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Constructing’ Tariq Ramadan

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, September 6, 2004

The recent exchange of views in The Observer over the revocation of Professor Tariq Ramadan’s visa, effectively barring him from taking up his teaching position at Notre Dame, makes clear that the issue has stirred up a hornet’s nest here. It is an indication at a micro-level of the larger controversy swirling about Professor Ramadan, particularly in Europe, which has now reached our neck of the woods with a vengeance. For someone observing these exchanges somewhat dispassionately, they may well appear to be not about the man himself but about who perceives and chooses to believe what about him, and how that gets played out against the backdrop of the anxious times we live in. I would hazard a guess that a fair number of people holding strong opinions about Ramadan have not read a thing written by him – as opposed to about him – nor had an occasion to meet him. The nature of many of the innuendos and accusations leveled at him suggests not a discourse based on facts but – to use a fancy term – a “tropic” discourse, heavily laden with “tropes.” Tropes point not so much to facts but to perceptions and assumptions about a person, thing, or event, which then acquire lives of their own and become “constructs.”

By virtue of his genes, his religious affiliation, and activism, Ramadan invites “construction” in our current political climate. Of the various charges constructed against him on the basis of his pedigree, one sticks out. Ramadan, it is alleged, is the clandestine leader in Europe of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in Egypt by his grandfather – so clandestine in fact that tongues apparently are wagging about it all over Europe. For some, this charge is credible despite Ramadan’s repeated denials. One “knows,” after all, that political demagoguery and the will to dominate the world are biologically transmitted among the members of certain religious groups. Even though at particular historical moments we have learned of the follies of engaging in such essentialist thinking, we tend to slip back into such lazy and dangerous generalizations in fraught times. If Tariq Ramadan did not exist, some would have to invent him as an outlet for their visceral fears today. And, indeed, some have.

I agree with both Professor Walshe and Rabbi Signer that dialogue, and especially inter-faith dialogue, remains a critical necessity for forging a way forward. Ramadan espouses such dialogues and has participated in them with various faith groups. He has also criticized some Muslims and non-Muslims for being excessively partisan in their sentiments, since that has prevented them from finding common ground on the basis of universal principles. Such criticism admittedly has not been welcomed by everyone but it is not out of place in a constructive dialogue, which entails candor and engagement with diverse perspectives. Constructive dialogue further requires that the interlocutors be physically present. The Kroc Institute’s efforts to bring Professor Ramadan to the table speak to its foundational commitment to dialogue and a commendable willingness to take risks for the possibility of a better, non-violent future.

Asma Afsaruddin

Associate Professor, Arabic & Islamic Studies

Sept. 6