In my January 27th post on France’s Mali intervention I linked to a tribune by a Senegalese academic, Bakary Sambe, who skewered Tariq Ramadan for his opposition to the said intervention, and where I referred to the celebrated Egyptian-Swiss philosopher as an “overrated bloviator.” I am not a fan of the très médiatique Ramadan, needless to say, though used to have a positive image of him, taking him to be a moderate, modernist Islamic thinker based on numerous op-ed type articles he published over the years in the French press, plus flattering portraits of him that appeared here and there (I’ve leafed through a few of his books, which mainly focus on Islamic thought—not a subject of primordial interest to me—, but will admit to not having read one cover-to-cover). I also did not (and do not) care for some of Ramadan’s high-profile detractors in France and the US (e.g. Caroline Fourest, Paul Berman, Daniel Pipes), who have been engaged in an obsessive vendetta against him for years. And I considered indefensible his temporary banning from France in the mid ’90s—over which I initiated a letter of protest by MESA to then interior minister Jean-Louis Debré—and exclusion from the US during the Bush administration.
But after seeing TR up close—for the first time some five years ago, in a classroom talk—and exchanging a few words with him, I decided that he is a slick, smooth-talking self-promoter, who wows audiences with his affability, eloquence—he can give a one-hour talk in flawless English, with no notes and without skipping a beat—, and dapper good looks but ultimately says little of substance. And his answers to questions on politics and social issues during a Q&A are for the most part langue de bois (e.g. I asked him to give his assessment of the AKP government in Turkey—which had been in power for five years—, to which he responded something to the effect of “What is happening in Turkey is very interesting and we need to follow it closely and see where it’s going”… Not terribly deep or enlightening). He’s a friendly fundamentalist, adapting his discourse to the circumstance. He does not, however, merit the demonization to which he has been subjected by Fourest, Berman et al—he’s not significant enough—, but nor does he merit the celebrity he’s attained beyond his following among youthful pious European Muslim post-migrants (and notably by European policy makers anxiously seeking European Muslim interlocutors). Intellectually and politically speaking, TR does not impress me.
And I do find his apologetics for the Muslim Brotherhood disturbing, not to mention his views and equivocations on a host of other issues.
I bring all this up as I read just the other day a review essay in TNR, dated October 1, 2012, of Ramadan’s latest book, in which he offers analysis and commentary on the so-called Arab spring. Reviewer Samuel Helfont, a Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, was not impressed, taking to task Ramadan’s “problematic views,” “sloppy analysis and inconsistencies,” and “contorted arguments and anti-imperialist platitudes,” all of which are quite simply “not serious.” Very good. Couldn’t have said it better myself, even though I haven’t read the book (and have no intention of doing so).
While I’m at it, here is a tribune I also read recently, by the Franco-Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb—a political and philosophical enemy of TR’s (the two have publicly crossed swords)—, “Towards A Global Network of Liberal Muslims,” that was first published three weeks ago in a Bangladeshi newspaper. Excellent initiative.
I mentioned Daniel Pipes as one of TR’s detractors. Pipes is no dummy when it comes to subjects of which he is a specialist but is politically reactionary and a crackpot on a number of issues (e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, obsessively trying to “prove” that Obama is a Muslim, situating himself well to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli political spectrum). I generally don’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Which is not to say I don’t read him every so often. The other day I came across an interview with him in the current issue of The American Spectator, on “Islam and Islamism in the Modern World,” and which is surprisingly unobjectionable for the most part. I give it the green light.