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Arab Spring not Islamist uprising, says Muslim intellectual

Tariq Ramadan says leaders trying to establish regimes with values similar to the West. Photo: Martin Bureau, AFP, Getty Images,

Source : Robert Sibley | Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA | 18 Jul 2011

The future of the Arab Spring is "unpredictable," and, indeed, hopes for democracy in the region could be derailed if the political situation becomes too divisive, says a prominent Muslim intellectual. "It is a very difficult reality we have now in these countries (Egypt and Tunisia)," says Tariq Ramadan. "The polarization . could in fact stop the democratic process itself."

Ramadan, a Swiss-born academic widely known in Europe for his arguments on behalf of the Muslim presence in the West, made his remarks in a lecture late last week at the Museum of Civilization. The lecture, entitled The Arab Spring and the West, was sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, and attracted about 400 people.

Describing himself as "cautiously optimistic" about what Arab Spring might produce, Ramadan was adamant that those leading the uprisings, whether in Egypt and Tunisia or other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, genuinely want to establish regimes that embody values Westerners find appealing; that is, regimes based on the values of freedom, democracy, universal suffrage, individual rights and justice for all.

"These are not Islamist uprisings, but the great majority of the people asking for dignity, justice, freedom and democracy are Muslims. The Muslims in the Middle East share with us in the West the same values."

However, Ramadan, a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University in England, said nothing about these uprisings is simple. For instance, even today elements of the Egyptian military, which supported former president Hosni Mubarak for decades, remain close to the U.S. military and are trying to shape events to their advantage.

Yet, even while the American military supported the Mubarak regime, the U.S. State Department during the Bush administration was training young Muslim leaders on how to use social media technology to promote democratic change. "Before President Obama it was quite clear that the (Bush) administration was already talking about changes in the region," Ramadan said in an interview after the lecture. He emphasized this doesn't mean the U.S. was behind the uprisings - "They were not able to control the mass protests because no one could have predicted there were going to be mass protests" - simply that the Americans, like everyone else, want control things.

In this regard, he said, the Arab Spring is "deeply complex," involving everything from economic issues - the price of food, the lack of jobs, poor social conditions, in particular - as well as geopolitical interests. For example, the American and the European governments are trying to influence the situation to keep China out of Middle Eastern, he noted.

Ramadan also said he believes that western concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings to impose Islamist regimes in Egypt and Tunisia are overblown. This fear was promoted by the dictators to stay in power.

Certainly, members of the Brotherhood were active in the uprisings, but they were not controlling them, he said. Indeed, according to Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood is divided.

The older leadership doesn't necessarily represent the aspirations of many of its younger members, some of whom have formed their own political parties. Nor do the Muslim Brotherhood, or Islamists in general, represent the majority in, say, Egypt or Tunisia.

Ramadan's sanguine view of the Muslim Brotherhood has been questioned, including by other Muslims. Mohamed Sifaoui, a French journalist, is categorical in saying Ramadan "is an Islamist" bent on promoting the European version of the Muslim Brotherhood "in order to Islamize" the West.

Salim Mansur, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario, describes Ramadan as the "charming face" of European Islamism. Tarek Fatah, a founding member of the Muslim Canadian Congress, refers to Ramadan as "the darling of the world Islamist establishment," an intellectual who "camouflages his Islamist agenda under the niqab of ambivalent doublespeak."

Judging from Ramadan's lecture alone, it is impossible to come to that conclusion. He said nothing particularly that hints at Islamist sentiments. To be sure, he criticized Israel's "colonizing" of the West Bank, its naval blockade of Gaza, and its "oppression" of Palestinians, but that's to be expected.

Skeptics say the moderate language typifies Ramadan's style of dissimulation, and suggest his associations reveal deeper loyalties and purposes.

Consider, for example, the sponsor of his lecture. The CJPME is a left-wing group active in promoting an economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Last year Ramadan was listed as a guest speaker - by video - at the Islamic Society of North America's diversity forum.

ISNA, which is generally regarded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was designated by the U.S. Department of Justice as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terror-funding prosecution in the United States.

In early 2010, Ramadan was a guest speaker at a meeting of the Muslim Association of Canada. On its website the association said its roots can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood and that it "strives to implement Islam . as understood in its contemporary context by the late Imam, Hassan Al-Banna."

Al-Banna was Ramadan's grandfather. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 to promote Salafism, a term that refers to the Arab dream of returning Islam to the strict practices of sharia that prevailed in the seventh century.

Ramadan's father, Said Ramadan, was Al-Banna's son-in-law and personal secretary.

He was expelled from Egypt and ended up in Switzerland, where he established the Islamic Centre to promote the Brotherhood's ideas in Europe.

All this, according to critics, should make people cautious about Ramadan.

As Tarek Fatah puts it: "Ramadan reflects the new sophisticated arm of the worldwide Islamist movement, which sees the West as the right place to wage a cultural and intellectual jihad."

Ramadan dismisses suggestions he's promoting any radical agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying he is merely trying to build bridges between Islam and the West.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


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