The Chronicle Review

Vetting Tariq Ramadan

Jean Sebastien Evrard, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Tariq Ramadan at a recent conference in Nantes, France.
May 23, 2010

Like attacking the Catholic Church during its heyday of killing heretics and infidels, criticizing Islamism today is not for those who jump at the sound of bubble wrap cracking.

Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and Defending the West, operates under a pseudonym, a wise move considering that goons called for his murder on a British Muslim Web site in 2008. Bassam Tibi, a Muslim liberal who deems Islamism totalitarian, needed 24-hour police protection in Germany for two years. Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-Italian journalist of similar bent (who further outraged some Muslim peers by converting to Catholicism) travels at times with multiple bodyguards, an entourage also necessary for the Somali-Dutch author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel, Nomad), who fled to the United States when the Dutch scotched (so to speak) her protection.

The list of critics of Islamism who've paid a high price in loss of personal freedom goes on: Italian journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, French critic and gay-rights activist Caroline Fourest, French philosophy teacher Robert Redeker, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, and the most famous example of all, the novelist Salman Rushdie, forced into underground life for years after the Ayatollah Khomeini demanded his murder.

The examples come courtesy of Paul Berman, the shrewd, engagé New York intellectual and former MacArthur Foundation fellow who has become, after the death of Susan Sontag, our paramount lifeline to the trenches of French intellectual battle. Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003), among other important books, doesn't mention whether he's got his own beefy contingent laying low. But his provocative new The Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House)—a tough-minded examination of Muslim reformist thinker Tariq Ramadan, at various times dubbed the "best-known Muslim in all of Europe," a "Muslim Martin Luther," and "the prophet of a new Euro-Islam"—gets high marks for bravery at the same time that it highlights another modern truth all public intellectuals should acknowledge.

If it's dangerous to zap Islamism these days, it's not easy being a Muslim reformist thinker, either.

Most coverage of Ramadan in recent years has focused on the U.S. government's revocation of his visa, in 2004, ostensibly because he made contributions to two Islamic charities subsequently linked to terrorism, i.e., Hamas. The revocation forced Ramadan to withdraw from a professorship at the University of Notre Dame. Now that Hillary Clinton has restored Ramadan's visa, Berman's well-researched study comes at an ideal time to focus attention once again on Ramadan as a serious thinker and public force for good or ill. But before doing so, it's useful to review the man and public reputation Berman puts under his microscope.

As with many public figures whose ideas and activities create regular news, Ramadan has seen his biography shrink, under the onslaught of coverage, to a few salient family connections. Yet a fuller version of his biography seems necessary to understand him. Yes, he was famously born in 1962, in Geneva, of Egyptian parents, the maternal grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the often vicious and Islamically imperialistic Muslim Brotherhood, and son of Said Ramadan, a leading figure in that dissident movement who married al-Banna's eldest daughter. Said Ramadan was exiled by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser to Switzerland. But Tariq Ramadan is more than a son and grandson—he is a person with his own unique history and experience.

In Switzerland, Ramadan first specialized in Western philosophy and literature at the University of Geneva, receiving his M.A. for a thesis on Nietzsche as a philosopher of suffering. He began his career as a high-school teacher of philosophy in Geneva, then moved on to a lectureship in philosophy and religion at the University of Fribourg. His fast-growing status and activities as a celebrity public speaker and thinker about Islam, after he received his Ph.D., complicated his later academic career. He sought but then rejected a position as a professor at Leiden University. His visiting professorship at Erasmus University Rotterdam ended when the university judged his hosting of an Iranian TV show about Islam "irreconcilable" with his university duties. With his Notre Dame offer blocked by the visa denial, Ramadan headed back to Oxford, where he had taught as a visiting fellow at St. Antony's College. Since September he's been a chaired professor there of contemporary Islamic studies.

Ramadan's academic success would draw no more than scant attention if not for his media celebrity—some would say notoriety—in Europe after redirecting his energies from Nietzsche to Islam. In What I Believe (Oxford, 2010), a 117-page declaration aimed at general readers confused by his controversial reputation, Ramadan explains that he decided in his late 20s "to engage in what I already considered a major challenge for the future: building bridges, explaining Islam and making it better understood both among Muslims and in the West which I knew so well."

He took his French wife and his children to Egypt, where he embarked on an intense, 20-month study of Islam, and his family studied both Islam and Arabic. "I now meant," he writes, "to stand up for my religion, explain it, and, above all, show that we have so much in common with Judaism and Christianity but also with the values advocated by countless humanists, atheists, and agnostics. I meant to question prejudices, to question false constructions of Europe's past (from which Islam was supposed to be absent), and of course, help open the way confidently to living together in harmony as our common future requires."

It's hardly rhetoric to stir a firestorm, but the plot thickens. Since around 1997, Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse report in their evenhanded assessment of Ramadan in Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings, 2006), the philosopher-preacher has "led thousands of prayer meetings throughout France and Europe," and sold "approximately 50,000 cassettes of his recorded sermons" annually. In addition to the more than 20 books, 700 articles, and 170 sermons that they credit to him, Ramadan has been an "impressively prolific commentator" on French-language Internet sites, served as a consultant to the president of a European commission on Islam, and debated former French Interior Minister (and current President) Nicolas Sarkozy on live TV.

Laurence and Vaisse attribute to Ramadan an emphasis, in his public speaking, on "the responsibilities of Muslims in the West to think beyond their own grievances." He does not, they say, seek, in a ham-fisted way, "to adapt fiqh [Muslim jurisprudence] to the European context." Ramadan's oft-stated belief that Islam and secular democracy can exist together, that Muslims in Europe should actively contribute to secular European society, that Islamic, and all identity, is diverse, jibes well with European liberal notions. So does his view that the Koran should be interpreted as American liberals think we should interpret our Constitution—as a document whose meaning must evolve in the context of later times. Ramadan's opposition to riots and vandalism, and to terrorist violence (with the possible exception, as Berman points out, of violence against Israelis or the Israeli state), also wins him plaudits.

But as Ramadan's profile grew larger and larger, the criticisms, some of which Laurence and Vaisse note, increased. He is accused, they write, "of being a 'prince of doublespeak': essentially, saying one thing in French and another in Arabic." On issues of everyday morality­—homosexuality, birth control, wearing of the hijab—he's been labeled reactionary. Critics have eviscerated him for public moments in which he allegedly sounded ambiguous on the subjects of suicide bombing and the stoning of adulterous women. He's drawn fire over attacking "Jewish intellectuals" for their supposed reflexive defense of Israel, for opposing the French ban on head scarves in primary schools, for alleged links with terrorists.

Are the charges fair? Without doubt, Ramadan is sometimes treated very unfairly, even in what passes as scholarly work. One example is the outrageously slanted article on him in The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism (2007), edited by Antoine Sfeir. The article, which cites no specific author, contains no footnotes, and provides no evidence of charges it raises, states: "The mistrust with which [Ramadan] is viewed in the United States apparently relates to meetings he is said to have arranged between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 in Al Qaeda, and Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Tariq Ramadan denies having met either man."

Call it the scholarly version of the old innuendo that Mr. Smith denies beating his wife. The article continues, "He is also accused of having associations with Algerian Islamists linked to violent groups, which he also denies." The anonymous author of the piece—a Wikipedialike disgrace in a volume from a distinguished university press—is no kinder to Ramadan's thought, said to be rife with inadequate "logic." Ramadan's intention, the article asserts (ignore that quoted passage above from What I Believe) is always to "assert the superiority of Islam over other monotheistic religions." He offers a "virulent criticism of the West," to which "Islam provides the solution." Revealing one source of animosity, the anonymous author concludes that "like all preachers, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna does not appreciate contradiction."

Other examiners of Ramadan, including leading scholars of Islam, have been fairer and more accurate. Georgetown University's John Esposito, editor in chief of both The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World and The Oxford History of Islam, suggests in The Future of Islam (Oxford, 2010) that the Swiss thinker fudges some of his views of how Islam and the West can operate together for strategic reasons that relate to his aims as an activist. Esposito writes: "Ramadan, conscious that any criticism of the classical tradition risks undermining his credibility and reformist agenda among large sectors of Muslims, ... tries to walk down the middle. Ramadan finds 'space' for reform by maintaining that the Koran permits everything except what is explicitly forbidden by a revealed text or the consensus of religious experts. Thus, for Ramadan, 'the scope for the exercise of reason and creativity is high.'"

Similarly, Laurence and Vaisse, in contrast to Sfeir, fulfill their scholarly responsibility to evaluate charges rather than lean on the debased routine of putatively objective journalism: "A charges C, but B denies C." They write that Ramadan's supposed habit of "doublespeak" (which Ramadan forcefully denies in What I Believe) "was largely discounted by a discursive study undertaken by Khadija Mohsen Finan in 2003." They say that Ramadan has "emerged unscathed from several allegations of links with terrorists" while conceding that "because of the popularity of his speeches," he has had "some contact with a couple of figures who later became involved with terrorism."

To Olivier Roy, the foremost French expert on the politics of Islam, the repetition of many charges against Ramadan, regardless of his denials, amounts to a "witch hunt" (see Roy's Secularism Confronts Islam). Berman does not join that activity. He decided to examine Ramadan at book length, he says, because he increasingly saw his subject as "a representative man of our age," someone who enables us to discuss key issues of Islam's connection to the West.

As we'd expect of a New York intellectual, Berman indefatigably reads prestigious literary periodicals and Web sites, as well as serious books (including, it appears, no fewer than seven French books about Ramadan). His research demands respect, and immeasurably broadens, particularly for the American reader innocent of French journalism and publishing, our portrait of the "charismatic" and "energetic" Ramadan. Yet Berman's approach also takes a prosecutorial form. Focusing repeatedly on a profile of Ramadan by Ian Buruma in The New York Times Magazine that found many accusations against Ramadan, in Berman's words, "groundless, or exaggerated and unjust," Berman marshals his material toward the judgment that Buruma's exoneration is too hasty.

Another aspect of Berman's angle on Ramadan gives pause from the beginning. He starts Chapter Two with this extraordinary statement: "Tariq Ramadan is nothing if not a son, a brother, a grandson, and even a great-grandson—family relations that appear to shape everything he writes and does." The opening syntactical cliché, however, misleads. Is that notion of "nothing but" sensible for a Western liberal, like Berman, who appreciates and champions individualism? Tariq Ramadan was born and educated in Geneva—his far-less-attractive father and grandfather were born and educated in Egypt. Leaving aside concrete evidence that Ramadan's own thinking mirrors the illiberal views of his father and grandfather, isn't this a bad liftoff from a platform of guilt by association? Children of immigrants the world over differ from their parents in profound ways. One of Ramadan's foremost themes has been that we all bear multiple identities. That makes any attempt to reduce him to a channeler of his grandfather's and father's beliefs—absent hard proof that he uniformly adheres to their theses—simplistic.

Berman, to his credit, offers what he considers hard evidence. Ramadan, Berman contends, shows his fealty to his grandfather in a variety of places, primarily in a 200-page "gusher of adulation" toward al-Banna in one of Ramadan's French books, not translated into English but rendered here by Berman as The Roots of the Muslim Renewal. Berman writes that in the book, Ramadan makes a man whose Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of assassinations and bombings, a thinker who expressed pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views in solidarity with his nefarious friend, Haj Amin al-Husseini (grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948), sound like "the Mahatma Gandhi of the Arab and Muslim world." There is a reason, Berman argues, that an organization such as Hamas honors al-Banna in its organizational charter. Grandpa was, Berman asserts, no "champion of peaceful compromise."

Berman argues convincingly that Ramadan's "apologetics" for al-Banna accentuate everything Western, liberal, and democratic in his work, and omit everything imperialistic, totalitarian, Islamist, fascist, pro-Nazi, or anti-Semitic. Ramadan, as recently as his appearance this spring on a Cooper Union panel in New York, refused to concede that his grandfather was anti-Semitic or totalitarian, preferring to describe al-Banna as anti-Zionist. To be sure, more definitive scholarship in English is needed on al-Banna's work, though Berman seems to have pinned down al-Banna's nasty positions here. But what's the upshot for Ramadan's own thought?

So Ramadan isn't the most reliable interpreter of his grandfather's work. Is that a surprise? Does that mean Ramadan secretly shares his grandfather's most abhorrent beliefs? Might he, rather, be embarrassed by them? Berman, at one point, concedes that "Ramadan is not his grandfather." But later, after gathering plenty of steam in the service of an implied (though invalid) syllogism—Ramadan admires his grandfather, and his grandfather advocated terrible things, so Ramadan must admire terrible things—he makes an extraordinary declaration about Ramadan. "He cannot think for himself," writes Berman. "He does not believe in thinking for himself." On the contrary, "Ramadan obeys and reveres. He especially reveres the people who revere his grandfather."

That's a heavy conclusion to draw from what may be Ramadan's discretion, shame, or any number of attitudes toward what one might call "the family ideology." Berman does yeoman's work in placing the evidence before us, but failing to set aside Ramadan's evaluations of his family as possibly unreliable material, given the extreme deference expected toward one's parents and grandparents in Islamic and Arabic society, suggests a suspension of Berman's own robust common sense. Berman also operates here in shaky psychological territory that makes evaluations of the work of family members unreliable. Do we expect an objective, nonselective assessment from William James of Henry James's work, or from Anna Freud of Sigmund's?

Berman stands on firmer ground when he details Ramadan's deference to Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatari-based Islamic scholar and preacher on Al Jazeera TV whose contributions to world peace include suggesting that Hitler was doing Allah's work, and that suicide bombing is just fine. Here's one excerpt Berman provides from a transcript of an al-Qaradawi broadcast in 2009: "Oh, Allah, take this oppressive Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh, Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh, Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one."

"Ramadan reveres al-Qaradawi," Berman writes. If so, Berman is right: Ramadan must explain how he can admire al-Qaradawi in light of such garbage, and how he, Mr. Muslim-Europe Reconciler, reconciles al-Qaradawi's poison with Ramadan's call in What I Believe for "coming together through shared universals, for harmonious coexistence involving mutual enrichment." Is this an instance, as with his father and grandfather, of Ramadan simply picking parts of a thinker he likes, and sidestepping the rest? Is Ramadan's problem that of literary scholars who still appreciate Pound or Eliot or Celine despite their anti-Semitism? Is Ramadan a compartmentalizer or a trickster?

In line with his condescension toward Ramadan as someone who "obeys and reveres," Berman ultimately sees Ramadan as "not a hater." Neither, states Berman, "does he incite," even if there's "a dark smudge of ambiguity" that "runs across everything he writes on the topic of terror and violence." It's understandable that Berman vastly prefers Hirsi Ali as a knowledgeable observer of Islam—she, after all, now rejects it as contrary, almost in toto, to liberal Enlightenment values. To Berman, "Ramadan's chief idea is to construct an Islamic counterculture within the West—a counterculture that, instead of withdrawing behind ghetto walls, will take its place within the larger, modern, non-Muslim society. He wants a share of the public space. ... Or more than wants: he demands a share of the public space." That "will require modifications in the strictly secular system that dominates Europe today." That can sound threatening, as it does in Berman's voice, or no worse than identity politics in the United States—the idea that Latinos, say, might understandably demand a larger part of American public space and culture to accommodate them, their language, and their culture.

The tension between the powerful, well-established story Berman recounts in The Flight of the Intellectuals about the Nazi influence on Arab leaders such as the grand mufti and Ramadan's grandfather, and the puzzle of Ramadan's mix of overt humanist beliefs and obeisance to his forebears, leaves one troubled. Berman's retelling of the story of "Nazified Islam," in his phrase, deserves nothing but applause—it remains far too unknown among the broad public. When Berman adds to it the eye-opening new scholarship by Jeffrey Herf (in such books as Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World), it shows that applying words such as "fascist" to modern Islamic extremism makes far more sense than historically uninformed critics of the term "Islamofascism" realize.

But a sense that Ramadan may be unfairly smeared by such associations also lingers. Berman rightly puts Ramadan on notice that the Swiss thinker's stretch as a martyr for freedom of expression has come to an end. He's back to being that "Muslim Martin Luther" fellow who needs to answer the pointed questions Berman has raised about his allegiances.

In that task, it's only fair to give considerable weight to what Ramadan writes, and to require guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" when the guilt involved is guilt by association. What a philosopher expresses in his own books is not obiter dicta. Would Ramadan's father or grandfather have written, as Ramadan does in What I Believe, that "domestic violence contradicts Islamic teachings," that true Muslims must oppose other Muslims when they "stigmatize the other, produce racism, or justify dictatorship, terrorist attacks, or the murder of innocents"? Would they share Tariq Ramadan's biting view that "Islam has no problem with women, but Muslims do clearly appear to have serious problems with them"?

Berman writes that the vision of a "revitalized Islam" set out in What I Believe is "so bland and uncontroversial that no reasonable and open-minded person could possibly object." That's largely so, but Berman insufficiently acknowledges that it poses a problem for his interpretation of Ramadan. Ramadan himself writes in What I Believe, apropos of critics who claim that where there's smoke, there must be fire, that "one should take the time to look into the origins of that 'fire.'"

Berman has done so. It now behooves Tariq Ramadan to address his own praise of thinkers who make a mockery of his kinder vision if he wants readers and peers to continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.