When Tariq Ramadan speaks, the French establishment disagrees. Although he's been invited to hundreds of French debate shows, his most notable appearance was probably a 2003 debate with ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, in which the Muslim scholar (grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder in Egypt) suggested a moratorium on stoning unfaithful wives in the Middle East (warning: the English subtitles are wonky). His argument was that imposed sanctions would be unwelcome in the Islamic world, and only internal debate could lead to real progress.
This year, he's at it again. He's publicly said that French President François Hollande is the new George W. Bush, and while he condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre ein January, he also condemned the Charlie Hebdo illustrators, and refused to stand by them as everyone in the world was expressing their solidarity with #JeSuisCharlie.
Oh, and he also put up a letter on the Oumma website that the newspaper Le Monde refused to publish in which he accuses most French intellectuals of being too docile in response to Israeli and Zionist politics.
As you can imagine, many dismiss Ramadan as a pure provocateur. He was fired from Erasmus University in Rotterdam in 2009 for contributing to an Iranian state-owned television show, accused of supporting the regime, and making homophobic and misogynistic remarks on his show Islam and Life. In 2004 he was denied entry into the United States because of his donations to Palestinian charitable organizations that helped fund Hamas. In 2010, the State department rescinded this travel ban.
Despite, or maybe because of, these controversies, the prolific author has been featured on lists of influential thinkers in Time and Foreign Policy. He's a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford, is the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics' director in Qatar, and gives interviews in French, English, and Arabic whenever he's not posting homemade online videos commenting on the general status of Western-Islamic relations. I caught up with him before a Montréal conference, just days after the Paris attack.
VICE du Jour, November 24
VICE: You've compared François Hollande to George W. Bush. Can you explain why you made the comparison?
Tariq Ramadan: What I meant was that Hollande's speeches right after the attacks had the exact same tone as Bush's after September 11. And the tone contains three ideas: First, these people don't share our values, they don't like democracy. Secondly, they want to scare us, so we'll show them that we're not scared. We will hit them and we will do it with more strength. So, in the end, the fact that we are these people's victims justifies our policies. And [Hollande] also implies that you are either with us or against us, without necessarily explaining what that means, in terms of concrete actions in our foreign policy. Like, how will you bomb Syria? Why? In that sense it's the exact same thing [as Bush], this notion of revenge concealed behind national unity. It's very emotional. And it's troubling, if we consider that Bush's answer in 2001 wasn't really appropriate.
What can the West do about Syria and the Islamic State?
We have to be clear when we condemn ideology, objectives, and means. We have to be clear, not just as Westerners, but as Muslims in Muslim societies, that the Paris attacks need to be condemned. But we're also talking politics. And politics develop over time, and there are reasons for certain behaviors. We have to ask ourselves questions about the West's responsibility in the Middle East powder keg. We have to consider Afghanistan, our history with the Taliban, our alliance to Bin Laden before he became public enemy number one, our strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, all these are objective reasons that lead some to radicalization. The Iraqi model of complete instability, the division of the country, all the while protecting its mines and oil fields, it developed a surplus of violent extremism and terrorism. When they asked me to be on Tony Blair's task force in Great Britain, I told them, "I agree that in no way you can justify the killings of innocents in London by pointing to England's foreign policy, I understand that you have to condemn it, but there is a link between your foreign policy, following Bush, and then having people [in the Middle East] say, 'Hey, you're killing us over here, we're going to kill you over there.' You have to understand what you're doing there, what your project is, what your policies are in the Middle East."
There are things we need to talk about that we don't talk about, like the instability created in the Middle East, the alliances that lead to support for Israel and non-recognition of rights for Palestinians—all this is part of the general solution. But we'll also have to think about concrete politics: Iran has joined the regional coalition to fight Daesh, but we're working with Saudi Arabia at the same time, and these two countries are enemies.
How is Islamophobia evolving in France?
Islamophobia is definitely settling in. I said it 15 years ago: The problem is not the potential victory of the National Front [a far-right political party]. The problem is the normalization of its ideas. With the Republicans as much as with the Socialists. When we hear Prime Minister Valls on the left, or ex-president Sarkozy on the right, we can wonder where the difference lies. The National Front is gaining ground with this. The objective is fear. And there's a new informal concept right now, which is this notion of the alien citizen. He's a citizen, but he's a little bit of a stranger, because he's way too Muslim to be a complete French citizen. The National Front wants to revoke the French nationality for anyone suspected of having problematic thoughts linked to their adherence to Islam.
These are institutionalized measures of structured racism, and there needs to be a united front of men and women, not only Muslims, who answer to that. This isn't only limited to the French, as we saw with [former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen] Harper in the recent election who wanted to crystallize national identity with the niqab debate. This is the age of the emotional political discourse, not of ideologies debating with other, but of emotions confronting one another. This is breeding ground for Islamophobia, it's a breeding ground for anti-Semitism, and it's breeding ground for racism in general.
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