“I come from a country [France] where, a year ago, 11 million people demonstrated in defence of the freedom of expression. Ironically, now it is almost impossible for me to be allowed a place in Paris where I can hold a debate with Tariq Ramadan!” said French journalist Alain Gresh during a lecture in Brussels last month.
Gresh’s bitter – yet honest – remarks testify to the grim realities of the state of freedom of expression in France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Over the past year, security has taken precedence over liberty, which has resulted in the sidelining of crucial issues such as unemployment, economic crisis or social justice. This climate of fear has resulted in silencing any voice that would dare to question state policies or narrative.
Tariq Ramadan is one such voice.
“France is the only country in the world where I cannot set foot in a university [to give a talk],” said Ramadan during a lecture held in a privately rented conference hall in the city of Nice two weeks ago.
On a number of occasions, Ramadan has been denied the right to hold debates in public spaces in Paris and Orleans, and mayor Alain Juppe struggled to prevent him from holding a conference in Bordeaux.
And at a time when the question of Islam and Muslims in France – and Europe – is at the centre of heated debates, Ramadan, a specialist scholar of Islam and Muslim affairs, is not even granted airtime to express his views.
While the smearing media campaign against Ramadan is nothing new, it intensified in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks when several media platforms and newspapers harshly scolded him for refusing to adopt the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan, although Ramadan firmly condemned the terrorist attacks.
Nonetheless, he criticised the magazine’s “double standards” and lack of professionalism for sacking Sine, a prominent French cartoonist when, a few years ago, the latter mocked the “possible conversion of Sarkozy’s son to Judaism”, while, at the same time, the magazine claims the right to an absolute free expression when it comes to mocking Islam and the prophet Muhammad.
The ban on Ramadan comes amid a soaring level of Islamophobic discourse that has permeated mainstream media. Diatribes stigmatising France’s Muslims and Islam have become almost a daily occurrence in the media and among state officials.
Last week, a French minister likened women wearing veils to “negros accepting slavery“. Some French intellectuals have been advocating “deporting Muslims” outside of France, or urging Muslims “to step out of Islam” because “Islam is not compatible with the Republic or with France’s way of life.”
Ramadan’s detractors, such as Caroline Fourest or Bernard Henri Levy, both described in a book written by Pascal Boniface as “intellectual counterfeiters“, constantly invoke the same terminology in feeding the smear campaign against Ramadan today.
They accuse him of “ambiguity”, “double discourse”, and working to “Islamise Europe”, without providing evidence to support their claims except rhetorically citing his lineage – being the grandson of Hassan el-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – as the “smoking gun” to prove their allegations.
A quick scan of Ramadan’s discourse, writings and lectures suggests that he is a voice that France – and Europe – needs to listen to today. Ramadan’s writings and discourse confront, dissect and dismantle the pro-governmental and/or elite’s discourse.
He strives for a European Islam free from any foreign influence and that promotes social integration. He also calls on governments to pursue policies of social equality and adopt anti-discrimination laws since such policies and laws have the power to prevent extremism from taking root among marginalised people.
Ramadan calls upon French and European Muslims to act as full citizens, to think, speak and interact out of the communitarian spirit, to question their governments on socioeconomic policies, to refuse injustice and discrimination, to demand social equality; and to react to emotional attacks with a rational response.
He encourages politicians, intellectuals and media pundits to grant the same dignity and respect to all victims of terror regardless of religion, race or country.
One of the key characteristics of Ramadan’s doctrine is based on an approach that defines social coexistence as a mutual knowledge based not only on the recognition of our similarities, but also a respectful awareness of our differences. A coexistence that, for him, implies a joint action and recognition of society’s segments’ historic legacies.
In his book Islamic Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Ramadan highlights the need to initiate interfaith and intercultural dialogues with regard to common moral values in order to question the lack of meaning and the role of religion, the state and powers of the economy in our societies, particularly in dealing with huge challenges, notably terrorism.
Still, these writings and views are totally ignored by the media and intellectual corpus except some of France’s fine minds such as the prominent French sociologist Edgar Morin, who jointly wrote a book with Ramadan in 2014 (in which they discuss education, science, art, secularism, women’s rights and minority rights, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, democracy, fundamentalism and globalisation), as well as the former editor-in-chief of Le Monde newspaper, Edwy Plenel, or Alain Gresh, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, who hold regular debates with Ramadan.
Those intellectuals condemn the discrimination against Ramadan and stress the need to debate with him, despite any possible divergence in views, because only then can one genuinely embrace and respect freedom of expression as a universal value. Both Gresh and Morin co-signed an article three days ago in Le Monde calling not to ban Tariq Ramadan.
Given these facts, and at a time when Islam and Muslims are at the heart of heated debates in France – and Europe – what could justify such a hostile attitude towards a scholar of Ramadan’s calibre, specialist of Islam and Islamist affairs, and why is he being vilified?
Is it because Ramadan’s profile challenges the racist stereotypes of Arabs or Muslims? Since to the French ruling oligarchy, a Muslim or an Arab has to stick to a preconceived image, a predefined archetype, that of an ignorant, uneducated person who barely speaks French and is constantly framed as a source of conflict to his/her surroundings, and on the rare occasions when he/she is given a platform, it is mostly to corroborate these pre-existing cliches, not to promote the government’s policies and narratives. Consider Hassen Chalghoumi, a figure promoted by the media but fiercely controversial among the Muslim community in France.
Or is it because Ramadan publicly exposes the flawed arguments of the government’s intellectual junta? Is it because debating with Ramadan would lay bare their own contradictions and shake the lies they promote to serve their own interests?
Framing Ramadan as “the Muslim enemy” creates a false nationalistic cause that allows the government to divert public attention from real socioeconomic challenges.
It appears that the French republic finds it difficult to admit to the social mutation it has undergone in the past decades, thus it hardly recognises its pluralistic character. As such, giving Tariq Ramadan space for free expression amounts to an official recognition of this plurality and the state responsibilities it entails in terms of equality and social justice. Ironically, these are two of the key issues discussed and highlighted by Ramadan in almost all of his works.
Ali Saad is a French sociologist and media critic, focusing on the influence of mass media on society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.