SHAFAQNA – The academic believes Islam and the west shouldn’t be at odds, but was banned from the US and slated in the Sun. Isis hates him, too – so why is he still dogged by controversy?
ariq Ramadan knows all about travel bans. After all, he was never meant to end up here, in a pebbledash semi in north-west London. In 2004, he was on his way to the US, having been offered the role of professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. Suddenly, nine days before his flight, a house already rented, kids enrolled in school, his visa was revoked.
The reasons given were vague at first, but eventually came down to the fact he supported a charity the Bush administration labelled a fundraiser for Hamas. They argued Ramadan should have known about the links. How could he, he said, when the donations were made before the blacklisting – in other words, before the US government itself knew? He believes, instead, that he was singled out for his opposition to the war in Iraq.
In 2010, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, revoked the revocation, but by that time, Ramadan had been embraced by St Antony’s College, Oxford. Ramadan has no regrets. “I’m very happy that they prevented me from going. I’m much better off here,” he says, in gently accented English (he grew up in Geneva, speaking French and Arabic). Commuting to Oxford, he has made Metroland his home. In the States, he says, “I don’t think it’s a political atmosphere where you are free to speak. People are scared.”
It’s probably just as well he feels that way: the Trump administration won’t be rolling out the welcome mat. As well as its plans for a new executive order designed to prevent millions of Muslims from entering the country, it’s considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. That poses a problem for Ramadan, as it was his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, who founded the movement.
This family connection has given rise to a lot of innuendo over the years. Some of his detractors believe that Ramadan himself is a walking Brotherhood front: smooth-talking, but with a forked tongue. His calls for peace and dialogue apparently mask a secret agenda to Islamise Europe. I can’t find any reason to disbelieve Ramadan when he says he’s not a member of the organisation. He has been open in books and talks about his approach – to remain faithful to the tenets of Islam, but resolutely to participate in western society – and it seems unnecessary to invoke a shadowy puppet-master.
“I’m the grandson of Hassan al-Banna and this is fact,” he says. “I have been quite critical of the organisation. With the last book that I wrote about the Arab awakening, and even after 2011, I was very critical. Now to be critical … is [one thing]. To reduce them to something which is violent extremism, and to acknowledge and to accept the rhetoric of [Egyptian president] Sisi and before him Mubarak: that’s not going to help any country. Because these people, you challenge them with democracy and with arguments, not with repression and torture.”
Ramadan believes that terrorist designation would set a terrible precedent. “Listening now … to dictators list who are the terrorists … that’s going to be very, very bad for the future of the Middle East.”
Is this the most troubling moment for the Muslim world since 9/11? Not only do we have Donald Trump, but in France, where Ramadan has an office and spends much of his time, more than one in four voters back Marine Le Pen. How worried is he?
“You know, the last election … when Hollande won, I said he physically won the election, but politically, the far-right party, Front National, won. Because its rhetoric was everywhere. They are winning the game.” If it’s Le Pen, he explains, “it’s going to be worse, but it’s already very bad. Of course we have to resist her party, but the most important thing is the normalisation of her rhetoric in the Socialist party and [among] the Republicans.”
Ramadan is optimistic, however, because he says national politics matter less than what goes on in communities. There, he has written, Muslims can “rise to the occasion”, meeting the challenges posed by a climate of fear by taking an unflinching look at themselves, while engaging to make society, as a whole, more just.
Is this the “Muslim reformation” that everyone from Bill Maher to the likes of the now ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn believes is necessary? “We shouldn’t export terminology. Islam doesn’t need a reformation, but Muslims need to reform their minds, their interpretations of Islam, which is not exactly the same as what you [went] through because we don’t have a church.”
Ramadan’s latest book, called Islam: The Essentials, is an attempt to set out just how this change of mind needs to come about. It’s billed as “a Pelican introduction” to the religion, but those seeking a For Dummies-style guide will be disappointed. It’s written in Ramadan’s trademark stately prose (he is both more energising and more succinct as a speaker), and gets deep into the weeds of what it means to be a Muslim in the age of globalisation. That said, an appendix, Ten Things You Thought You Knew About Islam, offers a punchy recap of his thoughts on key issues, including sharia, jihad and dress codes. Ramadan explains that Sharia is a guide to ethics, not simply a legal code. Corporal and capital punishments are the result of a “brutal and literalist” application of it and should be suspended. His approach to gay people seems to be love the sinner, hate the sin – a conservative one in the context of very recent progress in the west, but hardly incompatible with life here, as millions of traditional Christians demonstrate. Islam considers modest dress for men and women an obligation, although not an essential one.
Ramadan wants Muslims, particularly western ones, to think of themselves as absolutely part of modern society, and to push it in the direction of human rights and equality of opportunity. He is clearly frustrated by the reduction of his faith into questions of hijab or homosexuality by non-Muslims. (He points out that Islam’s role as the puritan foil to a permissive west is relatively new. Until well after the Enlightenment, Muslim cultures were seen as threatening because of their libertinism and sensuality.)
Ramadan boils his prescription for western Muslims – and he is clear that Islam is now a western religion, too – down to four Ls: “Knowledge of the country’s language, respect for its laws, loyalty to its society and liberty for the citizens.” Out of context, those are phrases that many parties of the right in Europe would love to get in their election manifestos, and many on the left might want to but wouldn’t dare. And yet Ramadan still has credibility among Muslim grassroots: he is in high demand as a speaker, particularly to young people, and not just on the liberal fringe. How does he do it?
What he projects is the sense of being nobody’s stooge. He speaks truth to power, whether that’s in the corrupt, conservative Middle East, or the belligerent west. It wasn’t just the US, and at one point, France, that refused him entry – he has also been banned from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other Muslim-majority countries. He says he was named, recently, in two Islamic State videos, as being “more dangerous towards Islam than the non-Muslims”. The threat was considered big enough for him to be offered protection by the British government, but he turned it down, thinking it would be too disruptive.
So why does he continue to be attacked as a threat to liberal values, even our safety? There’s no shortage of unflattering material out there about him. One of the more outlandish examples is a front-page story that appeared in the Sun on 12 July 2005, less than a week after the bombings that killed 52 people in London. It branded him an Islamic militant, who had come to preach (he is not a cleric). A leader in the same paper called him an extremist who “backs suicide bombings”. It went on to describe him as a “a soft-spoken professor whose moderate tones present an acceptable, ‘reasonable’ face of terror to impressionable young Muslims.” A pungent Richard Littlejohn column was thrown in for good measure.
The Sun articles read as though completely divorced from reality, and the febrile post-7/7 atmosphere offers no excuse. Ramadan is unhappy when I bring them up – I don’t blame him – but they form part of a pattern of reaction to him that seems important.
In a 2003 TV clash with Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on corporal and capital punishment across the Muslim world was wilfully misconstrued as support for the stoning of women. Rotterdam city council, which employed Ramadan as a community adviser, had 54 tapes of talks he had given in Arabic translated after allegations of homophobia and misogyny surfaced. They declared the reports to be inaccurate, but later fired him anyway for hosting a show on Iran’s regime-funded Press TV. In her book Frère Tariq – Brother Tariq – French journalist Caroline Fourest laid out a charge sheet against him that included a visceral loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood and use of double discourse to fool non-Muslim audiences. Last year, the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, said Ramadan was not welcome in the city, claiming his position on issues such as secularism, men and women and equality was ambiguous.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this kind of controversy is the fate of any Muslim public intellectual who attempts to grapple with the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. Ramadan gives as good as he gets, though. He took the US to court over his visa, and did the same with Rotterdam. He gave an interview to the Sun to “rectify” their account of him, and sued another journalist who accused him of doublespeak.
This instinct to strike back doesn’t always help his case. Despite his very clear and repeated denunciations of antisemitism as un-Islamic, it’s a charge that has nevertheless been levelled at him. The reason? An article he wrote in 2003 accusing certain Jewish public figures (and non-Jewish ones, he says now, admitting that this point was not made clear in the original) of “communitarianism” for failing to denounce Israeli human rights abuses.
In it, he wrote that if Muslim intellectuals are expected to condemn the acts of the Saudi regime and terrorism or violence in Pakistan, Jewish ones should do the same when it comes to Israel. He tells me he doesn’t regret writing the piece, even after all the trouble it has caused (Sarkozy brought it up during their row). I put it to him that it’s unfair to expect anyone to bear responsibility for the policies of a government they didn’t elect, starting with Muslims, and that two wrongs don’t make a right. “I disagree with you,” he says. “Because I think there is a moral obligation. I really think that as a Muslim, when I see things that are done in my name, as in Saudi Arabia, I have to speak out. I’m not responsible, but I have to speak out. And I think that … some of the Jewish people in France are speaking out, and saying: not in my name. And I think that is a moral duty.”
Ramadan’s attempts to find a place for Islamic orthodoxy in the secular west has seen him “constantly doing the splits”, according to one reviewer. He’s quick to respond: “It’s in your mind, it’s not my reality.” But I wonder whether, as for many ordinary Muslims, that sense of a faultline is most acute where the generations meet. He has four children between the ages of 15 and 30, two girls and two boys. Are they serious about their faith, like him? “To my knowledge, yes,” he laughs. “Yes, I think that they are practising Muslims.” Would they tell him if they weren’t?
“No, I’m not sure that they would tell me everything about that. And I don’t think that they have to. I think it’s their life.”
There have been problems, tensions, yes. “What I got from them is the difficulty to be consistent, but stories about the way it was difficult, they didn’t tell me,” he smiles again.
It strikes me that Ramadan’s essential quality is consistency. He states his positions often and clearly, and they rarely change. Perhaps that is why he has infuriated so many people, in Muslim-majority countries, in Europe and the US. “There’s a type of Muslim,” he tells me, “that we only listen to when they are saying what we want them to say. I’m not this type of guy. I’m not going to repeat what you want me to say. I take the Qur’an seriously, I take the texts seriously, I want to be faithful to my tradition and face up to the challenges of my time. This is difficult.”