The controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan packed them in for his talk in Montréal last night, according to this story, no doubt to the dismay of those who view him as an insidious Islamist only pretending to be a moderate.
I’ve been interested in Ramadan since 2005, when I reported on how Ottawa’s city police force was enthusiastically welcoming him to speak here because they thought young Canadian Muslims would benefit from hearing him talk about “building a harmonious, safe, open community.” That seemed remarkable to me in light of the U.S. government’s decision to block him from taking up a teaching post at University of Notre Dame over vague concerns that he was somehow supportive of terrorism.
Ramadan is a Swiss-born professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University. The debate around him is, to say the least, complicated. His fans like the way he talks about Muslims finding a way to keep their faith while living peacefully in Western secular society. Those who distrust him (notably, in Canada, the indispensable Tarek Fatah, author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State) denounce him as a smooth-talking apologist for what amounts to Islamic fundamentalism.
Perhaps the most damning charge leveled at him is that he refused to unequivocally condemn stoning women to death in a 2003 debate with Nicholas Sarkozy, no less, back when the current French president was a mere interior minister. In his clash with Sarkozy, Ramadan would only call for a moratorium on stoning. This episode show why Ramadan is such a divisive figure—how could he equivocate?
Well, he claims that to have categorically rejected what many Muslims take to be a Koranic teaching would sideline him from debate where it matters, rather than advancing his cause. Here’s what he told the New York Times, in a probing article, about his reasoning:
“I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive.”
Some will accept this tactical explanation, others will reject it as too easy an out. But I think fair-minded people will see that this is hardly a simple matter.
Personally, I find his way of arguing about what Islam asks of its followers less troubling than his way of talking about modern terrorism. He’s been known to denounce it and, in the next breath, seem to explain it away. On this point and many others, I would suggest to anyone who wants to read more, this piece from Foreign Affairs, in which Jonathan Laurence, who is broadly sympathetic toward Ramadan, properly takes him to task:
“His condemnation of intentional attacks on civilians is tempered by an innocuous-seeming suggestion: that they will cease when European, U.S., and Israeli foreign policies bend to terrorists’ underlying demands. He draws a connection between what he considers to be the errant ways of Western foreign policy and the terrorist acts it supposedly engenders. Could enthusiastic young crowds drawn to Ramadan’s charismatic public lectures understand this as the tacit approbation of these acts?”
Ramadan attracts large crowds and demands close analysis because violence perpetrated in the name of Islam is so prevalent in these times. That central fact raises hard questions about what it will take to broadly reconcile Muslims with Western democracy. It’s easy to see the broad outlines of this huge problem but harder to focus on the precise elements of a genuine solution. Ramadan at least pushes the argument in that productive direction.