Friday, June 8, 2007

Tariq Ramadan: Europe & Islam

By pure dumb luck, IEMed organized a lecture series about more or less the exact topic I studied last term, Muslims/Islam in Europe. This is an extremely important issue both for understanding Europe’s future and, obviously, in the post- 9/11 context of the ‘war on terror’ (an unhelpful but inevitable term). How they knew to schedule the series for my arrival in Bcn, I have no idea. But I salute them.

The other night I attended the session featuring Tariq Ramadan and a couple of other intellectuals in the field. Ramadan is an important and controversial Swiss Muslim academic who, in short, speaks optimistically of a modernized, European Islam but also has dubious family connections and would appear to sometimes cater to extremist and/or anti-Western ideas, especially regarding women’s and individual rights (and of course the big issue of church-state separation, though he is ready to accept this reality). The latter claim has been much debated.

In a move that has become symbolic of his controversial status and of the American approach to the struggle against terrorism, Ramadan was denied a US Visa at the last minute, after accepting a job as lecturer in Peace Studies (sth like that) at Notre Dame; the US claimed dubious contributions to a group who was later accused of supporting Hamas. Ramadan had already moved his family over and enrolled the kids in school. (Oxford subsequently took him on as lecturer.)
Several big articles and books about the topic depict him as a mysterious, contradictory leader of a movement or emerging face of Europe that most natives don't quite know what to do with. He speaks about the complex situation faced by many Muslim Europeans, in which—to simplify—their true motives and trustworthiness are placed in doubt, and conspiracy theories easily take hold, along the lines of a Clash of Civilizations or "Eurabia". Ian Buruma wrote a big piece on him the NYTimes Magazine recently, and Timothy Garton Ash wrote about him in the NYRB before that. Paul Berman just published a massive and highly informative piece in TNR about both Ramadan and the media coverage of him, which I was just able to read before the lecture.

What a treat it was to see him speak in person. It was just like when NYU gets some academic big shot who fills up a conference hall-- except in Spain, and he spoke French, while everyone else spoke Catalan (which I struggle to understand). The guy is a smooth operator, great speaker, patient, humorous, above all extremely intelligent. I honestly think that the West needs a guy like him ‘on their side’ in the broader struggle for Muslim hearts and minds, of which the 'war on terror' is just a part. Despite his rough edges, he shouldn’t be dismissed, much less considered an enemy. But the issue has been politicized out of control. Certain American intellectuals (neoconservatives, especially, and Berman, who is apparently a liberal, haha) are all too eager to call him a terrorist because his grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and he has said some questionable things about Jews. In any case, in the wake of Berman's novella, this is not the place to dive into the debate.   

The conference itself wasn’t spectacular. Frankly I’d already heard much of what was said, and I don’t think there were too many ground breaking or highly thought-provoking comments made. It reminded me a lot of that feeling of disappointment at about half of the academic lectures I go to in NYC: there's this sort of disappointment wherein the more familiar you are with the topic, the less you get out of the lecture, because there’s never enough time to analyze specific issues, or to make difficult connections (or to address your pet issue).

The best and most telling moment of the evening came after the lecture. By then half the crowd had left, others were chatting, and there was a long line of mostly Muslims waiting to speak with Ramadan, who hadn’t left his seat. This was actually quite spectacular, and I stood there and took it in. You could see the way these people—a tiny minority in Spain, fighting against several difficult stereotypes—respected and admired him and his message that it is no contradiction to be European and Muslim. Ramadan chatted patiently with each person in line; he was in no rush. It seemed clear that, being already a veteran on the lecture circuit, he knew this unofficial role was just as important as the speech. He seemed to grasp just how much these young people need positive, progressive Muslim role models (and how few of them there still are in Europe). I really wanted to speak with him myself, but I wasn’t going to sit there for an hour only to bother the man with my particular gripes about his politics and double-faced strategy. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Next Wedsnesday features Olivier Roy, who is kind of like the Michael Jordan of experts on Islam in Europe and around the world. Like MJ, he can do everything: strictly religion, young disaffected French Muslims, terrorism, globalization, deterritorialization, etc. I’m hoping to stick him a tough question, probably about Ramadan’s role. I hope he brings his A game.

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