Oxford prof. Tariq Ramadan talks Middle East unrest

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Tariq Ramadan gives a speech in Blau Auditorium on Monday. Buy this photo

By Peter Shahin, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 10, 2012

For a man banned from the United States for six years, Tariq Ramadan drew a big crowd.

On a whirlwind tour of the United States, Ramadan, a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford in England and one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars in Middle Eastern affairs, gave a lecture and answered questions Monday night at the University’s Law School. Topics focused primarily on the recent unrest in Egypt and the other countries involved in the Arab Spring, but also shifted to critiques of Western democracy and the role of women in the Islamic world.

Ramadan, a controversial figure in global politics, was previously prevented from accepting a teaching position at Notre Dame University by the U.S. State Department in 2004 when his visa was revoked. The State Department argued his exclusion was justified by his ideology and financial contributions he made in the 1990s to groups now linked with Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

But, because the organizations were not identified as affiliates of terrorist groups at the time of his contributions, Ramadan claims he was not connected to them.

In January 2010, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton personally signed an order lifting the ban against Ramadan, allowing him to enter the United States.

His visit, sponsored by the University’s Muslim Student Association, drew a crowd of more than 600 students packed into three rooms. The event was also streamed online for others to view.

Ramadan’s visit to the United States, which includes stops in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Ann Arbor, is to promote his new book, “The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East.” The book presents his analysis and views about the Arab Spring, its ramifications for the West and the peoples of the Middle East.

Ramadan began his speech by reminding attendees that the West played a role in supporting the authoritarian powers of the Middle East for generations, and said the people of the United States and Europe should criticize their governments for supporting the regimes for so long.

“Our governments in the United States of America and the European countries have been supporting dictators, and supporting a lie,” Ramadan said.

Ramadan called on Westerners, particularly Western Muslims, to stand up and defend the nascent reforms in the Middle East. He spoke at length about the discordant conflict between the Islamist parties and the secular groups vying for influence while forming governments in post-revolution countries.

“Western Muslims are too much on the defensive in a discussion, they are apologetic very often,” Ramadan said. “It’s high time now to be much more involved in the discussion.”

The pervasive division between secularists and Islamist groups is another major problem facing the new governments, Ramadan said. He lambasted Middle East intellectuals for ceding too much blind authority to religious leaders.

Still, he said the division between the two groups prevented a real discussion of how to face the economic and social problems gripping the post-uprising countries.

“You have less critical thinking and more emotional politics, you are losing democracy for instance,” Ramadan said. “People are abusing Islam in an emotional role to attract people, not about critical thinking.”

Ramadan disputed the idea that the uprising took the West by surprise, and that governments had been making contingency plans years in advance.

“The United States and the European countries needed democratization in the region,” Ramadan said. “Supporting the dictators was becoming difficult for a number of reasons.”

Ramadan credited the U.S. State Department and other Western organizations for helping train Egyptians in social media tactics prior to the uprising. He stated that some of those who were trained in the United States were arrested in the Cairo airport by the Mubarak government when returning to Egypt before the revolution began.

“Google was also involved in giving the satellite (access) codes to demonstrators in Egypt, but they didn’t give them to Syrian people,” Ramadan said. “Why? At the beginning, remember, the philosophy from the American government and the European governments was to have Bashar al-Assad reform his regime from within.”

Ramadan also addressed women’s rights, saying the status of women was more dependent on their education than what coverings they choose to wear.

“True empowerment is our education and job market,” Ramadan said. “When you are serious about the education of women and access to the job market, this is what you are doing to empower women, it’s not the way you dress.”

LSA senior Amre Metwally, the night’s master of ceremonies, said the event with Ramadan has been in the works for almost a year and that planning around his schedule was the major challenge. He added that it was unexpected that Ramadan focused so much on transnational issues rather than the internal politics of each country.

“It was a refreshing twist to hear him talk about Muslim Americans, European Muslims, and how, once again this issue goes beyond nationality, beyond religion, and affects everyone,” Metwally said.

Metwally, who said he visited family in Egypt this summer, described the situation as restless, with the population becoming disillusioned about how quickly changes could take effect after the revolution.

“Regardless of the how people feel about the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s dominant political party), people are relieved to see someone standing up to the military,” Metwally said.

LSA junior Zeinab Khalil, MSA president, said she was impressed that Ramadan downplayed the role of Islam in the debate about the Middle East, instead focusing on civil society.

“For him, because he’s studied this topic so much, it seems trite,” Khalil said. “Let’s move on and talk about what people are really worried about, really thinking about.”

Khalil added she was surprised to hear how much Western involvement played a role in the Middle Eastern uprisings.

“You can’t dismiss the fact that it was there, but I wonder if he was over-emphasizing the role that the West played during this uprising,” Khalil said. “It’s something I want to go look more into.”

LSA senior Sarah Awad-Farid, an MSA member, said the focus on empowering American Muslims was refreshing.

“I was surprised … that he would encourage American Muslims to think outside the box, to say that you are an American so you have the right to use language that you’re used to without apologizing,” Awad-Farid said. “Don’t be passive, be involved in your communities, because once you’re passive and on the defense, it’s negative.”

Awad-Farid added that the focus on women’s rights was heartening, especially Ramadan’s recognition of the issues that women face.

“As a male, it’s very important that he also reiterates the importance of female empowerment,” Awad-Farid said. “He talked about women’s empowerment, but women’s empowerment through education, which is a huge suffering point in the Middle East.”