Tuesday, August 02, 2005

We ban Muslim scholars at our peril


Naima Bouteldja

Front page horror stories of extremist preachers putting suicidal thoughts into young British Muslims are a crude but clever means of reinforcing the
ideological environment necessary for authoritarian responses. They also sell more newspapers. And since the tragic events of 7 July, Fleet Street’s own fundamentalists have been trotting out all their old favourites. We’ve had ‘mad’ Omar Bakri, ‘bad’ Abu Qatada, and of course, the British media’s favourite Islamic villain, the one-eyed, hooked-handed Abu Hamza.

While the attempt to divide and rule the Muslim community by creating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims is expected, editors and politicians are making a grave
mistake in turning their fire on the very thinkers Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to hear in these inflammatory times.

First there was Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, widely regarded as a moderate and one of the most respected scholars in the Muslim world embraced by the Mayor of London. By having once given qualified support for Palestinian suicide bombers as part of their daily resistance struggle against Israel’s
murderous occupation, the media links Al-Qaradawi to the London bombs and wants him banned. His unreserved condemnation of the London bombers for their targeting of civilians goes largely unreported, an inconvenient

Now enter Tariq Ramadan. This Sunday, the Swiss-born Muslim academic is due in London to address young Muslims at The Middle Path conference at the Islamic Cultural Centre near Regent’s Park. It is sponsored by the Metropolitan Police. His message will be simple and unambiguous: the London bombers were criminals and we should neither accept nor listen to their probable justifications in the name of an ideology, a religion
or a political cause.

New Labour’s favourite focus group, The Sun, is leading a campaign to have Ramadan’s invitation revoked and ban him from the UK. According to The Sun,
he is an “extremist Islamic scholar” who is “banned from both America and France”, he “backs suicide bombing” and has “suspected links with terrorists”. The paper goes on to warn that Ramadan is “more dangerous” than Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri: “He is a soft-spoken professor whose moderate tones present an acceptable, “reasonable” face of terror to impressionable young Muslims”. The accusations are now being repeated as fact by the London Evening Standard, The Times, the Independent, TV pundits and politicians.

Could this be the same Tariq Ramadan who is renowned across the Muslim world as the reformist thinker despised by traditionalists for his progressive
interpretation of Islamic sources? Who, like millions of people in this country, supports the right of Iraqis and Palestinians to resist occupation and war but has never supported suicide bombings? Apparently so. For the record, Ramadan has no links with any terrorist group and is not banned from France. When his Visa and work permit to teach in the US were suddenly revoked last year without explanation by the Department for Homeland Security days before he was due to take up a professorship, British MPs, US
academics and human rights lawyers all rushed to his defence in condemnation of the Bush administration’s senseless actions. The fact that Scotland Yard is relaxed about paying his travel expenses to Sunday’s conference would indicate he is not on their wanted list of so called “radical preachers” nor likely to make Charles Clarke’s proposed “global database of extremists”.

The question the British media should really be asking
is where are right-wing editors getting their
insidious misinformation from about a man who Time
magazine placed in their top 100 most important
thinkers of the 21st century and whose previous hosts
include the U.S State Department, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, and former presidents Clinton, Gorbachev
and Vaclav Havel? The answer can found just 21 miles
across the English Channel. The hatred of Tariq
Ramadan by France’s political establishment and
mainstream society seems unrivalled.

His status as France’s public enemy number one was
sealed after he wrote an article on the eve of the
second European Social Forum in Paris, October 2003.
He accused high profile and influential French
scholars of allowing their support of Israel and
Zionism to dictate their public stands not just on the
war on Iraq and the occupation of Palestine but also
domestic issues relating to Islam and the problems of
the suburban French ghettoes.

This sparked one of the most vicious and unrelenting
media witch hunts and smear campaigns France has ever
witnessed. Ramadan was instantly held him up as an
anti-Semite, the press suggested that a terrorist
bloodline passed directly to him from followers of his
grandfather, Hassan al Banna, who founded the Muslim
Brotherhood, that he had links to terror groups and
was really a ‘fork-tongued fundamentalist’ who seduced
people with liberal rhetoric in French but called for
violence in Arabic.

The hysteria has since spread to the political level.
French local authorities routinely try to ostracise
and boycott Ramadan and his associates, withdrawing at
the very last minute the public rooms and halls
hosting their events. In March last year a three day
anti-war conference in Paris was cancelled by its
university hosts because of Ramadan’s presence. In
January of this year the organisers and participants
of a conference in the Netherlands were “strongly
advised” in private by the French Embassy to cancel
Ramadan’s invitation and not participate in any public
meetings with him, saying that he was “dangerous”.

Despite never having been charged with any crime, and
without a shred of evidence supplied to back up these
claims, the French press with the help of the
country’s top politicians and a compliant left have
continued to mould Tariq Ramadan into a fictitious
monster. The parallels with The Sun’s recent coverage
are striking.

The successful smear campaign against Ramadan has
nothing to do with fear of religious extremism – this
is no rabble-rousing cleric with a perverted take on
Islam. Instead, it is mainly motivated by the cultural
imperialism that grips France’s republican white
majority and Ramadan’s serious challenge to it through
the popularity and influence of his innovative
thinking among France’s five million Muslims,
especially the Muslims youth.

For Ramadan’s unique interpretation of Islamic
scriptures and Western liberal democracy charts a
clear path for European Muslims to live a true Islamic
life and at the same time be fully participating
European citizens. By asserting that “anything not
explicitly forbidden by Islamic principles is
permissible” he is the first Muslim scholar to have
defined a framework for a Western Muslim identity that
is legitimised by Islamic thought. Through the civil
liberties enshrined in Western liberal democracy,
Muslims can simultaneously enjoy the freedom of
religious conscience, worship and _expression, and the
freedom from being forced into practices and beliefs
that Islam explicitly forbids, like supporting or
participating in unjust wars whether they be against
Muslims or non-Muslims. Ramadan therefore argues that
the problems Muslims encounter in Europe are generally
caused by racism, discrimination and the poor
application of law, not by the inherent
legal-political structures themselves

Ramadan takes on those traditionalists and literalists
who consider that the only legitimate culture of Islam
is Arabic, and so end up defining their identity in
strict opposition to a Westernised ‘other’. In
Ramadan’s intellectual framework, Muslim identity is
always grounded in the universal principles of Islam
but shaped by the context and cultures in which it
operates. “There is only one Islam”, he has stated,
“but it can be culturally African, Asian, European or

For second and young third generation Muslims in
France who experience something close to schizophrenia
as they are constantly torn between the liberties and
discriminations of French society and the
traditionalist and spiritual stance of their parents,
Ramadan’s guidance has been something of a revelation.
Since the myth that Muslims would one day ‘return
home’ died among the second generation, European
Muslim populations have been desperately trying to
understand what type of participation and engagement
in largely secular European societies Islamic
scriptures authorise.

By finding within Islam the legitimising principles
that allow one to become a genuine French citizen
without having to renounce one’s faith, Ramadan has
challenged French Muslims to explore beyond the limits
of their existing intellectual horizons because “there
can no be genuine understanding of Islam if there is
no understanding of the realities we live in.” This
has effectively undermined the ‘communitarianists’ who
see Muslims and non-Muslims as binary opposites.
French Muslim activists directly cite Ramadan as the
person responsible for their strategic shift beyond
Islamo-Muslim circles to build partnerships with
secular and Catholic organisations, the traditional
left and most recently the alter-globalisation
movement. ‘In understanding’ argues Ramadan, ‘that
Muslim references are sources of universal values that
are not exclusively Islamic, Muslims participate in
the societies they are living in not on the basis of
their belonging to a cultural or a religious
community, but on the basis of their belonging to a
community of principles’.

More fundamentally, Ramadan has also challenged the
cultural imperialist assumptions of the dominant
French assimilationist model, rooted across the
political spectrum, which claims to put forward
universal values whilst asserting a rigid and
exclusionary conception of citizenship.

Ramadan’s point is that people frame their
understanding of universal values in different ways,
and that there is no need for France’s Muslims to
abandon their beliefs in order to be truly French. He
challenges the assumption that there is a prior norm
to which Muslims must ‘integrate’ themselves –
“integration to what and in relation to who?” he asks.
The question recalls those of revolutionary thinkers
like Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, who also challenged
the supremacy of seemingly immutable ‘Western’ values.
For Ramadan, the universality of Islamic values can be
sustained within Western societies, a perspective
which shows up the particularlism of those who would
expect Muslims to ‘integrate’ themselves out of their
faith in order to enter the public sphere. It is
possible to be French and Muslim without
contradiction. A ‘dangerous’ thought indeed!

This is why he is smeared as an anti-Semitic,
terror-loving extremist. By attracting supporters
among intellectuals and Muslim youth alike, Ramadan’s
project of Muslim self-liberation has rung alarm bells
among dominant social forces in France and America,
and now it seems in the UK. The Sun is unwittingly
correct: his sophisticated arguments against the
hegemonic narratives of Western governments and mass
media are potentially far more dangerous to the status
quo than the firebrand clerics who turn off the vast
majority of Muslims.

The tragedy is that by shutting down debate in
Britain, Muslim scholars and clerics like Ramadan,
Al-Qaradawi and even Omar Bakri, cannot be questioned
in public spaces by Muslims and non-Muslims on the
vital issues of Muslim identity, citizenship and
shared and contested values. If they were, figures
like Ramadan would quickly silence the segregationist
and extremist voices across British society. This
issue goes well beyond Tariq Ramadan: it is about the
very future of Western Muslims and their fellow
citizens living together in peace and mutual respect.

1 comment(s):

  • I think it's easier to attack those who are clearly advocating violence, but with figures like Ramadan, there is more fear because what he says is sensible and intelligent. It's much much harder to be challenged by intelligent thinkers, than those who clearly support and call for acts of violence.
    As a Muslim, I am frusterated when I see people who could be bringing more unity and openness to the Umma being branded as dangerous.
    If anything, supporting these figures will help cut off some roots of violence.
    Then again when one uses critical thinking, the status quo is always afraid.
    Compassion and intelligence is something politicians have a hard time with...

    By Blogger whalesoundervish, at 8/03/2005 01:40:00 PM  

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