Ramadan-Žižek Al-Jazeera English Riz Khan interview transcript
This is a transcript of Imran Garda’s interview with Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Žižek on Al Jazeera English’s Riz Khan on February 3, 2011. (Note: English is not the first language of either of the guests, and possibly also the interviewer, so please excuse some slightly askew turns of phrase.) The bold, italics and underlining are mine, but in most cases they reflect the emphasis of the speaker. The material in square brackets, i.e. [ ], is also mine, but the material in parentheses, i.e. ( ), was spoken.
IG: Hello and welcome. I’m Imran Garda, sitting in for Riz Khan.
As the standoff in Egypt continues, will the spirit of revolution translate into something more concrete, or will the people be forced to return to the status quo? While protestors insist on Mubarek stepping down, Western governments have been conspicuously hesitant in their response, fearful as ever that any movement away from autocratic, secular regimes means an inevitable slide into radical, theocratic governments hostile to the West and antagonistic towards Israel. But as Egypt tries to redefine its future, are there other political possibilities that move beyond these age-old stereotypes?
Today we ask: can Egypt’s revolt lead to new political alternatives? … Joining us now, from Vancouver, Canada, is world-renowned Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan. And from the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, we are joined by world-famous radical philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Tariq Ramadan, if I could start with you, do you think a revolution is taking place?
TR: Yes. I think that after what happened in Tunisia, and what is happening now in Egypt, it is just, it was, unbelievable, and it’s still unpredictable, but it’s a revolution. And I think that we have to listen to the people saying “enough with dictatorship, enough with Mubarek and his regime, what we want now is more freedom, democracy, dignity”; this is what should be understood. Now anything which is built on that, saying “it’s either a dictatorship or a radical Islamist theocracy”, and what is said about this, is much more ideologically oriented than the reality of what is happening now: a revolution coming from people on the ground saying “we want a change in our country, and we want freedom.”
IG: Slavoj Žižek, you wrote about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (who is now the quartet’s envoy) having a sort of fear of this process that was unfolding, in the interviews that he’s given. He spoke about the fact that the West, as he defined it, needs to “manage” the situation and the transition; he seemed to have a real, serious fear as to what was happening. What do you make of that? Was he implying that the Egyptians, or the Arabs, are not worthy of democracy?
SZ: Well of course he wouldn’t say this openly, publicly, but I think his message, if one can read between the lines, was quite unambiguous. You know that wonderful French proverb, plus ça change, plus c’est la même (the more it changes, the more it stays the same)? It’s obvious that what Western powers (insofar as they were represented by Tony Blair) want is some changes that would basically enable the global situation to remain the same.
Against this I would like to emphasize, totally agreeing with what Tariq just said, one point. You know how often, in our multicultural era, where we all are suspicious about universalism, we like to hear how democracy, as we understand it, is something specifically Western (“you should understand different cultures”), and so on and so on? What affected me tremendously, when I was not only looking at the general picture of Cairo but listening to interviews with participants and protestors there, is how cheap and irrelevant all this multicultural talk becomes. There, where we are fighting a tyrant, we are all universalists; we immediately have solidarity with each other. That’s how you build universal solidarity, not with some stupid UNESCO, multicultural respect (“we respect your culture, you ours”), but with the struggle for freedom.
Here we have direct proof (a) that freedom is universal, and (b) especially proof against that cynical idea that somehow Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religious fundamentalist dictatorship. No! What happened in Tunisia, what happens now in Egypt; it’s precisely this universal revolution for dignity, human rights, economic justice: this is universalism at work; what we see, daily in Egypt.
One Egyptian protestor said “I’m proud to be Egyptian.” I’m proud for them. They gave us the lesson against these falsely respectful, but basically racist, prejudices; you know, Arabs have this specific culture, they cannot really get it. They got it! They understand democracy, by doing what they are doing, better than we do in the West, in Western Europe, with our anti-immigrant parties and so on. So I’m proud for them. Again, here is universalism. This is the best argument that you can see on TV against all that trash about “clash of civilizations” and so on and so on. The moment you fight tyranny you have solidarity. No clash of civilizations! We all know what we mean. No miscommunication here!
IG: Tariq Ramadan, what do you think of that? I mean looking at the possible alternatives on offer, can Islamism or any relationship to political Islam and secular liberal democracy work together in any future of Egypt or any other country in the region?
TR: Look, what Žižek is just saying now, it’s so important. That when we speak from where we are, in the West, or in the Western countries, we look at the situation in the Arab World (and for years the regimes there were supported by the West), saying if it’s not them it’s going to be worse than them, with radical Islamists. And this is the way it was built, so the dictators were saying this, and the West was supporting these views, and then supporting the Tunisian people after they started their mass protest and their revolution. So we are supporting democratic values and principles and models when it suits us (in the West), not abiding by our own values.
So I think that this is exactly it: if we are serious about the universality of our democratic values and freedom and equality, we have to be clear that this is the time to support the people in Egypt, not to be silent, or to say: “ok, wait and see, and we’ll see what the Army does, and why? Because we are protecting security and protecting the state of Israel.” And the Israeli government is saying “we are supporting Mubarek because if it’s not Mubarek then it’s going to be Islamists.” What is this? What is this logic? Saying that the security of Israel is going to a reality with dictatorships around Israel? This is not going to happen.
IG: It’s interesting that you say that. I want to ask you about this fear of radical Islam, which we seem to hear throughout the airwaves, particularly here in the United States, and in Europe, etc. Do you think if that was a real and tangible fear, that a country like, perhaps, Saudi Arabia, might have been mentioned a long, long time ago (where women don’t have many rights, they can’t drive, etc.)? For example, people can be sentenced to death for things like witchcraft and sorcery in a place like Saudi Arabia; yet they’ve signed a $60 billion arms deal with the United States. Do you think that if this fear of a radical interpretation of Islam was sincere, that a place like Saudi Arabia would be at the center of the debate and not Egypt or any other place?
TR: Exactly. I think that if we are serious about that, how come we are speaking about human rights, and women’s rights, and we are supporting, from the States, the Saudi Arabian regime without saying anything about what is happening within the country? I think that this is pure hypocrisy.
Now, what is going on in Egypt: it’s a mass demonstration, it’s not led by the Muslim Brotherhood, as it is said. And this spreading around fear about radical Islam is completely an ideological projection to protect geostrategic interests, and it’s following this propaganda coming from Israel saying “we have to support Mubarek.”
What is going on with the Muslim Brotherhood? First, they are not the leading force there. Second, within the Muslim Brotherhood you have trends, you have people who are very close to the Saudi, and its literal understanding of Islam, but you also have people very close to the Turkish interpretation of what it means to be faithful to Islam, with the AKP Party, the running party now in Turkey. And these people, for the last 60 years, they were not radicals, they were law-abiding, non-violent, anti-colonialists, and they want freedom.
The point is not this. We are talking now about women, we are talking about democratic processes: it’s not the true reason. The true reason is that if you follow democracy in Egypt, if you follow the trends, even Islamists, the true question is about equal rights, autonomy, having access to their economic wealth, and not being under the pressure of the United States of America, and also asking the state of Israel to abide by principles of Palestinian dignity and not have this “peace process” only with dictators forgetting the Palestinians on the ground.
IG: Ok Mr. Ramadan, I’m going to come back to you with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood a little bit later on, because there’s something I want to ask you which relates to you in a very personal way, but we’ll come back to that in about 5 or 10 minutes’ time. I want to go to Slavoj Žižek now.
Mr. Žižek I want to compare these scenes that we’re seeing in Tahrir Square, of a million or two million people marching for their dignity, for their rights, for democracy—immensely potent scenes—to the scenes that we saw when Saddam Hussein was toppled in Firdos Square in Baghdad, where that statue came down and, it’s difficult to actually tell with regards to the numbers, but there was a wide shot, and there were maybe 50 or 60 people in that square. Is there not a sort of delicious irony here, that those pictures of Saddam’s statue coming down, with 50 or 60 people there, were seen as conclusive evidence of the fact that the Iraqi people had had enough of him, whereas we’ve got these pictures of over a million people in Cairo, yet there’s still doubt as to whether this is the right thing to happen?
SZ: I totally agree with you. I will tell you, I spoke with a journalist who was there, namely when they were pulling down Saddam’s statue. You know what he told me? He saw, 20 minutes before, Americans hiring people to go there and do it. It wasn’t only that it was just 50 people, this was simply a staged event. The United States, in a textbook way, made all possible mistakes there, and now they are paying the price. But that’s another topic.
What I want to say is that, first, all this scare about Islamism and the religious tendencies of Arabic people, well, first, let’s see who’s talking. I read somewhere that, in the United States, over 30% of the people believe in devils, in ghosts, and so on and so on, so you know, coming from the United States, I don’t think they have any right to deplore the religious naïvety of the Muslim crowds and so on. Just go to the deep American South; I can guarantee you it’s worse than maybe even many Afghanistan villages or whatever.
Second point: all this stuff about “Islam” and so on, I think the choice is not (this is already Western ideology) Islam or liberal democracy. There are many wonderful things also going on in Islam. For example, I want to share this wonderful story with you. A couple of weeks ago I was in Qatar, visiting the Museum of Islamic Art, and I found there a simple plate, with a wonderful oath of wisdom from an Iranian philosopher, who said “only a foolish man, when he misses a chance, evokes fate.” So here we have a Muslim theology which is much deeper than this Western cliché image (“ooh, they believe in fate, they follow everything”). No, it says: “you are free to choose; those who fail, those who don’t seize the moment, they evoke fate to put the blame on some destiny or whatever.”
So the problem is, for me, somewhere else. If the true choice is between Muslim fundamentalist theocracy and Western liberalism, we are lost. I think the true tragedy of the Arab nations is the disappearance of [secularity], not secular in the sense of irreligious, but secular in the sense of the secularity of demands for justice, freedom, and so on, of this kind of “Left”. Non-fundamentalist, it can be Muslim, but non-fundamentalist Left. This, for me, is the true tragedy. And I think that the rise of deplorable fundamentalism is strictly something which entered the stage filling in this void of the Left. And here I draw a much more radical conclusion: this is not just in Islamist countries, one has to repeat this again and again.
For example, Afghanistan. It’s presented in Western media as a crazy, ultra-fundamentalist country. Sorry, I’m old enough to remember 40 years ago! Afghanistan was a very open, secularized country, with a professional, technocratic monarch, strong local communist party, then we know the story: communists made the coup d’état; Soviet Union intervenes; America intervenes against. It’s as part of this process that Afghanistan was, if I may use this awkward word, fundamentalized.
So for me, just to conclude, the choice shouldn’t be just Western liberal democracy or Islamic fundamentalism. It’s crucial to have a strong Left, only this can save us, in Arab countries and in the West.
IG: Ok, let’s ask Tariq Ramadan then, many people’s fears with regards to the situation in Egypt is that they draw a parallel to Iran, 1979. And part of the argument in intellectual circles is to say that yes, like Egypt, you didn’t just have the Islamists revolting against the Shah, you had many others, Marxists, Leftists, etc., but what happened is once the Islamists took control they purged the Left and they purged the others, and that’s at the nexus of their fear with regards to what possibly might happen in Egypt. Does that have any credibility whatsoever?
TR: No. Look, this is once again what I told you, in some Western circles and coming from the Israeli propaganda, is just to compare this and that and to say “look, this is going to happen.” In fact it is not at all the same situation, and if you look at what happened in Tunisia, this is a revolution falling in the footsteps of what happened in Tunisia. And it’s the people, young people, coming from everywhere, saying to the dictator, “for the last 30 years you have been running this country, you are preparing your son; we don’t want you, we don’t want this system.”
But the leadership is not at all an Islamist leadership. Look at what happened 4 days ago: they were trying to find someone, El Baradei, and they put themselves behind him, I think because there is a crisis here, which is really how they are going to prepare the post-Mubarek era, and this is something which is important. We have to push them to come to an agreement. And for the last 5 years, even the Muslim Brotherhood was within the movement, and this whole alliance that we had before the election (Kifaya, meaning “enough”), so I think that this is also something which is wrong. Even with the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, they are not at all following in the footsteps of the Iranian revolution and their perceptions are not the same, or their understanding. Over the last 30 years they have been changing a great deal, so for me…
IG: Yeah, it’s interesting that you mention that they have been changing a great deal, because on a personal note, Hassan Al-Banna, your grandfather, founded the organization. Do you think that the Muslim Brotherhood, as it stands today, is the embodiment of the organization that he founded all those years ago, and evokes the same spirit and message that he envisaged?
TR: No. I think that there are changes here, and this is also due to history. You know, he was before the repression. He was against the British colonization, his was an anti-colonialist movement dealing with education and working at the grassroots level first, and then came the repression under Nasser’s time and regime. He [Nasser] killed a lot of them, so you had people leaving the Muslim Brotherhood, they became radicalized, and you had people who went into exile, and some of them ended up in Saudi Arabia, others in the West, others in Indonesia and in Turkey, so it’s a diversity of view, and they are evolving with history. At one point they were saying “no” to democracy, and they changed; they were saying “no” to women’s involvement in politics, and they changed again.
So I think that they are moving, and if we have to take an example, it’s not to go to Iran but also to go to Turkey, where from Erbakan to Erdoğan people are changing, and there is nothing, nothing, on which you can say Islam is against democracy. Once again, these are slogans, just to promote an idea that in the Arab World we better go for dictatorship, this is the way to get security and stability, and we have to challenge this view. My point is that I disagree with some of the leaders, even from the Muslim Brotherhood; the way they are talking about Sharia and the way they are talking about dealing with women.
The only way for us, in the future, if we want true democratic processes, is to challenge the people, to say as long as they abide by the law, they are serious about elections, and they are accepting democratic processes, before the elections and after the elections, we should challenge them; let the people speak and not torture them, and not to accept that coming from the West, people are going to lecture the Arabs on the way they have to do it. I’m sorry to tell you that what was said by Tony Blair is just unacceptable for someone who promoted the war on Iraq, to come now, in the name of democracy, to tell us that we have to support Mubarek. That’s not acceptable.
IG: Fair point. Slavoj Žižek, I want to read an email from one of our viewers to you. You can make your point, but let’s tee it up with this email, because I think they may be linked. This is from Arash Hakimnia. He says:”In his recent article, Dr. Žižek cited Mao’s phrase ‘There great chaos under heaven—the situation is excellent’ in relation to Egypt, could he explain?”
SZ: Of course, I am not praising chaos. I have found myself a couple of times in a situation of public disorder, and I know how dangerous this is. But let’s be frank. Without this momentary openness, where you don’t know who is in power, I mean choas in this sense, where those in power are really in a situation which I love. Sorry for this indecent metaphor, but I love it. You know in Tom & Jerry cartoons, you have often a scene where the cat walks over a precipice, and there’s nothing beneath its feet, but it doesn’t yet fall down. When it looks down and sees that it has no ground under its feet, it falls down.
Those in power must find themselves in such a situation in order to fall down. That’s where we should push Mubarek, just so he will be above the precipice with nothing to stand on, as it were. But linking to this “what do I mean by chaos”, even Iran, which is [inaudible] as you see, there was a popular uprising, now what happened? The last troubles with Moussavi elections, the big demonstrations there, why don’t treat Egyptian events together with big, popular upheaval after Moussavi election was stolen in Iran, so we see that even in Iran, the battle is not yet decided. Hardliners didn’t simply win. People still want freedom and so on. In other words, what this means retroactively, is that the Khomeini revolution wasn’t simply an Islamist, fundamentalist takeover. There was genuine democratic potential in it.
Point two: there is one big difference, and here I totally agree with Tariq again, between Iran and Egypt. In Iran, the basic interpretive frame, the way the revolution understood itself, was nonetheless as a “Khomeini the unquestionable leader” revolution; and, as it were, those Leftists, those Marxists, as it were, had to smuggle themselves into it. In Egypt it’s the opposite. I saw two days ago an interview on TV with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He had to speak the language of democracy, dignity, human rights, and so on and so on.
As to this fear for Israel, that now if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, war with Egypt, we are lost, and so on and so on, they should worry about something else. What is so depressing about the latest development in Israel, namely how even the United States renounced putting pressure on them to stop West Bank building and so on, WikiLeaks, is the following: I remember 10 years ago I was in Israel, and all my liberal friends they were telling me “ok, we did injustice, the West Bank, but we have terrorist bombs, attacks, all the time, we cannot negotiate now; let the Palestinians first stop bombing.” But now they did stop! On the West Bank there is no so-called terror for five years! What is happening? The land is stolen from Palestinians even faster. Can you imagine what a depressing message this is? It is as if Israel wants to give the message to Palestinians: “sorry guys, but terror works better than peace.”
IG: Alright, let’s get Tariq Ramadan to give us his final thoughts, because we have run out of time. Tariq Ramadan, in less than 30 seconds please.
TR: Look, my point here is as we are talking from where we are, it’s really for us to repeat this and it’s high time to be heard on that, we have to abide by our principles, and to go for democracy and to support the people there. And the great responsibility of all our viewers here is to be quite clear that we can’t, in the name of “security”, support a dictator and accept this emotional politics that we have around the world saying: if it’s not dictators, it’s going to be Islamists. And once again, Islamism is a multi-faceted reality. Let us challenge the people, listen to what they have to say, and understand that the Turkish example and other examples around the world could just help us to get something which is, for a Muslim-majority country, democracy, independence, and let the people decide for themselves.