James Maxwell meets one of the world’s most influential and controversial intellectuals to discuss extremism, reform and ‘The New We’
To many of his most belligerent critics, Tariq Ramadan — probably the world’s foremost Muslim intellectual — is a pathological manipulator of the truth.
If confronted directly with a query concerning the real nature of his beliefs, he will relentlessly dissemble, defer, conceal and deny until he has exhausted the interest and patience of his questioner.
Why? Because he is, allegedly, a “stealth jihadist”; a “soft-spoken fanatic” who employs methods of “doublespeak” to lull Western audiences into a false sense of security. His aim: to covertly influence mainstream political discourse to the advantage of a fundamentalist agenda. Famously, during the days following the July 7 attacks, The Sun, in a front-page exposé, labelled him “the acceptable face of terror” and insinuated that he was one of the most dangerous men in Britain.
Of course, Ramadan firmly refutes all charges. Born and educated in Switzerland, he insists that his project is one of reconciliation and his role that of a “mediator between different universes of reference, cultures and religions”. Politically, he locates himself on the liberal left (although, curiously, he wrote both his masters dissertation and his doctoral thesis on the philosophy of nineteenth-century ultra-conservative Friedrich Nietzsche).
I am scheduled to meet the 47-year-old at the Mitchell Library, where he is discussing and promoting his latest publication, What I Believe, “a work,” he writes in the introductory passage, “of clarification; a deliberately accessible presentation of the basic ideas I have been defending for more than twenty years.”
Still undecided as to which version of Ramadan — the Islamic European or the European Islamist — is genuine, I wait, somewhat apprehensively, for his arrival.
He strolls in and takes a seat. In a smart dark suit — and in the increasing heat of a packed, cramped room on a sun-drenched spring evening — Ramadan exhibits the kind of casual glamour one might expect of a modern, cosmopolitan academic. He is also conspicuously sleek and good-looking, with high-arched cheek-bones and intense light-brown eyes.
I’m ushered over. Impressively — even placidly — composed, he greets me and introduces himself. This unshakable poise, I soon realise, is a definitive feature of his character.
My first instinct is to test him. How does he respond to the charge that behind all the glossy rhetoric of moderation and reform lies an unreconstructed reactionary ideologue?
In fragmented English, with a thick continental inflection, he says, “I am always saying to the people ‘come with the evidence that at some time, somewhere, I influence radical or violent extremists’. In fact it is quite the opposite. So, for example, the British Government asked me to be in a taskforce to help them to tackle the question of extremism. How can they ask me to do that when at the same time other people are saying, you know, he is just nurturing [radicalism]?
“And what I got from the United States Government for six years was, ‘oh, he is connected to the terrorists,’ but with no explanation. And then Hilary Clinton last month said that the reasons for me not being able to enter the States were [not valid] … so for me this is a clear message: after six years of looking at my record, there is nothing, nothing, to connect me to terrorism.”
Ramadan is referring to the (now rescinded) visa prohibition imposed on him in 2004 by the Bush administration which stopped him from taking up a teaching post at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The justification for the ban offered by American officials was that he had donated money to an organisation that in turn supplied the funds to Hamas. Ramadan contends that it was a nakedly political manoeuvre; punishment for his opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
“This was a game under the Bush administration … I was against America’s policy in Iraq and in Israel. I was saying, ‘your unilateral support for Israel is not helping the peace process and what you are doing in Iraq is unlawful, it is just wrong’ … so in order to put me in a situation where my voice would be removed from the picture, I was accused of having links with terrorists.”
Why, though, if his record is, ideologically speaking, entirely unblemished, has he found it so hard to shake off this shadow of moral ambiguity? “Why am I controversial now? It’s because Islam per se is a controversial topic. To be a Muslim intellectual speaking about Islam is to be controversial in two ways. First, because, in the West, you are talking about a sensitive issue.
“But also in the Muslim majority countries, because sometimes I am very critical. You know I couldn’t go to the United States, but I cannot go now to Saudi Arabia, I cannot go to Tunisia, I cannot go to Egypt … but I accept this, because as a bridge between two universes of reference this is what I have to do.”
He makes a strong case. Ramadan has as many opponents in the Middle East — principally among its myriad authoritarian regimes and the countless sectarian factions they shelter — as he does in the West (where, it should be noted, his enemies come almost exclusively from the hawkish right). It is also unquestionably true that, in the current atmosphere of insecurity and distrust, a charismatic Islamic theologian with a penchant for criticism and robust debate is inevitably going to upset people.
It doesn’t help, either, that Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna — the founder of militant Egyptian organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Ramadan’s heritage partially explains why there are two such powerfully competing impressions of him.
We have, on the one hand, his grandfather: an anti-colonial activist in Cairo in the 1930s and ’40s who raged against the morally deleterious effects of modernity and secularism and was eventually executed by the state for subversion. And on the other, his great uncle, Gamal al-Banna: a progressive scholar who has spent much of his life trying to draw attention to a strong culture of tolerance within the Quranic tradition.
Listening to Ramadan speak — conversing with him in person, with his sincere, animated, yet ice-cool delivery — I become convinced that it is in the footsteps of the latter that he follows. Like Gamal, Tariq sees himself as a democratic socialist: “I am always saying I am of the Left. This is known for twenty years. This is my political family.” Like Gamal, Tariq pits himself against religious literalists: “Muslims must not allow the most radical voices to monopolise the media and public attention.” Like Gamal, Tariq insists that Islam is perfectly compatible with liberal democracy: “Muslims share the essence of the values on which Europe and the West are based. Indeed, their own religion has contributed to the promotion and emergence of those values”.
It is on the issue of how Europe reconciles itself — politically and emotionally — with the growing presence and visibility of its substantial Muslim population that Ramadan’s contribution has been most sought after and most profound. In What I Believe, he states: “Western societies in general and European societies in particular are experiencing a very deep, multidimensional identity crisis.” What, I ask, is the nature of this crisis and what precipitated it?
“Fear,” he responds reflexively, before explaining, “what is important is the new visibility [of Muslim immigrants] … this threatens the homogeneity of ‘our’ culture; you know, people coming with Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds — with a new religion.
“So the question is now ‘who are we going to be?’ I would say that instead of nurturing a state of fear and victim-hood, we have to change to acknowledge the fact that the future is for pluralism. Instead of creating spaces of mistrust, we have to go toward a revolution of trust. This is what I call ‘The New We’. ‘The New We’ is you and me,” he gestures first in my direction and then in his, “we don’t have the same background, we don’t have the same memory, but we have the same future.”
But this common future — this “revolution of trust” — is far from certain. Extreme nationalist and chauvinist parties are on the march in Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance (where until very recently Ramadan lived and worked), Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party looks set to win a majority at the next general election. Is this not an indication that the European identity crisis is worsening?
“Perhaps. Wilders is a populist. He is nurturing fear. He is talking about differences and Islam as a threat. He is powerful because the other political parties are weak.”
Ramadan’s voice drops as he emphasises this last word.
“They don’t know how to deal with the issues so they are following in the footsteps of his statements. He is Islamising everything. ‘What about the job-market? What about discrimination? What about education?’ He makes it all about religion. This is wrong. This is the politics of fear. This is emotional politics. I would say that we have to reconcile ourselves with true politics.”
Does Ramadan blame the ‘politics of fear and emotion’ for getting him sacked from his position as professor and integration adviser at Erasmus University in Rotterdam last August? The formal explanation for his dismissal was that the content of a talk-show he hosts on Iranian state television was “not compatible” with his duties in the Netherlands.
“This is quite clear. It’s a further symptom of the crisis. I was working on diversity and citizenship. I got the support of 1,200 students who said, ‘we want him back.’ But politics was playing here. The University took the decision in one and a half days, when I was on holiday.” He grins, reflecting on the sheer old-fashioned indecency of the incident.
“And now I am going to sue them, oh yes, because this is a lesson for you [his former employers] not to treat your fellow citizens — and a guest — in the way you have. So I was a guest, now I want you to apologise: not for money, not for me, but for your citizens. It is a lesson.”
The Dutch, though, aren’t the only people capitulating to the pressures and paranoia of the far right. The construction of new minarets and mosques has been banned in Switzerland and the French are proposing a prohibition of the full veil on public transport. Should we anticipate further acts of anti-Muslim hostility across the continent in the coming months and years?
“Yes, I think that it is going to carry on. We have a controversy every six months in Europe. I just was in Norway and they were talking about how Muslims were exercising ‘moral policy’ on woman and so on. It’s going to go on for years, I think. But we have to understand that these are national issues that disguise what is happening at the grassroots level.
“This is what I am saying in What I Believe. Things are going much better at the local level than they are at the national level.
“At the national level, the parties don’t have social policies, so they are playing with symbols because they don’t have concrete politics. I am asking many parties ‘What is your social vision? What are you going to do about racism? How are you going to deal with the job-market?’”
Ramadan and I are having to almost shout at each other now. The room has swelled with people — the early background chatter has risen to a shrill pitch — and the air has grown thick and heavy. Nonetheless, he maintains his dispassionate bearing.
“We need time. I think two generations,” he says when I ask if he sees Europe’s identity crisis being resolved any time soon. “We have to be committed to create together this ‘New We’, which at the local level will need a new creative vision … a new understanding of our self. Not easy at all, not easy at all,” he repeats, in a tone that suggests the task is not easy, but possible — and necessary.
Ramadan seems almost endearingly earnest and optimistic about the future; about the relationship between Muslims and the secular West; and about the prospects of developing a dialogue built on the principles of mutual respect and tolerance. Over the course of our conversation, nothing in his manner, or in the substance of his responses, suggests to me that this is a man who harbours undisclosed sympathies for absolutist trends in Islam.
As the noise and the heat intensify, I notice our allotted time has run out. Ramadan has flight to catch — off to a court case in Amsterdam, or a lecture in North America, or home to Geneva.
But when I stand to leave, I feel a sudden slight rush of frustration and disappointment: wherever Ramadan goes, he will inevitably be chased by the pernicious, baseless myth of his sub-rosa extremism.