Tariq Ramadan and Western Muslim Discourse – Elevating Politics Above Faith

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is getting its fair share of criticism these days. Some within the Muslim community accuse its leaders of being “spineless”  for not objecting to remarks made by the governor of Michigan at ISNA’s 51st annual convention held this year in Detroit. ISNA eventually issued a press release calling on Americans to object to Rick Synder’s blatant exclusion of Palestinian rights while he affirmed the right of Israel to exist. 

Some are citing ISNA’s faux pas in relation to Synder’s comment as a validation of Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s reasons for not attending the ISNA convention. Dr. Ramadan’s statement “Why I will not attend the ISNA and RIS conferences”, issued two weeks before ISNA’s gathering and months before the Revival of the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference in Toronto, reveals his Islamist weltanschauung – politics trumps faith.  

We see this in the reasons he presents for severing ties with ISNA and RIS, his vision of Islamic conventions/conferences, the kind of sufism and sufis he prefers and in his master plan of what a new generation of Muslim leaders ought to look like.

According to Dr. Ramadan, ISNA’s leaders have failed to honor their “moral obligation” to condemn America’s foreign and domestic policies. Second, they are silent in relation to America’s (mis) treatment of Muslims at home and its (imperialist/interventionist?) role abroad. And finally, ISNA’s leaders are subverting an “active and responsible citizenship” by inhibiting it from being  “free, public-spirited, sincere and critical.”

Since RIS is a conference and not an organization, Dr. Ramadan takes aim at its “scholars” and “preachers” who “under the guise of Sufism…defend highly politicized positions” such as their “support for (some) states and dictators.” Second, “their silence and their inferences constitute visible support for the Gulf petro-monarchies or for despots such as al-Sissi in Egypt…. while dictators from Syria to Iraq by way of Egypt are imprisoning, torturing and killing innocents by the thousands.” And finally, “they cast themselves as above the (Middle East) conflict, while the “Sufism” they offer is highly politicized and too well adjusted to the boots of the State.”

While his reasons for not attending ISNA and RIS vary, he says they are linked by  “similar causes.” What causes ISNA’s leadership and RIS’ scholars and preachers to act this way?  

Dr. Ramadan is blunt; They are “sycophants” and “timorous,” he writes. In the case of RIS, they are also deceptive in conveying “the impression of favoring a plurality of voices…but…it is the so-called “Sufi” and “apolitical” trend that lies at the core…”

Translated into plain language, Dr. Ramadan accuses the current president of ISNA, Imam Mohamed Magid, former president Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Shaykh Nur Abdullah and Shaykh Abdullah Idris, Dr. Muzammil Siddiq and a host of other ISNA leaders, past and present, of being bootlickers, brown-nosers, and ‘Uncle Toms.’ Describing prominent Muslim men and women who are African, Asian and Anglo-Americans and Canadians as a bunch of ‘yes men/women, ‘brown Sahibs,’ and  lackeys, “paralyzed by fear,” is a downright nasty accusation to make and without merit.

In the worldview of Dr. Ramadan, to be “silent” about an injustice is not a reflection of prudence, but proof of one’s complicity. He prefers that ISNA and RIS take to the streets or airwaves in protest, particularly when the perceived injustices involves the country of his ancestors or, more specifically, when it tramples on Arab pride.   

If protest is the only method to express one’s disapproval, ISNA might have to stage one every day of the week. In Dr. Ramadan’s view, the cantankerous noise of political protest is vastly superior to an approach of civic engagement even when the latter has proven a more effective option for religious organizations in North America.      

Dr. Ramadan’s list of American “policies” that ISNA should be condemning include: “summary arrests, arbitrary prison terms, inhuman psychological torture, solitary confinement, the shadowy role of informers and the deeply troubling and unacceptable methods used by the FBI, and support of Israel.”

According to human rights organization such as HRW’s recently released “Illusion of Justice,”  abuses have undoubtedly occurred on U.S. soil or in locations under its jurisdiction such as at the infamous detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba which I have visited four times in the last ten years. However, to describe them as  “policies,” is ludicrous. The police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri is condemnable, but it is not the “policy” of police forces in the U.S. or in Canada to shoot unarmed people.

Dr. Ramadan is demanding ISNA’s leadership condemn “policies” that does not exist. And even if they were to sharpen their swords of condemnation for every real or perceived transgression they’re likely to discover the cut is much deeper in Muslim majority states including Qatar which has given Dr. Ramadan millions of dollars to elaborate on the topic of Islamic ethics.   

The only real ‘policy’ on his list is Washington’s support of Israel. The objection however, is not about “U.S. support of Israel” but rather its uncritical support in the face of what many people, regardless of faith or ethnicity, see as an ongoing genocide by Tel Aviv against the defenseless people of Gaza. And if ISNA wasn’t doing its part I might agree with Dr. Ramadan’s criticism, but they are engaged, just not in a manner pleasing to him.

Dr. Ramadan makes a strange allegation that U.S. “policies” have “provoked young people to engage in extremist actions.” However, the young men and women who have joined extremist groups – commonly referred to these days as “FF” or foreign fighters – are telling the world exactly why they’ve taken up weapons and embarked on beheading campaigns. The ones who posts on Twitter and other social media are interested in the destruction of the West not a reformation of it’s foreign and domestic policies.  

Dr. Ramadan is incensed that ISNA’s leaders did not object after President Barack Obama invited them to an iftar at the White House and used the opportunity to defend Israel “while the Israeli ambassador tweeted his delight!” Apparently because they are “sycophants” and/or “timorous,” so eager to please they are willing to bend over “backwards, in saying “Yes Sir” that they sacrifice not only their dignity, but forget and betray their duty.”  

Of what concern is it of ISNA’s leadership that the Israeli ambassador, a guest of  President Obama, tweeted a comment from an iftar at the White House? Should Imam Magid have pulled the President aside – one president to another – to object to the invitation of a foreign ambassador or perhaps he should have been more diligent in monitoring and retorting to the tweet of a deceptive twit while the U.S. President spoke?

Dr. Ramadan himself has been invited to tea to 10 Downing Street by more than one British Prime Minister. Has anyone ever demanded he justified what he said or didn’t say at those meetings or his many secret meetings at Scotland Yard for that matter?

People might be apt to take him more seriously if he were to also chastise his late father who visited the White House during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower when that administration was an ardent supporter of the state of Israel and was courting ‘daddy’ Ramadan as a potential ally in its struggle against Communism?

Even if young American and Canadian Muslims were to look to ISNA’s leaders as role models of citizenship — I am sure they are not — they would find there plenty in the last 30 years to make them comfortable in their own nationalistic skin.

Had Dr. Ramadan glanced at this year’s ISNA’s program before posting his ill-advised statement he would have seen a keynote address by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter followed by a call on faith leaders to sign a “Declaration for Peaceful Communities.” By inviting former President Carter, ISNA’s leadership is endorsing his criticism of Israeli behavior in relation to those living in the occupied territories and are not acting as if “paralyzed by fear,” nor gripped in the clutches of nervousness or lacking confidence, nor are they lickspittle.

There is a lot to criticize ISNA for but it isn’t what Dr. Ramadan is ranting about.

Switching to RIS; Is the good Oxford lecturer referring to Imam Zaid Shakir, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Sherman Jackson, Dr. Abdal-Hakim Winter, or perhaps Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, maybe even Dr. Syed Hosein Nasr, as “scholars and preachers (who) defend highly politicized positions of support for states and dictatorships?”

If not them then perhaps he must be referring to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf? It is no secret that for the last six years Shaykh Hamza has shaped the RIS conference by providing the content and context to the program and its long list of speakers. Who else would have the courage to do an entire conference on the Ten Commandments? Is Dr. Ramadan saying Shaykh Hamza is deceptive, i.e. two-faced? Does Shaykh Hamza hide behind the “guise of sufism” and “support dictators?” Has Shaykh Hamza ever been silent in the face of oppression? Anyone familiar with the body of work he has produced in the last 20 years know such allegations would be a lie.  

Sh. Hamza has often warned against importing foreign conflicts into our communities while displaying incredible sensitivity and compassion to the suffering of people, regardless of faith or ethnicty. He has used his eloquence in print and speech to give voice to the dispossessed and disenfranchised. I am fairly confident it can’t be Shaykh Hamza that Dr. Ramadan is referring to.  

If not Shaykh Hamza then perhaps Dr. Ramadan might be referring to Habib Ali al-Jifri of the Tabah Foundation in the U.A.E. But this too is purely speculative on my part because the author is perhaps himself timorous in refusing to name names. You can’t call ISNA leaders and RIS’ scholars and preachers sycophants and then claim it is no one in particular that you’re talking about.     

Habib Ali has indeed offered a prayer for al-Sisi and as he explained in a widely circulated statement he did the same for his predecessor, President Mohammed Morsi. Praying for elected officials, Muslims or not, has been done in many countries by prominent Imams, scholars and preachers.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood cannot deny that Umar Al-Tilmisani, the third supreme guide of the Ikhwan, was imprisoned by Anwar El-Sadat and yet he condemned his assassination in 1981. When Hosni Mubarak came to power, Al-Tilmisani praised him, stating: “The people are enjoying freedom and security…We are not enemies of the ruler himself, but rather watch actions alone, and for what is good in them we praise God, and for what is otherwise, we admonish, advise and investigate.”

Imam Suhaib Webb, who has been openly critical of Habib Ali, prayed for President Obama. It is not a concept alien to the Islamic tradition. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, prayed for the guidance of world leaders even honoring them by sending them emissaries with letters sealed with his blessed ring. He prayed for guidance for Umar bin Al-Khattab who wanted to kill him. The Islamic tradition, it appears, is applicable except when it comes to Egypt.  

Dr. Ramadan spoke three times or more at RIS 2013 and so did Habib Ali and Shaykh Hamza. Equal time. No one was censored. Dr. Ramadan took his jabs and got his applause. He believes Islamic conferences are platforms of political protest and mobilization. Shaykh Hamza has a different vision and it happens to steer the RIS’ conferences.  

I wrote an article four years ago about the Global Peace and Unity (GPU) conference in the U.K which sparked a discussion about the purpose of Islamic conferences.

I recall the first time I attended an ISNA conference. I was 21 years of age when I boarded a bus in Toronto in late August 1983 for Indianapolis, Indiana. ISNA had just been forged out of the MSA and it was an exciting time for the fledgling Muslim communities in North America.

I hardly knew anyone and ended up spending all day hopping from one lecture to the next which rarely happens these days at similar conferences. And then out of the blue, I saw a familiar face. It was my venerable teacher and mentor Shaykh Ahmad Al-Zarruq Ehwass, former Libyan ambassador to Guyana and leader at the time of the Islamic Salvation Front – the fighting arm of Libya’s Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen. (I’ve long wanted to write an account of his life with us in Guyana and I am currently gathering recollections from his friends and colleagues to complete this task).

He had me tag along with him for some time and I observed that most of the men around him were Libyans. There were also some awkward White Americans hanging around but discussions with them took place behind closed doors.

In April 1984 the following year, I read in Newsweek and TIME about a failed coup against Col. Muammar Ghaddafi backed by the CIA. It resulted in the death of the rebels including their commander, Shaykh Ahmad Ehwass. His body has never been recovered to this day. I realized then that the planning of the attempted coup had taken place at the ISNA conference right under my nose.  

What happens off stage is beyond the control of ISNA’s leadership, but even to this day ISNA continues to submit its platform to discussions of contemporary political issues with incredible ideological bias and partisanship.  

A major success of RIS from its inception has been its ability to deploy a ‘Dars model’ onto the template of a modern day Islamic convention. The ‘dars’ – a formal lesson on an aspect of sacred knowledge delivered by a qualified scholar – has been the cornerstone in the spread of the Islamic intellectual tradition and when planted onto the RIS conference it transformed it into a “muhadara” – a caravan of knowledge. Even with a diverse platform of speakers, RIS garnered immense traction with thousands of young Muslims in southwestern Ontario. Either the organizers had someone with a vision backstage or the program magically fell out of the sky.

The Toronto audience exuded a thirst for knowledge with thousands of people sitting for hours listening to speaker after speaker all day long. Amazing really, but not totally unexpected. Toronto didn’t earn the reputation of being the ideal Western city for Islamic education by accident. By the time Dr. Ramadan appeared on the scene it was already like that.   

Many of us on this side of the Atlantic have spent decades trying to foster communities defined by faith, not politics. One seeks after power the other flees the gate of worldly authority and seeks instead the pleasure of the One who is above all authorities.

This does not mean that politics is a cursed affair. Not at all. Politics, when it advances the public good, when it seeks to create a just society, the will of the majority is strong enough to stand on its own without the need to use the minbar or an imamah to extend its reach.

Islamic conferences are not the point of assembly for rebels seeking to stage a coup or for academics like Dr. Ramadan to recruit followers to his politics however “ethical” he believes it might be.

RIS does not invite any of its speakers to get on stage and holler political slogans to get people riled up. It invites speakers – most of the time, certainly not always – to enlighten participants by explaining aspects of their faith to them. Politics however, not faith, is what Dr. Ramadan is most interested in. It is politics after all that led him to sever ties with Muslims on this side of the pond.  

To Dr. Ramadan the only valid form of sufism is the kind that deploys the mechanism of protest whenever an injustice raises its head. He refers to this as “active sufism” as opposed to an “apolitical” sufism, the kind he accuses RIS and Shaykh Hamza of representing. There is not much to say about this except that Dr. Ramadan appears to have a rudimentary understanding of tasawwuf.

He blames ISNA and RIS of inhibiting the emergence of an “educated, free and bold” leadership “that does not confuse the concept of dialogue with the authorities with unacceptable compromise and intellectual surrender, a leadership that does not transform Sufism…into a school of silence and cowardly calculation.”

The problem with Dr. Ramadan’s statement in this regard is that the leadership he envisions already exists and strangely enough, both ISNA and RIS have contributed in their own distinct ways to its development.  

Living on the other side of the Atlantic, Dr. Ramadan is perhaps woefully out of touch with the countless young men and women who are stepping up to positions of leadership across this continent and who are highly educated, spirited and wise in their civic engagements while being firmly grounded in sacred knowledge. Some of these leaders no doubt admire Dr. Ramadan and applaud his specious outrage.

Many others are deeply disappointed because they see Dr. Ramadan’s tirade as a clear indication of his failure to steer third generation Muslims in North America onto the path of protest. As an agenda to change our condition, citing Shaykh Hamza’s talk in Toronto in the late 1990’s, protest is a dead end street.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *