Middle East studies in the News
by Fouad Ajami
Wall Street Journal
September 7, 2004
Think of it as a storm that begins in Egypt and reaches South Bend, Indiana. An Islamist of Egyptian ancestry and Swiss nationality, Tariq Ramadan, an author and pamphleteer 42 years of age, was set to begin a new academic appointment at the University of Notre Dame, as the occupant of a chair at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Back in May, the highly controversial figure, who resides in Geneva and whose shadow falls across the French intellectual and political landscape, was granted a work/residency visa in the United States. But two months later, the Department of Homeland Security revoked his visa, and in South Bend and beyond the matter of Tariq Ramadan has become a test of the balance between liberty and national security in a country still in the throes of a long war against terror.
* * *
Tariq Ramadan was no ordinary academic, and the people who authorized this appointment at Notre Dame no doubt knew that. In the world of the new Islamism, Mr. Ramadan was pure nobility. He was the maternal grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the Supreme Guide and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who lit the fuse of this religious radicalism back in 1928. Banna had lived a short and violent life. He was struck down by an assassin -- most likely form the ranks of his own Brotherhood -- in 1949. A village boy and a chameleon, a plotter who preached the simple but deadly doctrine of the Koran on the one hand and that of the gun on the other, Banna made his appearance when a fragile modernism was struggling to take hold in Egypt. His targets were the classic themes of nativism: the British presence in Egypt, the role and the place of the Copts -- the country's Christians -- in public life, the moral "pollution" of secular modernism. His favorite disciple and son-in-law, Said Ramadan, made it to the safety of Switzerland when the Nasser regime, in the mid-1950s, launched a brutal campaign of suppression against the Brotherhood. It was in Switzerland, with the help of Saudi money and patronage, that Said Ramadan picked up the pieces of his life, stayed true to the legacy of Banna, and raised his two sons, Hani and Tariq, who would stay with the family business -- the intersection of religion and politics, Islamic activism, and the call to the faith.
The genealogy of Tariq Ramadan was fundamental to his ascendancy to power and prominence: Nasab (acquired merit through one's ancestors) is one of the pillars of Arab-Islamic society. (It is fast becoming so in two endeavors of American life, politics and Hollywood, but that is another tale.) Cunning in his use of his grandfather's legacy, Mr. Ramadan could embrace his grandfather while maintaining, when needed, that the sins of ancestors cannot be visited on descendents. But he would never walk away from his legacy, and pride in his grandfather suffuses his work. In a piece of writing in November 2000, the reverence for Banna was astounding. No, he would not, he said, disown his descent from a man who "resisted British and Zionist colonialisms, who founded 2,000 schools, 500 social centers, and as many developmental cooperatives," and who never ordered or sanctioned terrorist attacks. No serious historian of Egypt in the '40s would let stand this version of history.
Pedigree was only one weapon in Tariq Ramadan's remarkable odyssey. He had come of age when Islam in Europe was taking hold, shedding the reticence of the first generation of immigrants. Charismatic and telegenic, he had taken to TV and the Web. Even after allowing for repetition, the 20 books and 700 articles and 170 audiotapes attributed to him are a testimony to the man's drive and missionary impulse. The new Islamists were practitioners of the art of taqiyya (dissimulation; you never owe the truth to unbelievers), and this extraordinarily talented man had this art down to perfection. There was pluralism in the West, and he would use it for his purposes. His big theme was the fate of Islam in the new lands of the West; not for him the theme of assimilation. His was a different prescription, artfully stated: The Muslims would live the life of the faith within Europe, for Islam, he maintained, had always been a fact of European life. France was zealously republican and lacit, secularism, was its civil religion. Mr. Ramadan preached a different doctrine: The Muslims of France had not been parties to that secularism, and they ought to be free to challenge its basic canons.
But there was a limit to this artful way. A struggle had erupted in France over Israel and the Palestinians, over the Iraq war; the Jews of France had become increasingly unnerved by the open displays of anti-Semitism in public life. Mr. Ramadan had stepped into the breach. Some old family atavisms, and the requirements of "leadership" among the Muslims of France, were to bring him into open combat with some of France's leading intellectuals: Bernard-Henri Lvy, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard Kouchner, Alexandre Adler, Andre Glucksmann. Mr. Ramadan was now done with subtlety: He saw those "new philosophers" betraying their "noble traditions of liberalism" to become apologists for Israel, and practitioners of "communitarian politics." Put starkly, these public intellectuals were no longer men of the French republic of letters, but Jews above all, defending the interests of Israel and the policies of Ariel Sharon. There was no other explanation, Mr. Ramadan maintained, for the support these public figures provided for "Anglo-American intervention" in Iraq. The most visible of this band of intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Lvy, had written an impassioned book about the murder in Pakistan of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mr. Ramadan saw in Mr. Lvy's book a darker political motive: The aim, he said, had been to put Pakistan beyond the community of civilized nations. These French intellectuals had agitated on behalf of the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo; there was thus nothing startling or unusual about their support of the war against Saddam Hussein. But the "communitarian" motive had been the one that Mr. Ramadan had chosen to attribute to them. No wonder Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, dubbed him a "most dangerous man."
We have nothing in the public record that would explain why Mr. Ramadan had chosen to make his way to the American heartland, and to a Catholic university at that. Nothing in his writings reveals an appreciation of America or a real knowledge of its culture. This was not a would-be immigrant who had pined for this great society. Now and then, there were caricatures of America in his writings. In the most recent of his public statements, he wrote of his opposition to the "deleterious worldwide effects of American consumerism." In my favorite, and most exquisite, piece of unintended irony -- in an essay he published on the Web site Oumma.com on Aug. 30 -- he wrote that he makes a distinction "between equitable trade and the commerce of the World Trade Organization or McDonald's, between [Victor] Hugo and Dallas," and that he opposes "economism, individualism, imperialism." This piece of irony is priceless: The man condemning McDonald's was coming to an academic institute funded by an endowment granted by McDonald's heiress, Joan B. Kroc. A chip off the old block is Tariq Ramadan: His grandfather had sought and obtained the largesse of the Suez Canal Company for his Brotherhood even as he agitated against the foreign "defilement" of Egypt.
It would be fair to assume that French intelligence and the French Ministry of Interior have weighed in on the decision to deny Mr. Ramadan entry to the U.S. The great, open secret of France is the truculence and anti-Americanism of its foreign policy, and the slyness of its police and intelligence agencies and their covert cooperation in the war on terror.
The liberty of an open society can never be a suicide pact, and the freedom of the academy is never absolute. Would it be too irreverent and heretical to suggest that the Krocs can rest easier, now that Mr. Ramadan has been spared an association with the "deleterious worldwide effects" of their empire. He can and will no doubt continue his work while the Muslims in North America cast about for a measure of peace in this new world. For them, there is the path of assimilation. It was, after all, the legacy of Hassan al-Banna that pushed them to these shores.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins, is the author of "Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Vintage, 1999).
receive the latest by email: subscribe to campus watch's free mailing list