Why the Tariq Ramadan Controversy Matters
by Stephen Schwartz
Tariq Ramadan is a 42-year old Arab Islamic philosopher, born in Switzerland and teaching at the University of Fribourg. He was recently invited to Notre Dame University, in South Bend, as Henry B. Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Building, affiliated with the Catholic institution's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
However, his entry into the U.S. was made impossible when his visa, issued by the State Department, was revoked at the instance of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Ramadan case has touched off a significant debate in some circles. Academics who make it their business to attack the U.S. government over such matters have issued their typical condemnations; other public voices have alleged that Jewish pressure led to Ramadan's exclusion. The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the most shrill and agitated of the secular advocacy groups for Middle Eastern radicals, issued an uncharacteristically mild set of cautionary declarations, describing its reaction to the decision as "deeply troubled," but then, with its customary arrogance, demanded an apology to Ramadan and offered to work with the DHS on a resolution of the issue, i.e. reissuance of the visa.
Both ADC and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the chief entity in the "Wahhabi lobby" which, with Saudi Arabian backing, stifles the intellectual life of American Muslims, while claiming to speak for no less than seven million of its coreligionists on these shores, had the rather considerable nerve to criticize Ramadan's visa cancellation as "censorship."
These outcomes were predictable. Neither the professional defenders of Islamist extremism in Middle East studies on campus, nor the well-heeled front groups for Arab radicals and Wahhabi reactionaries, will accept that a visit to the U.S. is not a right guaranteed to every foreigner.
Ramadan should not be admitted to the U.S. He has written extensively on the challenge of assimilating Islam in Europe, but has shown by his public statements there that he is not an Islamic moderate at all, but a man committed to quite radical postures. Even Hicham Chehab, news editor of the Beirut Daily Star, a newspaper obviously dedicated to Arab interests, was forced to admit early this month that "During the controversial visit to Britain last July by Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, himself accused of sanctioning suicide bombers, Ramadan defended Qardawi on the BBC television program 'Hard Talk.'"
Qaradawi, an Islamist bigot resident in Qatar, is more than "accused of sanctioning suicide bombers." He was recently compelled -- not for the first or, one may be certain, the last time -- to dissociate himself from one of his own fatwas acclaiming violence against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq, by "clarifying" that he supports "resistance" but not kidnapping, hostage-taking, or slaying of civilian contractors. At the same time, he accused the U.S. of trying to "change the religion" of Muslims in the Middle East.
The Daily Star's Chehab also noted that on the BBC show professor Ramadan, for his part, "did use, like some Muslim clerics, a double language and failed to denounce Palestinian suicide bombings. While Ramadan condemned the killing of civilians, he also denied there was definite proof that Al-Qaeda was behind the attacks of September 11, 2001." An exponent of such views clearly should not be welcome in the U.S. on the third anniversary of those horrors, and in the aftermath of the latest terror atrocity, in Beslan, supported by the international Wahhabi cult.
Nevertheless, the Ramadan controversy is of far greater interest in what it reveals about attitudes toward Islam among non-Muslim Americans, whose own moderation is unquestionable, but who now fall quite easily into one of two traps when it comes to dealing with someone like professor Ramadan.
The first trap is that of seeking representatives of a "Muslim Reformation." A whole category of Western pseudo-experts and demi-intellectuals has emerged since September 11th, who on the basis of a quick paging through Qur'an or a superficial review of their Western Civilization courses in college 30 years ago, have decided that Islam needs "a Luther" and "a Reformation." Most of these amateur pundits seem not to know the difference between the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, or the role played in the development of new thought in medieval Christian Europe by Arab and Arabic-speaking Jewish translators of the Greek philosophical classics.
Thus, the Daily Star's article on the Ramadan case appears under the headline, "To the West, Tariq Ramadan is hardly a 'Muslim Luther.'" But is a "Muslim Luther" a desirable concept? Luther expressed extreme hatred of the Jews, writing,
"set fire to their synagogues or schools and... bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them... if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us... it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know. Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed... Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them... Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb... Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews."
Even if Luther had not expressed himself in so brutal a fashion against the Jews, the same religious reformer demanded the suppression of Aristotle from the curricula of European universities, on grounds of paganism. The Spanish Arabic philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-98), known as Averroes in the West, remains one of the glories of Islamic civilization for his commentaries on Aristotle. The greatest of the Jewish philosophers, Maimonides, followed Averroes' path. Should Muslims emulate Luther and cultivate hatred for Aristotelian philosophy, as well as for the Jews? Obviously, some already have, and Islam has arguably had its Luther, in the form of Muhammad Ibn abd Al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism and the most famous protagonist of a "Muslim Reformation," as well as the inspirer of Osama bin Laden.
Tariq Ramadan carefully employs a vocabulary advocating "reform" of Islam, which is music to the ears of ill-educated Westerners, and leads to such misfortunes as his invitation to Notre Dame. Sadly, however, his concept of "reform" in Islam does not encompass a repudiation of Qaradawi, who also defines himself as a "reformer" of the religion.
The second trap into which the defenders of Tariq Ramadan have fallen is perhaps better described as a slippery slope. That is, it has become noticeable of late that Westerners who allegedly seek dialogue with the Islamic world suffer a pronounced reluctance to locate, identify, and empower the real moderates among the Muslims. Rather, they seem to have accepted the false proposition that Islam is mainly extremist, and that dialogue with moderates means finding the least dangerous fundamentalists rather than those who have rejected radicalism altogether.
A September 3, 2004 article in the Jewish Forward, published in New York, reported on a new study of Jewish-Muslim relations in America. The author of the survey, Harvard graduate student Raquel Ukeles, argues that for Jews to eschew dialogue with "Muslim individuals and organizations who are or have been affiliated/in contact" with radical Islamist groups that endorse violence, including terrorism in Israel, "has led to a boycott of a more moderate Muslim through an unfair 'guilt by association.' "
In an even more surprising, if not shocking and demoralizing development, an extensive reportage by John Mintz and Douglas Farah was published in The Washington Post on September 11, 2004. Titled "In Search Of Friends Among The Foes," it outlined the linkages of ideological Islamists, leading a wide network of mosques, organizations, and businesses in the U.S., with the radical Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, a movement with which Tariq Ramadan has family ties, and which he has defended.
The article then, as indicated by its headline, disclosed that "some federal agents worry that the Muslim Brotherhood has dangerous links to terrorism. But some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials believe its influence offers an opportunity for political engagement that could help isolate violent jihadists." Mintz and Farah, who are excellent reporters, quoted Graham E. Fuller, a former CIA official best described as someone who never met an Islamist he didn't like, and who is especially strident in his criticism of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
According to Fuller, the Brotherhood is "'the preeminent movement in the Muslim world... something we can work with.' Demonizing the Brotherhood 'would be foolhardy in the extreme,' he warned. Further along, the Post writers note that Fuller "warns against a litmus test for talking to Islamists -- such as eliminating those who embrace anti-Israel terrorism or make anti-American statements. 'There's hardly an Islamic group anywhere that hasn't done that,' he said."
In reality, Fuller, who consistently fosters the error of equating the Muslim global community with the Arab states, ignores the existence of numerous Islamic groups that embrace neither anti-Israel terrorism nor anti-Americanism, and which are located in such prominent places as French-speaking West Africa, Morocco, the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, India, and Indonesia. In most of these populous regions, the Muslim Brotherhood plays no role at all.
Lassitude about finding moderate Muslims in places like those enumerated here, and the willingness to accede to the lazy approach of accepting "the least radical" as moderates, also contributes to absurd incidents like the Tariq Ramadan fiasco. But the failure of Western politicians and intellectuals to learn enough about Islam to locate and assist the true moderates will come back to haunt America. Deliberate blindness to the Wahhabi threat in Saudi Arabia contributed to the impunity with which al-Qaida launched the suicide mission of September 11th. A similar accommodation to Islamic radicals who now disguise themselves as moderates will simply reinforce the sense that the populations of the Christian West are stupid, and may be fooled, swindled, and slaughtered.