I have beheld the Beast-that-had-to-be-barred-from-the-U.S. I am still alive. In fact, having submitted myself to Tariq Ramadan as the featured speaker at lunch during last week’s all-day conference under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, my primary reaction was this: I bin had! This famed (or notorious) Muslim theologian who has for so long been denied a U.S. visa, this professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford, this supposedly great thinker, insulted an eagerly attentive audience with disorganized repetitive remarks that boiled down to this: “Muslims of America, use your citizenship rights to pursue your interests and values vis-à-vis domestic and international issues. Be involved. Be serious. Stress schooling and education. Teach ordinary Americans about Islam.”
Well, gee! That’s what all Americans are expected to do. In fact, that’s precisely what I told my friends at the Saudi-funded World Muslim Congress in Karachi some years ago. America’s Muslim citizens enjoy the same rights and opportunities for participation in American politics as anyone else; to have an impact they need to exercise those rights effectively. Etc. None of the highly educated Muslims in the banquet room at the CSID luncheon needed Tariq Ramadan to travel thousands of miles and brave the U.S. immigration authorities to tell them this. And not all of us, by far, were Muslims. We were being ignored altogether.
And so, as I listened to Ramadan, I oscillated among three reactions to his apparently simplistic remarks. His presentation was (1) contemptuously dismissive of the audience, (2) super-cautiously innocuous to avoid offending immigration authorities or (3) duplicitously disingenuous and thus in need of some careful code word interpretation.
The first was entirely possible. There was a certain sneering superiority and hauteur to his manner. It was hard not to conclude that this was a man with little interest in making friends.
The second was also all too sadly plausible. We all know that the U.S. has got culpably timid about free speech, and Tariq Ramadan is not the only intellectual who has been denied a visa in recent years. Why upset the censors the minute you arrive, especially if you have some serious work to do? Ramadan’s snarky comments about this state of affairs were right on.
The third hypothesis offered itself only as the boredom and dissatisfaction settled in. Why is he bothering with such apparently banal stuff? What’s he really saying? So hey! I’m not so dumb. How about this: use the American system to undermine the American system. This isn’t so hard, actually. The U.S. doesn’t always live up to its ideals.
Thus, in speaking of values that must be reinforced, Ramadan touched on some soft issues that all Americans need to pay some attention to, especially in these days of Tea Party nativism. Racism persists in America. So does a pernicious class system. These barriers to equality in the U.S. vitiate our own democratic values and they are also contrary to the bedrock values of Islam, which stresses the equality of all believers. Yet, even as we criticize the U.S., we also need to be aware that Muslim majority countries seldom perfectly exemplify the core values of Islam. Take a look at the social and economic system in Pakistan, for example.
The tenacious issue of Israel and Palestine came up briefly during the painfully truncated question period. Ramadan’s response is worth paying attention to. He suggested that the fruitless efforts of the U.S. might be superceded by another country’s mediation. In short, China might play a role. What interests me here isn’t the non-existent immediate potential for a Chinese intervention, but the very idea of it. The world is changing.
A few parting words: many Americans of good will have been eager to learn from Traiq Ramadan’s reputed profundity vis-à-vis Islam. They clamored for the issuance of his visa. How odd that he seems disinclined to participate whole-heartedly in the educational project he urged so exhaustively on fellow Muslims last week.