Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Hirsi Ali vs Ramadan debate

Muslim futures

Jun 20th 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda

Two of Europe’s leading Muslims conduct a fiercely polite debate on the place of Islam in Europe


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FEW questions are more important to Europe’s future than the integration of the continent’s 20m-odd Muslims. Non-Muslim politicians and officials tend to debate the “how” of integration. Muslims tend to debate the “whether”.

Two of the protagonists in the latter argument met for the first time last week, in the tranquil confines of a conference in rural Sweden organised by the conservative Ax:son Johnson Foundation. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali-born and until recently a Dutch citizen, describes herself as a “secular Muslim”. But Islamists see her as an apostate, so she travels with three bodyguards to protect her from assassins.

She was debating with Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim polemicist and scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He has no bodyguards yet. But he may need some soon. His public meetings attract large numbers of enthusiastic followers, who see him as the champion of a pious but modern-minded Islam. But they are also on occasion disrupted by fundamentalists who see him as little better than Ms Hirsi Ali.

There were none of those at the Swedish conference. But there were plenty of representatives of another camp equally opposed to Mr Ramadan: hawkish Islam-watchers. One is Ms Hirsi Ali herself. Another is Pierre Lellouche, a French Gaullist deputy, who termed Mr Ramadan an “agent of influence”, playing the same role for Islam as crypto-communists did for the Soviet Union during the cold war. Mr Ramadan took up his post at Oxford only after he was turned down for an American visa.

Mr Ramadan’s favourite line is to denounce western media and opinion-formers for a simplistic and exaggerated view of Islam. Muslims who have lived on the European continent for centuries, he says, are already well-integrated and are eager to integrate more. Religious belief is no barrier to good citizenship, and it is unreasonable to expect Muslim representatives to have to condemn terrorism on each and every public appearance.

Whereas Mr Ramadan comes across as prickly and humourless, Ms Hirsi Ali plays up her glamorous feminine side. “Do you mind if I call you Tariq?” she coos, placing a friendly finger on Mr Ramadan’s tweed-clad arm. Having established a psychological advantage over a slightly flushed Mr Ramadan, she calls him handsome but duplicitous. It might be nice to portray Islam as it could be, but the problem is the faith as it is, she argues. Most Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal and absolute word of God, not open to interpretation. Few Muslims in reality, she says, follow Mr Ramadan’s view that every part of the Koran must be seen in its historic context. Islam is not a recipe for good government, she says, noting that all but a handful of Muslim countries are either failed states or tyrannies.

Mr Ramadan says his rival is, in effect, a publicity hound, more interested in impressing western audiences than changing Muslim thinking. “Are you working to change mentality, or to please western audiences?” he asks, upsetting an audience that sees Ms Hirsi Ali as a near-martyr.

An ardent campaigner for the rights of Muslim women, Ms Hirsi Ali started her political career as a Dutch social-democrat, and then moved to the free-market and right-wing liberal party, the VVD. She was deprived of her Dutch citizenship last month, amid claims that she had obtained asylum under false pretences (she admits that she invented some details in order to enter Holland, but denies that she ever concealed this during her political career).

She is now moving to Washington, DC, to take up a post at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank. “I asked them if they were worried about problems that I might create for them, and they said ‘no, we like controversy’”, she recalls with an appreciative giggle.

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