||Issue Date: 9 / 2005
Can Islam 'Reform' Itself?: The Test Case of Tariq Ramadan
On March 2 of this year, a British Lord Justice, presiding over a high-level Court of Appeal, overturned a previous judicial ruling and reprimanded the Denbigh High School, in a North London suburb, for having expelled a teenage Bangladeshi Muslim girl because she had insisted on adding a full-length jilbab (cloak or tunic) to the head-scarf she had previously been wearing. The school, the Lord Justice argued, had erred in unjustifiably limiting the teenager's "freedom to manifest her religion or belief in public."
Reacting against France's move to bar Muslim schoolgirls from
wearing headscarves in public schools, Palestinian women
demonstrated last year and shouted anti-French slogans.
(Ismail Mohamad / UPI)
Click image to enlarge.
There were at least three strange things about this precedent-setting lawsuit, the result of which was hailed in well-rehearsed words by the fifteen-year-old teenager, Shabina Begum, as a "victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry." The first was the fact that this particular school, four-fifths of whose one thousand students were Muslim, had deliberately adopted a liberal policy concerning acceptable modes of dress, after carefully consulting parents, students, and various Islamic organizations. The second was the young age of the "rebellious" student, who was only twelve years old when, in September 2002, she decided at the urging of her older brother to insist on wearing a jilbab. The third was the personality of the lawyer who undertook to defend the teenage plaintiff--none other than Cherie Blair, the wife of Great Britain's prime minister.
What made this judicial process so significant, and indeed an ominous portent for the future, was not simply Cherie Blair's "generous" decision to offer her legal services--presumably for nothing!--to assuage the grievances of a "discriminated-against" young Muslim client; it was her apparent belief that the surest way to impress her country's Islamic electorate--there are close to three million Muslims in Great Britain, many living in key constituencies--on the eve of national elections was to appeal to their most restrictive tendencies and traditions. For this is the underlying reality, concealed by all the heady rhetoric about "religious rights," "bigotry," and prejudiced "discrimination."
The main victors in the Denbigh High School appeal case, even though their names were not publicly mentioned in newspaper reports, were Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardhawi, the fire-breathing Islamic star of the Al Jazeera radio-and-TV network's religious affairs program in Qatar who is also chairman of a so-called "European Council of the Fatwa," based in London; the more subtle, supple, and "intellectual" Tarik Ramadan, who, eight months before, in July 2004, had helped al-Qardhawi launch a major campaign in Britain on behalf of the hijab head-scarf; and, more generally speaking, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which both have long had close ties and which is with little doubt the most influential, widespread, and discreetly subversive movement of Muslim fundamentalism in the world.
Readers of Time magazine may have been surprised, several months ago, when it listed Tariq Ramadan among the one hundred most influential men in our contemporary world. The Rev. Edward Malloy, president of Notre Dame University, would doubtless have agreed when, in August of last year, he and his colleagues chose to offer this forty-two-year-old Swiss theologian of Egyptian origin the Henry Luce professorship of religion, conflict, and peace-building. As would most probably have done the "security experts" in the State Department and other U.S. government agencies who later decided, on vague "prudential" grounds, to revoke the entry visa that had been granted to Ramadan earlier in the year.
"Is banned Muslim a moderate or militant?" was the headline chosen by the International Herald Tribune in early October for a long article written by three journalists--one based in Geneva, another in London, the third in Washington (a tribute to this theologian's increasingly "universalist" appeal)--who claimed that Tariq Ramadan had repeatedly declared that he was not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. No one should be judged by what one or more journalists may choose to say about him; but if this affirmation is true, it can only mean that Ramadan, aside from being a charismatic "charmer," is a master of the Shi'ite art of taqiya (dissimulation), and that his theological "discourse," as his hostile critics claim, varies according to the audiences he is addressing--be they Muslim believers and potential believers, or curious and possibly friendly nonbelievers whose naive ignorance or "prejudiced" skepticism he is eager to overcome.
In his fascinating book, Fitna, devoted to the "War (now raging) in the Heart of Islam," Gilles Kepel, probably today the foremost of French Islamic scholars, devoted no less than eight pages to this persuasive orator--already singled out by the editors of Time four years ago as one of six Muslims capable of "reforming" Islam. After describing several of Tariq Ramadan's media triumphs, particularly with French left-wing and altermondiste (anti-capitalist-third-world) movements, his careful choice of appearance and attire--a dark, close-cropped beard ringing his chin and cheeks, a casually open-collar shirt (for to Islamist conformists the wearing of a tie, symbolically associated with the Christian cross, is profoundly heretical)--Kepel concluded that Tariq Ramadan had developed the breath-taking agility of a tight-rope walker in seeking to impress every shade of Muslim opinion--from young Muslim enthusiasts desiring to be both "modern" and Islamic, to Muslim traditionalists ready to detect and to decry the slightest trace of backsliding from Qur'anic fundamentals on the part of a gifted young man who was born, as it were, with a silver crescent in his mouth.
This has been, for someone wishing to "renovate" Islam, both a blessing and a burden, not to say a curse. A blessing, because of the aura and inherited prestige of being, via his mother, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the son of the almost-as-famous Said Ramadan. At the same time an embarrassing hereditary burden, since both of his illustrious "models" were intransigent apostles of Islamic fundamentalism.
Last October, with a book entitled Frere Tariq--"the man who wants to install Islamism in France," as the weekly magazine L'Express proclaimed on a somewhat lurid cover--an enterprising French journalist named Caroline Fourest decided that the time had come to have a close look at this enigmatic Muslim "chameleon." Her book, as she made clear at the very outset, was dedicated to all those who, like herself, had once hoped that Tariq Ramadan was one of those "ambassadors in the struggle against discrimination" who could be regarded as a trustworthy ally, but who, she had been dismayed to discover, was in reality promoting a "political Islam that is arrogant, dominating, Manichean."
Unlike Gilles Kepel, Caroline Fourest is not an Islamic scholar. She is, however, someone who has made herself a specialist in the study of religious fundamentalisms, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim. She is also someone who has done her homework, having taken the trouble to read fifteen books written by Tariq Ramadan, one thousand five hundred articles and interviews by and about him published in French, English, German, and Spanish newspapers, in addition to listening to close to one hundred cassettes, many of them containing cleverly chosen autobiographical information about his past.
One of the great merits of her book has been to place Tariq Ramadan in his true historical--one might even call it "genealogical"--perspective, as the subtle perpetuator of his illustrious grandfather's intransigent views about the necessary "revival" of a tragically moribund Islam. Indeed, it is impossible to have even a vague idea of what "Muslim fundamentalism" is, and how, consequently, it might possibly be "reformed" today, without knowing something about the first of its two most influential modern advocates--the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna and the Pakistani theologian Abu A'la al-Mawdoudi.
It was in 1928, five years after the forceful Mustapha Kemal had abolished the caliphate and had outraged devout Muslims by rejecting the Arabic script and establishing a defiantly secular Turkish republic, that Hassan al-Banna, the twenty-two-year-old son of an Egyptian clockmaker, decided to establish a network of devout Islamic "brothers"--a key term used in the traditional Arab greeting to a fellow believer--whose mission it should be to fight the insidious inroads and corruption by foreign influences that were undermining the Muslim faith in a country that was nominally a kingdom but which in reality was ruled since 1882 by a British viceroy.
In 1936--by which time his humble, grass-roots teachings had won him a following of thousands of devout "brothers"--Hassan al-Banna formulated "Fifty Demands" for a renovation of Islam, based on a strict interpretation of the Prophet Mohammed's revelations. They called, among other things, for the subordination of modern political life to the dictates of Sharia law (the body of Islamic law, of which there are four Sunni schools), stringent punishment to be meted out to all persons indulging in extramarital sex, the total separation of the genders in all schools, the closing-down of dance halls, and indeed the interdiction of dancing and all forms of "libertine" flirtation in cafes and other public places. In a word, it was a wholesale rejection of Western "liberal" civilization.
Incredible as it may sound, these "Fifty Demands" were not translated from Arabic into French until four and a half years ago, when they appeared, in October 2000, in a monthly periodical called Islam de France. Tariq Ramadan was so angered by this embarrassing publicity--this is one of Caroline Fourest's most significant revelations--that he took the editor to task and persuaded the bookseller-publisher to close down this "wayward" monthly.
During the turbulent years of 1947-48, which saw the emergence of the Israeli state, the Brotherhood developed a more or less secret branch of armed militants, who went to fight in Palestine, while Hassan al-Banna added a new dimension to his demands, justifying the use of force--more exactly the sacred cause of the jihad in cases of "legitimate defense" and "resistance to injustice"--the two most evident forms of this being the continuance of British rule and the establishment of a Jewish state at the expense of native Palestinians. One result was the later creation of the Hamas "resistance" movement in Palestine, another, the assassination in December 1948 by a member of the Brotherhood of the excessively pro-British prime minister, Nuqrashi Pasha.
In February 1949, Hassan al-Banna himself was assassinated in circumstances that have never been totally elucidated. This murder, organized, according to his grandson, by British, French, and American agents, gave the Brotherhood its first great martyr. During the next three years, secret contacts were established with young Egyptian officers--one of them Anwar el-Sadat--who in July 1952 overthrew the playboy king, Farouk, and instituted a military regime, which has lasted in one form or another to this day.
Because the Brotherhood had been so anti-British, new Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow officers tried to establish cordial relations with Hassan al-Banna's successor, Sayyid Qutb, the movement's "minister of propaganda." All in vain, however. For Qutb's demands were so extravagant--immediate imposition of the veil for all Egyptian women, the shuttering of all movie theaters (a program similar to the one imposed much later by the Taliban in Afghanistan)--that Nasser had to break off negotiations. After surviving an assassination attempt, perpetrated in 1954 while he was making a speech in Alexandria, Nasser launched a massive roundup of Muslim "brothers" and even "sisters," in which thousands were imprisoned, many of them tortured, and quite a few executed, like Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged in 1966.
If Hassan al-Banna's son-in-law, Said Ramadan, escaped this fate (after four brief months in prison), it was above all because he had been chosen by the founder to be the Muslim Brotherhood's roving ambassador abroad. Already in 1948, he might well have been elected secretary-general of a World Congress of Muslims held in Karachi, Pakistan, had his radical Islamic views not frightened a majority of the delegates present. Six years later, in 1954, he was actually elected secretary-general of a World Islamic Congress, held in the old Arab quarter of Jerusalem, which was then part of Jordan; but here too his radicalism was such that it frightened Glubb Pasha, the British general commanding King Hussein's Arab Legion, who had him expelled from the kingdom.
From Damascus, where he had helped to found a monthly, Al-Muslimoon, published in English as well as Arabic, Said Ramadan moved on to Arabia, where his intransigent conservatism and loyalty to the celebrated jurist, Abdullah Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the father of all Islamic fundamentalists and the great inspirer of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab (1703-1787), made him persona gratissima with the Wahhabi clerics and princes of the Saudi dynasty, some of whom he personally tutored. In the late 1950s, he persuaded Prince Faisal to finance the establishment of a series of Islamic centers in various European countries. In 1958, he chose to settle in Geneva, where, after obtaining a doctorate from the university of Cologne devoted, significantly, to Sharia law, he founded an Islamic center in 1961.
It was here, in a house situated not far from the League of Nations buildings in the heart of Geneva, that Tariq Ramadan was born in 1962--the fifth and final son out of a total of six children. The name Tariq may not have been deliberately chosen in honor of the legendary Tariq Ibn Zyad, the first Muslim warrior to have set foot on Spanish soil--the reconquest and re-Islamization of Andalucía having been a wish expressed by Hassan al-Banna in one of his last written instructions. But one thing at least is certain--that Said Ramadan's fifth son was brought up in a human beehive of feverish religious activity. The ground floor of this Islamic center was a kind of "open house" for transient Muslims, the floor above was reserved for more discreet conversations with important emissaries from all corners of the globe, while the two highest floors were occupied by Tariq's mother, Wafa al-Banna, and other members of the family.
When the time came for the teenage Tariq, who seems to have been an assiduous student in a French-language high school, to follow in the footsteps of his famous father by obtaining a university degree, he chose as the subject for his thesis the life and teachings of his prestigious grandfather, Hassan al-Banna. His text was so unequivocally favorable that it displeased the unemotional professors of the nearby university of Fribourg, who refused to grant him a diploma. In a rage, the mortified Tariq then had himself admitted to the university of Geneva, where a less critical jury from the Faculty of Letters was willing to grant him a doctorate. Technically, as Caroline Fourest points out, he never received a doctorate in theology, though that has never keep him since then from passing himself off as a bona fide "theologian."
With the passage of the years, as Said, the father, grew older (he finally died in 1995), a clever division of labor was introduced in the Ramadan household. Tariq's older brother, Hani, was assigned the job of running the Islamic center's "internal affairs"--including all financial and banking matters, and private meetings with more less clandestine members of the Brotherhood as well as other influential Muslims--while Tariq, who had developed a definite talent for calm, unimpassioned, seemingly "objective" speech-making, was given the job of spreading the good, reassuring word that Islam was basically a civilized and merciful faith. To this end, he emphasized those elements of the Qur'an that speak of brotherly love and tolerance, and avoided those that can be interpreted as supporting violence and intolerance.
The secret of his phenomenal success as a skilled propagandist was his realization--one already made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during his years of exile in France--that the spoken word, when tape-recorded, can be a far more effective instrument of persuasion and much less costly to produce, preserve, and sell than written books, articles, or essays. During the mid-1990s, he established contact with a number of young Muslim admirers in Lyon, located conveniently close to Geneva, whose Tawhid (oneness of God) bookshop and publishing company from then on became the main distributor of his cassettes--sometimes based on speeches Tariq Ramadan had delivered in French-speaking cities as distant as Dakar, Bamako, or on the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion and Mauritius.
Close to one hundred cassettes--dealing with everything from "Islam and Lay Society: Comprehension and Dialogue," "The Muslims of the West and the Future of Islam," "Islam, Modernity, and Modernism," "For an Alternative Islamic Culture" to "The Muslim Woman: Realities and Hope," "The Islamic Conception of Sexuality," and "Islam and Religious Fundamentalism"--have so far been produced, some of them attaining sales of more than twenty thousand.
The least that can be said is that it was anything but an easy task for this messenger of Islamic good-will and tolerance to sound persuasive, so compromising were his links with the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist fanatics it had managed to inspire in various countries of the Arab world. In October 1981 a number of them managed to assassinate the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, regarded as a "traitor" for having dared to make a trip to Jerusalem and to make peace with Golda Meir.
Brotherhood members were also involved in several subsequent attempts to kill Sadat's successor, Gen. Hosni Mubarak. In 1982, after one hundred air force cadets had been murdered by Muslim extremists in Syria, President Hafez al-Assad was obliged to use tanks, artillery, and aircraft to quell a rebellion in the town of Hama. More than ten thousand were killed--the price he had to pay to keep his country from being taken over by members of the Brotherhood.
Ten years later, in 1992, after the so-called FIS--Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front)--had won an unquestionable majority in Algeria's national elections, the country's generals were forced to impose military rule to keep local supporters of the Brotherhood from imposing a form of Muslim totalitarianism on the country.
Although there is no reason to believe that Tariq Ramadan ever felt much sympathy for the explosive Islamic terrorism preached and practiced by Osama bin Laden, it is an embarrassing historical fact that the ideological model for bin Laden's chief lieutenant, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, was Said Ramadan's close Muslim Brotherhood colleague, Sayyid Qutb--considered one of the intellectual heroes, furthermore, of the Islamic Foundation, at Leicester, near London, where Tariq Ramadan spent a profitable "sabbatical year" in 1998, adding to his academic laurels by increasing his fluency in English.
Equally compromising was the extraordinary compliment paid to Tariq Ramadan by Sheikh Hassan al-Tourabi, the ideological inspirer of the coup d'etat of 1989, which brought a fundamentalist, pro-Sharia regime to power in Sudan, and who for five years in the early 1990s was one of bin Laden's most influential protectors during the dissident Arab's years of exile in Khartoum. Enormously impressed by Tariq Ramadan's eloquent erudition and steadfast loyalty to the teachings of his father and grandfather, he declared, after meeting him in the Sudanese capital, that he was the future "hope of Islam."
By February 1995--more than six years before the suicide-plane assaults on Manhattan's Twin Towers--French counterintelligence officers had grown so suspicious of Hani and Tariq Ramadan's surreptitious links with the Brotherhood that both, being Swiss subjects, were refused visas to enter France. The predictable result was a hastily organized protest campaign, which garnered 17,500 signatories --10,000 in France, 6,000 in Belgium, 1,500 in Switzerland--which was followed, just as inevitably, by the judgment of an administrative law court in Besancon, nullifying the Ministry of the Interior's interdiction.
This now regularly happens, so crippled by "Islamophobic" taboos and the fear of offending Muslims has the French legal system become. Last spring, when an imam in the Lyon suburb of Venissieux created an uproar by declaring that a Muslim husband has the right to kick his rebellious wife, if necessary, in the stomach, he was promptly expelled by the minister of the interior to his native Algeria--only to be "rehabilitated" shortly afterward by a court and allowed to return in triumph to his two wives and sixteen children. For bigamy, too, is now widely accepted in France in the name of "multicultural" tolerance.
The basic reason for all this, as Caroline Fourest makes clear, is a kind of willful gullibility on the part of "well-wishers" who cannot be bothered to find out what is really going on in the dangerous world around them. She quotes Alain Chouet, a former director of intelligence with the DGSE--the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, the French equivalent of the CIA--who, in April of last year, in an interview granted to the Catholic newspaper, La Croix, pointed out that "al-Qaeda is but a brief episode and a provisional instrument in the almost century-old existence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The real danger comes from the extension of this brotherhood, and its audience. The wolf knows how to dress up as a grandmother."
The person specifically named in the next sentence was Tariq Ramadan--perhaps a bit unfairly. For it was Tariq's brother Hani who suddenly bared his teeth in September 2002, declaring in an article published in the Paris daily Le Monde ("The Ill-Understood Sharia") that the stoning of adulterous women was fully justified "not only as a punishment, but as a purification." He added, furthermore, that AIDS was a divine punishment meted out to sinners, homosexuals, and drug addicts.
Even in relatively tolerant Geneva, these remarks aroused an uproar. The local daily, Le Courrier, informed Hani Ramadan that it would no longer publish any of his articles, while the shocked members of Geneva's Council of State insisted that he be dismissed from his post as a state-paid teacher.
When, fourteen months later in a momentous TV debate, Tariq Ramadan was asked by France's minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, if he approved of his brother's "monstrous" affirmation, he took refuge behind an equivocation to keep from disowning his own brother--his answer being that he himself believed that a "moratorium" should be imposed in the Muslim world on punishments of this kind, since what was needed was a "pedagogical discourse" to bring about an "evolution of mentalities."
Four months later, France's bustling minister of the interior decided that something had to be done to control a chaotic situation in which more than one thousand imams--one third of whom do not even speak French!--were free to sound off as they pleased in their properly built or makeshift mosques (warehouses, garages, cellars, etc.). Somewhat arbitrarily, Sarkozy chose to exclude Tariq Ramadan from the establishment of a French Council for the Muslim Cult--for unexplained reasons that continue to mystify Islamic scholars like Gilles Kepel.
The hastily improvised elections, based on 995 mosques and places of worship, resulted in a dismaying victory for two arch-conservative Muslim groups, including the UOIF--Union des Organisations Islamiques de France--well known for its close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the financial support it had been receiving from Saudi Arabia. The snub imposed on Tariq Ramadan was galling. But, deft as usual, he turned this personal setback to his advantage by publicly denouncing the UOIF--thus cleverly confirming the illusion that he had long since ceased to have anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the final pages of her book, Fourest wrote that what had particularly amazed her during her long months of research was the number of persons who have been "terrorized" at the mere prospect of having to testify against Tarik Ramadan--so prone has he been to make angry telephone calls and even to mount lawsuits against "detractors" who have detected his duplicity. Such as the Lebanese Christian, Antoine Sfeir, editor of the prestigious Cahiers de l'Orient, who once declared, "I regard the nonviolent [Muslim fundamentalists] as being more dangerous, precisely because they appear to be inoffensive. Terrorists are hunted down. The nonviolent seem to be reassuring."
She also writes that among his severest critics have been fellow Muslims--such as, for example, the right-wing Kabyle activist and member of the French president's majority UMP party, Rachid Kaci, or the authentically "liberal" mufti of Marseille, Sheikh Soheib Bensheikh. But, given the relative obscurity of the latter, compared to the fame and notoriety already acquired by the former, it seems likely that Tariq Ramadan's prestige as a dynamic, "forward-looking," ceaselessly globe-trotting apostle of Islamic "renovation" and "reconciliation" will survive the hammer-blows dealt to it by Caroline Fourest. But whether he will ever achieve his long-term ambition of "reforming"--more exactly "reverting"--Islam to the Qur'anic "purity" desired by his illustrious forebears is quite another matter.
Curtis Cate is a historian and biographer and a freelance
writer who lives in Paris.