Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a story on Tariq Ramadan, the European Muslim intellectual who has attacked French Jewish intellectuals for their support of the War in Iraq. Those attacked by Ramadan waged a counterattack of their own in which they accused him of anti-Semitism as well as intellectual opportunism in speaking tolerantly to Jewish audiences and militantly to Muslims. I wrote a post critical of Ramadan’s views on the issue: Tariq Ramadan: A European Muslim Attacks French Jewish Intellectuals.
Then I read a Muslim blogger’s post which quoted Ramadan giving a very strong affirmation of Judaism as a kindred religion to Islam, and one deserving of Muslims’ deep respect. I decided I needed to do some more research to know Ramadan’s views better. I found a jewel of a story at the Haaretz site: My Fellow Muslims, We Must Fight Anti-Semitism. The article notes that Ramadan joined 57 religious leaders of all the major religions in Europe calling for an end to religious violence, especially violence against Jews and Jewish institutions. Their public call stated: “The blood that is being spilled on the land that was sanctified by the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran is causing humanity to despair.” The signatories also warned that “the Israeli-Palestinian war has awakened criminal tendencies in France that endanger human lives and places of worship, including Jewish synagogues.”
Perhaps it would be best to let Ramadan speak for himself as quoted in the Haaretz article:
Ramadan, firmly condemns the anti-Semitic incidents that took place during the past year in France, Belgium and other European countries, such as attacks on synagogues and Jewish institutions. “Too few Muslims have spoken out against these anti-Semitic and Judeophobic phenomena,” he says.
In his opinion, any attempt to afford legitimization to anti-Semitism on the basis of texts taken from the Islamic tradition, and as an expression of protest against the suffering of the Palestinians, must be firmly rejected.
“To my regret, anti-Semitic utterances have been heard not only from frustrated and confused young Muslims, but also from certain Muslim intellectuals and imams,” he says, “who in every crisis or political backsliding see the hand of the `Jewish lobby.’ There is nothing in Islam that gives legitimization to Judeophobia, xenophobia and the rejection of any human being because of his religion or the group to which he belongs. Anti-Semitism has no justification in Islam, the message of which demands respect for the Jewish religion and spirit, which are considered a noble expression of the People of the Book.”
Even when he identifies urges that have their source in economic distress and social frustration among people who express themselves in an anti-Semitic way and are involved in anti-Semitic acts, Ramadan refuses to empathize or forgive them. He says: “Social and political forces in the Muslim communities must act to educate and delegitimize anti-Semitic thought and action. Leaders and imams must preach an unequivocal message about the profound connections between Islam and Judaism and Islam’s recognition of Moses and the Torah.”
“Despite what is happening today in Israel and Palestine, despite Sharon’s policy, despite the feelings of anger and frustration – those responsible for Muslim political and social organizations must open a dialogue that distinguishes between criticism of Israel’s policy, and anti-Semitic and Judeophobic statements and actions. This is lacking today and this is a great responsibility.”
The statements made by Muslim leaders so far do not satisfy him; these saw the anti-Semitic acts as deeds of a local nature, behind which there have been no national organizations and which derived from a sense of economic and social frustration. “The neighborhoods and suburbs must take action to clear out Judeophobia and it negative labels and stigmas; it is necessary to criticize mercilessly the theses of the extreme right and not to abandon the arena to dangerous political forces,” says Ramadan.
Misuse of the Holocaust Among Jews and Muslims
Ramadan warned, in his interview with Ha’aretz that two dangerous phenomena exist side by side: one is criticism of, and protest against Israeli policy toward the Palestinians that are accompanied by declarations denying the Holocaust took place; and the other defines any criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish propaganda and as ignoring the memory of the Holocaust.
“Recently, in a public debate that was held in Brussels on the war in the Middle East,” related the Muslim philosopher, “a woman in the audience challenged: `Why do you always bring up the Holocaust?’
“I replied immediately, `It is possible to be against Israel’s policy in Palestine, but we must take into account the real memory of the Jews’ suffering in the 20th century and evince special sensitivity to the Holocaust. This is an obligation of conscience and ethics. We must remember what happened so that it will never happen again.’
“From a different perspective, it is our obligation to tell every Jew or Zionist who supports Israel’s official policy that it is impossible to make systematic use of the Holocaust and the memory of the victims to give legitimization to Israel’s oppressive policy in Palestine. This is forbidden. The fact that there are people who use the memory of the Holocaust to justify Israel’s actions, which many define as state terror against the Palestinian people, does not justify others not taking into account the memory of the Holocaust. Both approaches must be condemned.”
Ramadan says that this opinion is shared by various elements in the Jewish communities of Europe, including that in France, as well as in the United States and Canada. “Even though they are still a minority,” he says, “they are making their voices heard. They are not afraid of self-criticism and are making a clear distinction between the official Israeli policy and their belonging to Judaism and the Jewish tradition. We must hear an identical position in principle from non-Jewish intellectuals as well, Muslims and non-Muslims, that will lead to staunch opposition to criticism of the state of Israel that is accompanied by statements and actions against Jews.
“There is an urgent need for Jewish and Muslim leaders in Europe to hold a frank and serious dialogue about the spirit of malaise that prevails between their communities. This is in order to put a stop to hostility, introversion, and mutual stigmatization that could hurt their ability to live together. The self-criticism must be mutual.”
According to him, criticism of the policies of Sharon’s government does not mean the expression of disrespect toward Judaism and Jews, just as criticism of regimes and dictatorships in Muslim states does not mean an attack on Islam.
Mixed Response from Muslims
Asked how his Muslim listeners, including intellectuals, respond to his positions, he replies: “Many of them were surprised by my opinions. Though I have not been defined as a traitor, there have been Muslims who have accused me of ‘playing into the enemy’s hands’ with my statements. My reply to them is that self-criticism benefits one who expresses it and allows him to correct and improve himself, and does not play into the hands of any enemy.
“The public and educational activity that I have undertaken is very difficult, as it deals with a subject that is emotionally loaded and demands a lot of patience. I also encounter responses of understanding and enthusiasm from Muslim intellectuals, including people from Arab states, who are encourage me and tell me: `It’s good that you are showing the courage to express your opinions; they must be stated.'”
Reading that Ramadan’s grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the early Muslim religious leaders to embrace anti-Semitic views, I wondered how the younger scholar would reconcile his views with his grandfather’s. Here’s what he said:
Asked whether he sees a contradiction between his tolerance and the ideological heritage of his grandfather Hassan Al-Bana, the founder and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members persecuted Jews in Egypt during the 1940s, Ramadan replies: “In my opinion it is necessary to present each of the positions, my grandfather’s and my own, in their political and historical context. Al-Bana lived at time when the state of Israel was being formed and he, like others, defined its establishment as an act of colonization which in his opinion justified resistance. This was a very difficult period for the Palestinians.
“Clearly there is a difference between what he said in his day and what I am saying today. I am living and speaking out more than 50 years after he was assassinated, that is, in a different era and in a different historical context. Over the years, things have changed in the Middle East and I take that into account in formulating my positions, positions that are congruent with my principles. There are some things of my grandfather’s with which I agree and others with which I don’t agree. I have taken from my grandfather what in my opinion is part of Muslim reformism. Al-Bana often said that ideas must not stand still. In the social realm, my grandfather’s ideology was reformist. Sometimes I express a critical position toward some of my grandfather’s ideological heritage and I take full responsibility for this. Therefore, my grandfather would not necessarily have agreed today with everything that I am saying now.”
What can one say? In the context of the Haaretz article, Ramdan’s views are exemplary and refreshingly tolerant. In the context of his attack on the French intellectuals, he seems to have stooped to a borderline anti-Semitic position. One would be hardpressed to say that Ramadan himself is an anti-Semite, but he does harbor some views that are inconsistent with the wonderfully refreshing views expressed in the above article.