The worst that can happen to a democratic society is to see its citizens being transformed to passive victims paralysed by fear. The proponents of the global clash of civilisations theory shall win if we accept to be individually colonised by emotional caricatures and suspicion towards people of other faiths and cultures.
- Tariq Ramadan, 9 July 2005-
In a move that appears designed to stir up Islamophobia, The Sun newspaper yesterday launched a front page attack on Professor Tariq Ramadan, an internationally respected progressive Muslim scholar.
The Sun’s leader column claims that Ramadan is ‘more dangerous’ than extremist clerics Abu Hamza or Omar Bakri because ‘he is a soft-spoken professor whose moderate tones present an acceptable, “reasonable” face of terror to impressionable young Muslims.’
This shows a dangerous inability to distinguish between the progressive Islam promoted by Ramadan, a best-selling author whose work focuses on the compatibility of European and Muslim principles, and the proponents of the terrorist attacks on London. Ramadan himself unreservedly condemned the London bombings in a statement on 7 July, stating that ‘The authors of such acts are criminals and we cannot accept or listen to their probable justifications in the name of an ideology, a religion or a political cause.’
The Sun’s attack on Tariq Ramadan repeats the Islamophobic myth that even moderate Muslims are extremists in disguise. To repeat uncritically a series of unfounded claims made by neoconservative commentators would be irresponsible journalism at any time. But at a time when Britain’s Muslims are facing increasing numbers of racist attacks, it reads like an incitement to violence.
‘An oft-repeated truth’
Ramadan is no stranger to smear campaigns against him, which directly contributed to the revocation of his US visa shortly before he was due to take up a position as Professor of Islamic Studies and ‘Luce’ Professor in charge of the ‘Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding’ programme at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana last August.
That move provoked outrage amongst academics, with the American Association of University Professors condemning it as ‘manifestly at odds with our society’s respect for academic freedom’ and others claiming that the case exhumed the ghost of McCarthyism.
Ramadan’s exclusion also drew criticism from Muslim community leaders: ‘it sends the disturbing message that even moderate and mainstream Muslims will now be treated like terrorists,’ said Nihad Aawa, Executive Director of the Council for American Islamic Relations.
Writing in The Guardian last August, Tariq Ramadan responded to the news of having his US visa revoked by analysing how unfounded allegations gain the status of ‘truth’:
‘Over the years, I also learned that in the world of mass media, “truth” is not based on clarity, but on frequency. Repeated hypotheses or suspicions become truth; a three-time-repeated assumption imperceptibly becomes a fact. … When I ask about the source of this information, the response is: this is well known, check the internet. A closer examination reveals that what we have is journalists or intellectuals repeating and reporting what others said yesterday with caveats. Strange truth indeed!’
These words look prophetic when read alongside yesterday’s Sun, which dedicates its whole front page, a two-page spread, a leader article and the Richard Littlejohn comment piece to the story that Ramadan – who has lectured to audiences of world leaders, academics and fellow Muslims around the globe – is to speak at the ‘Middle Path’ conference in London on 24 July, an event partly funded by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and the Metropolitan Police.
The neo-con connection
Most of the claims made against Ramadan in The Sun, and repeated in its Murdoch-owned stable mate The Times, appear to have been cut and pasted from an article written last year by neoconservative US commentator Daniel Pipes. And the paper’s reliance on self-appointed ‘experts’ does not stop here.
‘Terrorism expert Steven Emerson says: “The telegenic, soft-spoken and charming professor is just the modern, westernised face of the same enemy that wears a different mask on other battlefields’,” according to The Sun. But the paper does not report that Emerson (a friend of Pipes) is a discredited source who’s 1994 US television documentary ‘Jihad in America’ was widely denounced for its Islamophobic content, or that the same commentator claimed that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing showed ‘a Middle Eastern trait’ because it ‘was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible’ (CBS News, 19 April 1995).
Further column inches are given to The Sun’s own neocon Islamophobe Richard Littlejohn, who duly denounces Ramadan as a ‘fanatic’. Yet all his ‘You couldn’t make it up’ ranting can’t hide the fact that the allegations made against Ramadan are based on ideologically-motivated inventions and distortions.
Take, for example, The Sun’s front page headline that Professor Ramadan is ‘banned in France for links to terrorists.’ This is simply untrue, as Ramadan has a flat and a permanent office in Saint Denis, Paris. The basis for the claim arises from the fact that he was briefly barred from entering France in 1996, but no reason was ever given for this and the ban was quickly overturned after it was revealed to be a case of mistaken identity.
The Sun also claims that ‘Ramadan denies that there is any proof that Osama bin Laden – said to have studied with his dad Said – master-minded the 9/11 slaughter.’ In fact, Ramadan immediately condemned the 9/11 attacks in the strongest terms, and there is no evidence that Ramadan or his father ever met bin Laden.
Most damningly, The Sun claims on its opening page that Ramadan is ‘An Islamic academic who says suicide bombings are justified’, a claim repeated in a Times article headed ‘Police fund visit by academic who justifies suicide bombings’.
Yet the only evidence offered for this is an unattributed comment on Palestine that directly contradicts Ramadan’s own published views, which he repeated today:
‘I never justified suicide bombings. My statements were always explicit. To kill innocent people is to be condemned. I have been going on repeating that we must understand and analyze the political contexts and environment in order to understand why people are using these ways to resist. For more than 40 years, the Palestinians have not used suicide bombings and they started to do so in 1994. Why? It was three years after the Barcelona agreement, one year after Oslo and just after the massacre in Hebron. They then had the feeling that they were lost, isolated and forgotten by the world. Suicide bombings started after this series of events. One can explain why it happened; it does not mean that one is justifying it. To explain is not to justify. This is my stand, this has always been my stand.’
I could go on, but it seems unnecessary when Ramadan himself has previously issued a point-by-point rebuttal to all of the allegations repeated in The Sun and Times when responding to Daniel Pipes.
Stirring up the clash of civilisations
There is a wider issue at stake here, however. In attacking a leading progressive Muslim scholar, The Sun is promoting Islamophobia more widely. That is why anti-racist campaigners were quick to condemn The Sun’s coverage. As Ruhul Tarafder of The 1990 Trust puts it:
‘The Sun’s sensationalist, disgraceful and irresponsible front-page story is simply an attempt to fuel Islamaphobia. Tariq Ramadan is a highly respected moderate Muslim scholar and was one of the first to condemn the London bombings, as he has condemned previous outrages. This demonisation does nothing but promote hostility towards Muslim communities. At a time of high emotions and the need for strength and unity between all faiths and communities, the inaccuracies and lies in this account only seek to encourage divisions. The Sun should issue an immediate apology to both Tariq Ramadan and the Muslim community.’
Since these words were spoken and in the time that I have been writing this article, strong evidence has emerged that the London bombers were young British Muslims. According to The Sun’s logic, this will no doubt make Ramadan’s visit all the more controversial, as it continues to deploy the rhetoric of Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson and Fouad Ajami (who claims that Ramadan’s “moderate face hides his radical heart” ) to attack him as a Muslim wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This is a particularly dangerous kind of nonsense. It sends out the message that Islam and terrorism are intrinsically connected, by perpetuating the racist myth that extremism is lurks behind the moderate façade.
For such commentators, what is threatening about Ramadan is precisely the fact that he doesn’t fit the ‘extremist’ caricature. His very presence is an affront to the belief that a clash of civilisations is just around the corner, because his work expresses the strong commonalities between European and Islamic principles, and invites European Muslims to embrace their connections with the society in which they live without giving up on their faith identity. Moreover, he does this by offering a vision of social justice that moves beyond the perspective of religious ‘minorities’ to argue that Muslim values can contribute to the construction of universal values of social justice – and so help breach the divide that a culture of terror widens to an insurmountable chasm.
The events of the last week make this message more relevant than ever, since Ramadan’s approach represents an articulate political and theological response to the literalists who would claim that British and Muslim values are incompatible. And it does so in a voice that neither requires an impossible or secularist compromise, whereby the only ‘good’ Muslim is one who has effectively given up her or his faith, nor ignores the social injustices that lie at the root of alienation within our society.
It may be impossible to ever full understand what motivated the London bombers, but the effect that they sought – to divide society and to spread fear – is more easily discerned. The Sun’s reporting on Tariq Ramadan highlights the risk that the media will regard British Muslims with caution and suspicion, a sure way to close off the path to mutual understanding. For if we make mistrust the basis of our exchanges then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.