Tariq Ramadan’s Arab Winter
October 3, 2012
OVER THE PAST decade, Tariq Ramadan has emerged as one of the most influential “anti-imperialist” Islamic intellectuals in the West. At the heart of Ramadan’s critique is the idea that, while Western powers no longer directly govern their former colonies, “ideological imperialism” continues. In this theory, feminism, liberal democracy, and especially secularism are all distinctly Western and often tied to Christianity. Therefore, these concepts are not universally good, and one should not expect other, non-Western societies to aspire to them. Arabs and Muslims, as Ramadan suggests, should instead rely on “their own history” and “their values.”
The Arab Spring, however, has put Ramadan in a sticky spot. These protests were led, at least initially, by young liberals and leftists whose ideas Ramadan considers to be at best inauthentic, and at worst remnants of Western imperialism. Those brave young activists were decidedly secular. Some raised the banner of liberalism and even, dare we say it, feminism. What was a good post-colonial theorist to do? Does one stand with the revolution and undermine the view that these ideas are a form of “ideological imperialism”? Or does one reject the revolutionaries as pawns in a great Western conspiracy? Neither of these options appealed to Ramadan. The first undermines the analytical framework upon which his entire career rests, and the second puts him on the same side as the dictators he despises.
Ramadan’s new book is his attempt to wiggle out of this conundrum. With events still in flux, the book is obviously a rushed analysis designed to strike while the iron—and public interest—is hot, rather than a carefully considered study. In fact, the main text is only 144 pages; the remaining 65 pages of the book consist of 28 previously published and only loosely related articles written as the Arab Spring unfolded. One imagines that Ramadan included these articles not simply as filler, but because they demonstrate something important about his analysis. What they, along with the main text repeatedly reveal, however, is that the anti-imperial lens through which he sees the region consistently leads him astray.
RAMADAN IS THE SCION of an important Islamist family. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and is considered by many to be the father of modern Islamism. Ramadan’s parents were exiled from Egypt, and they raised him in Switzerland. Despite his lineage, the European environment in which he came of age led him to a more moderate understanding of Islam. His views on the relationship between Islam and the West, or the ability for Muslims to integrate with non-Muslims, are far less confrontational than those of his grandfather. Some have even championed Ramadan as one of Islam’s brightest reformers—a mantle that Ramadan has readily adopted in books such as Radical Reform.
Yet Ramadan has not completely given up the anti-Western animus of his Islamist forefathers, and he refuses to come to terms with his family’s deeply troubling history. His Western critics have assailed these shortcomings. Some of these critiques, such as Paul Berman’s lengthy essay in this magazine, have been thoughtful and challenging. Others have been laced with Islamophobia and ignorance. (In an incident emblematic of the Bush Administration’s overreactions during the war on terrorism, the United States denied Ramadan an entry visa and thus a faculty appointment at the University of Notre Dame. He has since taken a position at Oxford in the United Kingdom.) Though rushed and in many ways intellectually incomplete, Islam and the Arab Awakening provides another telling window into Ramadan’s ultimately simplistic worldview.
Though Ramadan probably did not intend them this way, the articles that he appends to Islam and the Arab Awakening showcase the evolution of his thought on the Arab Spring. Initially, he was excited and optimistic: “Tunisians, you are right to revolt.” And “All honor and praise to the people of Tunisia!” Yet these were the early days of the revolutions, before he realized that they would not take the anti-Western tone he had imagined. The protesters somehow did not understand that to be authentic to “their own history” and “their values” they needed to reject secularism, equality for women, and friendly relations with Western governments.
When the revolutionaries indeed turned out to be secular, internet-savvy youth who did not hate the United States, Ramadan changed his tune. He later derides the Arab Spring’s “secularist intellectuals” and “secular elites.” These phrases, coming from his pen, drip with disdain. He also denounces the “internet culture” of the youth activists, calling it a “cult.” He then ties these young so-called Twitter revolutionaries to an American-led imperialist plot to control the Arab World. “In point of fact,” he warns, “Google, Twitter and Yahoo were directly involved in training and disseminating information on the Web promoting pro-democracy activism.” Why is this worrisome? Because “Google’s position throughout the uprisings has been virtually identical to that of the US government or of NATO.” This forces him to ask, “Are the most prominent activists truly apolitical young people?” And “What has been the extent of financial support from the governments and private transnational corporations that control large swaths of internet activity?” He has no answers to these questions; like any decent peddler of conspiracy, he is just asking. Remarkably, as Ramadan traveled throughout the Middle East in the wake of the uprisings, he was somehow surprised when youth activists and revolutionaries who had risked their lives standing up to dictators, “strongly rejected” his theory that they were pawns of Western imperial designs.
Ramadan’s problematic views are also evident in the book’s sloppy analysis and inconsistencies. “Arguments that the [Muslim Brotherhood] has been repeating for fifty years” offer “nothing new,” he asserts when he wants to prove the Brotherhood has been intellectually stagnant. Yet six pages later, he insists that the Brotherhood “has undergone substantial development over questions like democracy, women, political pluralism and the role of civil society.” So which is it? Has the Brotherhood evolved, or hasn’t it?
Similar problems become evident as he struggles with the West’s role in the region. On one hand, he wishes to argue that a deep-seated Islamophobia is at the root of Western policy toward the Muslim world. Yet, he has trouble reconciling this with U.S. support for the conservative Islamic regime in Saudi Arabia or support for revolutions that eventually brought Islamists to power. His beliefs awkwardly confront the facts, leading to more inconsistencies. At one point he insists that Western governments prefer “to support despots … than deal with Islamists of whatever stripe.” But on the very next page, we learn that Western governments have “no problem with political Islam” and that “Western governments’ best friends are those who best serve their interests,” no matter whether they are “dictators or Islamists.” In this example and many others, Ramadan has considerable trouble coherently explaining Western actions.
Ramadan’s insistence that Western, and especially American, foreign policy, is nothing more than a nefarious game of greed, power, and interests is the heart of his problematic analysis. Unfortunately, some of Ramadan’s cynicism contains more truth than many in the United States would like to acknowledge. The hubris and the naïveté that led to the invasion of Iraq are impossible to deny. At times, the United States has made costly mistakes and even worse, carried out indefensible policies. When the United States tortured prisoners, it was not a rogue element, or some untrained private carrying out a random act; water-boarding was a policy that came from the highest echelons of the American government.
Yet Ramadan focuses almost exclusively on these American shortcomings, reducing the entirety of American foreign policy to a string of human rights violations and the pursuit of power. Surely even the most sophomoric analysis of American policy must recognize that it vacillates between two often contradictory drives: American interests (e.g., security and power), and American values (e.g., democracy and human rights). One simply cannot explain American actions by relying solely on one motivation or the other. Yet, this is precisely what Ramadan attempts to do.
One might expect that Western actions during the Arab Spring would give him pause. After all, the United States supported the ouster of its ally Mubarak, and helped to overthrow a cooperative Qaddafi regime, while not intervening militarily against its longtime adversary in Syria. Ramadan ignores these contradictions and, without giving any serious thought as to how to explain them, simply asserts, “The uneven response to the Arab uprisings by the U.S. and European governments indicate that nothing has changed.” Why does the “uneven response” indicate that “nothing has changed”? If nothing had changed, shouldn’t the United States have continued to support pro-Western dictators such as Mubarak? Ramadan himself had argued that American strategy was to prop up despots in exchange for stability and power. So what happened? He refuses to grapple with this issue. Instead, he simply asserts nothing has changed, offers no explanation, and moves on. This is not serious analysis…