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The Most Overrated Intellectual in the World

Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal takes a good hard look at Tariq Ramadan’s new book, Islam and the Arab Awakening, and it isn’t pretty. The man Time and Foreign Policy magazines hailed as one of the greatest intellectuals in the entire world is outing himself as a hysterical conspiracy theorist, one whose theories look asinine not only in the West, but in the Middle East, too.

Ramadan is the Swiss-born grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and he’s a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. He has published more than a half-dozen books on Islam, politics, and Islamic politics, and he has thus far managed to pass himself off as a political moderate as well as a brilliant intellectual even though he is neither.

According to Ramadan, writes Ahmari, “the American government and ‘powerful American corporations’ nurtured the young activists who triggered the Arab Spring as a way of ‘opening up Arab markets and integrating the region into the global economy.’”

This analysis is magnificent in its idiocy. It is radiant, luminescent, in its absurdity. What on earth do “powerful American corporations” know about bringing down a totalitarian regime like Moammar Qaddafi’s in Libya, a military dictatorship like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, or the sectarian Soviet-style creature that the Assad family hatched upon the people of Syria?

Why on earth would “powerful American corporations” care about Egypt? There’s no money to be made there. Half the country lives on less than two dollars a day. It consumes little and exports nothing of value. India, China, and Brazil are serious emerging markets, but Egypt? Come on. And what corporate boardroom worth half a damn would waste time even discussing the “nurturing” of activists in a backwater like Yemen? Yemen, from the corporate point of view, is off-planet.

Even if the world’s capitalist rapists and pillagers did see dollars signs in their greedy eyes when they gazed upon Cairo—a ludicrous proposition to almost anyone who has ever been there—the bulk of secular activists in Egypt and Tunisia don’t swoon to gigantic corporations any more than Tariq Ramadan does. Nearly all who aren’t Islamists are leftists of one stripe or another. 

Ramadan thinks it’s suspicious that the activists use the image of an upraised fist. Why does he not like the fist? Because the Serbs who toppled the mass-murdering Slobodan Milosevic used the fist, too. And the United States supported the ouster, arrest, imprisonment, and war crimes trial of Milosevic.

That fist isn’t corporatist. It sure as hell isn’t imperialist. That fist is socialist.

Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim was Google’s marketing director in the region, but so what? Google didn’t pay him to bring down Hosni Mubarak. He was a marketing guy. Thousands upon thousands of people participated in the Arab revolts. Of course some of them worked for some company or other. How could it possibly be otherwise? If no one out of so many thousands of people worked for a company—that would have been astonishing. The statistical likelihood of it happening is roughly equivalent to a million coin tosses in a row turning up “heads.”

I spent a lot of time interviewing activists in Tunis and Cairo and have yet to meet a single one whose agenda was even in the same time zone as corporate globalism. They took to the streets for the same reason revolutionaries take to the streets everywhere—to bring down a corrupt and repressive regime and to replace it with something a little less odious.

Everyone who lives in the Arab world knows that. Everyone. Even the ones who preferred the status quo. Ramadan’s problem is that he’s wallowing in a Middle Eastern-style conspiracy theory that Middle Easterners themselves don’t even take seriously. “The region has moved on,” as Ahmari puts it, and he's right.

It gets worse. Here is Ahmari again explaining Ramadan’s take on the last year and a half:

Was it not "telling" that the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy backed the Libyan uprising, "given the man's support for Israel and his access and missions to the highest levels of the Zionist state?" To frame the NATO intervention in Libya as an instance of Western imperialism, Mr. Ramadan is even willing to rehabilitate Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyan dictator was apparently a relatively benign autocrat; his regime's "horrors were deliberately exaggerated."

[…]

Al-Jazeera was also apparently in on the conspiracy. The Qatari state-owned network's reporting during the Arab Spring, the author thinks, "proved objectively useful to the American administration's purposes." By contrast, Mr. Ramadan doesn't say a word about Press TV, the Tehran regime's English-language organ, which has been militating relentlessly in favor of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and infamously aired coerced confessions after Iran's own 2009 uprising. (Mr. Ramadan currently hosts a show on the Iranian network, a fact that cost him a professorship at Erasmus University Rotterdam because the Dutch college couldn't abide his links to such a "repressive regime.")

I hardly even know what to add. Does anything need to be added? What needs to be said about a man who hosts a program on the propaganda channel for a fascistic regime and who thinks Qaddafi’s crimes were exaggerated? He is simply not a credible or respectable person. Erasmus University did the right thing when it fired him.

Something does, however, need to be said about his legion of Western cheerleaders and boosters. There is so much to be said about these people that Paul Berman wrote a whole book about them called The Flight of the Intellectuals.

I interviewed Berman two and a half years ago when his book came out. We had a long conversation about it. He understands why Ramadan has so many fans in the West even though he doesn’t like it. Here’s part of what he said then:

The Western liberals, some of them, defend Ramadan for two reasons. If you listen to Ramadan for fifteen minutes, you will learn that he says all the right things, whatever a liberal-minded person would want such a man to say.

He's against bigotry, he's against anti-Semitism, he's against terrorism, he's for the rights of women, he's in favor of democratic liberties, he's for a tolerant and multi-religious society ruled ultimately by secular values. He's for science, learning, and enlightenment. He's in favor of every possible good thing. There isn't a single objectionable point in the first fifteen minutes of his presentation.

Unfortunately, the sixteenth minute arrives, and, if you are still paying attention, you learn that he wants us to revere the most vicious and reactionary of Islamist sheikhs -- the people who promote violence, bigotry, totalitarianism, and terror. The sixteenth minute is not good. The liberal quality of his thinking falls apart entirely.

There are plenty of liberal and moderate intellectuals in the Arab world. Real ones. Smart one. Brilliant ones. I’ve interviewed lots of them. Some of them are my friends. Many of them have been bullied and menaced and even murdered by the enthusiastic followers of Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather.

I don’t know if Ramadan’s newest book and his job as an Iranian government tool will finally define him as a committed non-liberal in the eyes of the Western world’s liberals, but it’s bound to happen eventually.

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