The New York Times and the Incoherence of Tariq Ramadan
by Stephen Schwartz
The September 11, 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and murder of Amb. J. Christopher Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and security guards Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, as well as anti-American disorders in Egypt, Pakistan, and other Islamic lands, in which dozens were killed, continue to generate speculative commentary.
Obviously, such bloody outbursts are serious forays organized by terrorists. They may be timed to the anniversary of September 11, 2001, or linked opportunistically with manufactured outrage over a trivial media product insulting Muhammad. But their intent is unvarying: to increase the weight of Wahhabi, alias "Salafi" radicals in the political processes following the upheavals in the Arab lands over the past two years.
On September 30, The New York Times published an op-ed column from London by Prof. Tariq Ramadan, currently affiliated with Oxford University, titled "Waiting for an Arab Spring of Ideas." Ramadan attempted to explain the Benghazi atrocities so as to mollify non-Muslim sectors of public opinion that have become doubtful of the democratization promised by the "Arab Spring."
Ramadan has a well-known stake in this debate, as the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) founder Hassan Al-Banna. But he is also Swiss by citizenship, born in exile, and renowned as an Islamic philosopher, a stylish author, and an articulate personality. For Muslims living in the West – especially younger believers and university students – he has the status of a pop star.
His 1,200-word offering in The New York Times, nevertheless, showed that within the ranks of ascendant Islamists, consistency in thought is lacking, except in one respect – blaming the U.S. and Israel for every negative outcome. Ramadan began by recounting how Americans he knew questioned whether the latest violence reflected that Westerners "were… misled, during the Arab awakening, into thinking that Muslims could actually embrace democratic ideals." His "short answer" was "no," i.e. we were not misled.
Ramadan continued with the common explanation offered by Muslims in such situations: "Participants in the recent violent demonstrations… were a tiny minority. Their violence was unacceptable. They do not represent the millions of Muslims who have taken to the streets since 2010 in a disciplined, nonviolent manner to bring down dictatorships."
Satisfied with that that truism, Ramadan took no notice of the Libyan transitional government's pledge to cooperate fully with the U.S. in punishing the Benghazi criminals, or the rallies by ordinary Libyans repudiating the extremists and demanding an end to depredations by competing militias. Rather, he opted to embellish the customary anti-American line on the Muslim world.
Much of his first 11 (of 17) paragraphs in the Times recited the standard Islamist litany against the West. Early in the text, he wrote, "Many Americans were nonetheless shocked by the chaos and bloodshed across Muslim countries, believing that they had come generously to the aid of the Arab peoples during the uprisings. But Arabs, and Muslims in general, have a longer memory and a broader view. Their mistrust is fueled by America's decades-long support for dictators who accommodated its economic and security interests; by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; by the humiliating treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay; and by America's seemingly permanent and unconditional support for Israel. The United States and its European allies would be well advised to examine why Muslims are seething. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, respecting United Nations resolutions and treaty obligations with regard to Palestine, calling back the killer drones and winding up the 'war on terror' would be excellent places to start."
In apparent self-contradiction, he next affirmed, "the time has come to stop blaming the West for the colonialism and imperialism of the past. Muslim-majority societies must jettison their historic posture as victims and accept that they are empowered actors, as millions of Arabs demonstrated last year by coming out into the streets and changing the course of history… Some Muslims are too quick to rejoice at the decline of American power. They seem unaware that what might replace it could well lead to a regression in social and human rights." Ramadan has been criticized widely for presenting his ideas with deliberate deviousness, hiding a fanatical agenda behind moderate phraseology. But in his September 30 New York Times column, what once seemed to be well-crafted argumentation lapsed into clumsy gyrations.
Cleverly, however, Ramadan did not dwell on the insult to Muhammad in the controversial video clip and criticized Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi's speech at the United Nations on September 26 appealing for international legal restrictions on antireligious expression. Ramadan asserted, "calling for limits on offensive speech is no solution. We don't need more laws. We need courageous scholars and intellectuals who are willing to discuss topics their fellow Muslims don't want to hear: their failings, their tendency to play the victim, the need to take responsibility for their actions."
In the same paragraph in which he repudiated Morsi's plea for blasphemy laws, Ramadan appeared anxious about the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral successes: "The Islamists have legitimacy, having paid a heavy price in opposing dictatorships for decades," he stated. "They have made electoral gains in Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia by adapting to the shifts in power brought about by the protesters and cyber-activists. Yet they are facing contradictory expectations: they must remain faithful to their Islamic credentials while facing foreign pressure with regard to democratic processes, economic policies and relations with Israel... They may lose the Islamic credibility they had as opposition forces, or be obliged to change and adapt so much that their political program is abandoned. Winning might be the beginning of losing."
Ramadan then swung into an admission about the resurgence of ultrafundamentalist Wahhabism: "Salafi and Wahhabi groups with literalist interpretations of Islam have become more visible and politicized over the last five years. Having for decades refused political participation — equating democracy with kufr (rejection of Islam) — they are now slowly engaging in politics. Some of these groups (known as Salafi jihadists) have turned to violent radicalism. Others, financed by Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf oil monarchies like Qatar and Bahrain — supposed allies of the United States — have entered mainstream politics, where they promote a religious, anti-democratic populism that plays on emotions, demonizes the West (especially America) and actively undermines the struggle for democratic reform. There is a danger that the model of Afghanistan — where in the 1980s the Taliban, supported by the Saudi and American governments, became the main force of resistance to Russian domination — may be repeating itself."
The mental acrobatics of this claim are stunning, but at minimum they reveal an absence of nuance by Ramadan and unforgivable laxity in fact-checking by the Times, even in an opinion column. First, the incorrect historical details: the Taliban played no role in the Afghan resistance to the Russians, having been medresa students in Pakistan until their takeover of Kabul in 1996, four years after the fall of Afghanistan's Communist regime in 1992, and seven after the Russian withdrawal in 1989. The Taliban were never backed by the U.S. government.
Second, there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia or Qatar are now, through official institutions, supporting jihadists, in Syria or elsewhere. As the London Financial Times reported on July 31, Saudi King Abdullah sponsored a five-day telethon that raised $72 million for Syrian relief, with the king himself donating 20 million Saudi riyals ($5.3 million). According to the FT, "The government-organized telethon follows an interior ministry warning in May against unauthorized fundraising for Syria after hardliners and celebrity clerics used social media and internet forums to urge people to send money and goods for Syrian refugees." As American commentators Thomas Joscelyn and Steven Miller have pointed out, senior Saudi clerics had cautioned that assistance to the victims of Bashar Al-Assad's vicious regime should be directed only through official agencies, and not by contributions to free-lance jihad preachers. Support for Wahhabi extremism from Bahrain, except as a minor, pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian reflex, is sparse in evidence, and even denied by advocates for the Bahraini Shia Muslim majority against their Sunni rulers.
Tariq Ramadan remains a demagogue who wishes to blame the U.S. for any prospective failure by Islamist governments. His convoluted discourse would seem intended to serve every element of his audience a dish to their liking. It may be that Wahhabi zealots have become dissatisfied with MB policies since the latter have gained power. To demand a withdrawal from Afghanistan while alleging that the U.S. supported the rise of Taliban could merely epitomize slovenly composition. But above all, the charge that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. may, if unintentionally, be fostering groups that murder our diplomats and impose havoc in Muslim society, to produce a "Taliban model," is conspiratorial nonsense of the kind too long prevalent among America-haters.