It has often been pointed out that Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna: the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pivotal organization in the history of Islamic fundamentalism. And it has at least just as often been pointed out that this should not matter, since, after all, no one chooses their parents and grandparents. In a debate with Tariq Ramadan on the French public television channel France 3 last Wednesday, the Franco-Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb posed what is the real question in this connection: Is Tariq Ramadan faithful to the legacy of his grandfather’s ideas? Below is a translation of the exchange. The immediate context is a discussion of the principle of “laïcité” or the separation of church and state.
Abdelwahab Meddeb: The question of laïcité is not a joke. It’s crucial and it’s antithetical to anyone who adheres to an Islam that is supposed to be absolutely and totally faithful. To be modern one has to know how to be unfaithful. And the question I have for you, regarding your genealogy — which is, after all, a massive genealogy: let’s recall that your grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt . . .
Tariq Ramadan: Aha! You had to come out with that!
AM: It’s very important. Because the real problem began there: the introduction of the notion of “Anti-Westernism” . . .
TR: Where?! Where is that?!
AM: . . . was born with Hassan Al-Banna . . .
TR: Where?! Where is that?!
AM: . . . your grandfather.
TR: He cited Descartes. He cited the major Western philosophers. Can I ask you a question?
AM: Don’t try to make an intellectual out of Hassan Al-Banna. He wrote miserable little epistles that had a gigantic . . .
TR: Can you name me two titles? Two titles?
AM: and disastrous effect . . .
TR: Please, two titles? Can you name me two titles of the epistles that you would have read?
[. . .]
AM: The question I want to ask you is this: To what extent are you prepared — in order to defend the principle of laïcité and to demarcate yourself from this fundamentalist Islam — to show infidelity toward your genealogy, to betray your genealogy? Because all modernity, every secular person who comes from a religious tradition, necessarily has to betray and to be unfaithful.
[. . .]
TR: One has to get serious. You referred me to my grandfather. I ask you questions about the titles of his works and you don’t cite them. And that’s the problem. I’m far from idealizing the image of a man who participated in a historical movement in the 1920s and 1930s: he is the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood . . .
AM: The source of the affliction [le début du mal]. The cause of the sickness [in Islam] is to be found there.
[. . .]
TR: The heart of the problem is that we need to contextualize things . . .
AM: Let’s contextualize, then.
TR: What I say as regards my grandfather is that, in effect, I reject a discourse such as yours, which is an extremely negative projection . . .
AM: What do you reject? You make him out to be one of the reformers of Islam. [. . .] You make your grandfather out to be a defender of women’s rights. And he does say in fact that women are free and equal — on the condition that they stay at home in order to take care of raising their boys: the future militants of the holy war.
TR: Listen. Just one thing . . .
AM: But, the matter of infidelity. One has to betray one’s genealogy in order to be modern. Answer that.
TR: I won’t respond to dogmatic commands.
AM: My dear sir: cut the umbilical cord.
TR: Very nice. What I want to say to you is that the person who you present as being so opposed to all women: his first daughter is educated; the second is a professor of economics; the third is an engineer; the fourth is a doctor. Is that all right?
AM: And all wear the veil, I suppose.
TR: If veiled or not, that’s not the question. In my family there are women who wear the veil and women who don’t. The difference between us and you is that you are dogmatically against the veil and I am for freedom of choice. You see the difference? There’s someone who’s dogmatic here and it’s not the one you expected. You see? Do you follow me?
AM: We’ll let the audience judge that . . .
The full video of the debate between Abdelwahab Meddeb and Tariq Ramadan is available here. (The translated exchange is from minutes 36:48 to 42:08.) Abdelwahab Meddeb is the author of the new book Sortir de la malédiction. L’islam entre civilisation et barbarie [“Ending the Curse: Islam Between Civilization and Barbarism”].