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Tariq Ramadan’s Arab Winter

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.

More problematic is that, in his attempt to fit history into a preconceived anti-imperialist framework, his arguments often drift into crude conspiracies. When discussing Bin Laden’s death, for example, he states that “the plan for a media coup scrupulously drawn up by [Obama’s] team was activated at a time when the U.S. administration was encountering serious problems at home.” He then continues, “The operation was carefully timed: the symbol of terrorism was executed and his death announced at the very time that the United States had thrown its support behind the non-violent mass protests in progress across the Middle East.” Ramadan appears to believe that the U.S. could have killed Bin Laden long ago, but instead chose to keep him alive until he was no longer a useful enemy. What is his evidence for this potentially damning accusation? He offers none at all.

In another instance, Ramadan discusses the American announcement that Mubarak would step down. When Mubarak declared that he was determined to remain in power, Ramadan ignores the obvious conclusion that the United States and Mubarak disagreed, and instead asks if this was a “cleverly staged exposure of apparent American ignorance of the facts, proving that the United States was not pulling the strings?” Again, he has no evidence to support this inflammatory and illogical theory. And then there is the catch-all conspiracy theory employed whenever one has difficulty explaining complicated global events: the Zionists must have been pulling the strings. Of course, he gives the usual unsubstantiated assertions about the Iraq War: “Driven by Israel and its American lobbies” Ramadan informs us, “the Bush administration was ready to launch a war and to kill again.” 

Ramadan then expands such insightful analysis to explain the Arab Spring as well. Why did France support the Libyan rebels? In addition to oil, and good old-fashioned imperial skullduggery, Ramadan confirms that “Israel looked benevolently upon Ghaddafi’s ouster.” How does he know that Israel was behind the decision? Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French Jew and a supporter of Israel, also advocated deposing Qaddafi: that is how. The difference between correlation and causation never enters his mind. Then, when having difficulty explaining the West’s failure to act against its nemesis Syria, he concludes that “indications are that the Syrian regime plays the role of useful regional enemy for Israel.” Moving on to Bahrain, Ramadan argues that among the reasons the West did not support the uprising of the majority Shiite population against its minority Sunni rulers was an innate “Shiite resistance to Israel’s policies.”

The issue of Israel does more than highlight gaps in Ramadan’s strategic thinking. It also exposes the absence in his thinking of any commitment to democracy and non-violence. He argues that Prime Minister Netanyahu and “his racist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman” should be “overthrown” just like the Arab dictators. Not voted out—an outcome that liberal Israelis support—but “overthrown.” In democracies, Ramadan does not seem to comprehend, leaders are voted in and out of office.  

Then, when discussing Palestinian resistance, he flirts with support for terrorism. He asks rhetorically, “What if non-violent resistance does not work?” His answer: “There is only one right decision in history and that is to resist oppression and colonization.” And then he carefully asserts that “the Palestinians know better than anyone else what means are at their disposal.” This dog-whistle is about as close as one can come to supporting the murder of Jewish civilians in the Jewish state without actually articulating it.

Ramadan’s “commitment” to non-violence is expressed in his enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood: “From its inception, the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood was non-violent.” This is simply not true. The Brotherhood may be non-violent now, but that was not the case in its early years, when it assassinated Egyptian officials, reportedly including a prime minister. To get around these inconvenient facts, Ramadan dismisses those who carried out the assassinations as not representative of the Brotherhood in general.

But there are deeper problems. As Ramadan himself admits in the following paragraph, the Brotherhood’s early slogans invoked “jihad as resistance” and “martyrdom as the supreme ambition.” He also acknowledges that Hassan al-Banna “set up a ‘special organization’ with the twofold objective of responding to state repression … and taking part in the resistance alongside the Palestinians.” He claims, in extenuation, that these beliefs and actions “must be understood in the context of the anti-colonial struggle.” Putting aside the fact that the Brotherhood’s violence was not simply “anti-colonial,” Ramadan does not seem to comprehend that an anti-colonial context does not transform fire-bombings and assassinations into “non-violent” acts.

RAMADAN’S CONTORTED ARGUMENTS and anti-imperialist platitudes are unfortunate not only because they lead to faulty analysis, but also because they sometimes obscure important ideas that are worthy of debate. If one could identify a core argument in the midst of his scattered and contradictory thoughts, it would be that secularism, as a term, has become too contentious to be helpful. He prefers the concept of a “civil state”—the need for which, he believes, both Islamists and liberals can accept. He also argues, correctly, that the justifications for key liberal principles—such as the separation of divine and temporal authority, the empowerment of women, and tolerance for minorities—can be found in the Islamic tradition. Thus, he contends that by avoiding the tainted term “secular” and instead employing “civil state,” liberals and Islamists could find common ground.

This is an interesting argument. Much of the Arab world associates secularism with non-belief and irreligiousness, and so avoiding the term, while ensuring that all citizens have an equal right to participate in the public and political spheres, might open minds to the possibility of secular governance. Yet Ramadan’s idea is incomplete. Employing the term “civil state,” instead of “secular state” or “Islamic state,” masks the real issues. One may, for example, convince liberals and Islamists to agree to a civil state, but they still would not agree whether a Christian could head such as state. Ramadan’s use of the term “civil state” is an attempt to avoid such necessary confrontations. Indeed, he labels debates over secularism “pointless, counterproductive and empty.” 

Yet Ramadan’s own analysis highlights the need to address these issues head-on. In his attempt to find common ground with the Islamists, he never explicitly calls for equality between men and women. Instead, he argues for women to be “educated and empowered.” The vital word, “equal,” is conspicuously missing. For Arab women, and indeed for Arab society as a whole, this is an exceedingly dangerous tactic.

His desire for Islamic “authenticity” also implicitly excludes Arab Christians and other religious minorities from having an equal voice. Non-Muslims would be at an obvious disadvantage if they needed to justify their politics in Islamic terms. To be truly equal they require a neutral, secular state, but Ramadan’s theorizing denies them this. In that regard, his views on Edward Said are telling. One might assume that Ramadan’s anti-imperialist outlook would endear him to Said, another anti-imperialist, Arab intellectual. Yet Said was an Arab Christian and thus insisted that critiques of imperialism “never be rooted in religious substrate.” For Ramadan, this is unacceptable. He insists that Said’s critique is inadequate because it is based on a secular rather than an authentically Islamic foundation. In doing so, Ramadan argues that Said employs Western (or even imperialist) categories to conceptualize non-Western peoples. Ramadan’s argument, however, implicitly excludes Said as well as other Christians or atheists from the debate.                

A secular state is required to ensure that all citizens, regardless of sex or religion, have an equal voice. If, as Ramadan avers, the term secular has become too contentious, then by all means, replace it with a less polarizing term such as civil state. But this civil state must remain a neutral space for all citizens, and thus not contain a religious litmus test. It also should not be a slight of hand used to deny equal rights to certain segments of the population. In Ramadan’s construction, this is precisely what occurs.  

These issues are even more important now. The Arab Spring not only overturned decades-long authoritarian regimes, but also upended debates over the nature of Arab politics. Islamists have formed governments in Tunisia and Egypt, but in both states the revolutionary youth have emerged as a secular, and to some extent, liberal opposition. Now that the dictators are gone, it is no longer possible to excuse Islamist ideas and actions as resistance to tyranny. The Islamists are in power. The opposition will require support and solidarity if it is to preserve the secular state as well as defend the rights of religious minorities and women.  

Ramadan may not like it, but eventually he will need to choose. He can either side with the Islamist governments, who want to restrict these rights, or with the secular opposition fighting for them. Unfortunately, in this book he refuses to come to terms with these important issues. He hopes, instead, to wish away critical debates or obfuscate them with conspiratorial arguments. That simply does not suffice. Young Arabs and Muslims fought and died in hope of a better future. They refused to view their struggle as inauthentic or a form of “ideological imperialism”; and neither should we.

Samuel Helfont is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.