No Spring, though perhaps an awakening for the Arabs

The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East by Tariq Ramadan (Penguin)

-  Reviewed by Robert Irwin

Many opportunistic books on the Arab spring have been published in recent months. Tariq Ramadan has wisely avoided using the phrase ‘Arab spring’ in his title. Several Arab countries that are experiencing turmoil are likely to proceed from winter to winter without any intervening spring or summer.

Ramadan makes a persuasive case for caution, even pessimism. It appears that Libya post-Gaddafi is being pulled apart by regional and tribal rivalries. Popular protests in Algeria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been suppressed ruthlessly. Y

emen and Syria continue to drift towards outright civil war. In Egypt, the generals enjoy even more power than they did under Hosni Mubarak. Ramadan judges that only developments in Tunisia, where the moderate Islamist Ennahda party has won a fair and open election, give grounds for tentative optimism.

He is also chary of making predictions. Political scientists specialising in the Middle East failed to spot what was coming. What use are they?

Unfortunately, I think Ramadan goes to too many conferences. Just as Iris Murdoch and John Bayley joked about ‘whithering’, attending symposia on such nebulous questions as ‘Whither the modern novel?’ or ‘Whither a globalised culture?’, so Ramadan seems to have sat on an awful lot of panels debating ‘Whither Islam?’ and ‘Whither the Muslim community in Europe?’.

As a consequence, he has developed a sonorous and vaguely upbeat rhetoric about contemporary Islam that often deteriorates into blather. For instance:

But only by reconciling the political with the economic can the deadlock of a timeworn dialectic be broken, thus opening the way to a more comprehensive approach based on an open, far more challenging triangle whose components are the state, the economy and the cultural and religious references of the people.

If one writes at this level of generality, it is easy to dodge specific issues such as how non-Muslims and women can be assured of fully equal rights if sharia becomes the law of the land in, say, Egypt or Tunisia. (Elsewhere, Ramadan, taxed about the Islamic penalty of death by stoning for women found guilty of adultery, has gone on the record as saying that there should be a moratorium on the practice while there is a debate about it. He likes debate.)

The Arab Awakening repeatedly stresses the diversity and evolving character of Muslim responses to political and economic changes, and this must be correct. However, it is striking that the author does not credit western countries with the same quality, so that throughout the book the west is presented as monolithic, unchanging and invariably driven by economic self-interest, leaving Muslims with the mono­poly on idealism.

Full review in The New Statesman:

Review in Europe’s World:

Tariq Ramadan website:,11911.html?lang=fr

Wikipedia on Tariq Ramadan:

Short CV of Professor Tariq Ramadan: The author of The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East, is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University (Oriental Institute, St Antony's College) and also teaches at the Oxford Faculty of Theology. He is Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, (Qatar), Senior Research Fellow at Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan) and Director of the Research Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) (Doha, Qatar). Professor Ramadan holds an MA in Philosophy and French literature and PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Geneva. In Cairo, Egypt he received one-on-one intensive training in classic Islamic scholarship from Al-Azhar University scholars (ijazat in seven disciplines). Through his writing and lectures Ramadan has contributed to debate on the issues of Muslims in the West and Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active at academic and grassroots levels lecturing extensively throughout the world on theology, ethics, social justice, ecology and interfaith as well intercultural dialogue. He is President of the European think tank: European Muslim Network (EMN) in Brussels. His latest books include The Quest for Meaning, Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (Penguin, 2010); What I believe (OUP USA, 2009); Radical Reform, Islamic Ethics and Liberation (OUP USA, 2008).

An interview with the reviewer, Robert Irwin:

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