Tariq Ramadan: Propagandist in Scholar's Robes

by Rebecca Bynum (October 2010)
The Quest For Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism
by Tariq Ramadan
Penguin Global, 2010, 224 pages
Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Oxford's St Antony's College and a Senior Research Fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. He is also the president of the European Muslim Network headquartered in Brussels, and the author of some 20 books. Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009 and Time magazine calls Ramadan "One of the most important innovators for the twenty-first century." The full title of his Oxford chair is "the His Highness Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Chair in Contemporary Islamic Studies," reflecting the source of the endowment (Qatar) which has opened the doors to so much else, but Ramadan is identified by the carefully shortened version, "Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University," on the book's cover.

The Quest For Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism would indicate by its title and Ramadan's reputation as an "Islamic reformer" that it would address the almost total lack of pluralism in the Muslim world. Not so. In fact, the ills of the Muslim world do not come up except in one minor aside about the passion of crowds aimed mainly at criticizing Western democracy. The entire book is one long condescending criticism of Western philosophy, politics and social structure. Of course Ramadan has a lot to draw from with regard to Western criticism of Western culture because the history and development of the West involves copious criticism from all sides - this is, in fact, the secret of Western advancement - and yet the thought seems never to occur to Ramadan as to why no such tradition exists in the Islamic world.

The Western pluralist tradition involves a myriad of associations - political parties, trade unions, environmental groups, church groups, charities of all kinds, music societies, museums, art clubs, veterans groups, alumni associations, sports clubs, and so on - that essentially form a buffer between the individual and the power of the state. In Islamic countries there is nothing standing between the state and the individual and likewise nothing standing between the power of the mosque and the individual. The organizations listed above generally have a truncated existance in the Muslim world. That is why effective opposition to the Muslim state generally comes from the mosque, and the tendency toward ever tightening Islamic control even if it involves the ultimate dissolution of the state, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Somalia, is inevitable. And yet, none of this is addressed in Ramadan's book which is ostensibly about "developing a philosophy of pluralism."

Ramadan's sole aim in writing this book seems to be to criticize the Western resistance, slight though it may be, to Islamization; resistance which he characterizes as ignorant, fear-driven and perverse in defiance of the laws of God as given by every religious tradition on earth. He also seems to use the word "pluralism" as a synonym for "diversity" and commences the usual academic criticism of colonialism, commercialism, Western power and fear of the (always morally superior) "other."

The book is ambiguous, confusing, pretentious and shallow. If his purpose is to sow confusion and doubt among Western young people, then he has succeeded. I pity the poor students who must be subjected to this drivel. Karen Armstrong
described Ramadan's message in this book as "urgent." I don't know that I feel it to be urgent; I'm not completely sure I've understood what his message is other than "western culture is worthless" and "don't be afraid of Muslims."

On the surface, this book reads like an Oprah book club pick. It is very New-Agey and contains numerous "inner journey" metaphors, along with his not-so-subtle condemnation of all things Western. Lest you think I exaggerate, let me quote from the opening lines of the introduction, "Oceans and Windows."
This book is a journey, and an initiation. It is actually about setting out and travelling the paths of the heart, the mind and the imaginary.

There has never been more talk of diversity and plurality than in the era of globalization and modernization, and yet, more so than every before, we seem to be trapped into our identities and differences. The global world is a village; they say...a village of villagers who know nothing of each other. In more senses than one: they do not know who they are, and they do not know who they are living with. This situation can only lead to half-hearted, fearful and dormant conflicts rather than a confident celebration of our riches: Edward Said suggested it would lead to 'the clash of ignorance'; I propose it will lead of a 'conflict of perceptions'. Perceptions are more telling than ignorance: perceptions can certainly result from ignorance, but they express a relationship with ourselves and others that has to do with more than knowledge. Perceptions have to do with feelings, emotions, convictions and psychology. We are lacking in confidence. Confidence in ourselves, confidence in others, confidence in God and/or man, and/or the future. We are lacking in confidence, no shadow of a doubt about that. Fear, doubt and distrust are imperceptively colonizing our hearts and minds. And so the other becomes our negative mirror, and the other's difference allows us to define ourselves, to 'identify' ourselves and, basically, gives us some reassurance. The other becomes our 'diversion', in Blaise Pascal's sense of the term. The other distracts us from ourselves, our ignorance, our fears and our doubts, whilst the presence of the other justifies and explains our suspicions. We have projections, but at the same time we have to admit that we have no projects. (page ix)

This is as clear as it gets. When Ramadan lapses into using "we," which he does regularly, it is simply to make his accusations more acceptable and less noticeably sharp. His criticism partakes of the attitude of an adult reprimanding a child. He periodically drops the names of Western philosophers as though he were attending a Hollywood cocktail party and dropping the names of important producers. His analysis of these philosophers' and novelists' work, however, is incredibly shallow. Take for example his treatment of The Brothers Karamazov:

The faculty of reason very quickly reveals, in the most intimate proximity, its limitations: it is quite unable to understand the realm of the heart, its knowledge, its truths and even its loves, and is quite bewildered by it. The senses, reason and the heart: are we destined to have three types of knowledge produced by three distinct faculties? Are they complementary or contradictory? Is it possible to reconcile them? That is the question raised by the typology of the three brothers Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's novel. They represent Pascal's three realms, and there is both a tension and love between them. The similarities and differences between them lie at the heart of human tragedy and human hope. Dimitri and the exuberance of the senses, Ivan and the critical tensions of reason and Alyosha and the transparency of the heart shed a moral light on the order of our faculties and knowledge. This brings us to the heart of the real debate. It is indeed a debate about knowledge and understanding, but it is primarily a matter of deciding what is good for us, for our society and for humanity. Knowledge and ethics converge, as do science and philosophy, science and religion, and philosophy and religion. Is this a question of reason or a question of faith? Who can tell us how and who can tell us why? (page 27)
This kind of irritating prose peppered with question marks might pass as a high school book review, but is amazingly vapid coming from the pen of an Oxford University professor. In his 2007 interview in the New York Times with Ian Buruma, Ramadan claimed that Dostoyevsky, along with Nietzsche, formed his "universal frame of reference" and therefore one would expect to see signs of a deeper reading of the texts - any texts - but this is as deep as Ramadan manages to delve. One has the feeling throughout that Ramadan has mastered the survey course on Western philosophy, but he gives little indication of having thought deeply or really having engaged intellectually with any Western thinker.

Ian Buruma explains in his 2007
profile of Ramadan:

"I want to be an activist professor," he [Ramadan] told me. This means that he spends more time writing, speaking and advising everyone from Tony Blair to the elders of mosques than on university teaching. Ramadan, who is 44, also lives the life of a devout Muslim, praying five times a day. The main thing, for him, is to find a way for Muslims to escape their minority status and play a central role as European citizens. "The fact that Western Muslims are free," he said, "means that they can have enormous impact. But it would be wrong to claim that we are imposing our ways on the West. New ideas are now coming from the West. To be traditional is not so much a question of protecting ourselves as to be traditionalist in principle."

Traditionalist principles, for Ramadan, apply to politics as much as to religion. Muslims, he says, should not try to create a "parallel system" to Western democracy, let alone aspire to building a Muslim state. "There is no such thing," he says, "as an Islamic order. We have to act to promote justice and inject our ethics into the existing system." According to Ramadan, the global order of neoliberal capitalism allows the wealthy West to dominate the world. Resisting this order is part of his task as an activist professor, who derives his "universal principles" from his Muslim faith. This message not only provides educated European Muslims with a political cause but is also pushed with considerable success at such international leftist jamborees as the World Social Forum, where the world's antiglobalists meet. [emphasis mine]

It is worth noting that dropped sparingly, though consistently, into this otherwise unrelenting sea of blather is one assertion of Islamic supremacy after another. Ramadan certainly hammers home the message that the West offers nothing but confusion at best and bigotry at worst and portrays the full depth and breadth of Western philosophical thought as nothing more than the intellectual justification for its political power structure. Furthermore, he consistently makes claims that Islamic thinkers were the "first" in whatever innovation is being discussed. Ibn Kaldun was the first sociologist, Thomas Aquinas borrowed heavily from Averroes (Ibn Rushd), and a twelfth century novel by Ibn Tufayl influenced everybody from Defoe to Hume to Marx. Perhaps this is true, but all of these sweeping claims are tossed off as self-evident facts without the slightest nod to the actual scholarship required here and which one would expect from an "Oxford professor." Alternatively, the argument may be made that despite their Muslim names, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd were hardly defending or supporting Islam in their own work, but tossing off a Muslim name as "first" seems to show Islam in a positive light and that is Ramadan's entire point. There is nothing more to it than that.

Throughout this book, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American and African spirituality are all presented as superior to Western religion and philosophy, and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are often bundled together as "the monotheisms" as though there were nothing at all unique about Islam. But when Ramadan discusses equality and women's rights, he shows just how deeply ignorant of the West and dishonest about Islam he really is. Nowhere is Islam criticized and yet the inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims and between men and women rests at the very heart of the Islamic system. This fact, well known by Ramadan, is never mentioned and perhaps is a testament to how completely the Muslim mind is conditioned to wire around certain topics. He criticizes the West for its treatment of women without the slightest sign of irony. But by far Ramadan's funniest miscomprehension comes in the following paragraph discussing the women's movement.

We have to begin at the beginning. The intuitions of the women's liberation and feminist movements all over the world from the nineteenth century onwards and throughout the twentieth were highly pertinent: autonomy is central to the 'woman question'. In order to protect themselves from the strength, power, freedom, and sometimes the domination, of women, men organized and systematized their ontological, physical, social and financial dependency, and sometimes their intellectual dependency. The movements that fought against women's slavery in the United States (Female Anti-Slavery Society) and the Suffragettes who, from 1865 onwards, fought for civil equality, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, wanted recognition of women's autonomy in terms of being and status as much as in terms of enjoyment of rights. (my emphasis, page 85.)

"Women's slavery in the United States?" Yes, it's true. Ramadan has confused a group of female abolitionists with the movement for women's suffrage. And this from someone who presents himself as a scholar of Western thought.

French Marxist
Yves Coleman writes in "
40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary"published in the Workers' Liberty:

Tariq Ramadan does not approve of flirting, sex before (or outside) marriage, homosexuality, women's contraception or divorce. He thinks that Muslim women should submit to their husbands if they are "good" Muslims. He believes that men must be financially responsible for the well-being of their family, and not women. In other words, Tariq Ramadan is opposed to or equivocal about feminism, women's rights, gay rights and sexual liberation. One should also have strong doubts about his respect of the freedom of speech and thought: in Switzerland he contributed to a campaign against a Voltaire play, and he wants Muslim parents to control the content of State school programs according to "Islamic values", to give only two examples. But that does not prevent him from constantly using the key words of today's public relations industry: "respect", "tolerance", "communication" and "dialogue" in the manner of a cynical politician.
What a strange friend for the Left!

Part of the explanation for the Left's embrace of such an obvious flim-flam man is his mastery of the sort of fashionable academic jargon which manages to fill the page with the smug prose of one looking down on all he surveys. Even when his criticism of the West manages to coincide with something most people would agree with, as with his assertion that our educational system has deteriorated, his solution manages to be so trite and lacking in substance as to be laughable. Here is his suggestion for education reform:

We have to break out of the infernal logic we are trapped into. 'Let's free ourselves!', as Siddharta would say in the East, as Aristotle would say in the West, and as al-Ghazali would say somewhere in between the two. Perhaps we need the educational equivalent of 'liberation theology' - an education of liberation - and perhaps we can have it if we think in terms of ends. We need to challenge the substance and purpose of skills, the relationship between school and society, between the universities and civic life and between knowledge and solidarity. This is not utopia. It is a necessity. (page 143)

As to what this actually means, as with most of this dreary, practically unreadable text, is impossible to say. Let us return to Yves Coleman's analysis numbers 2 through 4 of 40 instances of Ramadan's prevarication:

2) In 1997 Ramadan presented a PhD. thesis about his grandfather, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Hassan al-Banna. His thesis was then published by the Catholic publisher, Bayard, with a preface by Alain Gresh, editor of "Le Monde diplomatique" and member of the counter-globalisation movement ATTAC. Gresh wrote, "[Tariq Ramadan] is not only the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brothers, but he proudly claims his doctrinal and spiritual heritage." In this book (as in "To be a European Muslim") Ramadan presents Hassan al-Banna as one of the major "Muslim reformers" of the early 20th century. This is a half-truth theologically; but al-Banna's mild theological "Salafi reformism" served a political project of Islamic fundamentalism. He wanted to subject society to a rigid Islamic code, only one updated slightly to make the project feasible. In the 1940s socialists like Tony Cliff (a founder of the Socialist Workers Party) had no hesitation about describing al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood as "clerical -fascist".

3) Ramadan pretends that the media attacks him mainly because he is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna. According to Ramadan his own ideas are very different from those of the Muslim Brothers.

At the same time, in a speech about "contemporaneous Muslim thought", he quotes as an example the "method" of his grand-father. After quoting the first three steps of the indoctrination process imagined by Hassan al-Banna ("the individual formation", "the family formation", and the transmission of the message "in all the regions, hamlets, towns, metropolises and capitals"), Tariq Ramadan writes, "It is interesting to note that it is only after these three steps that al-Banna evokes an 'Islamic government', which in the reform procedure of his organisation is the logical consequence of the rebirth process started at the individual level."

Ramadan "forgets" to quote the four other steps imagined by the founder of the Muslim Brothers: the prohibition of all political parties; the constitution of an "Islamic fatherland" with a positive reference to Hitler ("If the German Reich imposes itself as the protector of all those who have German blood, the Muslim faith should impose itself to every Muslim who has the capacity of considering himself as the protector of any person who has received a Koranic education"); the creation of an Islamic empire ("Andalusia, Sicily, Balkans, the Italian coasts as well as the Mediterranean islands are all Muslim Mediterranean colonies and they must come back to Islam"). Mr Ramadan loves selective quotes, when it serves his goals.

When asked what he thinks about the political ideas of his grandfather, Ramadan is unable to express precise criticisms, "Hassan al-Banna has resisted colonisation and founded schools, but he has also used slogans which could be wrongly understood, and structured an organisation whose rules and mechanisms have sometimes suppressed reflection and initiative." Do you understand what he means?

In an interview with Alain Gresh of the Le Monde diplomatique as
quoted by Ibn Warraq Ramadan said, "I have studied Hassan al-Banna's ideas with great care and there is nothing in this heritage that I reject. His relation to God, his spirituality, his mysticism, his personality, as well as his critical reflections on law, politics, society and pluralism, testify to me his qualities of heart and mind....His commitment also is a continuing reason for my respect and admiration." Returning to Coleman:

4) In 1998 Ramadan wrote a foreword to a collection of fatwas by Yusuf al Qaradawi, published by the European Council of the Fatwa. According to this book, a husband, "has the right to forbid his wife to visit another woman, if he thinks this visit may cause a prejudice to his wife, his children or his marital life", and a "woman should not take the initiative to talk to men she does not know". A woman, "should not play with children who are dancing". And the book goes on with themes like, "Should a Muslim woman use a credit card?" Or, "Should she cut her hair without her husband's authorization?" And this book declares abortion illegal.

When Ramadan is asked about this foreword and his "deep respect" for such a reactionary theologian he has an answer which is typical of what is called in French "langue de bois" (or "wooden tongue", a term used to qualify politicians' language: something which is vague or impossible to understand): "I quote [his work] when I find it interesting. I also express criticisms or distance myself from some of his positions, which can be explained by the fact that he does not live in Western society. He develops social, political and geostrategic analyses which belong to him, and which I don't always share." It is impossible to know what Ramadan's position is!

Intellectual integrity is something we, on both the left and the right, expect from public intellectuals, but Ramadan's propensity to say one thing to Muslim audiences and another to Western audiences is well documented by feminist writer Caroline Fourest in her book,
Brother Tariq. We must appreciate, however, disregarding for a moment the obvious dissimulation on the part of Ramadan and other Muslim academics, that the distance separating left and right in the Western tradition is but a stone's throw compared with the Grand Canyon size chasm separating Islamic thought from Western thought. Muslims like Ramadan can imitate Western thought, but it is doubtful they ever completely share it. The gulf is too wide, the attitudes are too disparate. When Coleman calls Ramadan a "reactionary," that doesn't begin to explain the reality of his thought. The most backward-looking reactionary in the Western world would never consider punishments such as the stoning of adulteresses acceptable. Yet, when challenged by Nicolas Sarkozy on French television in 2003 to condemn such a barbaric practice, Ramadan demurred and offered to support a moratorium on stoning instead.

In her work, Bat Ye'or
discusses how the psychological conditioning of dhimmitude begins with confusion: confusion as to what is right and wrong, just and unjust, among non-Muslim peoples subject to Islam. The academic world has already prepared the ground by sowing doubt and confusion among our young people. Muslim academics such as Ramadan simply take this a step further and begin the process by which non-Muslim students will begin to accept the superiority of Islam. It is in this light that any future academic appointments for Tariq Ramadan must be evaluated. As this book reveals, Ramadan is not so much a scholar as a propagandist in scholar's robes.

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