(Photo: Time magazine)
The Boston Globe profiles controversial European Muslim Tariq Ramadan today, just as the Weekly Standard carries a report about his growing influence in France. In Onward Muslim Soldiers I chronicled Ramadan’s studied ambiguity on important questions of the compatibility with Islam and secular democracy. He is continuing to hone his skills in this area.
Says the Globe: “Outside the Muslim community, Ramadan is the object of both admiration and suspicion. He’s the Muslim Martin Luther, the American and French press have sometimes rhapsodized: He advocates that European Muslims use their unique experiences to lead a movement toward reform within Islam. He is ‘two-faced,’ critics reply: He sounds like a moderate, having adopted a vocabulary that he knows will be accepted by secular Westerners, but he is actually herding Francophone Muslims down the path of extremism. . . .
“European Muslims should not aim to be ingratiating, Ramadan insists, but virtuous. ‘We could hold 3 million lectures to say, “Islam is not violent. We’re nice. We’re practically cute at times.”‘ The audience laughs. ‘But ultimately there is only one thing that will really make the difference. It’s people who, both inside the Muslim community and as citizens outside of it’ behave with dignity and generosity.
“The audience has questions, both during the lecture and after it, when young men detain Ramadan for about an hour. What about music? Education? Veiling? Ramadan offers prohibitions, but mild ones. Music is allowed, but only if it elevates the soul. Veiling should be welcomed as a spiritual act, but no woman should be forced to veil. Islamic education should be offered extracurricularly, but Muslims should take advantage of French public schools like everyone else. . . .
“The Koran, Ramadan maintains, is open to multiple interpretations that take historical and cultural context into account. But that doesn’t mean Muslims should assimilate blindly. Don’t watch vulgar television or wear shoes made in sweatshops, he admonishes. (Ramadan sees a concern for the rights of the poor as integral to Islam, which also prohibits interest-bearing loans, such as those from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This train of thought leads Ramadan to be active in Europe’s antiglobalization movement.)
“One young man wants to talk to Ramadan about the common perception that the Arab community is anti-Semitic. How can they accuse us of anti-Semitism when we are Semites? he demands.
“That’s just deflective word play, says Ramadan: We know very well that there are Muslims who hate Jews, and we should stand against them.
“I saw Ramadan exhort hundreds and even thousands of Muslims against anti-Semitism in Rennes, Lille, and elsewhere. ‘There is no Islamic legitimacy for anti-Semitism,’ he told a crowd in Corbeil. The message is an urgent one in today’s France, where a recent spate of attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues is widely thought to be the work of Muslim or Arab citizens.
“And yet, the very week of our travels, Ramadan stood accused of anti-Semitism himself. In mid-October, he’d published a controversial essay on Oumma.com, a Francophone Muslim website.
“‘For several years,’ wrote Ramadan in the polemic, which neither Le Monde nor Libation would publish, ‘French Jewish intellectuals previously considered universalist thinkers have begun . . . to develop an analysis increasingly oriented toward a community-based concern that tends to relativize the defense of universal principles like equality and justice.’
“According to Ramadan, such well-known French intellectuals as Bernard Kouchner, Bernard-Henri [Levy], and Alain Finkielkraut have inexcusably failed to condemn the repressive policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. What’s more, Ramadan claims these intellectuals have assumed political positions — in favor of a war in Iraq that Sharon, too, favored; against Pakistan, the enemy of Israeli ally India — premised upon an implicit Zionist worldview and a privileging of Israeli interests over humanist values.
“The article had barely circulated when [Levy] compared it to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Kouchner denounced Ramadan as an intellectual villain, and three Socialist Party leaders disowned their collaboration with Ramadan in the antiglobalization movement, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur that Ramadan preached hate and echoed the rhetoric of far-right leader Jean-Marie LePen. On Nov. 1, [Levy] published a blistering attack on Ramadan in Le Monde. Called ‘The other face of Tariq Ramadan,’ the article accused Ramadan of double-talk, fundamentalism, and even links with Al Qaeda.
“(In July, a Swiss newspaper reported that, according to a lawsuit filed by a group of families of Sept. 11 victims, an Al Qaeda suspect in Spain had been in regular contact with Ramadan. The suspect had mentioned Ramadan’s name in a telephone conversation with the Islamic publishing house Twahid, which publishes Ramadan’s books. Ramadan denied knowing the suspect, and the Swiss government affirmatively cleared him of suspicion. For his part, Ramadan has frequently condemned Islamic terrorism.)
“Ramadan was both furious with [Levy], and more than a little bit hurt. Would it have helped, he asked me, if he had written, ‘certain Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals,’ since after all one of those he named was not Jewish? Why was the phrase ‘Jewish intellectuals’ more stigmatizing than ‘Muslim intellectual,’ which he was regularly called in the press, and which didn’t bother him at all?
“Ramadan did not seem to comprehend that the problem was deeper than that. His article had imputed loyalties and motivations to intellectuals on the basis of presumed ethnicity. Moreover, he’d accused these thinkers of working in the interest of a foreign state in a conspiratorial fashion. . . .
“Secular France can’t seem to decide if Ramadan is friend or foe. He is, after all, an Islamist, meaning that he believes Islam furnishes a political as well as a spiritual worldview. For majority Muslim societies like those of the Middle East, Ramadan envisions a reformed, moderate, but nonetheless Islam-based political and legal system. In the end, such a system would look a lot like Western secular democracy, he says, though its legitimacy would derive from Islamic sources.
“Ramadan’s vision may be a radical improvement on nearly every existing Islamic system of government; indeed, he is a harsh critic of virtually all the world’s Muslim rulers, and Saudi clerics have issued fatwas condemning him. But is Ramadan trying to square the circle when he says a reformed Islamic system is compatible with secular values?
“Take, for instance, the harshest Islamic corporal punishments, such as stoning adulterous wives or cutting off the hands of thieves. Ramadan personally finds such penalties unacceptable and un-Islamic. He believes a moratorium should be called on them while Islamic scholars ask themselves three questions: What is in the texts? How does the contemporary context affect how we read the texts? Is the policy implementable?”
I don’t know how he can maintain this. Amputation is in the Qur’an: “As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power” (Sura 5:38). How can Ramadan convince anyone that this punishment is un-Islamic in the face of this verse? Meanwhile, stoning is based on well-attested statements of Muhammad: “Abu Huraira reported that a person from amongst the Muslims came to Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) while he was in the mosque. He called him saying: Allah’s Messenger. I have committed adultery. . . . Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Take him and stone him” (Sahih Muslim, book 17, no. 4196). Will Ramadan dare say that the Prophet was wrong?
“Ramadan seems confident that this reevaluation will lead to radical reform. What’s more, he believes he is providing language and tools to dismantle abuses from the inside, rather than simply flatly condemning the Islamic system from without, as secular critics do.
“But what if the best efforts of Muslim scholars still reveal a God who insists on cruel and discriminatory punishments? There can be no recourse to extrinsic principles, such as human rights or equality. The final word lies in the Koran and with those who interpret it.
“So are reformists like Ramadan mitigating the worst excesses of a cruel political system, or are they simply sugarcoating it? If the former, moderate Islamism is perhaps the greatest hope for human rights in countries ruled by sharia (Islamic law). If the latter, moderate Islamism, whatever its advocates’ intentions, looks more like a potentially deceptive sales pitch.
“The towering figure behind Ramadan’s school of reformist Islamism happens to be his grandfather, Hasan al-Banna. In 1928, during the period of British colonization in Egypt, al-Banna, scandalized by what he saw as the licentiousness of a westernizing Cairo, founded a group called the Society of the Muslim Brothers. The group’s doctrine — fiercely anti-colonial, religiously and morally conservative, and economically redistributionist — has since inspired a panoply of Islamist movements across the Arab world, with leaders ranging from moderates like Ramadan to the most violent extremists such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad founder Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“In their day, the Muslim Brothers accepted the parliamentary democracy Britain had exported to Egypt as fundamentally compatible with Sunni Islam. But they felt it should be revised to enforce Islamic morality and law. Like Ramadan, they believed Islamic teachings should be interpreted in light of contemporary context. But the context of colonized Egypt was morally restrictive and politically anti-Western.
“Hasan al-Banna was assassinated during Egypt’s anticolonial revolt in 1949, most likely by British agents. In 1951, al-Banna’s eldest daughter married one of her father’s followers — his ‘spiritual son,’ as Ramadan puts it, a passionate and pious lawyer named Said Ramadan. But in the mid-1950s, Gamal Abdal Nasser, Egypt’s nationalist president, cracked down hard on the Muslim Brothers, who were imprisoned, hanged, exiled, or forced underground. Nonetheless, the group continued to exercise spiritual and political influence not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world.
“Ramadan’s parents fled Egypt in 1954, finally settling in Switzerland, where Ramadan’s father founded an Islamic center in Geneva. Tariq was born in Geneva in 1962, the youngest of six children. He was a voracious reader and a spiritual seeker who imagined that the answer to his quest lay in the land of his father’s birth. . . .
“Keeping up with Ramadan during Ramadan wasn’t easy. I finally lost him in Lille, where he spoke at an enormous mosque. A young woman led me upstairs, past a mountain of shoes, into a humid, low-ceilinged room where veiled women were packed knee-to-knee on the carpet, their only view of Ramadan on a closed-circuit TV. The Koran says not to dress in order to attract the gaze of others, Ramadan was saying. American Muslim women sometimes protest that it’s because they wear the hijab on the streets of American cities that people stare at them. Ramadan’s reply, he tells the congregation, is ‘Yes, but it is not the same gaze.’
“A veiled woman next to me repeats approvingly to her friend, ‘It’s not the same gaze.’
“Nonetheless, Ramadan hastens to add that we misunderstand the Koran if we presume that women who veil are more pious than those who don’t, because how she expresses her spirituality should be a woman’s personal choice.
“When Ramadan finishes speaking, the crowd starts to break up. On the TV, we can see the young men, as usual, gathering around Ramadan with their questions and reactions and the elation of meeting a mentor for the first time. The women, in endless varieties of the much-discussed hijab, occupy a separate space, in every sense concealed.
“Ramadan does not approve of segregating mosques. He believes women should be permitted to interpret the Koran, and he waxes enthusiastic about Muslim feminist movements. It occurs to me to wonder exactly how many imams are likely to think like Ramadan does, even in a hypothetical reformed Islamist state.
“Right now in Europe, however, there is a generation of Muslims hanging on Ramadan’s every word. Is he making moderates into Islamists, or Islamists into moderates? From a secular point of view, only the second option may be desirable. To Ramadan, however, the two processes are inseparable: They are two halves of a whole.”