A capacity crowd of 860 students, professionals, hijab-clad women, and others filled Cooper Union's Great Hall on Thursday, April 8, to hear Tariq Ramadan deliver his first public address in the U.S. since the Bush administration revoked his visa in 2004. The controversial Swiss Muslim, who teaches Islamic history at Oxford University, was banned for his 2002 donation to a Muslim charity with links to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas -- a move that cost him an endowed chair at the University of Notre Dame. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally intervened to allow Ramadan to enter the country.
Cooper Union President George Campbell's voice swelled with pride when, in introducing Ramadan, he boasted that his college had earned a reputation of hosting countless "radical campaigners of every sort" who were described in their day "as the most dangerous men and women in America." Campbell, the ACLU, the PEN American Center, and the other sponsoring organizations portrayed the event, "Secularism, Islam and Democracy," as a celebration of free speech.
Ramadan has gained a reputation as an exemplar of the art of "double speech": making statements that can be interpreted favorably by both leftist secularists and Islamists. This sleight-of-hand has earned him admirers among the European and American Left, who have called him a leader of "moderate" Islam and even a "Muslim Martin Luther." In a damning 28,000-word article in The New Republic, writer Paul Berman debunked these claims, demonstrating that Ramadan is the intellectual heir of his Egyptian grandfather Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose ideology inspired the formation of Hamas, al-Qaeda, Hizb ut Tahrir, and numerous other terrorist organizations.
Ramadan, the first speaker of the four-member panel, opened the evening with a speech that was as vague as it was disorganized. He offered countless platitudes such as, "We may disagree, but our future is common"; "to take [from a culture] means to listen"; and "humility means respect and consistency." Ramadan also provided trite slogans that were warmly received by his liberal audience, including "not to support the rights of the Palestinians is wrong" and "the American invasion [of Iraq] is illegal."
He spent much of his time discussing Western Muslim identity, saying, "We [Muslims] are at home in the West, and Islam is a Western religion." Ramadan demanded that Westerners recognize the "reality of the contributions" of Muslims to Western civilization.
The speaker also made statements that those familiar with the Brotherhood would recognize as Islamist, but that other listeners might dismiss as benign. For instance, Ramadan asserted, "We [Muslims] have to come back to our texts, back to our sources [the Qur'an and the Hadith] ... these are challenges for all the Muslims." In the discourse of the Brotherhood, "come back to our texts" usually loosely translates to "we must recreate the seventh-century society of the Prophet Mohammed."
The next speaker was Gallup pollster Dalia Mogahed, who has been called the "most influential figure guiding the Obama Administration's Middle East outreach." She argued that European Muslims are more estranged from their societies than American Muslims because of their economic status, education levels, and non-indigenous ethnicities (African-American Muslims are 35% of the American Muslim population). According to her findings, Mogahed claimed, "Muslims in general are no more likely to express sympathy for violence targeting civilians than non-Muslims." None of the panelists challenged Mogahed's statement, which seem especially spurious in light of a recently released report showing that anti-Semitic incidents in Europe have more than doubled in the last year and that for the first time in the history of the study, Western Muslims are the primary culprits of these attacks. Nor did Mogahed state that, even according to her own research, the percentage of German and French Muslims who believe that 9/11 was "completely justified" is in "the double-digits."
The most obsequious presentation of the night came from Joan Wallach Scott of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. Panel moderator Jacob Weisburg, the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, listed countless violations of women's rights in the Islamic world and asked Scott whether she, as a self-identified feminist, accepted Ramadan's tepid criticism of these acts. Scott claimed that "questions [from Westerners] of gender inequality [in the Islamic world] have been used" to avoid discussing the socioeconomic status of Muslims in the West and the "continuing gender inequalities in Western societies." Apparently, that an American woman makes 78 cents to a man's dollar is as egregious a violation of feminist principles as forced veiling, female genital mutilation, and wife-beating.
Scott asserted that women are represented more prominently in the Iranian parliament than in the U.S. Congress. She neglected to mention that Iran's parliament is a figurehead, and that there are no women on the Guardian Council, the group of clerics that actually runs the country. Scott went on to claim that the imposition of the hijab has "very little to do with feminist issues," and that Ramadan's idea of a Muslim moratorium on stoning -- as opposed to banning the practice -- "is not a bad one." Her presentation illustrated perfectly our era's strangest bedfellows: Islamists and leftist Western academics.
The sole bright spot on the panel was New Yorker journalist George Packer, who used his allotted time to pelt Ramadan with questions about his views of his grandfather Hassan al-Banna's connections to the Nazi ally and Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Hussayni. Citing Paul Berman's research from his soon-to-be-released book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, Packer noted that al-Banna was an admirer of fascist Italy and Germany and quoted al-Banna as saying, "Hitler was sent by Allah [as a punishment for] the corruption of the Jews." Packer then asked Ramadan whether he was willing to condemn al-Banna for his alliance with the Mufti and for his admiration of Hitler and Mussolini.
The normally dispassionate Ramadan was visibly unsettled. Claiming that he had already been asked three times about Berman's book since arriving in the States, he said, "I put this in the context of the 30s and '40s." In remarks following these, Ramadan employed the terms "context," "contextual," and "contextualized" at least four times, obfuscating the issue of al-Banna's Nazi sympathies while asserting that the real question at hand was the Arab struggle against Israel. He stated: "[Al-Banna] was against the existence of Israel," but that this was a "very specific position" and "you cannot find support for the Nazis" in al-Banna's writing.
"I don't like to contextualize a long-term alliance with a leading Nazi propagandist and collaborator," Packer responded -- a remark that drew a rare outburst of applause from a sizable portion of the audience. Ramadan dismissed the point, and the panel moderator obliged him by quickly changing the subject. Yet this was not the first time Ramadan justified extremist positions based on "context": He told the Italian magazine Panorama in 2004 that terrorism against civilians is "contextually explicable."
Packer's courage notwithstanding, it was impossible not to leave the auditorium feeling slightly nauseated by the panel's choice to offer apologias for Ramadan's Islamism while celebrating moral relativism. Cooper Union can carve a notch in its stock for hosting another "dangerous man." The rest of us will be left to wonder how a college that hosted one of the great Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1860, in which the future president outlined the evils of slavery, became by 2010 a refuge for those who would justify misogyny, anti-Semitism, and terrorism.
Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.