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Tariq Ramadan: The U.S. & Allies Are Destabilizing the Middle East & Selling Arms to All Sides

Web ExclusiveAugust 24, 2017
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Extended web-only interview with Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan about U.S. arms trade, the so-called democratization of the Middle East and much more. Ramadan is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University. Ramadan was named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. In 2004, Tariq Ramadan accepted a job at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and Time magazine listed him among the top 100 thinkers in the world. But nine days before Ramadan was set to start teaching here in the United States, the Bush administration revoked his visa, invoking a provision of the PATRIOT Act that allows the government to deny entry to non-citizens who “endorse or espouse terrorism.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we go to Part 2 of our discussion with Professor Tariq Ramadan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, where he met with Mohammed bin Salman, the new crown prince and defense minister in charge of the ongoing Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Kushner also met with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt Wednesday, following the U.S. decision to withhold some military funding to Egypt amidst Egypt’s deteriorating human rights conditions. Despite withholding some funding, the U.S. continues to give massive military aid to Egypt. Amnesty International said, “Humvees, small arms, and tear gas provided by the U.S. are used to oppress critics of the Egyptian government and facilitate serious human rights violations like extra-judicial [executions],” unquote. The White House refused to say exactly where Jared Kushner is going on this Middle East trip, though they’re saying he’s trying to jumpstart the Middle East peace process. We do know he met with the Jordanian King Abdullah in Amman, the emir of Qatar in Doha, and that today, on Thursday, he’s slated to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under criminal investigation, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Professor Tariq Ramadan, can you talk about what the Trump administration is calling a renewed effort for a peace process?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Look, let us be clear on that. That’s a joke. It’s not going to happen, and it didn’t happen before. Even under the Obama administration, there was no peace process, and it’s not happening. Even under the Obama administration, what we had is, twice, over summer, the destruction of Gaza and thousands of civilians being killed. And it’s as if that’s normal, and we have to accept this.

The problem is that even when we were talking about, you know, the “revolutions” and the Arab Spring, we need to get the right picture. We are obsessed with the political equation here, talking about democracy, and even Bush told us in 2003, “We want to democratize the Middle East.” That’s not—this is not what is happening. What is happening, and even with the last visit of, you know, the son-in-law of the president, is mainly to deal with market and economy and geostrategy. It has nothing to do with solving the political problem, trying to get peace with—between Israel and Palestine. That’s not the main focus here. The main focus, and this is why we were obsessed with the political equation, speaking about democracy, not getting that, in fact, the Arab Spring was the big opportunity to open the market. And which market are we talking about? We are talking here about selling weapons. We are talking about arms selling in the region. Billions of U.S. dollars have been, you know, spent by Gulf states, for example, just with the crisis that we had between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both countries bought, for billions, hundreds billions of dollars of weapons, from Saudi Arabia, and the same on the Qatari side. So, you divide the region, and you sell weapons to both. And not only to both, you sell weapons, knowing, for example, in Saudi Arabia, that it’s going to be used against civilians, in a way which has nothing to do with respecting international law. Exactly the same when it comes to Egypt. Egypt is using U.S. weapons in order to torture people, to target civilians and to have a state which is clearly a dictatorship. And even the Obama administration refused to speak about the coup d’état, because, in fact, this would have stopped the opportunity for the U.S. government to support financially and militarily the Egyptian regime. So we have to get the right picture.

The hidden story behind all these discussions about peace process, let us do, is to sell weapons, or to buy weapons from Israel, because the only undisputed discussion that we have here is Israel. Israel can kill innocent people in Gaza, kill civilians, torture people. We don’t ask. We don’t have the right to ask even. And we sell the weapons. On the other side, what is happening is we speak about democratizing the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East now, it’s completely unsettled. Even with the killing of the civilians in Syria and in Iraq, Russia and the United States of America are making money out of it. That’s the reality of it. It has nothing to do with democracy. It has nothing to do with respecting civil—civilians and rights of the people, or even the Palestinians. We don’t care. The point is that sell money, make—sell weapons, make money and let them kill one another. At the end of the day, the business is running.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Ramadan, on the question of arms sales, of course, these are justified internally in these countries to whom Britain and the U.S. and Russia are selling weapons, by saying, well, they have to buy these weapons, because they are fighting internal threats from terrorists, from ISIS in Syria and elsewhere, to the Taliban in Pakistan. So, your response to that?

TARIQ RAMADAN: No, no, I think it’s the simplistic, you know, narrative that was sold by the dictators. We had Sadat and, after—before this—after this, Mubarak, and, after, el-Sisi, who are—they are saying, “You know what? You better deal with us, as dictators, than with them, as crazy people, violent extremists. So let us deal with them.” So we sell weapons in order for the government to torture them and to deal with them in the domestic side and also in the regional side.

What is the point of us supporting Saudi Arabia killing innocent people in Yemen? Is this something which is acceptable? Don’t they have—you know, and what have we done in Syria, until and for the first five years, when it was still possible to deal with the situation? We don’t care, as we had the situation in Raqqa now is just revealing the whole narrative, the whole way we are dealing. We are targeting civilians. We don’t care. So, it has nothing to do with supporting, you know, legitimate governments dealing with terrorists. We are supporting dictators. We are supporting regimes who don’t care about their people.

But we do this not in the name of human rights. We don’t do this in the name of democracy. If we were caring about democracy, let us start with the Gulf states. Let us start with Saudi Arabia. We don’t care. We don’t care about the status of women in the regions. We don’t care. What we care is, how are we going to protect the geostrategic interests, to protect the security of Israel and to sell weapons and make money in the region. That’s the reality of it. And if this was to help the countries to go towards more democracy and a democratization process, we should start by not supporting dictators, not supporting el-Sisi. In less than 20 minutes, in under Sisi regimes, in Egypt, 1,200 people were sentenced to death, because they are against the government. And we are supporting this? Is this the way we are dealing with human rights? So, it’s human rights for us, and whatever—it’s acceptable to sell weapons to these dictators? That’s not acceptable.

And as much—I said it, and I repeat this—we want people to take to the street and to say, “Not in our name, as Muslims,” let us come as Americans, let us come as Europeans, and say to our governments, “Not in our name. You are making money while the people are being killed. We are making money bombarding Syria, and when the people are trying to come to Europe as migrants and refugees, we criminalize them, and we let them die in the Mediterranean Sea. Is this right? Is this the way we deal with human rights? I can’t accept this. So, I would go with the—in Barcelona, where the Muslims say, “Not in my name,” and I will go with all the Western people saying, “Not in our name,” because you speak about democracy, and you care about money.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Ramadan, you’ve talked about the fact that the U.S. and Britain and Russia are making money off arms sales to Syria, among other countries. But are you suggesting that it’s actually in the interests of these countries—

TARIQ RAMADAN: And you can add France.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: —and France—that it’s actually in the interests of these countries—France, Britain, the U.S. and Russia—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —to continue the war in Syria and the total dismemberment of Iraq, only because they are making money off these arms sales?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Not only, but they are taking advantage of the situation. Yes, I’m not suggesting; I am saying it clearly: They are making money out of this situation. The complete and settled situation in the Middle East, it’s a big political disaster, and it’s an open market to sell weapons and to make money, for the time being, and, at the same times, not—for us not to be focusing on a very central conflict, which has to do with Palestine and Israel, while, at the time I’m talking to you, Israel is buying weapons and selling technology to the States, to European countries and even to Arab countries in the region. They are making money while they are still colonizing Palestine. We are talking about the two-state solution. It’s over. So, when we are told today that there is somebody going from—coming from the States, the son-in-law of the president coming to start speaking again about the peace process, it’s a joke. So I’m not suggesting; I’m saying it clearly: There is a great interest in people fighting one another in the region. The destabilized Middle East is a big market for the Russians, for the Europeans and, of course, for the U.S., for many reasons. And, once again, we have to be clear about this.

But you know what I’m saying is not new. This is an old story. If only we were—and I’m always saying this to, you know, Arabs and people in the Middle East. You have to study what happened in Latin America. This is not a new policy. This is known. It’s known the way that we are pushing people to fight one another, and we are making money and selling weapons to both. In the story between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, this is exactly what happened over the last three months.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Ramadan, but one of the main criticisms of Arab states, so far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned, is that they actually bear a lot of responsibility for, minimally, Palestinian refugees, and they, themselves, turn Palestinians away from their own countries, while constantly criticizing Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Oh, I’m very happy that you’re asking this question, and this is a critical question. And you’re right. And this has to be said, as well. I’m very critical towards the Western policies. I’m critical, of course, of the Israeli policy. But the first to be blamed are the Arab countries—are the Arab governments. In fact, they don’t even care about Palestinians. They let them down, and they don’t want to have problems with them. The policy or the decisions coming from Egypt, for example, towards the Palestinians, it’s just outrageous. It’s not even acceptable. But all the countries, the Gulf states, towards Palestine and Jordan, and even all the other countries, they don’t care. So, in fact, we are very often told, “You know what? The problem in the Middle East is, the reason for all what is happening is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” And I would say, no, that’s just revealing a deeper problem that we have with the Arab countries and the Muslim-majority countries in the region. They are the first to be blamed. We cannot accept this, and we have to be very critical.

So, I’m not saying, because I’m criticizing the U.S. government or the European governments, that we have to keep quiet on the Gulf states or the Arab countries. They have—and they are the first responsible for what is happening now with the Palestinians. They are, even now. You know, look at the Emirates. The Emirates are dealing with Israel. They are dealing with Israel, and they have an agreement with Israel. And exactly the same with Egypt. So, who are we going to blame? Am I going to let the people to say something about the Palestinians, saying they are lost, in what is happening now, and, even in Syria, they are lost? Who should be blamed for that? The first, it’s Bashar al-Assad is a dictator. And what happened also in Libya, and what happened—and what happened in Iraq, and all these governments that we have now are not doing the job. So we need something coming from the Middle East. We need more voices within the civil societies in the Middle East being able to address the issue and to be courageous enough to say no to the Arab policies in the region, “Not in our name,” as well. And let us create something, that could be voices coming from the West, voices coming from the Middle East, saying this, that we are going to blame the Arab governments, but also the Western governments and all the people who are betraying the basic principles we believe in. And this is something that we have to do together.

Everything is connected, by the way, and this is why I’m very happy, in your program, that you are connecting all the things together, because it could be wrong just to look at one picture, one situation, and not to connect it to the whole big picture that we are facing. What is happening in the Middle East has to do with what is happening today when it comes to violent extremism. And even, I would say, that anything that has to do with discrimination, it’s also coming out of this big and great narrative that is imposed onto us, normalizing the way we are targeting some people and saving the life of others. It has to do with Arabs. It has to do with Muslims. It has to do with black people. It’s exactly the same logic. Let us understand this, because this is why we can come together and say no to these policies coming from the Arab world, as well as from the West.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ramadan, as we speak, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is making the rounds of the Middle East in an effort to resume the so-called peace process. On Tuesday, he was in Saudi Arabia meeting with his personal friend, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who’s in charge of the destruction, the bombing campaign, of Yemen. The next day in Yemen, a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led airstrike north of Sana’a killed at least 41 people when it struck a hotel. President Trump, his first foreign trip as president of the United States, was to—in a break with all tradition—Saudi Arabia, though visiting Saudi Arabia on the part of a president wasn’t a break with tradition. President Obama visited Saudi Arabia a number of times. Can you assess the Trump administration at this point? Your assessment of President Trump, when you look at him from across the pond, from afar, in the Middle East, and here at home in the U.S.?

TARIQ RAMADAN: I think there are two things. When it comes to what you are saying about Saudi Arabia, once again, they don’t care about democracy. They don’t care about human rights. They don’t—they care about interest in the region. And now, bin Salman is clearly an ally. The Saudis and the Saudi government was, of course, before an ally of the U.S. policy in the region. Now it’s quite clear: sell the weapons and try to get an understanding of how we are going to deal with the Saudi government, supporting and protecting the interests, other U.S. interests, in the region. That’s all what Trump is doing. But, by the way, let me be clear: It was exactly the same with Obama and exactly the same way with Bush before. So, it’s a continuous. Whatever is that government or the president, it’s always the same.

Now, let me say something about this. I am a Western Muslim, and I’m trying to get a deeper understanding of Islam in helping us to live as Muslims in our societies today, in democratic society. Who are we supporting in Saudi Arabia? The Salafi. And the Salafi might not be violent, but they are supporting an interpretation of Islam which is us versus them, very literalist, very, very narrow-minded. They don’t want us to deal. And they want us to think that the West is the enemy. So, you are supporting a government that is just protecting your interests, but at the same time is promoting an ideology which is completely based on us versus them. So, are you supporting a version or an interpretation of Islam which is exactly the opposite of what you are asking the Muslims to say at the same time? It’s a contradiction in term. What is this? So, how could you support this? How could you support a government saying there is no democracy in Islam, women cannot drive? It’s just a very literalist understanding of Islam. And they are killing people. They are imposing a way of understanding sharia which is only based on punishing the victims. And the victims are poor people and women in the country, not the princes, not the kings, just the poor people. And this is what Trump is doing now, following in the footsteps of all the policy that we had coming from the U.S. And then, at the same time, domestically, what he said—be clear on this, the narrative, what—it was not by accident that Trump said about Muslims, “We want to ban Muslims and Muslims coming from Muslim-majority countries.” In fact, the connection between violent extremism and Muslim and Muslim being a problem is exactly the same narrative.

And I would say that what he said about Charleston, it’s exactly the same. At one point, we need to get it clear. The whole narrative about black people in the United States of America, it’s normalizing a state of structural racism. And we say, “All we target, you know, are the people who are dealing with drugs and criminals.” But at the same time, we are creating suspicions towards black people and suspicions towards the Muslims and suspicions toward the Latinos. So there is something here where it’s not new. This is a very old story. But we need to get it from within and to understand that the question is not about only the facts. The question has to do with the narrative that is imposed and this political discourse that we have. And what is done by the Trump administration in the Middle East is exactly the opposite of what we should promote when it comes to human rights and the right interpretation of Islam, the open interpretation of Islam. We are serious about Islam, but Islam, it’s an open religion dealing with common principles that we have. It’s not the literalist version and interpretation coming from the Salafis, supported by the United States of America. If you want to give a bad image of Islam, support the Saudi, support the Gulf states. And this is what the United States and the European countries are doing together.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ramadan, you were banned from the United States for six years. Are you allowed in the United States under President Trump?

TARIQ RAMADAN: So far, I am. I was there a few months ago, two or three months ago. And I will be coming back. I have a new book coming, an introduction to Islam, where I’m talking about all these things in the book to come, so I will have a visit in September. We’ll see. So far, so good. It’s OK. And I hope it’s not going to, but, you know, at the end, if I am banned from the United States because of what I’m saying now, it’s just revealing the state of affairs within the country. It’s worrying.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Ramadan, can you go from, well, your own ban here in the U.S., and how it affected you, to, well, jump forward to President Trump and the Muslim ban, in this case, a ban on immigrants coming in from six majority-Muslim countries?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes. I think my situation was solved in 2010, and that’s fine. I can come, and I am privileged in a way, because I didn’t have to go through all these problems that you have with Muslims coming from the six Muslim-majority countries.

We need to get, once again, the big picture. At the beginning, it was nine countries, and it sent—even the fact that we are talking about a Muslim ban is just—once again, it’s making Islam the problem and the Muslim-majority countries and to target some of—some of these countries were not targeted, of course, because they are allies. So, when you are supporting the Salafi, you—but still you have money. At the end of the day, the countries with which we are trading and making money, they are not to be banned. And we are putting some suspicion on others. So it’s all political, and it’s using Islam as a way of spreading around a very bad and negative perception of Islam. So I think that this is pure discrimination, stigmatization. It is very dangerous. And the rationale and the narrative and all what Trump has been saying during the campaign, before he was president, and afterward is just nurturing the sense that we are not only talking about the violent extremists as a problem, we are talking about Islam and the Muslim-majority countries as a problem. And he’s ready to deal with governments, he’s ready to deal with dictators, as long as their interests are protected.

But what it gives as an impression within the States and at the domestic—and it opens, in a way, a way for racists and white supremacists, in a way and another, because some of them are connecting black people, Muslims, Arabs, Latinos, strangers, foreigners. All this is all the same at the end of the day. The white supremacists are picturing the whole thing in that way: us versus them. And Trump is nurturing this sense of division within the society. And this is very dangerous. And it’s not only dangerous for Muslims. The Muslim ban is not dangerous for Muslims. It’s dangerous for the unity of the American society. It’s the very essence of a society based on diversity and migrations, and taking its strength from—or getting its strength from this diversity. He is putting this at risk, with this political discourse that we have today.

And we need to stand up and to come together. And I’m—you know, what is coming from the feminist discourse about intersectionality, we need to look at this, because at one point all this is connected. And the struggle of American Muslims is the same as black America, is the same as women being stigmatized. At one point, behind this, there is a narrative which is very problematic. And Islam today is part of this, at the domestic level as well as at the international level.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Ramadan, one of the things that you mentioned is that, of course, even when this Muslim ban was first enunciated, it did not include allies of the U.S., most notably, Saudi Arabia. And you’ve talked about how Saudi Arabia propagates a very particular form of Islam, the Salafi tradition, and its effects on the region. Can you talk about what this strain of a very strict interpretation of Islam suggests and also the way in which the Saudi regime and many other regimes in the in the Arab world and Muslim world treat their minorities, in particular, the Shia community?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yeah, that’s very important. I would say, if we want to summarize three main features of the Salafi, the first one is literalism, is that there is no room for interpretation, no way to deal with contemporary issues—a very, very backward interpretation of Islam when it comes to societies, when it comes to democracy, when it comes to human rights, when it comes even to punishment. And the way they are understanding sharia, it’s a very narrow understanding, which means we punish first, and we reform after, which is completely wrong. This is a very dangerous interpretation. So we have this, within and among Muslims, even among the Sunni, this perception that it’s us versus them, we have the only right interpretation of Islam, and all the others are alienated Muslims and even not Muslim. For some of the people who are supporting Saudi Arabia, I’m not even a Muslim. I am not even a Muslim. I am a kafir murtad. ”Murtad” means apostate. And ”kafir” means an infidel. So, my blood is considered as lawful by some of the scholars who are supporting the Saudi regime, which, you know, I am banned from Saudi Arabia for things that I have been saying about the country and the government. So this is within, among the Muslims, is this is the only right interpretation, all the others are wrong.

And then, add to this the fact that they are now nurturing this narrative that Islam is about the Sunni, and the Shia are no longer Muslim, so they are the enemy. And the point is that this is not only the discussion between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s everywhere within the narrative that we have. It’s the most dangerous people for the Muslims, meaning the Sunni, are the Shia. And the way they are targeting it is, in fact, by targeting them, explaining their policies towards the Shia at the international level based on these people are not really Muslims, and they are dangerous, because they are distorting Islam from within, to the point that you come with the way they are dealing with minorities within the country. You remember when we were talking about the Arab Spring, the people who were very happy with what was happening in Tunisia, what was happening in Egypt. And we were silent about what was going—what was happening in Bahrain. And in Bahrain, what we got coming from the coverage, even from Al Jazeera in Qatar, was, “Oh, these people are Shia, and they are against the Sunni government.” How come you are saying this? How come you can justify the fact that you are killing people protesting against a regime and dictatorship, just by saying that they are Shia? So, it’s legitimized: It’s right to kill Shia people, because they are Shia. And look at what is happening in Yemen. It’s exactly the same narrative. It’s exactly the same rationale that we have here.

So, yes, this is—this ideology is based on this. It’s based on literalists, based on internal divisions, being the only right interpretation of Islam and targeting the Shia. Add to this that they are telling us that we should not be involved in politics. So, if you go to the street in Saudi Arabia and to say that’s a corrupt government, the mufti is going to tell you, “Oh, no, this is un-Islamic.” So, this is also what they were saying in Egypt. It’s un-Islamic to take to the street, because this is wrong from an Islamic perspective. So, once again, it’s a very, very smart way of instrumentalizing religion to support the worst dictatorships in the world.

And who is supporting these people? For the sake of what? Who is supporting them? All the European governments and all—and the United States of America. Why? Because for two reasons. It’s, yes, for money, because they have money, and they have oil, and they have gas. That’s one thing. But it’s more cynical than that even, that their interpretation of Islam is very interesting for political reason, at the domestic level and at the international level. You support these people, and, in fact, they are very much more welcome in the West than I am. So, I am told, “Be open. Promote citizenship.” But when you come to this, you are suspected. But when you come with a very literalist way of dealing with Islam, you are welcome. Why? Because there is an ideological game. In fact, what is expected from Muslims is perceived within the society as dangerous, if we speak about citizenship, equal rights, human rights, and we are ready for it. And I’m ready for it. I’m ready to be critical towards the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia and others, even Iran. I went there, and I said, “Your policy, I cannot support.” We are ready for that. But it’s very strange and cynical that even our governments look at us as dangerous, to be banned from the United States of America, as I was banned from France for almost a year. Why? Why are you banning us when we say things that you don’t like? So, at the end of the day, you like what their version of Islam, or do you want us to be serious about being Muslim and, at the same time, being democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ramadan, very quickly, I wanted to get your response to President Trump’s speech on Monday, where he talked about increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by something like 4,000. And he also—well, let me play the clip.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy. Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles. They are won in the field. They’re drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and front-line soldiers acting in real time with real authority and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy. That’s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful, as we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field. We are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including the liberation of Mosul in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute, Professor Ramadan. Your response to President Trump?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yeah. No, I think that, once again, we are talking about the liberation of Mosul, and we are talking about, you know, supporting the Afghani people. We never supported the Afghani people for their own sake, but because, once again, it’s a geostrategic area, and there is gas, and there is uranium, and there is lithium in the region. And that’s once again why we want to remain there and to support. It’s for economic reasons, not for democracy. It’s exactly the same in Syria, so we are talking about liberation. But, once again, let us come to what you said at the beginning of the program. Facts and figures are showing that we don’t care about killing civilians, and Arab civilians have less values as American civilians in the Trump’s narrative. And that’s unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ramadan, we want to thank you for being with us. Professor Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University.


AMY GOODMAN: His latest book, Islam. Professor Ramadan was named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century.

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Professor Tariq Ramadan, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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