Tariq Ramadan: The Islamic Optimist

Historians in the News

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss-born academic and a prolific writer on Islam who has achieved fame—and notoriety —on both sides of the Atlantic for his engagement with the issues that concern the millions of Muslims now living in Western countries. In France, especially, he has been depicted as an Islamist wolf in sheep's clothing. Strip off the wool, say his critics, and you will find a hard-line fundamentalist hostile to the values of freedom and democracy he claims to espouse. Two causes célèbres have been, first, the fierce polemics arising from Ramadan's claim that leading French intellectuals including Bernard-Henri Levy, Daniel Gluckstein, and Bernard Kouchner put their commitments to Israel before their humanitarian concern for Palestinians; and, second, the famous encounter with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, before six million French television viewers, when Ramadan at first refused to condemn outright the penalty of stoning for adulterers, but called for a "moratorium" while the Muslim world engaged in "debating" this issue along with other harsh punishments. He went on to say that "we should stop" the practice. But this has not satisfied his critics.

Part of the animus against him derives from his family history: he is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna (1906– 1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East Sunni movement that originally advocated the establishment of an Islamic state. After the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, his father, Said Ramadan, settled in Geneva and established an influential center of Islamist ideology with financial support from Saudi Arabia.

As is now well known, Ramadan has been prevented by the US government from taking up a tenured professorship at the University of Notre Dame. The reasons are obscure. While Ramadan has numerous intellectual critics in France as well as in the United States,[*] it seems unlikely that any official can seriously believe that such a well-known figure could himself pose a security risk to the United States. The only official mark against him appears to be a donation of eight hundred euros made some ten years ago to a Palestinian charity that was subsequently put on a watch list.

Notre Dame's loss has been Oxford's —and Europe's—gain. Ramadan's current position as research fellow at St. Antony's College has enabled him to carry on his work as a teacher and spokesman for European Muslims while keeping in touch with his Continental following. In Britain he has been an adviser to the government—though in view of the unpopularity of the Iraq adventure among British Muslims, he has avoided close relations with officials. He declined an invitation by the outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair to attend a highly publicized conference of "moderate" Muslim leaders in June. Politically street-smart, he fears he might lose credibility among his younger followers if it were thought that the British government was "using" him.

Fluent in French, English, and Arabic, with degrees in Western philosophy—his Ph.D. wa on Nietzsche—and a year spent at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest and most prestigiou academy in the world of Sunni Islam, Ramadan is admirably qualified to interpret Islam and it founder to uninformed, skeptical, or just curious Western readers. But for a nonbeliever In the Footsteps of the Prophet is disappointing. One would have expected him—at the very least—to have alluded to the vigorous scholarly debate surrounding the origins of Islam, if only to dismiss it—as several orthodox Muslim scholars have done—as a conspiracy to undermine Islam at its source. Instead he has produced a faith-promoting narrative, pleasant enough, but bland and colorless, that avoids any serious attempt to engage with the traditional sources critically (as Cook and Peters do) or to fully explain the setting of the Prophet's actions (or alleged actions, allowing for the skepticism that some scholars still feel about the sources) in the harsh and cruel environment of the stateless society where the Prophet is recorded as spending his life (as Rodinson and Armstrong have done in their different ways)....

Islam, he insists, will not be subject to this process of secularization because it was never institutionalized in the form of a church. God is present in Muslim consciousness"by means of a Book and a human example...and not by means of an institution or an incarnation." Under a revitalized Islamic polity—based on the constitutional principles of Medina—Muslims can modernize their societies without succumbing to the dehumanizing forces of secularism.

This is a widely held belief among the Islamists or"Salafist reformers" whom Ramadan is proud to support. There is, however, a profound flaw in his analysis which pervades all of his books under review. It is dangerously utopian and optimistic. In several unguarded passages he gives himself away: unlike Western Christianity the shared faith of Islam—"the brotherhood of Faith—is opposed to any idea of tragic consciousness." This is an astounding statement because it excludes, consciously or otherwise, the whole of the Shia minority tradition, which is suffused with a tragic sense of loss and betrayal....

Read entire article at Malise Ruthven in the New York Review of Books

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