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Islamic Scholar Tariq Ramadan on the Growing Mideast Protests and “Islam & the Arab Awakening”

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As anti-U.S. protests spread across the Middle East, we’re joined by Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. Ramadan is considered one of the most prominent Muslim intellectuals in Europe and was named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. He was barred from entering the United States for many years by former President George W. Bush. In 2004, Ramadan had accepted a job to become a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame, but nine days before he was set to arrive, the Bush administration revoked his visa, invoking a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act. He was not allowed into the United States for another six years. Ramadan is the author of a number of books, including “Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation” and, most recently, “Islam and the Arab Awakening.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To talk more about the protests across the Middle East, we’re joined by Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is considered one of the most prominent Muslim intellectuals in Europe and was named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. He was barred from entering the United States for many years by President George W. Bush. In 2004, Ramadan had accepted a job to become a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame, but nine days after he was set to arrive, the Bush administration revoked his visa, invoking a provision of the PATRIOT Act. He wasn’t allowed into the United States for another six years.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ramadan is the author of a number of books, including Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation and, most recently, Islam and the Arab Awakening.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Professor Ramadan.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for your invitation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the latest that’s happening right now, the beginning in Libya with the killing of the U.S. ambassador, the protests now happening throughout the Arab world? We just heard from what’s happening in Yemen, the protests in Sana’a at the U.S. embassy, in Cairo at the U.S. embassy.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Look, it’s very, very difficult and very sensitive times for many reasons, because just—you know, we were celebrating or at least remembering 11 years after September 11 in the country here. And what happened is, as you were referring, there are two scenarios. One is to say what happened in Libya was not in fact first connected to the movie, but connected to the killing Abu Yahya al-Libi in June, and this was planned—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who he was.

TARIQ RAMADAN: He was one of the leaders of al-Qaeda, and he was killed in June. And the point was that people were saying there will be retaliation, and they choose the very same date of the September the 11th. So it might be that this connection was in fact used with the symbol at the same time we’re remembering what happened in the States. Add to this that what we have here is very much people who are behind the movie, and it’s very important to check who is behind the movie. What do they want exactly? They were using exactly the same symbol, 11 years later, just before the election, to put the president, also, Barack Obama, and the United States onto something which is a psychological pressure by releasing this and hoping that there will be reactions. It’s a provocation. And I think that here we have something which is very important for us is, first, to condemn what happened, the killing of the ambassador and what is happening in the embassies around the—in the Muslim-majority countries, to start with this, but also to understand that there are people from behind the scenes who are playing on symbols, emotional politics, and pushing toward something which is a clash.

And the second thing that we have to say—and this is important because you were talking about Mohamed Morsi and people, the Islamists in Muslim-majority countries—there is something which is going to be one of the main challenges in the Muslim world today, in the Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, is the religious credibility. How are you going to react to what is said about Islam? So, by touching the prophet of Islam, the reaction should be, who is going to be the guardian? And you can see today that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a situation where the Salafis, then the literalists, are pushing. And they were in Libya, they were in Egypt, they are now in Yemen. So, everywhere the Salafi are pushing by saying, “We are the guardian, and we are resisting any kind of relationship to the West or provocation coming from the West.” And internally, it’s unsettling the whole situation. Now in Tunisian, in Libya, in Syria, in Egypt, the clash between the literalists and—the Islamists or the reformists is something which is going to be part of what we have to deal with as to the future of this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Interestingly, in this—in the incident in Libya yesterday, there appear to be now, as some reports are coming out, two very separate incidents that occurred. There was a mass protest that occurred early in the evening in response to the film, and then there was a much more coordinated military attack that occurred later in the night on the consulate itself. And apparently, the attackers may have known that the ambassador was in Benghazi, when he normally was not in Benghazi. So, this clearly seems to have been more of a—some would call it a blowback on the United States government for its support, its military support, of all kinds of fighters in Libya against Gaddafi, including Islamist extremists.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, I think that this is a very fair point. You know, even after the whole democratization process, it’s quite clear that the United States are not seen in a positive way in all the Muslim-majority countries—in Egypt, in Libya, even in Tunisia—even though we have now a kind of trying to be recognized as democrats by the Islamists who are running, you know, Tunisia and Egypt. But the popular sentiment is very, very negative. So, what happened in Libya, it’s clearly connected to the role of the United States when it comes to dealing with terrorists, dealing with the factions in Libya. This is something which is there, and it’s clearly a bad perception, a negative perception. The point is how this is going to evolve when people are trying to deal with emotions and pushing towards this. So this is where the Islamic reference in such a way is going to be on two fronts. First, what we have within the Sunni tradition is this clash between the literalists and all the other trends and the Salafi movement, that are very much acting on the ground and using the popular sentiment to act against the West.

AMY GOODMAN: People might not know what you mean by the literalists and the Salafi movement.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, that’s a very important point. We have to define this, because, you know, Salafi is a very broad concept in Islam. What we have now is, like, for example, the Nour Party in Egypt or the Salafi in Tunisia are people who, in fact, we call very often Wahhabi, following the Saudi school of thought and law. And they are literalists in the way where it’s black and white, there’s a very narrow interpretation of the scriptural sources. For decades, we knew that they were there, but they were not involved in politics. What is completely new for all of us over the last three years is that they are now within the political arena and playing the democratic game. One year ago, the people from the Nour Party, before even creating a party, was saying democracy is not Islamic. And all of a sudden, in eight months, they enter into the political game, and they got 24 percent, meaning that this is a political power. And they are—they have some credentials, and they are playing with this. And the perception in the West is, oh, they are the same as the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, no. They were even supporting the candidate who left the Muslim Brotherhood, to put the Muslim Brotherhood in a very difficult situation. And they are backed and supported by financial, you know, support by organizations that are coming from Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, and these organizations are supporting them financially. And they are now in Tunisia. When I was in Tunisia talking to the president, he was telling me, “We didn’t know about these people before. How come, in less than six months, they are there, and they are pushing?” And this is to make the whole democratization process unsettled, on the basis of the Islamic reference.

So this is why, as Muslims and as Muslim scholars and intellectuals, we have to be very clear on what is acceptable and what is this accepted diversity in Islam, and things that are done like yesterday, then the day before yesterday, that are completely non-Islamic, against our principles, because there is now a connection between some literalists and violent extremists, who want to kill, who want to get the kind of popular support. And populism is everywhere. We have religious populism in the Muslim-majority countries as much as we have populism in the United States of America. The reaction of Mitt Romney about saying, “Oh, you don’t have to apologize, and you have first to be clear on the fact that this is our values,” is playing with symbols. It’s just to put Barack Obama in a situation where he has to condemn first what happened and to celebrate the American values. I think it’s tricky.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your book, Islam and the Arab Awakening, you really concentrate on the complexity of this enormous movement that has developed, that escapes most observers here in the West. And you particularly focus on the question of whether it’s wrong to consider this really revolutions that are occurring here or whether they are more uprisings or popular movements that, yes, are expressing the desires of the people for freedom, but yet are being manipulated and, to some extent, attempts at controlling them from all sides, not just from the West—

TARIQ RAMADAN: Exactly, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —but from the religious and other political groups within Islam itself.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, I’m very happy that you are saying “being manipulated” or try to be manipulated from many sides, not only from the West. What I’m advocating in the book, after having studied the whole thing before, is to tell us today that this was not known, that the people were not aware, that they were bloggers and cyber-dissidents, this is completely wrong on both sides. Even the president, Mubarak, and Ben Ali, they knew about people being trained. So, this is one thing.

What is irreversible in the Arab world is this intellectual revolution, the awakening that we can get rid of dictators. That is here, and the people have this sentiment and this political power. They feel that they can do it, and it’s still there. At the same time, we don’t know what is going to happen. So to be very quick by saying, “Oh, revolutions and Arab Spring,” and—you know, what I’m advocating is to take a cautious optimism as the starting point of our analysis and to look at what is happening.

The perception in the Arab world now is that we are dealing—having secularists against Islamists, and that’s it. So the secularists are progressive; the Islamists are reactionary, conservative. This perception is wrong. It’s not only coming from the West, by the way; it’s even in the Muslim-majority countries. In Tunisia, this is where the debate is very superficial on ideological positioning. We have to come to the true questions about which kind of social policy, which kind of state. It’s not enough to tell us it’s a civil state with Islamic reference. We need to know what Islamic reference, because this is exactly where the Salafi are telling us Islamic reference means that you cannot say what you are saying about the prophet, for example, you cannot ridicule, and you’re going to be judged or tried if you do this. So we don’t have a clear understanding of all this challenges. And when it comes to social justice, when it comes to corruption, when it comes to the role of the army—because now we are talking about Mohamed Morsi representing Egypt—we should be much more cautious with the role of the army in Egypt to be playing a very important role from behind the scene.

AMY GOODMAN: On that issue of President Morsi, I want to turn to President Obama’s comments on Egypt. He made them on Wednesday during an interview with Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart. Obama said he does not consider the new Egyptian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood to be an ally. Excerpts of the interview first aired last night on MSNBC.

JOSÉ DÍAZ-BALART: Would you consider the current Egyptian regime an ally of the United States?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They are a new government that is trying to find its way. They were democratically elected. I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident, how they respond to, for example, maintaining the peace treaty in—with Israel. So far at least, what we’ve seen is that in some cases they’ve said the right things and taken the right steps; in others, how they’ve responded to various events may not be aligned with our interests. And so, I think it’s still a work in progress. But certainly, in this situation, what we’re going to expect is that they are responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected. And if they take actions that indicate they’re not taking those responsibilities, as all other countries do where we have embassies, I think that’s going to be a real big problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have President Obama saying that the Egyptian government is not considered an ally, but not our enemy, either, he says. NBC is saying Obama’s strong words could mark a dramatic shift in the U.S. relationship with Egypt, which has been consistently pro-American since the late President Anwar Sadat. Tariq Ramadan?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yeah, look, it’s a very smart and diplomatic statement. I think that he cannot say anything but this, for two reasons. First, if he was to say Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood, is an ally, he’s going to be destroyed here by, you know, the opposition saying, “How come you can say that the Islamists are your ally when these people are the same who are Hamas, and Hamas is against Israel?” It’s the end of it. So he’s saying, “We are just wait and see; we are trying to deal.”

At the same time, we should know that the American administration is very much involved with the Egyptian army. And when you talk about the Egyptian army, we don’t only talk about, you know, political power, we talk about economic power. And in all the discussion, what I’m saying in the book, which is for me very important, is that not to underestimate the economic reasons of all what is happening there, because we have China, and we have Russia, and we have new actors in the region that are helping us to understand the situation from another angle.

On the other side, he is saying about the Muslim Brotherhood, we are talking—we know that they were in touch with the Muslim Brotherhood for years trying to understand what is their stand and what is their vision. And if he was to say now—

AMY GOODMAN: Your grandfather, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yeah, yes, yes. So, this is the—what I’m saying here is that, in his positioning with the Muslim Brotherhood, what he’s saying is we wait and see, and we know that they were dealing with them. The Muslim Brotherhood on this, if he was to say, “They are our allies,” they will lose their credibility within. So the Muslim Brotherhood should be perceived as not very much Western, not very much with the current Obama administration. From behind the scenes, there are some questions that we have to ask the Muslim Brotherhood, when it comes to economic options and choices with the IMF, straightaway, with the World Bank. So I think that on many economic—on other sides, economic sides and political sides, it’s quite clear that, for the time being, there is an agreement between the American administration and the Muslim Brotherhood to try to find a way to deal to one another and to try to find solutions. So, this is why I’m critical of what is happening with the Muslim Brotherhood, not only on the political side, but the economic choices.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the economic imperatives in another battle of the Arab awakening, in Libya. You, in your book, give a masterful recounting of the behind-the-scenes operations of France and the United States in the only popular uprising in which they interceded directly. Could you talk about that and the role of France in cornering much of the oil market in Libya even before the Western intervention?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes. If we study the facts before and what was happening in Libya, you know, the reaction of Russia and China should be understood in the light of what happened in Libya, their reaction on Syria, because they lost the economic—their economic interest and their access to the oil resources in Libya because of what happened. They took the United Nations, you know, resolution on no-fly zone as, you know, a permission for NATO to go there and intervene. In fact, this was not for the sake of, you know, the Libyan blood. It was for economic geostrategic interests and to secure their interests. So, Barack Obama was unable to go there for many reasons, because he had internal crisis, and there is these Afghani and Iraqi fronts. It’s impossible to add another one. So there was a deal with France. And France was involved, you know. Even we had, you know, a new foreign ministers, like [inaudible]. He went there, and he was, you know, the figure who was helping France to find the [inaudible] and to create this transitory national council. But this was not done for the sake of, you know, the democratization in Libya. It’s quite clear now that all the economic interest and the access to resources is secured between four countries. The first one is the United States of America, France, Britain and Qatar, who are also involved in the whole thing. So we need to be less naive in the whole process and to deal with the situation, country per country, and understanding that there are challenges, there are from behind-the-scene alliances that are now important.

There is something that I want to say. All this discussion about the Islamists—and I’m studying it in the book—you know, we have to deal with the Islamists on the ground, see what they are going to do. Remember 10 years ago what was said about Erdogan? He’s going to change the country into an Islamist country, a new Iran? It’s not going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: The Turkish leader.

TARIQ RAMADAN: The Turkish leader. So now we have to deal with them and see what they are going to do. But there is one point which is clear: the United States of America or the Western countries, they don’t have a problem with Islamists as long as they are neoliberal capitalists and promoting the economic order. And the best example is the petro-monarchies. The petro-monarchies, they don’t want democracy. They say there is no democracy in Islam. But they are within the economic system. So the question—

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the petro-monarchists? Which countries?

TARIQ RAMADAN: The petro-monarchies are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, even Bahrain. Bahrain, we had protests in Bahrain, and they were tortured and repression. We don’t cover this. We didn’t cover this. And no one was saying that the government—it was translated into Shia-Sunni clashes. It’s wrong. There is clearly a lack of democracy there. And we need to come with something which is, don’t tell us that Islam in itself is a problem—is exactly what Barack Obama just said yesterday. If they are with us, protecting our interests, we will deal with them; if not, we will struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera’s role in covering the Arab world?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, I’m talking about it in the book, saying it’s quite—it’s quite—we have to look at the way they were dealing with this, pushing in Egypt, pushing In Tunisia, silent in Bahrain, silent in—so, it’s a selective—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And pushing Libya, as well.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Exactly. Of course, they were, even, you know, sending armies and people. So, all—you know, Jazeera in itself, perceived as a counter, you know, Fox News Channel, has to be also questioned as to the intention. And we know now—you know, the Arabs and the people in the Arab world are very much supportive of Al Jazeera, taking it as a credible source of news. Now it’s much more questioned by the people. When I was in Tunisia, I say, “What do they want exactly? For whom are they running ? What do they want?” And there is something which is connected to the government. So I think that in all this, it’s clear that it played a very positive role in Egypt by pushing the people. But we need to look at political—the whole scene and the whole region to understand that there are much more questions to be asked about what are the intentions from behind—you know, from supporting some uprisings and forgetting others.


TARIQ RAMADAN: Like Bahrain, for example, as I was saying, and being silent, for example, about what also was happening in Libya, what also is happening in Iraq, and very much nurturing this sense of “be careful, al-Qaeda is there, the terrorists.” You know, it’s also nurturing a mindset. It’s as if, you know, doing the job of “be careful, terrorism is around the corner,” and I think that this is—this is to be questioned.

AMY GOODMAN: Comparison of how the U.S. has dealt with Syria and Bahrain?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Well, I think that—no, they are not dealing with; they are supporting silently what the Saudi are doing with Bahrain, which is supporting the current regime. You can’t have anything happening today within the petro-monarchies, is going to be too risky for the United States and the oil interests there.

In Syria, for eight months—and this is why I’m saying it’s not all under control—all the people who are saying, “Oh, it’s all done by the U.S., and it’s a conspiracy.” I say, no, in Syria for eight months, President Barack Obama and the European administrations were hoping Bashar al-Assad was going to reform the regime from within, and it appeared that the people were more courageous. They didn’t want him to stay. So they were trying to find opposition and people with whom they can deal, because they had two problems. The driving force of the opposition in Syria was also the Muslim Brotherhood and leftists who were not very much supportive of the Americans. So they were trying to find who are the people with whom we can deal. And it took eight months. Now they want to change the government, but it’s as if they are facing Russia and China, and both are in agreement not to agree on what to do.

And, in fact, the unsettled situation in Syria could be, in fact, interesting for both sides. And unsettled Middle East, in these times where the people are trying to find their way towards democracy, could be interesting for many reasons—for weapons to be sold, for new geostrategic interests to be protected, and something that we are not talking about, which is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The people who are lost in the whole discussion here are the Palestinians. We have demonstrations in Palestine in West Bank. Nobody is covering this. It’s as if they don’t exist anymore. And this is, in fact, central. And Israel is silent. The only thing that we heard once is Mubarak should stay because, if he’s not going to come, we would have Islamists, and then we have the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is what—and then nothing. It’s as if Israel is not playing in the whole run. And I think that this is wrong.

Add to this a second question, which will be very important for the United States, but also for the European countries, is the new actors. What I’m saying here is the BRIC countries—Brazil, India, China, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia even, and Russia—are now new actors. Over the last eight years, China multiplied by seven its economic presence and penetration in the Middle East. And if this happens on economic terms and there is a shift towards the East, the relationship between these countries and Israel is completely different from the United States. And it means that the challenges are going to be different, because China is not supporting Israel the way the U.S. are supporting Israel. So we need to have all these factors in mind. I’m trying to analyze this in the book by saying, be cautious, but there is still optimism, because the people now are facing challenges. A what I would like, knowing that in the Muslim-majority countries you can’t do without Islam, we can’t do without their culture, in which way they are going to come back to this Islamic reference to find a way to deal with the true challenges and not the superficial political questions.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Tariq Ramadan, heading back now to Britain. His latest book is called Islam and the Arab Awakening. Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University and visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of a number of influential books. Time magazine has named Tariq Ramadan one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Poverty Tour 2.0. We’ll speak with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West as they travel the country confronting poverty. Stay with us.

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