Tariq Ramadan’s Arab Winter
OVER THE PAST decade, Tariq Ramadan has emerged as one of the most influential “anti-imperialist” Islamic intellectuals in the West. At the heart of Ramadan’s critique is the idea that, while Western powers no longer directly govern their former colonies, “ideological imperialism” continues. In this theory, feminism, liberal democracy, and especially secularism are all distinctly Western and often tied to Christianity. Therefore, these concepts are not universally good, and one should not expect other, non-Western societies to aspire to them. Arabs and Muslims, as Ramadan suggests, should instead rely on “their own history” and “their values.”
The Arab Spring, however, has put Ramadan in a sticky spot. These protests were led, at least initially, by young liberals and leftists whose ideas Ramadan considers to be at best inauthentic, and at worst remnants of Western imperialism. Those brave young activists were decidedly secular. Some raised the banner of liberalism and even, dare we say it, feminism. What was a good post-colonial theorist to do? Does one stand with the revolution and undermine the view that these ideas are a form of “ideological imperialism”? Or does one reject the revolutionaries as pawns in a great Western conspiracy? Neither of these options appealed to Ramadan. The first undermines the analytical framework upon which his entire career rests, and the second puts him on the same side as the dictators he despises.
Ramadan’s new book is his attempt to wiggle out of this conundrum. With events still in flux, the book is obviously a rushed analysis designed to strike while the iron—and public interest—is hot, rather than a carefully considered study. In fact, the main text is only 144 pages; the remaining 65 pages of the book consist of 28 previously published and only loosely related articles written as the Arab Spring unfolded. One imagines that Ramadan included these articles not simply as filler, but because they demonstrate something important about his analysis. What they, along with the main text repeatedly reveal, however, is that the anti-imperial lens through which he sees the region consistently leads him astray.
RAMADAN IS THE SCION of an important Islamist family. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and is considered by many to be the father of modern Islamism. Ramadan’s parents were exiled from Egypt, and they raised him in Switzerland. Despite his lineage, the European environment in which he came of age led him to a more moderate understanding of Islam. His views on the relationship between Islam and the West, or the ability for Muslims to integrate with non-Muslims, are far less confrontational than those of his grandfather. Some have even championed Ramadan as one of Islam’s brightest reformers—a mantle that Ramadan has readily adopted in books such as Radical Reform.