Islamophobia and Tariq Ramadan

Islamophobia and Tariq Ramadan

From the Morning Star, 8 January 2004

By Ken Livingstone

Last month I appointed Yasmin Qureshi as my human rights adviser, and asked her to also address the related issue of the rise in Islamophobia.

One issue that Yasmin has drawn attention to is the treatment of respected Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan by the US authorities, after Mr Ramadan resigned his professorship at an American university following the withdrawal of his visa.

Swiss-born Professor Ramadan is one of the most respected philosophers of religion and conflict resolution. He was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s top 100 influential thinkers last year. He was described by the Christian Science Monitor’s commentator on ethics and religion, Jane Lampman, as “one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim reformers.”

Mr Ramadan spoke at City Hall last summer in favour of a woman’s right to choose to wear the Muslim headscarf, or hijab, in the light of the new French law banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools.

When the furore broke in the media last year about the visit of Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi to City Hall, Peter Tatchell and others condemned the conference at which he spoke on the grounds that no speaker had defended the right of women not to wear the hijab.

In fact, Tariq Ramadan said: “It is against the Islamic teaching to force a woman to wear the Hijab, because it is an act of faith.”

Despite Ramadan’s respected academic status, his American visa was revoked in July under the Patriot Act, adopted after the terrorist attacks on September 11, thus preventing him from taking up his post at the University of Notre dame in Indiana. He has so far been refused a new visa.

It is a particularly disgraceful aspect of this whole episode that Ramadan’s opponents consistently point out that he is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. What kind of society are we living in where someone is censored and attacked because of who their grandfather was?

The failure of the US authorities to issue him with a visa led him to announce his resignation of two professorships at the university – professor of Islamic studies in the classics department and professor of religion, conflict, and peace-building – late last year.

He has accused the American authorities of attacking academic freedom.

As Yasmin Qureshi has argued, “the withdrawal of Tariq Ramadan’s visa is a de facto attack on academic freedom in the USA and it appears to send a signal to Muslims all over the world that their respected academics and scholars are not welcome in the US.”

The US authorities have so far failed to provide an explanation for the withdrawal of Tariq Ramadan’s visa.

If this can happen to a mainstream figure such as Professor Ramadan then Muslims everywhere will feel that it could happen to them.

Similarly Yusuf Islam, formerly the singer Cat Stevens, was also ejected from the USA last year, again with no reason given.

From the perspective of Europe the actions of the USA around Tariq Ramadan’s exclusion may seem mystifying and over-zealous. But Ramadan has also been on the receiving end of a campaign of vilification in Britain. Ramadan’s participation in the European Social Forum led to his portrayal as a supporter of domestic violence, an advocate of the creation of a hardline Islamic state, and for good measure, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna.

A motion drawn on this basis was adopted at the executive committee of the National Union of Students, committing the NUS to demanding Ramadan’s withdrawal from the ESF – in other words to ban him, as the US government has now done.

The resolution was then overturned at a later meeting of the NUS NEC when it became clear to the leadership of NUS that the original motion was a pack of lies. The resolution overturning the original motion pointed out that the “The allegations made in the motion are baseless and completely misrepresent Tariq Ramadan’s views.”

As Ramadan himself pointed out in relation to this episode, “I am surprised to read such statements about my thoughts and my books spread by student organisations that ought to promote a critical mind, intellectual probity and strict quotation-checking.”

It is to the credit of the NUS leadership that the earlier position was overturned, and to the enormous discredit of a minority of the NUS executive that some of them were prepared to persist with their slanderous campaign even when they were presented with the facts.

Thus the rise of Islamophobia does not limit itself to vicious tabloid attacks on senior figures within the Muslim faith such as Dr Qaradawi. The same tactics are used also used against “liberal” and academic Muslims too, because there is a pattern of Islamophobia, not merely aimed at particular strands of Islam but at the religion as a whole, in order to paint it as uniquely evil.

There is a huge ideological apparatus being constructed around the current policy of the US government towards the Middle East in order to justify military action in pursuit of the control of the resources of the Arab world. The “clash of civilisations” is central to this – and Islam is the enemy civilisation.

As Seumas Milne argued in the Guardian last month, the left is not immune to this problem: “For showing solidarity with Muslim organisations – whether in the anti-war movement or in campaigns against Islamophobia – left-wing groups and politicians are now routinely damned by liberal secularists (many of whom have been supporters of the war in Iraq) for … making common cause with ‘Islamofascists’, homophobes and misogynists.”

London has hundreds of thousands of Muslim residents who have a right not be singled out for a campaign of defamation and attack that goes back generations in the relationship between east and west but has been exacerbated by the new international climate.

It is for this reason that I will continue to work with Yasmin Qureshi and others to take up and combat the demonisation of Islam.