Front-page horror stories of extremist preachers filling the heads of young British Muslims with suicidal thoughts are a crude but effective means of helping to create the environment necessary for authoritarian action. They also help to sell newspapers. So it is that, since the tragic events of July 7th, Fleet Street’s fundamentalists have focused on “mad” Omar Bakri Muhammad, “bad” Abu Qatada and, of course, the tabloid favourite: the one-eyed, hooked-handed Abu Hamza.
Caught in the spotlight are some of the very thinkers Muslims and non-Muslims need to hear. First there was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely regarded as a moderate and one of the most respected scholars in the Muslim world. But because Qaradawi has given qualified support to Palestinian suicide bombing, parts of the British media have linked him to the London bombs and demanded he be refused entry. His unreserved condemnation of the London bombers goes largely unreported.
And then there’s Tariq Ramadan. On Sunday, the Swiss-born Muslim academic is due to address young Muslims at a conference at London’s Islamic Cultural Centre, sponsored by the Metropolitan police. His message will be unambiguous: the authors of the London bombs were criminals, and we should not accept their justifications, whether ideological, religious or political.
The Sun is campaigning to have Ramadan barred from the UK as an “extremist Islamic scholar” who is “banned from America and France” and has “suspected links with terrorists”. It warns that the “soft-spoken professor” is “more dangerous” than Hamza and Bakri because his “moderate tones present a ‘reasonable’ face of terror to impressionable young Muslims”. These claims are being repeated as fact by other papers, TV pundits and politicians.
In reality, Ramadan is renowned across the Muslim world as a reformist thinker and is despised by traditionalists for his progressive interpretation of Islamic sources. Along with millions of non-Muslims in this country, he supports the right of Palestinians and Iraqis to resist occupation but has never supported suicide bombings. He has no links with any terrorist group and is not banned by France. When his visa to teach in the US was revoked last year days before he was due to take up a professorship, British MPs, US academics and human rights lawyers rushed to condemn the Bush administration.
So where are conservative journalists getting their misinformation about a man Time magazine recently rated as one of the top 100 thinkers of the 21st century - and whose hosts include Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Archbishop of Canterbury? Part of the answer can found in France, where his status as public enemy number one was sealed by an article he wrote on the eve of the second European Social Forum in Paris in 2003. He accused a group of high-profile French scholars of allowing their support for Israel to dictate their positions not just on the Iraq war and Palestine, but also on domestic policy issues relating to Islam and the problems of suburban French ghettoes.
Overnight Ramadan became the victim of a media smear campaign and was branded an anti-semite. The press suggested that a terrorist bloodline passed directly to him from his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood; Ramadan was denounced as a “fork-tongued fundamentalist” who seduced people with liberal rhetoric in French but called for violence in Arabic.
The hysteria has spread to the political level. Last January the organisers of a conference in the Netherlands were “strongly advised” in private by the French embassy to cancel Ramadan’s invitation, on the grounds that he was “dangerous”.
The attacks on Ramadan are not motivated by fear of religious extremism - this is no rabble-rousing cleric with a perverted take on Islam - but by the cultural imperialism that grips France’s republican white majority and the influence of Ramadan’s challenge to it among France’s 5 million Muslims, especially the youth.
By asserting that “anything not explicitly forbidden by Islamic principles is permissible”, Ramadan’s interpretation of Islamic scriptures and western liberal democracy charts a clear path for European Muslims to live an authentically Islamic life and fully participate as European citizens. Through the civil liberties enshrined in liberal democracy, Muslims can enjoy the freedom to religious conscience and expression, and the freedom against being forced into practices that Islam explicitly forbids, such as supporting or participating in unjust wars. Ramadan takes on those traditionalists who equate Islam and Arab culture as synonymous. “There is only one Islam,” he has stated, “but it can be culturally African, Asian, European or American.”
For third-generation Muslims who are torn between the liberties and discriminations of French society and the traditionalist and spiritual stance of their parents, Ramadan’s guidance has been a revelation. They have learned that to become a genuine French citizen one does not have to renounce one’s faith.
But more fundamentally, he has challenged the dominant French assimilationist model, rooted across the political spectrum, that to be truly French, Muslims must abandon the right to their own identity. Ramadan follows in the footsteps of revolutionary thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X in attacking notions of the west’s superiority and its seemingly immutable values. He turns the paradigm on its head and establishes the universal values of Islam within the framework of western societies.
The tragedy is that by shutting down debate in Britain, scholars and clerics such as Ramadan, Qaradawi and even Bakri cannot seriously be questioned in public debate by Muslims and non-Muslims on the vital issues of identity, citizenship and shared and contested values. Figures such as Ramadan would quickly silence the voices of segregationism and extremism. This issue goes well beyond Ramadan; it is about the very future of western Muslims and their fellow citizens living together in peace and mutual respect.