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Islamophobia Watch

Tariq Ramadan Has His Place in the European Social Forum

Catherine Samary

This open letter was written just before the beginning of the European Social Forum in Paris in November 2003. It was addressed to the Coordination des Associations pour le Droit à l’Avortement et à la Contraception and the Collectif National pour les Droits des Femmes, after they had circulated a petition calling for Tariq Ramadan to be excluded from the ESF. The letter also answers the leaflet produced by the Collectif Féministe pour un Altermondialisme Laïc, which was translated and published by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and formed the basis for a resolution by the NUS executive (subsequently overturned) calling for Tariq Ramadan to be removed as a speaker at the 2004 ESF. The author is a leading French feminist and intellectual, and a supporter of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.

Dear friends of CADAC and CNDF!

I have just received the draft petition from CADAC-CNDF calling for the exclusion of T. Ramadan from the debates at the ESF – and this on the very eve of the Forum’s opening, without any time to debate it!

However, we are confronted with a particular context which deserves a little caution in such an appeal for exclusion.

  • On the one hand, there is the dual media campaign spreading accusations of anti-semitism whenever the policies of Israel are involved, and aiming to denigrate any progressive Muslim, the better to promote the cliché "Muslim = fundamentalist extremist" in order to justify Sharon’s policies. The campaign against Ramadan, seeking to exclude him from the debates at the ESF as an "anti-semite", is slanderous. Fortunately the organisers of the ESF have not given in to it.
  • On the other hand, there has been a rise in tension over the question of the Islamic headscarf. And it is now in the name of feminism and of secularism – against political Islam – that you propose we should exclude Tariq Ramadan from the debates of the ESF.

Distrust towards all political Islam is fed by the existence of Islamic currents that are reactionary and advocate provocative communalist forms of resistance (for which a veil proselytises) against integration into society. Tariq Ramadan is aware of this: "It must be clearly stated that Muslims themselves bear a great part of the responsibility for what is going on. They also entertain deep suspicions towards their European fellow citizens.... We can also witness among some Muslims an attitude of rejection of the West, often conveyed without any subtlety" (To Be a European Muslim, pp.356-7.) And he then appeals to Muslims in Europe to take up "the challenge of a coexistence which would not be peace in separation but living together in participation".

Is this not a break with the logic of "communitarian" separation without integration into political and social life? Is it consistent with the picture that you give us of Tariq Ramadan in your appeal for exclusion?

The emergence within the Muslim world of progressive intellectual currents condemning the policies of violence against women and homosexuals, defending access by women to public and secular education, and carrying on a debate over the conditions of their independence, is obviously essential in order to open up a dynamic of a more profound break by these women from all that imprisons them. My conviction, on the basis of what I have read, is that Tariq Ramadan plays an active role in that dynamic (his articles can be found on the religious site Oumma.com; cf. equally his book of discussions with Alain Gresh, Islam in Question).

Does Tariq Ramadan reject secularism? Does he want to force women to stay at home, not to go out to work, not to pursue certain educational courses? Does he want to impose the veil on them? Does he justify violence against women? The reply to all these questions is no – at least on the basis of what he says and writes.

So there are two alternatives:

  • Either I am mistaken, because examples can be found of double talk by Ramadan (an accusation regularly made and never proved) – and you will convince me very easily by giving me the texts and their sources illustrating this behaviour: it is in our common interests then to unmask this individual.
  • Or I am right and there is slander by various means which amounts to attributing to him positions which are not his own. And it is our elementary and democratic duty to denounce these practices, which are disastrous for the fight within the Muslim milieu in particular. The distortion of the positions that one claims to be fighting is a terrible and poisonous practice, both in political organisations and in the associations of the broad movement that we want to help build democratically ...

But, in the final analysis, if T. Ramadan is accused of "camouflage", would not every progressive position that I could cite be proof of my naivete and of his deceitfulness? But no debate is then possible with any progressive Muslim – because he is a Muslim. And that is what is called Islamophobia.

The petition against the presence of Tariq Ramadan was preceded by feminist texts criticising/denouncing his positions – one by a "feminist collective for an alternative secular globalisation" and another from Marseille against the "two brothers" both of which proceed by means of slanderous and slippery arguments.

1. Slanderous arguments ... partly rejected while still quoting them to suggest there is something in them

The "feminist collective for a secular alternative globalisation" claim to distinguish themselves from the slanderous campaign against Ramadan (which interprets his text as anti-semitic). But ... they repeat its terms in a pernicious fashion: "Ramadan is not anti-semitic, but ... he makes lists! (of Jews)".

There are two alternatives. Either "he makes lists of Jews", as they say (sinister implication) – in an anti-semitic sense. Or he is not anti-semitic – in which case it is scandalous to say that he "makes lists of Jews".

The text proceeds throughout in the same hypocritical and ambiguous fashion, along the lines of "it isn’t because he is the grandson of a great reactionary that we reject him ... but nevertheless, he is the grandson and has not broken ..."

An example: "Tariq Ramadan is dangerous not because he is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and originator of a political Islam which has wreaked havoc across the world, but because he has never distanced himself from the ideological heritage of his grandfather, whom he continues to present as the ‘most influential of the Muslim reformists of the century’ when that reformism consisted of wanting to go back to the basic principles of sharia law."

This is slanderous and confused.

  • Slanderous: I quote the reply that Ramadan made to BHL [Bernard-Henri Lévy] which was sent to Le Monde but not published (though it can be read in its entirety on the site indicated): "Then comes the refrain about my grandfather. I have explained this matter many times and without any difficulty, contrary to what you say. I repeat that I have, with regard to him and his activities, a selective and critical attitude. Nevertheless I continue to think that people have a partial view of his works which relies on extracts from his youthful writings, and what the colonialists have said about him, and in addition it is advisable to distinguish him from certain of his disciples. You yourself, Mr Lévy, who do not understand Arabic, have read only the few pieces that have been translated (less than 5%). Criticism of his thought is legitimate but it must be done with full knowledge of the facts. I repeat that I respect that dimension of his activity which led him to build more than 2000 schools and social centres, to resist British colonialism and to go to Palestine, in 1936, in order to then oppose the terrorists of the Irgun and the Stern Gang."
  • Confused: It mixes the fact that currents associated (wrongly or rightly, let us leave that aside) with the grandfather want to return to sharia law ... with the judgement on Ramadan. Does the latter want a "return to the basic principles of sharia law"? Who are we talking about?

In a similar manner, the feminist text from Marseille mixes up the positions of the two Ramadan brothers – by presenting them as a division of labour (the double talk of Tariq Ramadan is thus to be understood via his brother). The Ramadan family has been "homogenised", along with political Islam. Are the progressive positions of Tariq Ramadan only ... dust in the eyes?

2. "Pseudo" progressive struggles

a) On homosexuality. It is true that Tariq Ramadan considers that this is a practice which Muslims should abstain from, as "not desired by God". We reject this interference of religion in the judgement of sexual behaviour. But, when we know the terrible repression of gays in Egypt and the ideological climate that prevails on this question, particularly in the Muslim world, then not to see as "progressive" the fact that he opposed this repression of gays is criminal on their part!

Besides, homophobia is widespread in many, non-Muslim, circles that we shall meet in the world forums. Let us fight it – without exception ...

b) On physical violence. The "feminist collective" complains: "Instead of condemning physical punishments and demanding their abolition, he contents himself with proposing a ‘total and absolute moratorium, to give us the time to go back to our fundamental texts ... and to determine precisely the necessary conditions’. Equally he does not dispute the right of a man to use conjugal violence, even if he emphasises that the Koran envisages it only as a ‘last resort’."

This is what T. Ramadan says (in reply to BHL):

"You imply that my position on the stoning of women is vague. You carefully avoid mentioning that, in the article you quote, I state that in my opinion ‘it is never applicable’. That is far from the case with Islamic scholars today: my aim therefore is to open a fundamental debate in the Muslim world beginning by demanding an absolute moratorium on all corporal and capital punishments because their application is absolutely iniquitous and today falls exclusively on the poor and on women. Can I put it more clearly?"

T. Ramadan has equally condemned genital mutilation many times – which is moreover a practice that is widespread in Africa among non-Muslims and Muslims, and is not peculiar to Islam. Can one say that he "contents himself" with demanding an immediate end to (moratorium on) violence (as if this were not already essential!) without understanding the strength of a debate which he want to impose in the name of the Koran against the acts of violence that are demanded by the Koran! To reject Ramadan’s problematic simply because he starts from God in order to fight these acts of violence is nothing but blindness.

c) On inequality. The feminist collective tells us: "Tariq Ramadan recognises the equality of men and women before God, but believes in a complementarity – and thus a difference – of the sexes on the social and family level."

The difference between the sexes is a commonplace idea which includes many variants – within the feminist mileu too! One essential point for us is the independence that women (even believers) can gain through education and work. Yet if Tariq Ramadan recognises that Islam attributes to the man the responsibility for earning the family’s money (the woman having a central role in the management of the family, in Islam as in all traditional cultures), he is at the same time in open debate with the currents who wish to ban women from leaving the home. Islam, he recognises, puts the emphasis on the "right" of women "not to work". But that does not imply opposing the right (if they so choose) to work! Cf. the Gresh/Ramadan debate, op. cit., where Ramadan says:

"I have had some very vehement debates in Europe with certain representatives of the FIS over the place of women and their interpretation of economic reality: banning women from working, asserting that unemployment was due to the presence of women on the labour market and ... presenting the act of sending them back to the home as ‘the’ Islamic remedy provoked a reaction on my part. I criticised without compromise these reductionist and simplistic readings. They ... characterised me as a ‘soft or light, westernised Muslim’."

It is true that he makes explicit his search for religious texts in order to remain within the framework of the Muslim world – but he says he wants to carry out "a coherent and more just adaptation" of these texts starting from an "internal" reflection linked to a study of the evolution of contexts – thus of societies and practices:

"I am thinking about the recognition of the independence of women, their social status, marriage, divorce, etc ..."

The text of the petition against Tariq Ramadan considers that "this discourse instrumentalises concepts of the struggle against injustice and discrimination in aid of the diffusion of political Islam as an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist alternative". This is to present political Islam once again as completely undifferentiated (including the Taliban?). And it is to reject all political Islam en bloc.

Was not liberation theology a component of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist alternatives?

d) Secularism. The feminist collective tells us: "Tariq Ramadan calls himself secular, but he defines secularism as a neutral space which should welcome all faiths and cults. That is also the definition of Christine Boutin."

And not only of Christine Boutin! Here is a terrifying presentation! There is certainly a debate to be had over secularism. But the meaning of the 1905 law is:

  • the state is neutral (there is not any longer a state religion), and education is secular, hence the suppression of the crucifix and of Catholicism, and biology, science etc are to be taught, and ...
  • the state guarantees freedom of thought and religion – which raises all kinds of interpretations concerning finance, but in every case means freedom of expression of their ideas and religious convictions for school students and citizens (the neutrality of civil servants is another issue).

Here is what Ramadan says about secularism in an open letter to Sarkozy and Ferry in May 2003 (cf. the website indicated):

"In fact, the 1905 law has not been amended and, on the contrary, it is necessary to apply it completely and equally to Muslims. The framework is clear: the laws of the Republic are constraining and it is in relation to them that Muslims have the authority to carry on their religion. The opinion of the State Council adds precision to the understanding of that framework: if the headscarf at school is not in itself in opposition to secularism, it is necessary that it should in no way justify proselytism, a threat to public order or exemption from educational courses. This opinion establishes a limit and imposes an orientation: removed from passionate debates, and with a certain wisdom, it engages those actively involved (heads of school, teachers, children, parents) in a dialogue in order to enforce respect for the law, protect the area of education and guarantee children’s rights. In so doing it addresses an explicit message to Muslim citizens: any imposition of the headscarf must be opposed (on the part of the family or of co-religionists) and participation required in all courses."

And in the reply to BHL in November 2003, he repeated:

"You again distort my purpose: in a text where I address Muslims arriving in France and who are sometimes annoyed, even shocked, by what is taught in biology or philosophy, I say that any exemption from a course is not acceptable and that if they wish to shed a light on these subjects which corresponds to their religious frame of reference this must be done within the religious community, as is the case for Jews and Christians. I have myself specialised in Nietzsche’s thought which I teach along with Kant, Sartre or Freud and many others: how could I have the aims that you invent?"

In To Be a European Muslim, he says (p.124), with regard to the Islamic headscarf: "we must support in the same way both those women who wear it and find themselves forced to remove it, and those who do not want to wear in and on whom it is imposed."

The petition does not tell us this. "Taking into account the irreversible condition of women through access to higher education, to paid work and to the public arena, he attempts to channel this. The veil in this context takes the form of an obligatory passage to a communalist citizenship. At the same time it establishes a clear distinction between the ‘modest’ Muslim woman and the others who do not wear the veil, who are immediately identified as women without modesty and by extension unworthy of respect."

The phrase "by extension" certainly demonstrates the adverse effect of this form of individual protection – that is why we do not agree with the wearing of the headscarf being made general. But in any case it is wrong to say that the veil is for TR an "obligatory passage". Emphasising modesty as one of the motivations for the wearing of the headscarf is not an invention of T. Ramadan – it is also what women who wear the veil say. That is a debate that we must therefore have with Muslim women (are we going to exclude women with veils from our debates?) and ... with all the men, particularly Ramadan who should not be excluded from this debate – over the two points "neither prostitutes nor submissive".

3. "Tariq Ramadan is a fundamentalist leader who wants to go back to the basic principles of the Koran"

"Fundamentalist"? I don’t know. Perhaps, but in what sense? The word "fundamentalist" arouses fear and is immediately associated with "fundamentalism" of the Taliban type ... which of course would have no place in the anti-globalisation Forums. From what I have read of Ramadan it seems that he considers that among the "basic principles" of the Koran are "respect for the other" and non-violence – which means the condemnation of violence against women and the rejection of policies which, in the name of Islam, want to force them to remain at home... Is this not compatible with the broad platforms of the movement?

There we can express our disagreements and points of view against those of Ramadan. Who determines the "place" of women in society, and sexual behaviour? God? This or that reading of the Koran? Or human beings (men and women) whose choice must be respected, therefore human societies, democratically? But why exclude him from that debate?

4. The return to charges of anti-semitism

In the text under accusation, Ramadan addressed himself very badly to the intellectual defenders of Sharon (by mixing up a non-Jew with the others and appearing to explain support for Sharon and Zionism as a communalist reflex). But before and after, many of his writings shed light on one of his recurrent themes: everyone must fight blind nationalism first of all "within their own community" in order to arrive at universal struggles... So it was not by accident that he emphasised that he was addressing "Jewish intellectuals". Here is the explanation that he gave of the same subject on 31 October in a letter to V. Adler (cf. the website):

"Over more than half a page of Le Monde (16 October) [numerous people] signed a dignified and respectable appeal which stated that, taking into account present circumstances and the monopolisation of commentary ‘by certain institutions and certain public figures’, they were obliged to take responsibility for ‘the Jewish part of their identity’ and this not only did not prevent them from defending the universal values of justice, peace and freedom but on the contrary required them to do so. They added that for them there was no question of supporting ‘the criminal policies of Mr Sharon’ nor of accepting intimidation, nor finally of joining in the blackmail of anti-semitism which is current in France today. It is on this terrain that French citizens, all citizens whatever their religion or their ideological attachments, must join together and assert with us that communalism and selective and partial interpretations of the world will only be overcome when citizens fight together in the name of common values against all dictatorships, all forms of oppression, all denials of rights. This debate concerns us all, and each of us is responsible for maintaining a attitude that is cool, rational and just without exception, with a constant concern for self-criticism. The Muslim conscience must speak and say clearly that anti-semitism is unacceptable or that the oppressor Sharon is not Hitler, and for myself I will not cease to say this and to criticise all dictatorships in the name of Islam which arouse horror, from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria. So must it be equally with the conscience of Christians, Jews, Communists, atheists and everyone else. Coexistence depends on this because in no case do we have the right to differentiate between victims or to distinguish between torturers."

5. ... and on "Islamophobia"

The feminist collective concludes: "We struggle against anti-Muslim racism but we reject the term ‘Islamophobia’ introduced to France by Tariq Ramadan. It is a concept invented by the Islamists to discredit feminists, liberal Muslims and all those who try to secularise Islam by calling them racists when they are simply secular and/or critical of religious dogmas."

I think this presentation is mistaken. Islamophobia exists, in two variants. First, that of an intellectual current which tends to set Islam apart from all religions, considering it "organically" incapable of giving birth to progressive and secularist currents; secondly, the racist amalgam "Muslim = Arab = fundamentalism" which underlies really existing racism against Muslims, particularly in France. Tariq Ramadan fights both against racism and against a homogeneous "essentialist" approach to Islam, which ignores its diversity and its history.

Let us be aware of all that! This does not require any compromise in the name of anti-colonialism towards conservative or reactionary points of view. But let us be able to engage in dialogue with progressive currents that support the values of equality. The divergence between the discourses concerning equality and the realities, which are anchored precisely in the traditional role attributed to women, is not specific to the Islam of Tariq Ramadan. Our very secular French Republic has witnessed this in what has prompted the debate, and a law, on equality – of which it would be good to draw the balance sheet!

Feminist greetings!

Catherine Samary