Swiss-born Muslim scholar and public intellectual Tariq Ramadan has for decades been a lightning rod for controversy. He was barred from entry to America by the Patriot Act’s “ideological exclusion provision,” and then on account of his financial contributions to two Hamas charities. Even so, he took center stage at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, this year held in Montreal — allowing him to attend.
The grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, Ramadan has long been suspected by progressive Muslims and secularists in Europe of radical Islamist tendencies despite his avowed agenda to “reform Islam.” The Canadian Jewish community’s wise silence about his numerous high-profile appearances notwithstanding, Ramadan has repeatedly singled out Jewish intellectuals as among his most damaging detractors. Most recently, in his new book, “What I Believe,” he unmistakably implied that Jews and the pro-Israel lobby were behind the revocation of his visa.
To mark Ramadan’s visit, the National Post, Canada’s conservative national daily, ran a column by liberal Muslim writer
Tarek Fatah called, “Montreal Welcomes an Islamist Extremist in Sheep’s Clothing.” Fatah’s article ended with a powerfully personal pledge: “Brother Tariq, your father Said Ramadan came to my birthplace Pakistan in 1948 as a Muslim Brotherhood emissary and was instrumental in turning a secular Muslim country into a hotbed of Islamic extremism. I will not let the son of Said Ramadan come to my adopted home Canada and do the same, without a fight. Your Islamist father ruined my birthplace; I will not let you ruin the place where I will die.”
On Montreal’s leading morning radio talk show, veteran journalist Denise Bombardier observed to host Denys Arcand that “while Israeli scholars are increasingly boycotted from college campuses, an Islamofascist like Ramadan is welcomed like a rock star.” And two progressive Canadian Muslim groups ran an ad in a Montreal daily, Le Devoir, denouncing Ramadan for his covert Islamist agenda and ties to antisemitic clerics.
The main and far warmer welcome was reserved for Ramadan’s address to four separate panels, including two packed plenary sessions at the private Annual Meeting of the AAR, the world’s largest learned society of scholars of religion. The American ban was denounced each time Ramadan was introduced, unsurprising since the AAR, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors, has been the most prominent petitioner for its reversal since 2004.
His battle for entry has been a matter of particular sensitivity to the academic community, since the initial revocation of his visa came after Ramadan accepted a prestigious chair in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. While this advocacy for Ramadan is ostensibly rooted in concern for academic freedom, his appearance at the Montreal conference, and the hero’s welcome accorded him at his plenary appearance and keynote address, suggested either a more than trivial political partisanship with Ramadan’s views or a naiveté about what he really represents.
In his talks, Ramadan repeated the need for what he calls “transformative” and “radical” reform of Islam, while in fact articulating a fundamentalist acceptance of the divinity of the Quran and the Hadiths (narratives about the prophet), as well as the exclusive authority of the Ulema (scholarly religious establishment), to offer normative Quranic interpretations. Such double-talk, combined with ultraconservative theological views, would be laughed out of the room were they offered by any of his liberal Christian colleagues.
Nevertheless, Ramadan repeatedly rejected the application of universally accepted tools of modern biblical scholarship to Islam’s sacred texts. And, with no serious critical challenge, he dubbed the democratization of the study of those texts “dangerous and unfair.” The passive, indeed mute, reception by critical modern scholars of religion to Ramadan’s repeated fundamentalist proclamations was nothing short of astonishing.
Participating on a star-studded panel chaired by CNN’s Reza Aslan and including award-winning journalist Robin Wright, Ramadan made remarks on the theme of “Islam and Modernity” that showed why the debate about his true beliefs is so intractable. Following Wright’s fine overview of the history of Islamic radicalism and the contemporary changes toward a “softer and less violent Islamism” in the numerous Islamic countries from which she has reported for decades, Ramadan bristled at the notion that violence should serve as any criterion in assessing Islam’s engagement with modernity. Rather, he insisted that “violence is not an issue for the vast majority in the Muslim world,” and that the proper way to understand reform in countries with Muslim majorities must be limited to analyzing those countries’ various interpretations of the Quran, Hadiths and Sharia (Islamic law).
A defining moment in Ramadan’s career was his famous televised debate, in November 2003, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, then French minister of the interior during a period of antisemitic attacks in France. Sarkozy attacked Ramadan for having accused “the Jews” of serving the interests of Israel over those of their countries of residence: “Your article was not just a blunder; it was a moral failure.”
Ramadan responded first by asserting that he had always opposed antisemitism, adding: “They call me a Muslim intellectual; I wrote about Jewish intellectuals. I don’t see any harm in that.” But Ramadan’s shocking response to Sarkozy’s next volley stole headlines throughout Europe. Asked to denounce his brother, Muslim Brotherhood leader Hani Ramadan (with whom Ramadan privately remains very close) for having written a piece justifying the stoning of adulterous women, Ramadan proposed a “moratorium on such practices.” An outraged Sarkozy declared: “A moratorium? What does that mean? We’re in 2003!”
The Sarkozy debacle was eerily repeated in Montreal, suggesting that little has changed for Ramadan. Asked by a self-described “feminist scholar of Islam” to suggest concrete ways of advancing the status of women in the Muslim world, he responded, without a hint of irony, “The best way to transform the position of women in Islam is to go back and look to the life of the prophet and how he treated his wives.” Sarkozy’s indignation echoed: “Wives? Polygamy? What does this mean? We’re in 2009!”
I asked Ramadan, in the final audience question after his keynote address, to rise above accusations of “doublespeak” and condemn unambiguously the rise in religiously sanctioned and state-supported antisemitism throughout the Muslim world. As always when the question of his ties to antisemitic organizations and clerics is raised, Ramadan became both indignant and personally belligerent. Responding to the term “doublespeak,” which has haunted Ramadan for two decades, he accused me of “double-hearing,” evoking hearty laughter from the majority of the crowd, who clearly had not read this response dozens of times in his writings. He continued by asserting that he has “always condemned antisemitism as anti-Islamic.” What this qualified rejection implies remains unclear beyond a chilling reminder that for Ramadan, moral and ethical judgments can be made only through the prism of Islamic values.
Ramadan’s Islamic “reform” has nothing in common with the 16th-century Christian Reformation’s challenging of fundamental religious doctrines and ecclesiastical institutions, and it certainly shares absolutely nothing with Reform Judaism, which left all of traditional Judaism open to radical revision.
Even his harshest critics — such as Denis MacShane in his introduction to the 2008 English translation of French secularist Caroline Fourest’s devastating book, “Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan” — at least offer the hope that Ramadan may be evolving and distancing himself from Islamist politics and religious fundamentalism. Sadly, his performances in Montreal suggest that he has not progressed an iota from his fundamentalist views about such issues as the divinity of the Quran, the nature of religious authority, antisemitism and the status of women.
The only evolution evident in Ramadan’s slick performances is his finely tuned taqiyya — the medieval Islamic tactic of strategic dissimulation. After all, it is no small matter to dupe so many thousands of scholars of religion. Or is it?
Allan Nadler, a regular Forward contributor, is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University. Contact Allan Nadler at firstname.lastname@example.org.