Islamism and the Arab Spring: an interview with Tariq Ramadan

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by James Maxwell

If anyone can shed light on the role played by political Islam in the wave of democratic revolutions that have swept the Middle East these past three months, it is Tariq Ramadan.

In addition to having received an intensive one-on-one education in classical Islamic scholarship at the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he is also currently Professor of Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Theology in Oxford.

What is more, the 48 year-old is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the son of Saeed Ramadan, its delegate to the United States in the 1940s and 50s.

As one of the world‘s foremost public intellectuals, Ramadan has spent the last fifteen or so years trying to educate European and American audiences in the complex reality of Islamism, with its many stripes, shades and nuances, and about the relationship between religion and politics

in the Muslim world more generally.

Although neo-conservative critics accuse him of harbouring extremist sympathies, he dismisses allegations of ‘doublespeak’ and ‘stealth jihadism’ as yet more evidence of how Western attitudes toward the Islamic ‘other’ are becoming increasingly crude and simplistic.

True to form, the first thing he tells me when we meet at the Mitchell Library in central Glasgow is that, contrary to widespread belief, Islamism is not a monolithic phenomenon.

“You have leftist Islamists and you have rightists”, he says, with the thick continental inflection that betrays his upbringing in Geneva, the city to which his father fled following Nasser’s anti-dissident crackdown.

“There are Islamists who have no problem with the capitalist order and Islamists who are socialist. What we have to understand is that in the Muslim majority countries it is not a question of two choices only. This binary vision is very much a colonial inheritance.”

In characteristic professorial style – composed, intense, fluent – he explains that Islamism occupies a number of positions across a wide ideological spectrum, ranging from the constitutionally secular Turkish model to the authoritarian theocratic Saudi one, with myriad variations in-between.

He insists that Western citizens, politicians and opinion makers must recognise this if they are to have any hope of developing a meaningful understanding of political culture in Islamic states.

Egypt, of course, is among the most geo-politically significant of those states. What position does the Muslim Brotherhood, which may prove the critical influence on the country’s future development, hold on the spectrum?

“There is a young generation of Islamists (in Egypt) who are very close to the Turkish model. They offer an open version of Islam, although it still essentially accepts the capitalist order.”

But can they be reconciled to secular democracy?

“If you listen to what they are saying, they can. But even if there is a covert agenda, we can’t just deny them the right to be involved in democratic processes because we suspect that among their political leaders there is something hidden or unspoken. We have to challenge them with critical assessments.”

Ramadan sees his role as helping to advance that challenge.

“I am not a member of the Brotherhood. My vision is completely different. My aim is to be critical of what they say about Sharia – how it should be implemented and how it should not.”

Somewhat surprisingly for someone who locates himself on the progressive democratic left, his main criticism of the Brotherhood is that it has strayed too far from the principles on which it was originally founded more than seven decades ago.

“My grandfather was a legalist who fought for the anti-colonialist movement. He argued that we had to go back to our culture, but he was not at all of the view that everything that came from the West was bad. He believed Egyptians could take the British parliamentary model as their own. Mainly, he was against foreign occupation – for coming back to the soil. But this has all changed now.”

According to Ramadan, the crucial distinction between the Brotherhood of the mid-20th century and that of the early 21st is that where the former subscribed to an Islam-oriented pan-Arab nationalism, the latter – despite the apparently moderate tendencies of its younger members – nurtures an aggressive religious absolutism.

It is this absolutism which is partly responsible for the acute dilemma the West now finds itself in with regard to the Arab Spring.

For the sake of moral consistency Europe and the United States are obliged to offer at least nominal support to the region’s nascent democratic uprisings, but for the sake of their notional interests they must ensure that free, open elections do not result in a renewed or enhanced Islamist threat.

Ramadan however asserts that in this conflict between values and interests, values will always come a poor second. He refers to Tony Blair’s recent remarks about Hosni Mubarak, in which the former prime minister described the ex-dictator as “immensely courageous and a force for good”, as a stunning illustration of this.

“They reveal just how hypocritical he was – the gulf between his values and his policy”, he says, sounding for the first time in our conversation slightly angry and indignant. “This makes it clear that what matters is pure geo-strategic interest.”

Speaking of geo-strategic interest, how does he think Israel will effect the emergence of democracy in the region?

“From the very beginning the Israeli factor has been important, not least on the European and American positions. Israel told the West that it had to support Mubarak because he is a ‘stability factor’ – that is, for the sake of their own security. But the fact is you make peace with people not with dictators. The future for Israel can only be based on peace and democratic (Arab) government.”

That throws up another question, though: can Israel live with Arab democracy? So far, representative government in neighbouring Arab states has worked to the benefit of radical Islam.

“It can, if and only if successive Israeli governments stop the continuation of this silent colonisation of the Palestinians. Israel can do what it is doing because it is surrounded by dictators – they are protecting themselves and their positions and they are protecting Israel. But if you have democracies around they will demand respect for the dignity of the Palestinians.”

“What we need”, he continues, “is the return of ethics in politics. I want to ask the Israelis: ‘at the end of the day, what is the point of your Zionist project? Is it to live at peace with yourself and to be open to others? Or is it to have something which is exclusively yours, which is the (ethnic) character of your state?’”

And if they answer that their security is paramount and must be guaranteed even at the cost of Arab freedom?

“Then the price could be war, it could be pressure – boycotts and sanctions coming from the surrounding societies. We cannot continue where there is only peace for the dominant and colonization for the dominated. It is not going to work. So the Israelis need to understand that true democratic processes only come only with consistency in policy, which is not the situation today.”

Peace for the dominant and colonization for the dominated. This has been the Middle East’s political default setting throughout most of its modern history. But now the people have said, in the most emphatic manner possible, ‘enough’.

As Ramadan suggests, the success of the Arab Spring will depend on whether or not the non-violent, democratic Arab majority can pull off an incredibly delicate balancing act between three contending forces: Islamism, the West and Israel.

Of course at this stage there is no way of predicating exactly how things will play out. But Ramadan at least is optimistic: “In Egypt, the people rejected dictatorship in a peaceful way. And it was not just leftists or atheists or Islamists or religious people. It was Coptics, Muslims and non-Muslims. This is something which we have to celebrate and pay tribute to.”

On this we could do worse than follow the Professor’s lead. After all, he should know.