When I first heard that Tariq Ramadan, the world’s most charming Islamist, had been invited to give the prestigious Orwell Prize lecture, I thought it was some kind of joke.
Maybe someone in the Orwell organisation had simply read the sub-title of Caroline Fourest’s biography, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, and — conflating it with the “doublethink” invented by Orwell in the novel 1984 — believed Mr Ramadan was an expert in the concept rather than someone who is accused of being one of its most sophisticated practitioners.
Whatever the reason, Brother Tariq was asked to give the lecture, named in honour of one of Britain’s finest ever political writers, and duly delivered it on Tuesday this week.
Mr Ramadan is Muslim Brotherhood aristocracy. His father, Said Ramadan, led the movement in Europe and married the daughter of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.
Mr Ramadan has made a career of representing himself as the reasonable face of political Islam. British academia is convinced. He is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, and the Orwell lecture was given at University College London.
I have met Mr Ramadan and he comes across as a reasonable man, although he has a tendency to represent those who challenge him as warmongering neo-cons.
He has probably done more than any other individual to promote the idea that the West should have nothing to fear from the ideas of Hassan al-Banna or from Islam as a political system.
Understandably, considering his heritage, Brother Tariq is deeply critical of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The subject of his lecture was “Demo-cratising the Middle East: A New Role for the West”. He saves his fiercest polemic for the colonial West and its Zionist allies.
We already know who Mr Ramadan blames for the unstable situation in the Middle East: the Americans, the IMF and Israel, who could not tolerate the election of the Brotherhood. He used a recent article to state, about the deposing of the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi: “It would hardly be an understatement to say that Israel, like the United States, could only look favourably upon developments in Egypt.”
Of course, none of the above should disqualify Mr Ramadan from giving a lecture about the future of the Middle East.
I understand that Orwell’s biographer, D J Taylor, was responsible for organising the event. I have no doubt he was aware of Mr Ramadan’s reputation, although he is no expert on the politics of modern Islam or the history of the region.
It is slightly odd, however, that the Orwell Prize would wish to court controversy so soon after the Johann Hari affair just a couple of years ago, when the renowned columnist and interviewer was stripped of the prize over allegations of plagiarism. After all, it is not as if Mr Ramadan is short of a platform for his ideas.
I am not suggesting the lecture should have been cancelled. But I do question the wisdom of associating the event with George Orwell, who would have seen through the totalitarian rhetoric of the Brotherhood and its apologists immediately.
I have, however, been told that the organisers are hoping to get Amos Oz for next year’s lecture. He will doubtless offer a different perspective on the Middle East.