“I want to welcome you to the U.S.,” New Yorker writer George Packer told Professor Tariq Ramadan last night. Ramadan, wearing a suit and an open oxford shirt, had kicked off the evening by welcoming “the new we.” “Look around this room,” he said from a podium set up in front of his fellow panelists. “Muslims, non-Muslims, atheists, Christians, Jews.” Ramadan is a Swiss, Egyptian-born Muslim, and of his people, he argued: “We are not here in a host country. We are home, and Islam is a Western religion.” But the country now hosting him had, until recently, withheld its hospitality.
It’s Cooper Union Hall in Greenwich Village—Lincoln spoke here, but unfortunate pillars under Roman arches partially obstruct probably 75 percent of the viewpoints. Yet the seats are full of people who walked through metal detectors to see the 47-year-old man with the salt-and-pepper hair and the elegant, aristocratic mien. And he is an aristocrat, in an infamous way: His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Now he is a professor and activist, who wants to reform Islam, from within, so as to allow Western Muslims to stay true to the faith while fully participating in their socities. Under the Bush administration, the United States banned Ramadan from entry for the past six years; he once donated money to a charity which once donated money to Hamas. For the record (even if his harsher critics would say it’s only for the record), Ramadan has spoken out against violence and particularly anti-Semitism.
The three other panelists agreed that Ramadan should be allowed in the country. They also agreed that rectifying class disparity would go a significant way, particularly in Europe, toward easing Muslims’ disenchantment with the West. But beyond that lies line-drawing, and there they differed: over gender equality, over the stoning of women. They discussed Ramadan’s grandfather and his backing of the Nazi-supporting Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Ramadan supports his grandfather and the Mufti. It’s a bit more complicated than that, though, except maybe it’s not at all more complicated than that. A little of both. Really! You try to pin Ramadan down at your peril, and not at his.
The discussion was called, “Secularism, Islam, & Democracy,” but what it was really about was figuring out how far the West should go to accommodate its Muslim population (and how far it shouldn’t). Joining Ramadan were Dalia Mogahed, a prominent Gallup pollster whom Tablet Magazine Mideast columnist Lee Smith profiled this week; New Yorker writer George Packer, representing the New York liberal viewpoint that you could locate somewhere between Dissent and The New Republic; Professor Joan Wallach Scott, a feminist of a decidedly postmodern variety; and moderater Jacob Weisberg, Editor-in-Chief of The Slate Group. The crowd had lots of headdresses, but also lots of bare (and bald) heads. It was unusually subdued: polite applause, no heckling or jeering.
In his opening remarks, Ramadan speaks in an Arabic accent with a hint of British. He thanks a whole bunch of people and groups, concluding with “those who have read me, and don’t agree with me, but still say that the decision of the Bush administration was wrong.” I’ll drink to that.
“Now is not the time to speak about integration, but about contribution,” he argues. He quickly gets on a roll, speaking faster and faster. “They ask, ‘Are you first American, or first a Muslim?’ It’s a silly question. I don’t answer silly questions. I have multiple identities.” As a voter, he explains, he is Swiss; preparing to die, he is a Muslim; by origin, he is an Egyptian; by culture, he is a European. In yet another sense, in saying this, Ramadan feels quite American to me.
He concludes by articulating his brand of Islamic reform: “We have to come back to our texts, our sources. We may have to reassess our understanding in light of the new times.” In other words: Islam probably could use a degree of modernization. But it must come from within. Western imposition, even of allegedly “correct” morality, won’t work.
Why are American Muslims different from all other Muslims? Or, to ask the $64,000 question (as Weisberg, the moderator, essentially does): Why have British Muslims blown themselves up, French Muslims rioted, all sorts of Muslims been violent in response to the Danish cartoons … and yet from American Muslims, with exceedingly few exceptions, none of these things?
Mogahed’s answer has at least as much to do with peculiarities of class and background as with the superiority of the American Way. American Muslims likely came to the U.S. for education (as, Mogahed noted, her own parents did), while European Muslims likely are or are descended from migrant laborers. 35 percent of American Muslims are African-American—which is to say, not immigrants at all. Meanwhile, American Muslims are no less religious than their European counterparts. Mogahed’s analysis, in other words, is firmly class-based, disregarding the grand ideological points that most of the audience no doubt came to see grappled with. Of course, if we could solve whatever Muslim problem exists without recourse to grand ideology and religion, well, that would be a bargain.
Most of the evening’s sour notes, for me, came courtesy Professor Scott. She was clearly selected to be the feminist voice of the panel, and it would have been a very impoverished panel that didn’t have such a voice. But just as Ramadan is both Swiss and Egyptian, Scott is both feminist and postmodernist, and it turned out that, as with Mogahed, for her the issue was less one of gender or ideology than of class.
Which brings us to the moratorium on stoning. Several years back, on a television show in France (God bless the French for having these sorts of shows), the ambitious Interior Minister, one Nicolas Sarkozy, asked Ramadan if he would condemn the stoning of women; Ramadan responded by explaining that he wished for a moratorium on the practice until the question could be finally resolved within the Muslim community.
To his credit—in one sense, anyway—Ramadan sticks to that position last night. If you impose a ban on stoning, he argues, “Muslims won’t think they’re commanded by God, so you’re changing nothing.” A consensus ought to be reached after deliberation within the community; in the meantime, sure, go ahead, have a moratorium. Scott’s angry response is … “I think I would accept that. Not from a Western feminist perspective, but from a religious one.” She insists only that women play a role in that internal Muslim deliberation. For this Western non-Muslim observer, who really wants to be ecumenical and tolerant about a wide range of issues, but who simply can’t abide even a single crack in the door between stoning women being okay and stoning women being not okay, this is the night’s most distressing moment.
And the best moments come from George Packer, who volunteers himself as a mouthpiece for writer Paul Berman and his forthcoming book, Flight of the Intellectuals (Tablet Magazine has interviewed Berman on Ramadan). Packer applauds Ramadan for trashing anti-Semitism in front of Western and Arabic Muslim audiences alike. He credits Ramadan with wanting to be a bridge-builder between Western Muslims and the rest of Western society. “But I’m worried about the foundation on which you’re building this bridge,” he adds.
That foundation—which Berman purports to painstakingly show in his forthcoming book (and in a related New Republic article)—is, according to Packer, Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna. Packer’s case against Ramadan’s support for al-Banna has especially to do with al-Banna’s alliance, indeed his “tireless war of solidarity,” with the notorious World War II-era Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who, broadcasting from Germany, incited Muslims to kill Jews in their countries (Packer compares it to “Hutu Power” broadcasts during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda). Al-Banna himself cited Mussolini and Hitler as inspirations for the Brotherhood, according to Packer.
“Is there a limit to what you’re willing to say or to think?” Packer asks, in the evening’s most dramatic moment. “Is there a red line? I’m not associating you with his views, or asking you to repudiate your grandfather. But why haven’t you condemned him?”
As with the stoning of women, the out, for Ramadan, is the context. Al-Banna allied himself with the Grand Mufti mostly over the question of Palestine, and with his anti-Zionist answer: an answer which Ramadan believes was, at the time, the correct one. “Anything supporting Nazis, or killing Jews, I am condemning,” Ramadan clarifies.
Granting Ramadan’s point about the limited way in which al-Banna allegedly supported the Mufti, Packer presses on: “Don’t you think that, even to support the Mufti for that reason, after five years of his genocidal support—doesn’t that taint the Muslim Brotherhood?”
“No,” Ramadan replies.
So that’s Ramadan’s red line. But the real red line is not what Tariq Ramadan will and won’t criticize. Ramadan is an important man, but he’s only one man. The real red line is where secular Western societies will tolerate practices rooted in Muslim religion and culture that are “non-Western,” and maybe even abhorrent. The real red line will be drawn so that Western Muslims remain active, tolerant, and productive members of society, and refrain from succumbing to radical distortions of their faith and attacking their societies from within; but also so that the West remains true to its values.
Give minorities more opportunity, and generally promote socio-economic equality? That’s a no-brainer. Permit Muslims to build minarets? Of course—the Swiss voters are wrong, hugely wrong, to disagree. Allow Tariq Ramadan to enter America? How can you not—this is a free country. Leave open the possibility that a Muslim religious court could decide that, under limited circumstances, the stoning of women for certain crimes is just? To countenance other forms of atrocious gender discrimination within communities in London? Or in Brooklyn? I think Ramadan could have something to offer, but let’s please not buy the whole store.
Secularism, Islam, & Democracy: Muslims in Europe and the West [PEN]
At Last Allowed, Muslim Scholar Visits [NYT]
Respectfully Yours [Tablet Magazine]
Intellectual Jihad [Tablet Magazine]