Squinting at Extremists

"It’s clear that what Ramadan wants isn’t a modernised, secular Islam, but an Islamised modernity"

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“Those willing to trawl through Ramadan’s written and recorded output will find no shortage of material calling into question his supposedly liberal intent. It’s clear that what Ramadan wants isn’t a modernised, secular Islam, but an Islamised modernity.”

Tariq_ramadanOver at Sign and Sight, Pascal Bruckner continues his multiculturalism debate with Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. Bruckner makes a number of important points regarding competing assertions of difference and the loss of common values. He also argues, “It's not enough to condemn terrorism. The religion that engenders it and on which it is based, right or wrong, must also be reformed.” But of particular interest is Brukner’s criticism of those, like Buruma and Garton Ash, who endorse Tariq Ramadan as an “Islamic reformer” and a beacon of moderation. Bruckner reminds us that Ramadan is, in fact, far from liberal in his outlook, most obviously when addressing Muslim audiences rather than Western journalists. Even Buruma’s own generous portrait of Ramadan reveals less than progressive tendencies, of which Bruckner says: 

“While propagating the feminine sense of shame and recommending that Muslim women should abstain from shaking men's hands and using mixed swimming pools if they wish, Ramadan states that for his part, he does shake women's hands. Yes, you read it right: in 2007, a self-styled ‘progressive’ Muslim… pushes audaciousness to the point of admitting that he shakes women's hands

It seems to me a blatant error to start talking with conservatives just because they don't openly call for the holy war. This amounts to renouncing reform of Islam, provided Muslims renounce violence. But preferring modern fundamentalism to terrorism runs the risk of having both.”

Perhaps Buruma and Garton Ash have been distracted, even seduced, by Ramadan’s anti-capitalist noises and thus have failed to register the professor’s less reassuring assertions, as outlined in numerous books, pamphlets and recorded lectures. Ramadan has famously equated secularism with dictatorship and, rather crucially, he insists that the Qur’an and Sunnah should govern life today:

“I oppose… our spokespeople who say that one should no longer be faithful to the texts. That is not reasonable.” (L’Islam en Question, p283).

Those willing to trawl through Ramadan’s written and recorded output will find no shortage of material calling into question his supposedly liberal intent. It’s clear that what Ramadan wants isn’t a modernised, secular Islam, but an Islamised modernity. In Les Messages Musulmans d’Occident, Ramadan shares his vision of an Islamised Europe:

“The West will begin its new decline and the Arab-Islamic world its renewal… The Qur’an confirms, completes, and corrects the messages that preceded it.”

This triumphalist tone is continued in Islam, le Face à Face des Civilisations:

“References to Judaism and Christianity are being diluted, if not disappearing altogether… Only Islam can fill the spiritual void that afflicts the West.”

In Pouvoirs (164, 2003), Ramadan goes further:

“The revelation of the Qur’an is explicit: whoever engages in speculation or cultivates financial interests enters into war against the transcendent… Muslims who live in the West must unite themselves to the revolution… from the moment when the neo-liberal capitalist system becomes, for Islam, a theatre of war.”

Swoonmeister_tariq_ramadanAnd yet Garton Ash and Buruma maintain that Ramadan represents a moderate version of Islam that is “compatible with the fundamentals of a modern, liberal, and democratic Europe.” Ramadan’s ability to befuddle left-leaning commentators with practised ambiguity and elision has been noted. In her book, Frère Tariq, Caroline Fourest details the incongruities and contradictions of Ramadan’s statements, with particular attention to his 100 or so lectures to Muslim-only audiences, recordings of which are sold through Islamist bookshops. Sometimes this befuddlement has comical effects. It’s hard to forget Rosemary Bechler’s interview with Ramadan for OpenDemocracy, during which the besotted Bechler cooed:

“From the start, I felt in the presence of leadership: but of the style of an exiled prince, a king over the water, a president in exile, an errant soul...”

Swoon. Be still my girlish heart. Dear Rose was, of course, far too busy describing Ramadan’s manly charms – and comparing him with Hamlet - to actually test the substance of his claims. So breathless was her admiration, obvious questions went unasked. For instance, what does Ramadan’s use of two distinct and contradictory narratives say about the compatibility of his two - apparently distinct and contradictory - audiences?

Even when viewed in the softest and most flattering of light, Ramadan is an opportunist dissembler telling parallel audiences whatever they wish to hear. As Fourest and others have shown, closer examination reveals something more troubling. To regard Ramadan as an agent of liberal reform and source of optimism requires a disregard for evidence and a knack for self-deception. And yet there are those whose wish to believe in Brother Tariq will override critical judgment; people who will happily tilt their heads and squint, then squint a little harder, until what they see is, very nearly, what they want to see.


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