A Chip Off the Old Block: Why the Fearmongers Want to Keep Tariq Ramadan Out

Asma Afsaruddin

Posted Feb 8, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Chip Off the Old Block: Why the Fearmongers Want to Keep Tariq Ramadan Out

By Asma Afsaruddin

If you are contemplating a public career today, especially in politics and/or religion, make sure you choose your ancestors, particularly your grandfather, carefully. That would seem to be the moral of the lesson in which Tariq Ramadan is playing such a prominent role today. Ramadan, a Swiss intellectual from a well-known Muslim family of Egyptian origin, was appointed to a chaired and tenured faculty position as the Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. After initially being granted a visa by the State Department to teach starting fall, 2004, the same was mysteriously revoked a few days before the start of classes in late August. This was ostensibly for security reasons which were never explicitly stated, but, as others mused out loud, more likely due to pressure from certain groups who have a vested interest in keeping him out. In early December, Ramadan resigned this position on account of the inordinate stress that had been placed on him and his family and for lack of any decision on his second visa application submitted in October, 2004.

Why would anyone want to keep Ramadan, a distinguished academic who has taught at the University of Fribourg and College de Geneve in Switzerland, holds two Ph.D. degrees, and preaches a message of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, out of the United States?

His books, particularly his most recent one published by Oxford University Press, passionately argue that pluralistic and democratic values are consonant with Islamic core principles and counsel those Muslims inclined to insularity to engage in a dialogue of civilizations with the West. He has forcefully denounced terrorism and advocates revisiting and reinterpreting certain controversial issues (for example, stoning for adultery which the Quran, unlike the Old Testament, never sanctioned) in keeping with the time-honored Islamic tradition of ijtihad (Arabic for independent reasoning in legal and ethical matters). For those in this country looking for moderate and modernist Muslim interlocutors, Ramadan would seem made-to-order. Sections of the recently issued 9/11 Commission Report have emphasized the need to seek common ground with moderate Muslims and enlist their support in the campaign against intolerance and terror.

So what gives? Why do some camps continue to portray Ramadan as a threat to a civilized way of life (as in France) or to national security (as in the US)? And why are these portrayals deemed credible by a considerable number of people? One reason is that some have accused him of anti-Semitism for having imputed parochial chauvinism to a number of French intellectuals, mostly Jewish, for their unquestioning support for Israel. Editorials decrying RamadanҒs purported anti-Semitism do not add, however, that he has similarly chided partisan Muslims for rejecting universal principles in favor of narrow communal interests which, ironically, has not earned him the epithet Islamophobic.Ӕ

But, above all, it appears that despite profuse written and oral statements of good will and tolerance, Ramadan is indicted in the view of some in the court of innuendo because of his gene pool. The bulk of virulent criticism directed at him has faultedӔ him for being the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. For his detractors, Ramadans pedigree points to a biologically determined proclivity for the agendas of political Islamism. Never mind that Ramadan has publicly dissociated himself from the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and that no amount of official, hard-nosed investigation in either Europe or the US has unearthed any verifiable links between him and militant groups. But, as some of his critics aver, the fruit never falls far from the tree. A chip off the old block. Arguments, if thatҒs what they are, based on genealogy remain the cheap and preferred instrument of calumny for those who cannot come up with any irrefutable evidence of culpability on Ramadans part.

In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal on September 7, 2004, Fouad Ajami reiterated such questionable ғaccusations. AjamiԒs statements deserve scrutiny because, as a professor of Middle East politics at a prestigious institution (the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University), he may be assumed to speak authoritatively. The genealogy of Tariq Ramadan,Ӕ he proclaimed sententiously in this article, was fundamental to his ascendancy to power and prominence: Nasab (acquired merit through oneӒs ancestors) is one of the pillars of Arab-Islamic society. Professor Ajami in his righteous indignation could not find, however, the correct Arabic word to explain the concept of ԓacquired merit: it is hasab, not, as he has it, nasab (which just means ԓlineage). He was off by one letter, but thatԒs not all he was off by. He then goes on to say that the new Islamists practice the art of taqiyyaӔ (helpfully translated by him as dissimulation: you never owe the truth to unbelieversӔ) and this extraordinarily talented man (that is, Ramadan) had this art down to perfection.Ӕ Ajami, of Lebanese Shii descent and regarded as an expert on the Middle East, should have known better ї taqiyya is a Shii practice only, selectively resorted to in situations of danger. (Perhaps he imbibed this practice at his grandfatherђs knee?) I am not sure what impels Ajami (and others who parrot him) to project this sectarian practice onto unsuspecting Sunni Muslims as well, except that factual details like these only get in the way of constructing a narrative based on innuendo and chicanery.

The politics of biological determinism and ethnic stereotyping, thinly veiled by national security concerns, may well evoke today the dark periods of European fascism and institutionalized American racism of the not-so-distant past. This kind of politics finds reflection in the conspiracy theories concocted by various majoritarian groups through time who have wished to exclude odious minority others.Ӕ It is instructive to remember that Abraham Lincolns assassination in the nineteenth century was blamed both on ғJewish bankers and ԓscheming Catholics, the classic ԓothers of that period. After all, one ԓknew then that a) Jews wanted to get rid of Lincoln on account of his economic protectionism which impeded their plan of eventually taking over the American economy; and that b) the Catholics, on instruction from the Vatican, wished to weaken the US by promoting secession because they loathed the idea of free institutions. The second rationale in particular should sound chillingly familiar to us. The politics of exclusion today caters to the visceral fear of many in the West who, in the aftermath of September 11, are thereby encouraged to reflexively equate Islam with terrorism and Muslims en masse with violence. Prominent Muslims who sound reassuringly reasonable and moderate can then be dismissed as arch dissemblers by the exclusivists.

Ramadan in the flesh would be a threat from the vantage point of his US adversaries because when he speaks in public, he connects with his audience (as many of his auditors, like myself, will readily admit), dispelling the baleful image his detractors have created for him. He also comfortably straddles the worlds of ԓIslam and the West (as the conventional dichotomy goes) and tends to convince his audience that it is preferable and possible to build bridges between the two Ԗ to the consternation of those who for ideological reasons far prefer a clash of civilizationsӔ scenario. Furthermore, when people read his books, many find his arguments demonstrating congruence between aspects of Islamic thought and modern universal notions of democracy and religious pluralism persuasive or at least worthy of critical engagement. Such an engagement would allow for a more sophisticated and nuanced discourse on Islam and its place in the West to emerge and be sustained, not just in academic circles, but in the larger public sphere as well.

But none of this will do for the fearmongers who, emboldened by specific provisions of the Patriot Act, have attempted in general to stifle such candid intellectual exchange in public fora of various kinds, most notably through the introduction of legislation such as the International Studies in Higher Education Act (H. R. 3077). This act calls for the creation of an advisory board to supervise area and international studies centers that would, inter alia, monitor courses and curricula of these centers for possible unpatrioticӔ content. The bill, which has already cleared the House and will be taken up by the Senate in this month, has been roundly denounced by most academics. It has been described by Jean Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, as an apt example of how academic freedom and civil liberties are eroded in the name of ӑemergency.Ҕ More specifically, the neo-conservatives, who form the bulk of the fearmongers, wish to forestall the possibility of a genuine rapprochement between Islam and the West by accentuating assumed unbridgeable differences between the two and by attempting to elide those voices which have challenged such an assumed civilizational chasm on the basis of responsible scholarship. This has spawned the casting of Tariq Ramadan, one of the foremost proponents of such a possible rapprochement today, in the convenient role of the bogey-man who speaks with a forked tongue. His charismatic presence in our midst, according to these fearful ideologues, would progressively beguile us into submission to an Islamist hegemon. If this carefully assembled image were to disintegrate, the alarmist rhetoric of these fearmongers would lose much of its public resonance and credibility. This explains the sporadic bouts of histrionic attempts, as manifested in the occasional editorial and opinion piece emanating from right-wing circles, to keep the myth of this particular bogey-man alive and exclude him from our conversation. In this sordid campaign of disinformation, truth and honor have become the first casualties.

Asma Afsaruddin is associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame and is the author and editor of several books and articles on Islamic thought.

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