Trouble in the hood

Ever since the first stirrings of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, one London-based, Oxford University-affiliated Muslim academic has been a fixture in television studios and lecture halls in Europe and North America. Swiss-born, ultra-smooth, with his salt-and-pepper beard neatly trimmed, Tariq Ramadan draws thousands of Muslims to meetings when he travels in the Arab world, though he's banned from six states in the region, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Yet mention Ramadan's name in neo-conservative, Islamosceptic circles and the abuse will pour forth, partly because his maternal grandfather was Hassan al-Banna. He was the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and nothing his grandson says dissuades critics from assuming his loyalties lie there. Ramadan, in turn, accuses those critics of assuming "I think with my blood".

Ramadan has been called a "Muslim Martin Luther", a label which has since been appropriated by Ramadan's enemies, to be used ironically to highlight the supposed vacuity of his supporters and those who take at face value the Brotherhood's claims to moderation.

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor, is in the latter category, having called the MB in Egypt "conservative and non-violent", which might seem at odds with its formal slogan: "Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Koran is our law; jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

We meet in the Grand Champagne Bar at St Pancras station, sipping tea among bankers who are necking glasses of fizz while waiting for an evening Eurostar.

Ramadan, an observant Muslim who says he prays five times a day, has found an hour before boarding a train for an evening lecture at Cambridge. The night before he had performed at an Intelligence Squared debate in London.

As we talked on Wednesday, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and the rulers of Bahrain were temporarily united in their frantic efforts to suppress the revolutionary contagion sweeping the region.

Ramadan's father was also a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, so the family was exiled by Egypt's President Nasser to Switzerland, where Tariq was born in 1962. He is married to a Swiss-French Muslim convert. He flatly dismisses the notion that the students and professional people of Cairo are dupes for the Muslim Brotherhood.

"This is not an Islamic revolution," he says firmly. "Look, how many anti-Israel or anti-Western slogans have you seen? This has taken the regimes totally by surprise." He believes that apart from some underlying economic resentments, the protests still raging across the region really show that "Arabs want exactly what you want - which is freedom, from tyranny and repression."

Ramadan believes that Western governments have indulged corrupt tyrants such as Hosni Mubarak and the leaders of the Gulf states for selfish economic reasons and misplaced assumptions about security.

"How many years was the West silent? The dictators say it is rule by us or by radical Islamists, and the West says we prefer the security with you to instability with them. So here we are."

To be fair to Ramadan, as many of his opponents tend not to be, if he has been reluctant to condemn Islam, he has been consistent in his opposition to the corrupt regimes of the Middle East.

He also has a barely disguised contempt for Tony Blair, who he says is discredited in Arab eyes and has no influence as special envoy of the Quartet group - made up of the United Nations, the US, the EU and Russia, it is involved in mediating in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process - and not just because he followed George W Bush into the "illegal" invasion of Iraq.

"All the Arabs heard him say during the first days of protest that Mubarak was a good thing. Then, afterwards, Blair was praising the courage of the Egyptians - are you kidding? Who is going to trust you, and then you say you are going to be the man to help the peace process in the Middle East."

He is equally scathing of David Cameron's response and the timing of his speech about multiculturalism just as the Arab street was getting into a ferment.

"At the time we have these protests, Cameron is talking about Muslims isolating themselves. I am not saying he is wrong about the dangers of segregation but we have to change our glasses here."

Cameron's muted response, he says, has reflected a huge lack of imagination at a time of hope and renewal in the Arab world.

"Why don't we speak the language of the people in the Muslim majority countries and say, this is what they want. But no, we are spreading suspicion to people here by not trusting what the people there want."

If he is clear about condemning the political leadership here, he is calculatedly opaque in talking about Islam. He says he is not a segregationist and disapproves of faith and Muslim schools, having educated his four children in ordinary London state schools.

He is a Leftist who was drawn to liberation theology in South America and lectures in slightly self-parodic terms about the iniquities of the global economic order. For some years he was barred from the United States for giving $900 to charities that were subsequently branded Hamas front organizations.

Seven years ago, he was challenged on French television by Nicolas Sarkozy to condemn the stoning of women adulterers under a section of the Islamic penal code, but declined to do so.

I had no better luck in the champagne bar when he said rather than condemn, he would prefer to open a dialogue with Muslim scholars about the validity of stoning.

"Why can't you just unequivocally condemn something that is self-evidently barbaric?" I asked.

He replied: "Because I can say that for me it is not implementable. The difference between you and me is that you only think with your mind. From an Islamic viewpoint, these are rules that you find in the texts.

"So I can please you by saying, I want this to stop. But to condemn this is not going to change anything. It means for you to take two minutes to get intellectual empathy, you come in my shoes, I am talking to Muslims now. The point is not to condemn but to change things."

I sensed in his refusal to budge, and in his resort to the peculiar word "implementable", a desire not to give a Westerner - me, or, for that matter, Sarkozy - some sort of assumed satisfaction in hearing a Muslim question Islamic teaching. I asked him if he believed the Koran could not be wrong on any count.

"What is in the Koran cannot be wrong for Muslims, for this is the very word of God. What is wrong is the way the Muslims are reading it the problem is the reader, not the text."

Even people on the Left who are sympathetic to Ramadan's world view express exasperation at his ultra-nuanced positions. It is not hard to see why he has been accused of camouflaging his Islamist agenda under the niqab of ambivalent doublespeak.

As we met, news of the terrible assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan by an Egyptian mob was breaking. Perhaps the benign attitude the Western media had taken to the people's uprisings was misplaced after all.

Ramadan had not heard the news but said such activities were "unrepresentative" of the protests as a whole, but "are to be condemned".

His response was technically correct, yet somehow insufficient and chilly. And with that, he was off to Cambridge for the next audience of eager undergraduates.

Source: London Evening Standard - Stephen Robinson

  Category: Europe, World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan
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