Contemporary Islamist

In Islam and the Arab Awakening, Tariq Ramadan explores the uprisings and gauges opportunities and challenges in creating open societies in the region

Following the September 11 attacks, Tariq Ramadan appointed himself as the spokesman for Europe’s Muslims. Liberal establishments on either side of the Atlantic turned to the Swiss-born writer and preacher to hear preachings about Islam’s peaceful intentions. Tariq Ramadan is widely accepted as one of the most acclaimed figures in the analysis of contemporary Islam and its political dimensions. He is hailed in The New York Times for his “reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam,” which “offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment.” In Islam and the Arab Awakening he explores the opportunities and challenges across North Africa and the Middle East, as they look to create new, more open societies.

He asks: Can Muslim countries bring together Islam, pluralism and democracy without betraying their identity? Will the Arab world be able to reclaim its memory to reinvent education, women’s rights, social justice, economic growth and the fight against corruption? Can this emancipation be envisioned with Islam, experienced not as a straitjacket, but as an ethical and cultural wealth? Ramadan, a professor at Oxford, offers a ‘reformist’ Islamism, one that proposes to respect democracy, women’s rights and the rule of law.

Ramadan’s doctrine is a derivative of the work of his grandfather, Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Consequently, it might be thought that he would have supported the coming to power of the Brotherhood’s leader Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and the rise of numerous Brotherhood-affiliated groups throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Quite the opposite! In ...The Arab Awakening, the 2010 and 2011 revolts in the Arab world unnerved the author, making him afraid that the Arabs would join the democratic sphere “at the price of deleting their religious beliefs and practices, their culture and even their history.” Ramadan’s views verge on those of on conspiracy, questioning whether the uprisings were staged or spontaneous.

Contrary to the opinion that outside powers were passive observers of events, he maintains that the Arab revolutionaries were merely marionettes being manipulated by cunning foreign puppeteers. Certainly the US and its allies helped to guide events by collaborating with the military hierarchies which removed presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, and by fullscale intervention in Libya – for a variety of obvious reasons. An agreement signed by Libya's NTC last year, for instance, guaranteed France three per cent of future oil exports.

According to Ramadan, the American government and “powerful American corporations” nurtured the young activists who triggered the Arab Spring as a way of “opening up Arab markets and integrating the region into the global economy.” Was it just a coincidence that Wael Ghonim, the technical executive who came to embody the Egyptian revolution for Western audiences, was, at age 30, “already Google's marketing director for the Middle East?” And what of the fact that young Arab activists used the clenched-fist symbol as their signature, a symbol that was also deployed during the American- supported overthrow of Serbian genocidist Slobodan Miloševic? Was it not ‘telling’ that the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy backed the Libyan uprising, “given the man's support for Israel and his access and missions to the highest levels of the Zionist state?” To frame the NATO intervention in Libya as an instance of Western imperialism, Ramadan is even willing to rehabilitate Moammar Gadhafi.

The Libyan dictator was apparently a relatively benign autocrat; his regime’s “horrors were deliberately exaggerated.” Al Jazeera was also apparently in on the conspiracy. The Qatari state-owned network’s reporting during the Arab Spring, the author thinks, “proved objectively useful to the American administration’s purposes.” By contrast, Ramadan doesn’t say a word about Press TV, the Tehran regime’s English language organ, which has been militating relentlessly in favour of Syria’s Bashar al Assad and infamously aired coerced confessions after Iran’s own 2009 uprising. (Ramadan currently hosts a show on the Iranian network, a fact that cost him a professorship at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University because the Dutch college couldn’t abide his links to such a “repressive regime.”) Whatever the origins of the uprisings, even Ramadan sees that something fundamental has happened in the Arab world and, in the second half of the book, he tries to lay out a vision of the Arab future.

Here are plenty of platitudes about “justice, equality, the empowerment of women, and the struggle against corruption and poverty,” ensuring “religious tolerance and democratic pluralism... recognition of equal rights for all citizens, acceptance of religious pluralism,” and so on. But he is short on the specifics of how the region can go about fulfilling these aspirations. Ramadan comes into his own as a historian and provoker of ideas. He notes how, in their Western representation, Muslim Arabs have shifted from the benighted, terrorist “other” to the “alter ego of the Western Universal.”

He is worried by the Arab internalisation of this false universalism, and of the Orientals’ polarisation of Islamism and secularism. Both schools of thought are in crisis. Secularists lack mass support. Indeed, “secularism” has become a dirty word in Arabic. Islamism has support but no coherent agenda. Its proponents are divided by contentious issues from the rights of women to attitudes to Sharia and statehood. Political Islam may be as diverse as political Judaism or Christianity, but is unified by its failure even to claim answers to pressing economic and social crises.

Ramadan blames the ideological void on “the deadening weight of dictatorship” which has impoverished “the life of ideas in society.” “Critical, creative economic thinking appears to have deserted the Arab political debate.” He calls for a fuller critique of capitalism's unethical content. More than that he wants the Arab Muslims to draw upon “cultural ... capital” to produce “something new, something original.” He calls for social justice based on the Q’uranic verse “We have conferred dignity on human beings,” and for an allencompassing cultural and “intellectual jihad.”

Lachlan Munro Murray is a Scottish writer living in Salalah, Oman

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