Tariq Ramadan’s phobic reaction to the events of the 'Arab Spring' reveals the limits of his brand of Islamist apologetics.
More than a decade ago, Tariq Ramadan appointed himself the spokesman for Europe's Muslims. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, liberal establishments on both sides of the Atlantic turned to the Swiss-born writer and preacher to hear palliative homilies about Islamism's peaceful intentions. Ian Buruma, writing in the New York Times in 2007, hailed Mr. Ramadan's "reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam," which "offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment." A 2004 Washington Post op-ed dubbed him the "Muslim Martin Luther."
Mr. Ramadan, a professor at Oxford, expounds a "reformist" Islamism, one that purports to respect democracy, women's rights and the rule of law. Yet during a 2003 televised exchange with Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Ramadan refused to condemn the stoning of adulterers under fundamentalist Islam. He suggested only a "moratorium" during which to "debate" the practice. Mr. Ramadan's doctrine—grounded in the work of Hassan al-Banna, his maternal grandfather and the founder, in Egypt in 1928, of the Muslim Brotherhood—expects a revitalized "Islamic Orient" to stand as a viable alternative to the liberal order.
So one would expect him to welcome the coming to power of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and the rise of Brotherhood-linked parties across much of the rest of the Mideast in the wake of the "Arab Spring." But judging by "Islam and the Arab Awakening," the 2010 and 2011 revolts in the Arab world unsettled the author, making him fearful that the Arabs will join the democratic sphere "at the price of deleting their religious beliefs and practices, their culture and even their history." His response to the twilight of secular autocracy in the Middle East reveals the limits of his brand of Islamist apologetics.
"Islam and the Arab Awakening" consists of four main essays and a number of shorter pieces reacting to the protests that were triggered by the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia in December 2010 and that quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The first half attempts to re-examine these uprisings "with lucidity and without illusion," away from the "emotional effervescence" of the boosters and the "unfounded suspicion" of the cynics. Mr. Ramadan has a disdain for the non-Islamist origins of the Arab Spring, which he claims was largely born of Western "funding, training, and political and military interference." His analysis of these events reads like a conspiracy theory.
According to Mr. Ramadan, the American government and "powerful American corporations" nurtured the young activists who triggered the Arab Spring as a way of "opening up Arab markets and integrating the region into the global economy." Was it just a coincidence that Wael Ghonim, the tech executive who came to embody the Egyptian revolution for Western audiences, was, at age 30, "already Google's marketing director for the Middle East?" And what of the fact that young Arab activists used the clenched-fist symbol as their signature, a symbol that was also deployed during the American-supported overthrow of Serbian genocidaire Slobodan Milošević? Was it not "telling" that the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy backed the Libyan uprising, "given the man's support for Israel and his access and missions to the highest levels of the Zionist state?" To frame the NATO intervention in Libya as an instance of Western imperialism, Mr. Ramadan is even willing to rehabilitate Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyan dictator was apparently a relatively benign autocrat; his regime's "horrors were deliberately exaggerated."
Al-Jazeera was also apparently in on the conspiracy. The Qatari state-owned network's reporting during the Arab Spring, the author thinks, "proved objectively useful to the American administration's purposes." By contrast, Mr. Ramadan doesn't say a word about Press TV, the Tehran regime's English-language organ, which has been militating relentlessly in favor of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and infamously aired coerced confessions after Iran's own 2009 uprising. (Mr. Ramadan currently hosts a show on the Iranian network, a fact that cost him a professorship at Erasmus University Rotterdam because the Dutch college couldn't abide his links to such a "repressive regime.")
Whatever the origins of the uprisings, even Mr. Ramadan sees that something fundamental has happened in the Arab world and, in the second half of the book, he tries to lay out a vision of the Arab future. Here are plenty of platitudes about "justice, equality, the empowerment of women, and the struggle against corruption and poverty"; ensuring "religious tolerance and democratic pluralism"; "recognition of equal rights for all citizens, acceptance of religious pluralism"; and so on. But he is short on the specifics of how a region disfigured by decades of dictatorship can go about fulfilling these aspirations.
Mr. Ramadan calls for a "civil state," melding democratic elements with the region's "Islamic reference." But he is evasive about what this would mean in practice. The few examples he cites aren't encouraging. The Khomeinist revolution in 1979 showed how to "moralize politics in the name of Islam"—a path that Iran's current rulers have supposedly strayed from. The author also has good things to say about the "Turkish model" advanced by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. He mentions Tunisia's Rached Ghannouchi as another Islamist leader who has endorsed the "democratic principle." But Turkey under Mr. Erdogan has emerged as the world's top jailer of journalists. Mr. Ghannouchi, meanwhile, has declared that, for Islamist parties, democracy is merely a steppingstone toward "the long-term objective of establishing an Islamic government."
These developments don't concern Mr. Ramadan, who waves away the "empty controversies" dividing the region's Islamists and secular forces. He wants to keep the focus on evil Western governments and corporations, on Guantanamo and America's security apparatus, on an endless litany of Israeli crimes. Railing against these demons made him a media darling during the first decade of the war on terror. But, for good or ill, much of the region has moved on.
Review of Mr Ramadan’s book ‘Islam and the Arab Awakening (Oxford, 245 pages), by Sohrab Ahmari, an assistant books editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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