Is Tariq Ramadan whitewashing Iranian brutality in Syria?

Is Tariq Ramadan whitewashing Iranian brutality in Syria?
Comment: It's high time that respected academic and Muslim thinker, Tariq Ramadan publicly recognised that Iran's actions in Syria and beyond are sectarian and genocidal, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
7 min read
28 Apr, 2017
Ramadan is one of the most prolific and respected Muslim scholars in the West [AFP]
In every conflict, especially ones that break out in open war, there are ideologues and propagandists on both sides.

These serve the function of legitimising each of the belligerents' respective justifications for why they are engaged in conflict, and to rally support to their "cause", whatever that may be.

While no one should be surprised that certain media outlets, predominantly associated with the so-called "anti-imperialist" Left, would cheerlead for the Syrian Assad regime, what is extremely disheartening is when apparently principled academics and respected thinkers cross the trenches and start whitewashing murderers and the facilitators of genocide.

Tariq Ramadan is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and respected Muslim thinkers and scholars in the West. His ability to touch on contemporary issues while using Islam as a reference has inspired many Muslims around the world, and his academic standing as a professor at the University of Oxford has forced western critics of Islam to engage on the question of Muslims in the West on an intellectual, and not purely emotional level.

While I often profoundly disagree with his views on Islam and politics, it would be unfair to say that he has not had a net positive impact on the perception of Muslims living in western societies. However, is that enough to pardon him for his unmistakably pro-Iranian bias that serves to provide them with a smokescreen for engineering a sectarian genocide in Syria? I think not.

The good

As the "Arab Awakening" manifested itself in the Arab Spring revolutionary movement, it was met with counterrevolutionary forces that aimed to subdue it. Various figures and personalities that many Muslims had long respected surprised them with positions that seemed to contradict the ideals they long espoused.

I myself took great exception to the stance advocated by the famous American Sufi scholar Hamza Yusuf, who late last year made what I termed as a "morally, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt" connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists like Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda.

His ability to touch on contemporary issues while using Islam as a reference has inspired many Muslims around the world

On the other hand, Tariq Ramadan appears to have maintained a principled position when he courageously boycotted the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference as well as events held by the Islamic Society of North America in 2014.

He did this partly because some Muslim figures, who openly shill for "despots such as Al-Sisi in Egypt", were invited to speak at the conference. Sisi's regime has been responsible for gross human rights violations and numerous massacres against anti-Sisi protesters.

It was therefore no surprise that on 2 August 2015, Ramadan criticised UAE-funded Habib Ali Al-Jifri, another Sufi, for appearing on channels that have been sympathetic and supportive of the Sisi regime, branding Al-Jifri and other so-called Sufis' stance on mass murderers as a "Manipulated Sufism" stating that "their Sufism is a Sufism of traitors and sold out individual". 

The bad

However, when it comes to Tariq Ramadan's appearances on the Iranian mouthpiece Press TV, he seems to forgo the very principles which drove him to boycott these conferences and to rightly criticise bankrupt figures such as Al-Jifri.

Ramadan hosts a show called "Islam and Life" on Press TV, an Iranian state propaganda channel that has brought on so-called analysts that have described the resistance in Aleppo as "terrorists", or relayed sectarian comments by top Iranian commanders that have branded members of the armed and unarmed Syrian resistance as takfiris - IS-like extremists who excommunicate others from Islam in order to justify killing them - or called the expulsion of thousands of Syrians from Qusair a "liberation".

What is shocking, however, is Ramadan's silence in the face of these ridiculous statements and his failure to properly challenge his guest

None of these viewpoints are ever contested by opposing voices, demonstrating Press TV's propagandist nature. The list of issues with Press TV is well-known to any avid follower of the Syrian or Iraqi conflict, and Ramadan is also familiar with the notion of "media-military operations" when he wrote about this with respect to Egypt.

With this in mind, Ramadan should be especially familiar with the fact that, apart from the military operations on the ground in Syria, there is also a war of narrative.

Furthermore, Press TV’s patron, Iran, is currently engaging in genocide against the Syrian people as it props up the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad militarily and economically while sending tens of thousands of Shia jihadists from around the world to suppress the rights of the Syrians.

  Read more: Dead doctors and a poisoned pen in Aleppo

On an episode of Ramadan's show, he hosted a pro-Iranian analyst who made statements sympathetic to Assad, and called the Arab Spring a "project put forward by neo-con Zionists". The so-called analyst's statements - including blaming Saudi Arabia for anything and everything under the sun - are not particularly shocking given that hysterically conspiratorial "alternative-facts" like this are commonplace in pro-Assad media sources.

What is shocking, however, is Ramadan's silence in the face of these ridiculous statements and his failure to properly challenge his guest.

During a long lecture and question and answer session at Tehran University earlier this year, Ramadan devoted what must have been less than a minute to stating that he does not agree with Iran's policies in Syria. Considering the level of opprobrium that he has heaped upon despots such as Sisi, such statements are woefully insufficient considering Ramadan's profile.

The ugly

At the same speech at Tehran University, he went on to state that Iran "could have done better" in Syria. Ramadan goes to great pains to insist on making it clear that he was not saying that their agenda was "haram", or impermissible under Islamic law. Instead, the learned professor simply watered down Iran's actions in Syria by saying that it was "a political mistake… that's my opinion".

By stating that Iran's megalomaniacal killing spree in Syria is not "haram", Ramadan whitewashed Iran's sectarian Shia jihadism by failing to call it out anywhere remotely as vociferously as he does the Israelis, Egyptians and Saudis for their various abuses.

As terrible as Sisi is, he is comparatively a pacifist when placed alongside Iran and its sectarian agenda

Is it not Islamically - morally and legally - impermissible for Iran to assist the Assad regime to organise sectarian Shia and Alawite militias to slaughter men, women and children like farmyard animals?

Who now remembers the 2012 Houla massacre, where babies as young as two-months old were shot by these sectarian Iran-backed "terrorists" who were yelling that they were avenging "Imam Ali"? Is such mass murder, destruction and rape merely a "political mistake", while the Sufi scholars who back tyrants are slammed as "traitors" and "sold out individuals"?

As terrible as Sisi is, he is comparatively a pacifist when placed alongside Iran and its sectarian agenda.

It is virtually impossible to find any strong condemnation by Ramadan of Iran's role in Syria

A micro-statement on one of the world's most pressing issues in the heart of the Iranian capital falls depressingly short of the mark expected of a man who talks about Islam's guiding principles and ethics as a cornerstone of his philosophical approach.

It is virtually impossible to find any strong condemnation by Ramadan of Iran's role in Syria when it comes to the ethno-sectarian cleansing campaign being committed by its Shia jihadist proxies, its sectarian foreign policy or its paramount role in propping up the virulently sectarian and violent Assad regime.

All this without even mentioning Iran's oppressive role against its own Ahwazi Arab minority, its role in supporting sectarian death squads in Iraq that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and occasioned the rise of IS, its support for the destabilising and deadly role of Hizballah in Lebanon and its global terrorism network around the world.

Conciliation not an excuse

Ramadan's show aims at fostering ties between Sunnis and Shias in order to reduce sectarian hatred - a noble cause. However, the platform he chooses to advocate such a message is not noble, and Press TV’s attempt to tokenise Ramadan's presence - with or without his active acquiescence - needs to be shut down.

It is obvious what kind of outlet Press TV is, one that parallels Hizballah's Al-Manar and Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam, especially with respect to Syria and Iraq. The fact that Ramadan has not used his platform to hold Iranian political and military power holders to account is unforgivable.

After all, what is the point of hosting a show about Islamic philosophy and manners while being near-mute on Iran's role in Syria on a network actively harming the Syrian people and their cause for freedom?

It is now high time for Ramadan to publicly recognise that Iran's machinations in Syria and the wider region are sectarian and genocidal, without falling back on religious conciliation as a crutch for his inaction.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.