An Evening with Tariq Ramadan
Cooper Union, the East Village hall where Abraham Lincoln demolished Stephen Douglas’s states-rights argument for the extension of slavery a hundred and fifty years ago, was the setting last night of Tariq Ramadan’s first U.S. appearance since the State Department lifted the six-year ban on his visa. As one of the panelists, I had a close but narrow view of the event. I heard about but missed seeing the lively scene outside, with a large crowd trying to get in: friends and foes of Ramadan, many young Muslims including women in hijab, lefties, civil libertarians complaining about the metal detectors, journalists—the usual New York crowd. The hall was nearly full, but the audience was amazingly quiet and attentive. Ramadan—slim, famously handsome, graying in his frizzy hair and trim beard, wearing his habitual suit with open-neck shirt—was introduced as a wrongly banned speaker, and received an ovation. His opening remarks, which he’d been scribbling backstage on a piece of paper next to a bust of George Washington, congratulated the U.S. for allowing him in, thanked the free-speech groups that had fought for his entry, criticized American foreign policy in passing, and then affirmed the existence of multiple identities within individuals, urging Muslims to stop worrying about integration in the West and instead focus on contributing to their new homes. (The only journalistic account of the event that I’ve been able to find so far is at Tablet. PEN has posted an audio version; I’m told the video will go up next week.)
Ramadan seemed wrong-footed in those opening remarks. He didn’t have a sense of where he was, of his American audience. It was as if he were speaking to disaffected young second-generation immigrants in a working-class mosque in Lille or Leicester, which is how he spends much of his time. Multiple identities, the value of diversity—not exactly news in this city, in this country. Many of his sentences amounted to buzz words strung together, without reaching a point. It seemed a missed opportunity: his first address in America since becoming an international figure, and he hadn’t prepared, hadn’t thought it through.
Once Ramadan sat down, and the panel and audience got involved, he became much sharper. Hearing him talk for an hour and a half, you realized what he is and isn’t. He is not a philosopher, or an original thinker. He has been cast in that role by recent historical crises and his own ambition—the role of someone whom large numbers of people turn to for insight on a vast range of issues, from the Islamic texts to globalization, from unemployment in France to women’s rights. What he has to say about most subjects is garden-variety European leftism. When questions of Islam and Muslims join the debate, his stance is that of a reconciler: he wants to make it possible for young Muslims to affirm their religious faith as an identity while fully participating as citizens of secular democracies. That’s his main project, an important one, and it’s where he is at his best: as a kind of preacher to confused, questing young Muslims who want to know how to live, where they fit in. And because American Muslims are not a large and disenfranchised and angry minority in this country, I don’t think this calling leaves him with very much to say to audiences here. An American Tariq Ramadan would likelier be talking to groups of young blacks or Hispanics.
The format had my colleagues on the panel, Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and Joan Wallach Scott of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, preceding me. Mogahed reported polling information that showed that Muslims in the West identify with their country just as much as their non-Muslim compatriots. According to her information, the notion that large numbers of Muslim immigrants support political violence and feel alienated from the Western societies where they live has little basis. Scott, a feminist scholar, was asked by the moderator, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, about the treatment of Muslim women and Ramadan’s views on the subject, including his call for a “moratorium” in Muslim countries on the Islamic criminal code, including stoning of adulteresses. Her answer came in two parts: first, she said, the whole question is just a distraction from the plight of unemployed Muslims in Europe. Second, who are we to criticize? Let them work things out according to their religion.
So by the time my turn came, the general picture was surprisingly, reassuringly bright: reconciling Islamic faith with liberal values is easy; the views of Muslims are basically the same as everyone else’s; the oppression of Muslim women is a third-order issue. It struck me that, in an event sponsored by groups whose whole purpose is a commitment to freedom of thought and expression (PEN, the A.C.L.U., and others), no one had said a word about the many threats to it in countries where Muslims constitute the majority, or where some Muslims who are in the minority refuse to accept it. And yet every day the news brings us such stories, so that they’ve become numbingly familiar.
I asked Ramadan two questions. The first was historical: drawing from a chapter in Paul Berman’s forthcoming book “The Flight of the Intellectuals”, I described the relationship between Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and a Nazi ally who made a series of genocidal broadcasts on an Arabic radio program transmitted from wartime Berlin, urging Arabs to rise up and kill Jews. I cited quotations from al-Banna expressing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views; I quoted Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a follower of al-Banna who is a hugely popular TV preacher on Al Jazeera, expressing similar views. And I asked Ramadan why he had never acknowledged, let alone condemned, these things.
My second question was philosophical: I wanted to know if Ramadan believed that rights are inherent in human beings or must be granted by the authority of religious texts—and, if the latter, what happens when, for example, freedom of speech collides with the injunction against blasphemy?
We didn’t have time to air fully the second question. But on the first, Ramadan and I went back and forth a number of times. And he couldn’t give me a direct answer. He hedged, he spoke about context, he suggested that the quotes were mistranslated, that they didn’t actually exist. But he refused to acknowledge that his grandfather and the Muslim Brotherhood in its origins were characterized by anti-Semitic or totalitarian views. It seemed clear that there was a limit to what he would allow himself to say or think, and that I had found it.
Weisberg had asked me at the outset whether I thought Ramadan said different things to different audiences, and whether I thought he evaded hard questions about the conflicts between the open society and fundamentalism. On the first, I said no—he has no hidden agenda, he’s an open book, and it’s essentially moderate. On the second, I said I wasn’t sure and hoped to find out. By the end of the evening, I knew the answer. Ramadan is building a worthy bridge on a rotten foundation.