Magazine article The American Prospect

The Gentle Jihadist: Tariq Ramadan Touched off a Firestorm with a Charged Accusation against French Jewish Intellectuals. but the Problems Hardly Stop There

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Gentle Jihadist: Tariq Ramadan Touched off a Firestorm with a Charged Accusation against French Jewish Intellectuals. but the Problems Hardly Stop There

Article excerpt

IF FRENCH PRESIDENT JACQUES CHIRAC thought he'd burnished his reputation in the Muslim world for having opposed the Bush administration's war in Iraq, he must have been surprised to find himself recently vilified in public squares, mosques, and universities from Cairo to Tehran. The proposed ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, from French state schools has enraged a fair portion of the world's 1 billion Muslims. And yet the ban, which prohibits overtly religious symbols like yarmulkes and "large" crosses, is not so much directed at French Muslims as intended to check France's growing fundamentalist, or Islamist, movement.

Chirac is right to be concerned: In Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world, Islamists read the number of veiled women as a vital statistic through which they can calculate their power and advertise it. A large surge in those women's numbers indicates a big problem for the ruling government. Unfortunately for France, banning the hijab will only give credence to the Islamist assertion that their faith is under attack.

France could have stopped the Islamists before they grew so strong, but that would have meant a serious effort to integrate young North Africans, or beurs, into French society. The beurs were born Muslim, but they were not born Islamist. French-Algerian pop culture throughout the 1980s and '90s may document their alienation from main stream French culture, but it also records their desire for it. Young North African men wanted jobs, money, clothes, maybe some worldly success, and, like the rest of the known world's male population, French women. In those songs and movies, the Islamists were typically cast as sexually frustrated hypocrites and/or incompetent criminals. The Islamists assassinated some of the beurs' heroes, like Cheb Hasni, a Rai singer gunned down in Algeria in 1994 for his songs about girls and beer. That Chirac is managing to drive these kids into the Islamists' fold is frankly astounding.

Now France's Islamists, both empowered and feeling themselves besieged, have initiated their violent campaign of terror. Their attacks on Jews have now evidently been joined by attacks on other Muslims as well. Recently, a government-appointed Muslim prefect luckily escaped injury after his car was rigged with a bomb. Collaborators with the "regime," especially officials of state-sponsored religious authorities, are always high on Islamist hit lists, as are intellectuals and journalists.

This, then, is the context in which the Tariq Ramadan affair took place. Ramadan, a Swiss national, is a well-respected professor of philosophy at a Swiss university and a German one, and Europe's most prominent Islamist intellectual. In an article posted on a Muslim Web site,, last fall, he accused several French writers of forsaking their reputations as "universalist" thinkers by taking positions based on narrow, sectarian, or what the French call "communitarian," concerns. How else to explain that Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard Henri Levy, and Bernard Kouchner, among several other popular intellectual figures, failed to condemn the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the war on Iraq, which Sharon also favored?

RAMADAN'S ARGUMENT RESTS ON A feeble premise: that the failures to condemn Sharon or to protest the war in Iraq are not plausibly rational positions. The reason for holding such views must therefore be extra-rational, or emotional. To Ramadan, these thinkers took these positions because they are Jewish. The piece touched off a firestorm. Levy rashly compared the article to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, editorial writers condemned Ramadan, and several politicians who worked with the philosopher in the anti-globalization movement publicly distanced themselves from him. The controversy hit on a number of sensitive issues, namely Islamist tactics and, of course, anti-Semitism.

But all the attention seems only to have enhanced Ramadan's reputation as a "moderate. …

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