Review: The Arab Awakening - Islam and the New Middle East by Tariq Ramadan

New Statesman
Muslim French intellectual and author Tariq Ramadan. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East

Tariq Ramadan

Allen Lane, 288pp, £20

Many opportunistic books on the Arab spring have been published in recent months. Tariq Ramadan has wisely avoided using the phrase “Arab spring” in his title. Several Arab countries that are experiencing turmoil are likely to proceed from winter to winter without any intervening spring or summer.

Ramadan makes a persuasive case for caution, even pessimism. It appears that Libya post-Gaddafi is being pulled apart by regional and tribal rivalries. Popular protests in Algeria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been suppressed ruthlessly. Yemen and Syria continue to drift towards outright civil war. In Egypt, the generals enjoy even more power than they did under Hosni Mubarak. Ramadan judges that only developments in Tunisia, where the moderate Islamist Ennahda party has won a fair and open election, give grounds for tentative optimism. He is also chary of making predictions. Political scientists specialising in the Middle East failed to spot what was coming. What use are they?

Unfortunately, I think Ramadan goes to too many conferences. Just as Iris Murdoch and John Bayley joked about “whithering”, attending symposia on such nebulous questions as “Whither the modern novel?” or “Whither a globalised culture?”, so Ramadan seems to have sat on an awful lot of panels debating “Whither Islam?” and “Whither the Muslim community in Europe?”. As a consequence, he has developed a sonorous and vaguely upbeat rhetoric about contemporary Islam that often deteriorates into blather. For instance:

But only by reconciling the political with the economic can the deadlock of a timeworn dialectic be broken, thus opening the way to a more comprehensive approach based on an open, far more challenging triangle whose components are the state, the economy and the cultural and religious references of the people.

If one writes at this level of generality, it is easy to dodge specific issues such as how non-Muslims and women can be assured of fully equal rights if sharia becomes the law of the land in, say, Egypt or Tunisia. (Elsewhere, Ramadan, taxed about the Islamic penalty of death by stoning for women found guilty of adultery, has gone on the record as saying that there should be a moratorium on the practice while there is a debate about it. He likes debate.)

The Arab Awakening repeatedly stresses the diversity and evolving character of Muslim responses to political and economic changes, and this must be correct. However, it is striking that the author does not credit western countries with the same quality, so that throughout the book the west is presented as monolithic, unchanging and invariably driven by economic self-interest, leaving Muslims with the mono­poly on idealism.

According to Ramadan, things are not always as they seem; he detects a hidden hand at work everywhere in the Middle East. He improbably suggests that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is a stooge of the Americans, but at the same time he underplays Russia’s role in supplying arms to Syria and in blocking Security Council measures against the Assad regime. When he asks why events in Syria have received so little coverage in the west, he takes no account of the severe difficulties journalists have encountered in entering that country. Indeed, some have been killed while trying to cover the Syrian uprising.

He finds the training of secularist Arab cyber-activists by American non-governmental agencies sinister, yet makes no reference to the Muslim Brotherhood’s intensive use of the internet for propaganda. Ramadan, currently professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford, is a grandson on his mother’s side of Hassan al-Banna, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Ramadan claims that al-Banna “was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government on orders from the British occupiers”. However, there is no evidence at all to support this allegation of British involvement, and it is perfectly clear that the Egyptian regime had its own reasons for carrying out the murder even though, according to a minority opinion, the killing may have been carried out by fellow members of the Brotherhood.

The author contends that “democracy is characterised by five inalienable principles that are not only not in contradiction with Islam, but are in fundamental conformity with it: the rule of law, equality for all citizens, universal suffrage, accountability and the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judiciary)”. This is a fine thing, but it is something that should be demonstrated, rather than merely asserted. The past history of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and the Mamluk and Otto­man sultanates does not suggest that it is necessarily true; nor does the present practice of the Saudi and Iranian regimes. More facts and fewer debating points would be desirable. Although he has declared that “it is high time to move on from useless ideological debates”, I do not think that Ramadan ever has. l

Robert Irwin is Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is "Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties" (Profile Books, £14.99)