In what was billed as “his first U.S. appearance since the Bush administration barred him from the country in 2004,” the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan spoke last night to a nearly full house at the Great Hall of the Cooper Union in New York City. It may well in fact have been his first public appearance in the U.S. ever. For before the Bush administration “barred him” – or, in other words, revoked his visa – in 2004, Ramadan was hardly the internationally renowned public figure that he is today.
At the time, Ramadan was employed as a philosophy teacher at a high school in his native Switzerland and he was a frequent visitor to the small Tawhid Islamic cultural center and bookstore in Lyons, France. The center’s publishing house, Tawhid Editions, published his books, as well as the popular audio cassettes of his lectures that would make him famous in the troubled French banlieues, but not beyond. The fact that Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly contributed to such notoriety – both positive and negative, depending on constituency – he has enjoyed. Today, he is a professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford, and his books are published by Oxford University Press.
The Cooper Union panel was co-sponsored by the ACLU, the PEN American Center, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). It was moderated by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg. It bore the title “Secularism, Islam, & Democracy: Muslims in Europe and the West.” But the title notwithstanding, the main purpose of the event appeared to be for the sponsoring organizations to congratulate themselves on their ostensible championing of Ramadan’s free speech rights in the face of his “ideological exclusion” from the United States by the Bush administration.
Ramadan himself certainly did nothing to spoil the fun. “I know why I was banned from the United States!” he exclaimed – namely, because of his conviction that “going to Iraq was wrong and it was illegal,” as if in the six long years that Americans had to wait for Ramadan’s arrival on U.S. shores there had been a great dearth of this opinion in the American political debate.
Other panelists similarly took the occasion to bask in the warm glow of their own liberality. The New Yorker’s George Packer whined that the Bush administration’s refusal to grant Ramadan a visa “made us look illiberal,” and both he and Weisberg made a point of personally welcoming Ramadan to the United States. They also made a point of asking him some hard questions, as if to show that they were no rubes and to provide a didactic example of the benefits of free speech.
Weisberg asked Ramadan about the oppression of women in Islam. Packer – after fawningly assuring Ramadan that he considered him a “bridge-builder” and that “your bridge is going to lead to a better place than any of the alternatives” – then went on to ask him about his grandfather’s ties to the Nazi collaborator and longtime Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini. Packer even cited some direct quotes of Hassan Al-Banna that praised Hitler and the Third Reich. The latter exchange produced what was undoubtedly the creepiest moment of the evening, as the bemused smile with which Ramadan reacted to the evidence of his grandfather’s admiration for the genocidal Nazi regime provoked widespread mirth in the auditorium.
The best proof that Tariq Ramadan’s free speech poses no threat to the American homeland, however, was surely provided by his own presentation, which was, above all, distinguished by its brevity and its utter vacuousness. In a talk that seemed to last not even ten minutes, Ramadanabout “multiple identities,” “equal citizenship,” “the new we,” and even “a lack of knowledge of secular people about secularity.” He seemed to be under the impression that the United States is in particular need of lessons – from him – about “equal citizenship,” given, namely, “the problem that you have with this.”
It is difficult to say if the vacuousness of Ramadan’s discourse provides a true measure of his intellect or if it is not rather a byproduct of his tailoring his discourse for a “western,” non-Muslim audience, as he has been so often accused of doing. But for evidence that his specifically “Muslim” texts written for a Muslim audience can be perceived as equally vapid, see my interview with the Algerian-born linguist and novelist Latifa Ben Mansour here. “I have to say that I’ve already dedicated a lot of time to this character,” Ms. Ben Mansour told me when asked about Ramadan, “As far as I’m concerned, his case provides a good example of the way in which the western media are capable of making a respectable authority out of a lot of hot air.” (For further evidence of the disdain in which Ramadan is held by moderate Muslim intellectuals in France, see the translated exchange between him and the Franco-Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb here.)
But the premise that Ramadan’s “exclusion” from the United States was a function of his ideas or opinions is clearly belied by numerous details of his case. These include for instance:
- Evidence of apparent ties, via the Islamic Center of Geneva, to the Al-Taqwa bank. The Islamic Center was founded by Ramadan’s father Said Ramadan and is headed by his brother Hani. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Al-Taqwa was placed on both the U.S. and UN lists of terrorist entities on account of its connections to al Qaeda and presumed involvement in terror financing.
- The testimony of the Franco-Algerian jihadist Djamel Beghal, who was found guilty by a French court of having plotted to attack the American embassy in Paris. Beghal told investigators that he took courses with Tariq Ramadan in the mid-1990s, apparently at a time that roughly corresponds with his own process of religious radicalization.
- The observations of Antoine Sfeir, the director of the prestigious French journal of Middle Eastern studies les Cahiers de l'Orient. In a January 2002 interview, Sfeir estimated that some fifty residents of the Lyons region had left France to fight with Osama Bin Laden against American troops in Afghanistan. Sfeir linked the success of jihadist recruitment in the Lyons area to, among other things, the influence of Tariq Ramadan.
- A 2001 Swiss intelligence memo that, according to the French counterterrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard, states that Tariq and Hani Ramadan arranged a 1991 meeting in Geneva between Ayman Al Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and later al Qaeda “number two man,” and Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman, who has been tied to the 1993 World Trade Center attack, is currently serving a life sentence in an American prison for his role in a plot to blow up other targets in the New York City area, including the Lincoln and Holland tunnels
Needless to say, Tariq Ramadan has vociferously denied having any personal connection to terror networks, and any or all of the allegations against him in this regard could, of course, turn out to be unfounded. But they are obviously not merely matters of free speech, as the ACLU, the PEN American Center, and all the other self-styled heroic champions of Tariq Ramadan’s “cause” would like one to believe.
John Rosenthal writes regularly on European politics and transatlantic relations for various both old and new media. More of his work can be found at the Transatlantic Intelligencer blog (www.trans-int.com).