This article was published in the Noregian daily Dagbladet 2005.07.13

The Janus-face of Euro-Islam?

By Jens Tomas Anfindsen, editor, HonestThinking

Tariq Ramadan is considered by many as the supreme ideologist of a new brand of Islam supplied with the well-ringing label Euro-Islam. Euro-Islam is conceived as a reformist kind of Islam which is harmonized with pluralism and the division of state and religion. In a Norwegian context Nazneen Khan, Kadafi Zaman, Petter Normann Waage, and Jacob Høigilt, among others, have expressed optimism about the role of Ramadan. But what, really, is new with Ramadan’s interpretation of Islam?

The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was shot dead by government agents in Cairo, Egypt, in 1949. Following a harsh crack-down on the entire Brotherhood movement in subsequent years, many of its members fled the country, seeking asylum in Europe. So also Al-Banna’s daughter and son-in-law, Said Ramadan, who sought refuge in Switzerland. Two years upon arrival, in Geneva in 1962, al-Bannna’s grandchild, Tariq Ramadan, was born. Thirty years later Ramadan would hold a university education in the humanities and a Ph.D. of philosophy. For several years he taught Islamic religion at the catholic University of Freiburg, while simultaneously working ferociously as an Islamic preacher, pundit and apologist, holding speeches, cranking out video-tapes and cassettes, writing several books and articles. His thought and work systematically revolve around problems and challenges related to practicing Islam in Europe.

Ramadan has achieved an enormous popularity among Europe’s young Muslims, especially in France. Ramadan is sharp in appearance, extremely eloquent and an energetic intellectual who preaches Islam in a manner appealing to the young, often disenfranchised, second generation Muslims of Europe. Let’s look at two basic pillars of Ramadan’s Gospel.

One: Pride and responsibility. Europe’s Muslims must brake loose from the mentality of victimization and take on responsibility for themselves. Muslims should actively participate in the societies where they live in order to influence and shape it, socially, politically and religiously. Getting educated is the key to succeed in this. Second: Obligation. Muslims must adhere to the laws of the land they inhabit.

This turned out to be a message that not only appealed to European Muslims, but equally much to non-Muslim politicians, media, and intellectuals. Many people came to see in Ramadan the man that could modernize Islam, the reformist that could teach 2nd and 3rd generation Europeans Muslims how to practice Islam in a secular society. Optimism hit a peak in the year 2000 when Time Magazine nominated Ramadan as being one of six Muslims, globally, with the potential to bring about modern reforms of Islam. That was previous to the crucial evening of November 20’th 2003.

It was Saturday on prime-time TV. Tariq Ramadan was scheduled to face France’s interior secretary, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a live, public debate over issues of integration. Media had announced this duel well in advance, warming up the public for a clinch between two exceptionally distinguished rhetoricians. In this run-up, a few forlorn voices dared air doubt with respect to Ramadan’s credibility. Ramadan was an Islamist in sheep’s clothing, some contended, an amiable avatar of his legendary grandfather. But the large majority of commentators found these accusations abominable – who stands accountable for one’s forefathers? And very few wished to put any emphasis on the well-known fact that Ramadan’s brother, Professor Hani Ramadan, had written articles arguing for stoning as a justifiable punishment for adultery – who is his brother’s keeper?

But Sarkozy had taken notice of this: His voice rumbling through millions of TV-sets: “Monsieur Ramadan, your brother has defended, explained, and found good reasons in support of stoning female adulterers. This thing, stoning a woman, is that something monstrous or not?”

Three times, and with increasing agitation, Sarkozy poses this same question. And three times viewers of “France 2” observe Ramadan refusing to condemn the practice of death penalty by stoning. What we got to hear him say, is that he would take argument for a moratorium on Islam’s penal law. Moratorium is a precise judicial term meaning a temporary amnesty, an amnesty which is valid for some time and thereafter lifted. One word: Moratorium. This word represents a turning point in the public perception on Tariq Ramadan.

The commentators’ moral damnations subsequent to the TV program were as unanimous as they were haughty. As if self-evident a fact, Ramadan was now depicted as a public enemy. Ramadan insistently argued that he had been misunderstood, but to little effect. Even though repeatedly declaring Islam’s penal law non-applicable under present conditions, he has always held open the possibility that it would be applicable in a truly Islamic society.

Already long before the bataille royale with Sarkozy and the infamous moratorium, several critical publications on Ramadan were in circulation. Intelligence reports documented Ramadan’s having connections to Islamic leaders involved in terror activities, and intimate relations between Ramadan and the European network of the Muslim Brotherhood. He had also been blamed for emitting anti-Jewish attitudes, and on BBC HardTalk he refused to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers. Above all, several intellectuals had accused him of systematic double talk; one message being preached to the flock of the faithful, another to the infidel. Until the TV-duel with Sarkozy, all this was little known to the public. That was now turned upside-down. 

The years 2004/05 saw several critical publications on Ramadan, and Ramadan himself issued a full book to answer their accusations. Quite notably the French journalist Caroline Fourest published a carefully researched work, Frère Tariq(*), constituting what may be considered a knock-down blow to Ramadan’s appearance as modernizing reformer. The Swiss weekly, L’Hebdo, similarly ran a sharply critical op. ed. and cover story on Ramadan (no44, 2004.10) in which the Swiss, famous for their phlegmatic temper, got to encounter a cover page with a picture of Ramadan enveloped in flames under the headline “Ought we burn Tariq Ramadan?”. It also made quite an impression that the well-known Swiss news-anchor, the Muslim woman Myret Zaki, stepped forward with an incisive reprimand: “Ramadan pressures young women to wear hijab, obstructs integration, and preaches an outdated and ritualistic understanding of religion”, she claimed.

Parallel with all this, Ramadan was shaken privately. He was denied entry into the United States where he was supposed to assume a professoriate at the Notre Dame University, (as he had already long been denied entry into France), and speculations are high on why he did not resume his old job at the University of Freiburg after that. While these episodes are veiled in secrecy, I got to interview a professor at the University of Freiburg who has worked in close association with Ramadan. Under promise of anonymity(**) he says that: “The basic problem is double discourse. Ramadan uses democratic means to prepare for the implementation of a theocracy, but he refuses to come out and admit that openly. I believe it boils down to his employing kitman, the artful deception of the infidel. Dialogue is based on mutual respect, but how to dialogue with one who practices kitman?”

Double discourse turns up as a focal-point of very much of the intellectual, scholarly critique of Ramadan. Here is what I consider a telling example: Being interviewed for the previously mentioned edition of L’Hebdo, Ramadan was asked if it is possible to practice Islam solely within the private sphere. Here is Ramadan’s exact answer: ”But I live my faith totally privately. Far from it that I am of the kind that would like to see Islam visible all over.” This exclamation stands out as something of a fly-in-the-face contradiction to just about everything Ramadan communicates in his written works. In this regard, I would especially direct the reader’s attention to one of Ramadan’s early books, Towards the Sources of Islamic renewal – From al-Afgani to Hassan al-Banna, a century of Islamic reform(***), which pretty much takes the form of an ode to his grandfather and a definite canon of radical Islamist thinkers, embracing al-Banna’s famous punch line that: “Islam’s rules encompasses all aspects of life … for Islam is belief and worship, country and nation, religion and state, spirituality and action, Quran and sword”. I think this is where one hits the stumbling block of Ramadan’s discourse. 

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*    Frère Tariq – discours, stratégie et méthode de Tariq Ramadan, Grasset, Paris 2004.

** I admit that quoting anonymous sources is sub-optimal, but it is a sad fact that many people are reluctant to air public critique of Muslim Brotherhood associates these days. However, in the case of legal proceedings, I do have documentation of the interview.

*** This book exists in French only: Aux sources du renoveau musulman – D’al-Afgani à Hassan al-Banna, un siècle de réformisme islamique, Bayard Éditions/Centurion, Paris 1998.