Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Caroline Fourest on Tariq Ramadan: the Evidence

The dossier published by L'Express on Caroline Fourest's forthcoming book Frère Tariq includes a large selection of extracts. These relate largely to the content of Tariq Ramadam's public lectures, as documented in a series of cassettes that circulate widely in French Muslim milieus. As noted in my earlier (and still evolving) post on "Tariq Ramadan, Non-Violent Man of Peace", the French Middle East specialist Antoine Sfeir has publicly linked the influence exerted by Ramadan's lectures in the banlieues of Lyon to the extraordinary flow of young Muslim men from the Lyon region to Afghanistan to join the forces of al-Qaeda. Incidentally, Mr. Ramadan sued Antoine Sfeir on account of the latter's public statements to this effect in the magazine Lyon Mag - and he lost. The Court of Appeals of Lyon found in its decision of May 22, 2003, and as cited by Caroline Fourest, that preachers like Tariq Ramadan "may have an influence on the young Islamists and constitute a factor of incitation that could lead them to join the partisans of violent measures."

Caroline Fourest's examination of Mr. Ramadan's lectures, as well as of the record of his other public pronouncements, represents exactly the sort of systematic investigation which is required to form an accurate assessment of his teachings and their impact upon his audience of choice: French Muslims. The contrast to the method employed by the NYTimes in its recent puff piece on Mr. Ramadan - simply to go ask the man what he thinks, without making any effort to corroborate his assertions from other public sources - could not be more stark. The Times's approach is particularly dubious in the case of a figure who has repeatedly been accused of maintaining what in French is called a "double discours": of saying one thing when he addresses his privileged audience or "community" - viz. Muslims - in restricted fora (such as his lectures) and quite another when he addresses the broader public, for instance through the major media.

Caroline Fourest suggests that Mr. Ramadan has raised this "double discours" to an art-form, such that he is even able through the strategic ambiguity of his vocabulary to address both audiences at the same time - and still have them understand different messages. Thus she cites a handbook on "Comprehension, Terminology and Discourse", edited and largely written by Tariq Ramadan and published by the Tawhid Press under the auspices of the Union of Young Muslims (UJM) . One section, for instance, is devoted to the "semantic redefinition" of the words "law, rationality, democracy and community". "For each word," Mme. Fourest writes, "the book explains how the word could be understood by westerners, to what it extent it poses a problem for Muslims, and proposes a 'conceptual formulation' that strongly resembles a redefinition designed to confuse one's interlocutors.... The word 'rationality', for instance, is no longer synonymous with the critical spirit of the Enlightenment, but rather with an "intellectual pathway permitting the discovery of faith".... In fact, for each keyword..., Ramadan has developed a second definition - accessible to those who have followed his lectures or read his most confidential books. This permits him to have an apparently inoffensive discourse while remaining faithful to an eminently Islamist message and without having to lie overtly - at least not in his eyes."

Mme. Fourest has also, however, documented cases in which Mr. Ramadan has indeed "lied overtly" - or at least blatantly contradicted himself regarding his own supposed convictions within a remarkably short period of time. Thus, she cites the interview that Mr. Ramadan gave in November 2003 to "Beur FM", France's communitarian radio station "for Muslims", and in which he openly identified himself with the rigorist "Salafist" current in Islam, claiming to be for a "salafist reformism". Only four months later at an UNESCO colloquium, when challenged by a prominent advocate of liberal Islam - of which Mme. Fourest is careful to point out there are many in France, but Mr. Ramadan is not one of them - Ramadan would protest: "I am not a Salafist! 'Salafi' means literalist and I am not a literalist."

Caroline Fourest's detailed citations from Mr. Ramadan show him indeed to be an adherent of rigorist principles: not only, as seen in my earlier post, refusing to condemn the stoning of women, but also in his lectures militating against co-ed swimming pools and even discouraging Muslim girls from participating in any sport in which they would run the risk of "revealing their bodies to men". This is "not permitted", Mr. Ramadan says in a recorded lecture on "The Muslim Woman".

It is also notable that while Mr. Ramadan claims to be an advocate of the integration of Muslims in western societies, in his lectures he makes this integration conditional upon the respect of four "pillars" of Muslim identity of his own devising. Whereas, as Mme. Fourest points out, these four "pillars" might seem harmless, they are so vaguely formulated - "to be able fully to live our spirituality and our pratices", for instance, or "to be able to act in the name of our faith" - that it would not be easy to say whether they are being respected or not. And if not, Mr. Ramadan is clear about the consequences: "If a society denies me one of these four points, I will resist this society, I will combat it."

Before taking any further measures in the case of Tariq Ramadan, US authorities would be well advised to study Caroline Fourest's book carefully.