Encounter Books has rendered a great public service by translating and publishing in English Caroline Fourest’s important book on Tariq Ramadan, Brother Tariq.
Tariq Ramadan has emerged over the past decade as one of the most influential Muslim preachers in Europe. Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma have promoted him as an appropriate interlocuter on issues of faith and culture – while denouncing Muslim dissidents like Ayaan Hirsi Ali as “fundamentalists” for their unflinching devotion to Western rationalism. Buruma wrote in the International Herald Tribune last year:
Ramadan offers a different way, which insists that a reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment. From what I understand of Ramadan’s enterprise, these values are neither secular, nor always liberal, but they are not part of a holy war against Western democracy either. His politics offer an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.
Who is right?
Thanks to Encounter, non-francophone readers can decide for themselves.
Understanding Ramadan is no easy matter. He speaks and writes with astonishing unclarity and opacity. He says different things to different audiences. He evades questions with ease and audacity – and when pinned beyond all possibility of evasion he will (as Fourest documents) lie without qualm.
Fourest details a number of these untruths with patient exactitude. Thus on p. 101, for example, she catches Ramadan denying in a newspaper interview that he has any official role in the extremism-tainted Geneva Islamic Center – of which he is in fact an administrator. On p. 231, she quotes Ramadan escaping a difficulty in a television interview by claiming to have won a libel action he in fact lost.
More broadly, however, Fourest establishes through the patient accumulation of evidence that Tariq Ramadan has dedicated himself to propagating in Europe the extremist and violent ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical Islamic organization founded by his grandfather and championed by his father and brother. Fourest has read everything Ramadan has ever written, listened to hundreds of hours of his taped sermons and talks, studied police and intelligence reports, and conducted extensive interviews. Based on this work, she establishes (as conclusively as anyone can establish anything about this slippery and deceptive man) that Tariq Ramadan is something worse than an apologist for terrorism: He is one of radical Islam’s most important recruiters in Europe.
Ramadan’s defenders argue that his message has rescued at-risk Muslim youth in Europe from drugs and crime. If true, that would be a devil’s bargain. Fourest argues that it is not true. Ramadan, she writes,
cultivates the image of a preacher for the disinherited, a sort of worker-priest, especially when he recounts how he took things in hand after one of his students, a certain Thierry, took an overdose. In the style of the charismatic sects, he cultivated the myth of a drug addict cured thanks to cassettes of the Koran and faith. In reality, he himself admits that he has little effect on young dropouts. He appeals, for the most part, to middle-class students and young graduates: “I’m good for the middle,” he says jokingly [fn] – a quip that is intended to absolve him of his fundamentalist impact. As if the middle classes, which have furnished the greater part of the suicide bombers over the last few years, were not capable of producing radicals. In fact, this confession is appalling: far from saving the young from drugs or delinquency through Islam, Tariq Ramadan introduces youngsters with a promising future to a form of Islamism that they would never have paid any attention to if it had come from a narrow-minded, grotesque Islamist. The moral of the story: He transforms youngsters – who have all that it takes to reconcile their faith, their origins, and their citizenship – into intolerant and communitarian-minded fundamentalists. Instead of encouraging these youngsters to succeed despite the racist obstacles in their path, he takes them down a dead-end street: a hardline Islam, source of tension, confrontation, and professional handicaps in the future – such as for the women who give up being schoolteachers to wear the Islamic headscarf.
As the tone of this entry suggests, Caroline Fourest comes from the left-side of the French ideological spectrum. She is a gay-friendly, secular feminist – exactly the kind of person who, in the American context, too often shrugs off the dangers of radical Islam as hysteria or bigotry. Living on the other side of the Atlantic, however, Fourest cannot so easily blind herself to the rise of a religious authoritarianism, which should be no less unacceptable for being North African or Middle Eastern in origin rather than European.
In French, Fourest has helped to unblind many in Europe. Now available in English, her important book should open eyes in the United Kingdom and the United States as well. Tariq Ramadan tried to shift his base of operations here, to Notre Dame University, but was refused a visa. From inside America or from without, his efforts will shape the world in which Americans live. Better to know more about him – and Brother Tariq is the right place to start.