The debate inside global Islam about the relevance of religion in politics remains forever vibrant. In a new book written by Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan, he responds to important questions being asked in Arab capitals by Islamists of different hues and their critics. Ramadan’s book is a timely but problematic contribution to this international conversation. I reviewed his book for the Financial Times here:
The time has come to stop blaming the west for the colonialism and imperialism of the past,” Tariq Ramadan writes in his new book, The Arab Awakening. At last, I thought, an Arab Muslim – and a grandson of the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood no less – has moved beyond wallowing in victimhood. I was wrong. He completed the above sentence by accusing the west of ongoing “attempts at manipulation and control” of Arab societies.
This book comes at an important time. Young Arabs are hungrily seeking answers to their questions about Islam, democracy, secularism, pluralism and the modern world. Ramadan is at his strongest in this book when he asserts that terms such as “secularism” and “Islamism” are increasingly defunct in the Arab world. I am inclined to agree, though healthy tensions remain about how much and which reading of Islam should be dominant. Islamists have become essentially secular (though not in the French sense) in countries such as Tunisia and Turkey. My own meetings with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt lead me to conclude that there is a vibrant debate inside the Brotherhood about how an “Islamic state” looks in reality. Ramadan’s book contributes to this consequential controversy within political Islamism.
His argument for the “differentiation of authority” is credibly rooted in early Muslim history. While arguing for de facto secularism (though not calling it such) but also arguing that “no public sphere is entirely culturally and religiously neutral” Ramadan cites figures that Islamists must bow to, such as Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765) or ash-Shafi’i (d. 820) in both Shia and Sunni traditions, to illustrate how they and others in Muslim history distinguished between “divine” and “human” authority”. To illustrate pluralism within traditional Islam, and to consolidate the position for division of powers, Ramadan cites these and other household names for Muslims.
I was left wondering why Ramadan’s grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, and others from 20th-century radical movements who called for the creation of a confrontational, anti-western “Islamic state”, or caliphate, did not read history in a similarly accommodating vein. To that, he rightly suggests that “political Islam was a product of its time”. Ramadan, to his credit, is critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist movements for failing to offer new ideas or real answers to the political and economic problems of the new Middle East.
I owe Ramadan a debt of gratitude. His books helped me, and thousands of others, to reconcile our Islamic and western heritages. But The Arab Awakening left a bitter taste.
First, Ramadan seems to feel sympathy for Osama bin Laden in death – “cast into the sea in total disregard for his person and for Islamic ritual”. What more should the world afford a self-confessed mass murderer?
Second, Ramadan insults and dismisses the sacrifices, blood and tears of young Arabs by suggesting that western governments had trained the dissidents to be active in social media, and, therefore, prepared the way for the revolutions. The Arab uprisings were the culmination of decades of oppression and humiliation of Arab populations at the hands of ruthless dictators. They were not products of the west. Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia immolated himself because every door in life had closed on him. He lit a flame that continues to burn across the region.
Ramadan repeatedly writes about western governments being behind the social media activists who helped mobilise the masses, pointing to training meetings held by Google, the US State Department and others before the uprisings as evidence that these were not as homegrown as believed. The notion that western think-tanks and companies could bring millions on to Arab streets is facile and grossly exaggerates the power of the west.
Third, Ramadan’s book would have been more informative if he shared with us interactions in Arab capitals with revolutionaries. Has he visited Egypt, Libya or Tunisia of late? The reader is not told. So does he stand guilty of the very elitism of which he accuses Arab secularists? He makes no reference here to any real-life interaction with ordinary Arabs in the rough streets of the Middle East.
It was in 1939 that George Antonius, the prominent Lebanese Christian Arab, wrote the original Arab Awakening, generating decades of debate about the 1916 Arab Revolt and the implications of the first world war for the region. Antonius is still read today. Ramadan’s book, in contrast, is rushed: almost half is a reprint of his blog posts. The disparaging remarks about Arab efforts and sacrifices and unwarranted hostility towards the west means this book will not have the impact or staying power of Antonius’. Tariq Ramadan can do better.