ... Liberty, which means the freedom to make one’s own choices, has taken on such importance that, when pushed to the extreme, it becomes moral permissiveness.”
He is particularly virulent about the role of women, suggesting that they should be forbidden to engage in sports in which their bodies are seen by men, and warning them not to use their looks to attract indecent attention. And as for equal opportunities: “Allowing women to work does not mean opening up all types of work to them ... We are not going to go to the lengths you sometimes see in Western society and say that, in order to prove they are liberated, women must become masons or truck drivers ... We’re not going to be so stupid as to say: prove you’re liberated, drive a truck, whore…”
So beneath the urbane liberal lurks a far more sinister ideologue, committed to some of the most backward fundamentalist repressions. And because he comes over as so contemporary and convincing, he’s feted by a generation of young Muslims looking for a more hip hero.
In 2003, when he was invited to teach a course at Notre Dame University in the US, the Bush administration foolishly refused to let him enter America. All this did was allow Ramadan to play the “martyr” (his favourite role) and increase his popularity among Muslim youth, who see Washington as “the enemy” since the invasion of Iraq and the scandal of Abu Ghraib.
Ramadan is dangerous precisely because he’s such a slick and brilliant dissembler, but the only way to counter Ramadan is not by banning him (which plays into his hands) but by exposing what hides behind his sugared “moderate” pose – which is why Fourest’s book is so invaluable.