April 13, 2010

New Yorker writer and others confront Tariq Ramadan with new charges


Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan

A forthcoming book from Melville House seems to be driving the discussion on a suddenly hot topic: Tariq Ramadan, the prolific Swiss-born Islamic philosopher, who was finally granted the right to a U.S. visa this past January. Just last week, he made his first New York public appearance since being banned from U.S. entry by the Bush administration.

First, he appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, where Lehrer confronted Ramadan on charges raised in Paul Berman‘s forthcoming book, The Flight of the Intellectuals (coming May 1 from Melville House) that he has called for the teaching of “Islamic biology” —  Ramadan changed the subject.

Later that day Ramadan appeared at an event at New York’s historic Cooper Union billed as “Secularism, Islam, and Democracy: Muslims in Europe and the West,” which featured a panel made up of Dalia MogahedGeorge Packer of The New Yorker, Joan Wallach Scott, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate — and where Packer raised other charges brought up in Berman’s book: that founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Ramadan’s own grandfather, were closely allied with important Nazi collaborators.

George Packer

George Packer

Writing about the event on his New Yorker blog, Packer summarized: “Drawing from a chapter in Paul Berman’s forthcoming book The Flight of the Intellectuals, I described the relationship between Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and a Nazi ally who made a series of genocidal broadcasts on an Arabic radio program transmitted from wartime Berlin, urging Arabs to rise up and kill Jews. I cited quotations from al-Banna expressing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views; I quoted Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a follower of al-Banna who is a hugely popular TV preacher on Al Jazeera, expressing similar views. And I asked Ramadan why he had never acknowledged, let alone condemned, these things.”

Ramadan’s answer was unsatisfying, according to Packer: “Ramadan and I went back and forth a number of times. And he couldn’t give me a direct answer. He hedged, he spoke about context, he suggested that the quotes were mistranslated, that they didn’t actually exist. But he refused to acknowledge that his grandfather and the Muslim Brotherhood in its origins were characterized by anti-Semitic or totalitarian views. It seemed clear that there was a limit to what he would allow himself to say or think, and that I had found it.”

An audio transcript of the conversation is available here, but MobyLives has also transcribed the relevant passage after the jump.

Jacob Weisberg: I’ll turn now to George Packer to continue this conversation. George, there are two persistent criticisms of Professor Ramadan which you encounter if you start to read about him. One is, and I’m merely summarizing here, I’m not taking this position myself, I’m serious, but one is that he engages in a kind of double-speak. He says very different things in front of an audience like this in the West, as opposed to what he would say in front of an Islamic audience in France or in a Muslim country. The other one is that in his desire to accommodate everyone, both liberals and orthodox Muslims, he sort of evades hard questions and conflicts and fundamental tensions between an open-ended society and religious fundamentalism. I wonder if you, as someone who has looked at this, thinks either of those criticisms is justified, and perhaps you can ask him some questions yourself that will help us form an opinion on that.

George Packer:
Ok: well, first, I want to welcome you to the US. It took six years too long. I wrote at the time that it was a disgrace for you to be banned from this country. It made the United States look illiberal and afraid and closed and I feel that today our country can say we are not as afraid as we might have seemed. So I’m glad you’re here.

I don’t buy the argument that Professor Ramadan is two-faced or speaks out of both sides of his mouth or says one thing to one audience and another to another. I just don’t see any evidence of it, and there is evidence that he says the same thing to every audience. There is a very good essay written by my wife about Professor Ramadan, which I’ve read a few times. Apparently she’s the only journalist to ever accompany him on his speaking appearances in mosques and community centers in France. And she found that he was telling them anti-Semitism is a terrible thing, and it is to be avoided, and there should be no… etc., etc. So her findings, and everything I’ve read of his, tells me that he’s an open book. There’s not a hidden agenda. In fact, there are many open books. He’s prolific.

The second question, I don’t know the answer to yet, and I’m going to use tonight to try to get an answer. You said part of being here is to be challenged, so I want to ask you two questions that are challenging questions and partly in order to answer, or try to begin to answer Jacob’s second question. One of them is a historical question and the other is a philosophical question and they may seem that they’re about far away or ancient things, but I think they’re relevant. And they’re really about the foundation on which you’re building a bridge.

You are a bridge builder, and I think it is a good thing that you’re doing that, and I think your bridge is going to lead to a better place than any of the alternatives that I can think of. But I worry about the foundation on which you’re building the bridge. And to get to the historical question, which is about that foundation.

A book is about to be published by the writer Paul Berman called The Flight of the Intellectuals. And there’s a chapter in that book that’s about the relationship between Hassan al-Banna, your grandfather, and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. And the book describes Hassan al-Banna’s tireless support for the grand mufti of Jerusalem in the 30’s and 40’s. And the convergence of their views on certain questions-for those in the audience who don’t know, the grand mufti of Jerusalem was a leading collaborator with Nazi Germany, so willing a collaborator that he did a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin during the war in which he incited Arabs to rise up and kill the Jews. It was genocidal radio broadcasting, along the lines of Hutu power in Rwanda in 1994, and it was only because of the accident of Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein that there was no chance for that to happen.

Your grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, waged a tireless campaign of solidarity with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, managed to help him escape any war crimes trial that might have followed the war, and brought him back to Cairo after the war, and said, upon the grand mufti’s arrival, “This hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin al-Husseini will continue the struggle.” He said even more direct things, or wrote them. He wrote in his “Epistle to the Young” that Mussolini’s Italy and the German Reich were models for the Muslim Brotherhood. And he wrote in his “To what do we Summon Mankind” that Hitler and King Saud were also models for the Brotherhood. You’ve written about his life in your book Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, which I’ve read, but you haven’t written about these things.

You have not gone into the detail that Paul Berman exhaustively goes into in his book. And it makes me ask, is there a limit to what you’re willing to say, or even to think?  Is there a red line, which is your lineage, your heritage? I’m not attributing these views to you, and I’m not asking you to repudiate your grandfather. I’m asking you why you haven’t condemned him for his association with the grand mufti and for these statements. Which actually, they’re not just ancient history because one of your grandfather’s followers, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who preaches on Al Jazeera from Qatar, he’s Egyptian born, just last year said Hitler was sent by Allah as a punishment for the corruption of the Jews. I don’t know if you condemned it at the time; you’ve spoken quite highly of Sheikh al-Qaradawi.

My first question is, do you condemn these things, or is there a limit to the breadth of your ethical vision? Let me ask the second question and then we’ll get to that. The second question is philosophical. Where do rights come from? That’s my basic question. Do they come, are they inherent in being human, or do they come from revealed religion? Do they come from the texts, which are subject to interpretation by, as Jacob pointed out, usually male religious authorities? And it’s an important question, it’s foundational. It gets at your vision of what we are as human beings and as citizens. It’s especially important in Muslim majority countries, because in those countries, especially where there is essentially an Islamic state, those rights, which may exist today, can be taken away tomorrow if the body of the clerics decides on a new interpretation.

So we may have an enlightened Tariq Ramadan-like interpretation today, but tomorrow, we might find that that’s changed. And that’s the nature of rights that are not inherent and universal but that are based in religion and in religious text. And the fact that in my experience in Muslim countries, there is a serious abridgement of thought and expression, especially about religion, is a consequence of rights not being inherent but coming from an authority. That’s the basic difference. But I think it also has an effect in Europe where Muslims are a minority because in the case of the Danish cartoons, the question I had was do they have a right to insult other people’s religion? I don’t like insulting people’s religions, it’s bad manners, but I think people have an absolute right to do it, and I think the organizations that help bring you here are based on defending that right. And yet, I think among a good many Muslims in Europe, and not just the ones who advocate or seek to carry out violence against those cartoonists, who are a serious few, there isn’t that absolute conviction that there’s a right, that the right of freedom of expression includes the right to insult, ridicule, other people’s religions. So I guess I ask, where do rights come from and do they include that right?

[Sighs] Ok…

: You can take a few minutes.

I have more than two minutes? So about your first question, let me tell you something about, you know, you spoke about the book of Paul Berman which is going to be published. I have been asked-I arrived yesterday and for the last, this morning-at least three times about this book and I read what he was writing before and I can just tell you something which is quite important for me. Mainly, I was expecting something else from someone from his reputation because he is translating things that I have been facing during the last twenty years in Europe about my grandfather, about the moratorium, and all this. This is a book of translation from French to English of some of the points, and I responded to many of this. But on the specific point that you are referring to, and on my grandfather: Once again, I said it. I’m coming from this family and I’m [looking at] his life and what he’s been doing, and I put this into the context of the 30’s and the 40’s in Egypt.  Many things that he was saying, for example, resisting the British colonization, educating the people, spreading the message of Islam, as something, which was a resisting force, this was something that I respect. Now there are other things and that the organization, the hierarchy, these are things that I have been critical, and I said it.

Now on this very specific point: If you can find me a true quotation, because this is what is in the book I wrote, that what hasn’t been said about the Nazi and the fascist is this is the distortion of the European nationalism, and I quote this sentence in the book. His support to the mufti is something which is supporting the mufti against what was happening in Palestine which is the silent colonization and especially the Stern and Irgun groups, which were terrorist groups, this is against them that he was speaking that way. So we should also contextualize this. Now, anything which has to do from anyone, from my grandfather or anyone, supporting the Nazi or supporting the killing of Jews because they are Jews, or anti-Semitists, I’m condemning it. So there is no limit from whoever is saying this. But I don’t want wrong quotation and things that are not put in this very specific context saying I am supporting the mufti, in the name of Islam, against anything which has to do with colonization and the creation-he was against the creation of Israel, this is quite clear. In that time, in the specific context, you also have to listen to some of what he was saying, some of the quotation that he was…

Packer: Well, one of the quotes I read was from a book called Nazi Propaganda in the Arab World which was published last year by Jeffery Herf, which uses files from the American Embassy in Cairo, which were transcribing both the mufti’s radiobroadcasts from Berlin and al-Banna’s speech in Cairo when the mufti came to Cairo after the war. So these are from scholarly works.

Ramadan: No no, but the point is, there is no discussion about the fact that he supported him as a force against, you know, the creation of Israel, there is no discussion about this.

But don’t you think, even to support him for that reason, after he’s just spent five years giving aid and comfort and genocidal radio broadcasts from Berlin, taints the Muslim Brotherhood, to say the least, from its beginning?

Ramadan: No, the point is that the support from this very specific period of time, that we had even in Europe, by people supporting, because there were, even in France we have this-to condemn this support and to say any kind of support to the Nazi was wrong, I have no difficulty in saying this was wrong and not acceptable. But now, what I am telling you is that quotation coming from Hassan al-Banna supporting the Nazi, or supporting anti-Semitism the way you describe this, I am challenging this because I didn’t find this quotation the way they were put. Now, if this is the case and you can come with the true quotation, not what, you know, many thing was said about Hassan al-Banna that he, if you come back to the text, you find exactly other quotation and things that are not, exactly the opposite. I came with the quotation when he said the fascist system is a distortion of nationalism and this is not the way we should go. So on this point, to be clear, that I’m basing my position here on quotation and if this is the case, if you can find it, I will condemn this. Now the support of the mufti in this specific situation, we have to contextualize, but the support of anything which has to do with supporting the Nazi system is something that I won’t accept.

I guess one of Berman’s points is that in your Aux Sources du Renouveau Musulman, you mention al-Banna’s relationship with the mufti but you say nothing about the mufti’s years in Nazi Germany during the war, and it seems as if you’re white-washing that very important part of the mufti’s thought and action in order to let your grandfather off the hook, as it were.

Ramadan: No, I don’t think that this is right. I’m talking about the position of my grandfather towards Israel, and there are three things that I’m not hiding. He was against the creation of Israel at that time and this was the position of all the Arabs, this is one. Second, he was using all the allies that he could get but he never supported the fascist systems, never. This is what I’m saying, and this is true, and this is based on what he wrote because there are 2,000 articles that were not published that we have. He never supported the Nazi or the fascist system. This is not true. This is the second thing that I am saying. And the third thing that I am saying is that this also has to be contextualized. So, it’s not a book on the relationship with the mufti and what the mufti was doing. Now if for you, this shows that he is supporting the Nazi system, I think it’s not enough. He was supporting the resistance towards what was the project of the creation of Israel.

I don’t like contextualizing a long-term alliance with a leading Nazi propagandist and collaborator. [Applause] To me, there’s nothing to contextualize.

No, I think that this is not, this is not the way it should be put, because he was not, and once again, he was, the mufti of Jerusalem, he decided his own strategy. Hassan al-Banna was not responsible of his strategy. He supported someone saying that Palestine should be freed from anything which was an attempt to create the state of Israel on that place. This is what was his position. Now you cannot, and if you should do this, you should do this even with the United States of America, that sometimes you have allies in very specific situations that you are not supporting all their views. It happened in the European history even with the resistance. So will I say that on that point, my text was not about the relationship and what the mufti was saying, is that the very specific position, and the very specific position is that you cannot find in anything which was coming from Hassan al-Banna the support for the Nazi.

Packer: But it’s in illusion, it’s an illusion that worries me because it suggests that to go down a road that would actually be difficult for you, that would be difficult for you, you pull back. You retreated from that road because it would have raised hard questions about your grandfather and the Brotherhood.

Weisberg: I think we’ve aired this issue very well. Let me just interject for one minute and say we want to give time for the audience to ask questions as well.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.