Tariq Ramadan: The Good European
by Fergus Downie (September 2014)
In his twilight years Roy Jenkins, the distinguished liberal elder statesman, whose reforms as Home Secretary in the sixties could be said to have launched the permissive society underwent a Damascene conversion on at least one aspect of his legacy. Having to all intents and purposes introduced the policy of multiculturalism he was led in 1989 to reflect that, ‘given what we know now, we might have been more cautious in allowing the creation in the 1950s of a substantial Muslim community' in Britain. An expert witness for the defence in the Lady Chatterley trial, Jenkins had been exercised by the spectacle of books burning on the streets of British cities, the furore over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses being the most significant indication to date that a multicultural society might not be the tolerant one that he as a conscientious liberal valued, and it goes without saying that recent events have made the trade-offs look even starker. After 7/7 book burning looks like a good problem to have. Jenkins like so many post-war politicians, particularly those who put their faith in a united Europe was moved by fundamentally ecumenical impulses, and the cultural diversity he proselytized amounted in his humane imagination to little more than raw material for those experiments in living which John Stuart Mill celebrated as an antidote to the deadening conformity of modern society. It is an attractive vision of a society devoted to the cultivation of the many sided man but liberals who are fond of selectively quoting Mill would have been well advised to ponder his caveats.
As Mill pointed out, his principles of liberty applied only to societies ‘in the maturity of their faculties’, and for those backward societies which had not yet emerged from their nonage, he was clear they would need to be elevated by having a superior European culture imposed on them - only with this prior homogenization would this diversity flourish! Mill’s endorsement of British imperialism in India, famously seconded by Marx, and his scathing dismissal of the claims of smaller backward nations ‘revolving in their own little mental orbit without participation in the general movement of the world’, have given him pariah status amongst today’s conscience stricken progressives, but in an age where, under the pressure of immigration, western societies are regressing from contract to status in a generation, his hypothetical dilemmas are becoming real ones. As Amartya Sen has indicated, the concrete result of state-backed policies of multiculturalism has been a state of tense plural monoculturalism, and we have made a grave error in assuming that a creed which is today little more than a rationalization of bourgeoisie bohemian sensibilities can have any purchase on cultures which have not yet dissipated into a form of ethnic cuisine. Prominent liberals like Will Kymlika, and Charles Taylor hang on to the ‘not yet’ like, but at a time when the welfare state is freeing up Kaplan’s ‘reprimitivised man’ to withdraw from the modern world, it is difficult to have much faith in their dated visions of cultural mosaics.
In navigating the conflicts that inevitably follow from this balkanisation, much depends on the myriad community leaders called forth by this new medievalism of the group and few have enjoyed a more feted status than Tariq Ramadan, recently included on the Orwellian Foreign Office’s Advisory Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and whose profile can only fuel suspicions that it may not be a happy accommodation.
The Prophet Born
Charismatic, clean shaven and avowedly at ease with European culture (he enjoyed a brief career as a professional footballer for top Swiss team Servette Geneva), Ramadan has been recognised in official circles as something close to unofficial spokesman for Euro-Islam, invariably the first port of call for major media outlets when burquas and minarets are headline news, and also, as in 2005 after the 7/7 bombings when he served on an advisory commission to the Blair government, consulted by European governments looking for authentic sound bites on inclusion. He was, in short, a prophet born with great expectation and his theopolitics seemed to offer a way beyond Huntington’s clash of civilisations.
Unlike the myriad Islamist groups fighting for the allegiance of campus radicals and the Muslim lumpen proletariat, Ramadam makes a great play of rejecting one of the most emotive interpretations of jihad, disavowing the Manichean division of the world between Dar al-Islam (House of Islam); and Dar al-Harb (House of war); and in books like To Be a European Muslim gives a rationale for Muslim civic participation and loyalty which even seasoned sceptics like Daniel Pipes can mine for reassurance. As anyone attempting to wade through his worthy faux-esoteric tomes would have to concede he is a pretty bad writer but to western audiences confronted on a daily basis with the easily triggered paroxysms of rage from the Muslim world, his penchant for Julio Iglesias style profundity, carefully caressed by a sonorous French accent was a welcome change. How could one possibly object to a man in snappy suits who declares, ‘Humility is my table, respect is my garment, empathy is my food and curiosity is my drink? As for love, it has a thousand names and is by my side at every window’, and even if you don’t take to it, how do you lampoon a vacuum? Still, this is not written for the faithful, and amongst the Ummah his influence is only fractionally related to such overwrought prose. First the obligatory throat clearing. Biography is not destiny but it is difficult to overlook the fact that Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan Al Banna, the famous founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
None of us are responsible for our ancestors and it would not be a legitimate criticism of Ramadam to say that his grandfather held extremist views if he had disowned them, and much of Ramadan’s surface grammar invites western audiences to suppose he actually does. In an age where language has become the key political battleground, his success in defining himself (ingeniously) as a ‘Salafist reformist', suggestive as this is to credulous westerners of a liberalising spirit, is still, despite recent stumbles, evidently enough to get him a hearing in high places. If one looks at the content however, even the most gullible would find food for thought. This admittedly is easier said than done. His language is so opaque it positively begs a Straussian dissection but with a little patience, even a non-practising neo-con can find plenty of red meat. Ramadan’s position on terrorism, for example is on the face of it unequivocal; ‘it is necessary', he asserts, 'to denounce the political violence that expresses itself by the assassination of tourists, priests, women and children, and by blind bombs. These actions are not defensible and they do not respect the Koranic message’ but (there is always a but), when he adds the caveat that suicide bombings against Israeli civilians may be ‘contextually explicable’ how far removed is this really from a justification? Similarly if one is genuinely appalled by the massacre of Christians by Muslim mobs in Nigeria can one really be moved as quickly as Ramadan is by the ‘need to consider the situation objectively and bring a critical view as much to the causes – global homogenisation and a sometimes savage westernisation – as to the consequences – ethnic and religious tensions’?
These are not quite endorsements, but as Paul Berman notes, Ramadan treats terrorism so gently that the distinction is pretty much moot, especially where he erodes any moral distinction between victims and terrorists – the grotesque equivalence he drew between the deaths of 40 Trappist monks and the GIA terrorists who carried out the murder is an example of this blurring of essential distinctions – and for a man who can wax indignant about Islamic dress codes it is curious that this butchery cannot move him to greater passion or even a coherent sentence. When one considers the causes he lends his laboured eloquence to however, it is little wonder the prose takes a hit. Orwell, a keen student of Communist fellow travelling clichés, noted that when a gap opens up between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, 'like a cuttlefish squirting out ink'.
Ramadan squirts a lot of ink and this is because he remains faithful to the central tenets of a violently illiberal creed; the reform he espouses in this instance a rolling back of the accommodations made with western culture by liberal Muslims who stand accused of ‘privileging rationality and the primacy of the individual’, evidently weighty accusations for this apostle of moderation, who, considers Iran a model for female liberation and is a fervent admirer of notorious cleric Yousef Qaradawi. By any stretch of the imagination this is the ideology of the counter-Enlightenment on the march, and however polished his later feats of mental reservation, he was not always so cautious in concealing his reactionary agenda.
The Prophet Offended
Jenkins who had effectively abolished the blasphemy law would doubtless have been appalled that Ramadan’s first high profile foray into Muslim grassroots activism was a successful campaign to prevent the performance of Mahomet, the Prophet, Voltaire’s famous satire on religious fanaticism – and even more so by the fact this subversion of the rights of freedom of expression could have counted on the support of the ostensibly progressive forces represented by the Swiss Marxist Jean Zeigler and his wife, but the therapeutic drift of European societies has made this central pillar of the progressive consensus an easy target in our postmodern age. Europeans run shy of value judgements but they can feel pain, and Ramadan, shrill and brimming with wounded self-righteousness was ‘offended’; ‘the playwright’s right to freedom of expression was an assault on the sensitive sphere of intimacy. What you call censorship I call tactfulness’.
Ramadan’s aggressively self-absorbed language was knocking at an open door, and having triumphed once over the decadent Swiss he was soon testing the health of other liberal shibboleths. Three years later Ramadan attracted notoriety for propagating a crackpot theory of Islamic biology, which dismissed evolution tout court – alarming enough for a feted progressive intellectual but more worrying still for a schoolteacher who believed it should be taught on an equal footing in state schools. His employers in Geneva felt compelled to seek reassurances but wilted before the fury of Ramadan’s injured armour proper. He emerged unscathed as radical icon, and doubtless given his brother’s views, of which more later, they could have done worse. Artistic licence, frequently in the shallowest of endeavours and antipathy to Creationism are normally wedge issues for the Left, but Muslims are a more edgy target than phantom American Christian fundamentalists. Making a ‘Piss Allah’ would take some balls and in any case Muslims make a more promising proletariat. After the Frankfurt School had shifted the Left’s centre of gravity from factory to campus, the white working class had been living on borrowed time and Trotskyite parties were foremost amongst those trimming their ideological sails to batten onto a more promising revolutionary host.
The Prophet Turns Red
Islamic fundamentalism on this reading might fall short of true class consciousness, but as with anti-Semitism for a previous generation of Marxist intellectuals, it might at least count as the socialism of fools, a sordid calculation which was to be the political salvation of tiny Marxist splinter groups like the Socialist Workers Party. But for the heaven sent opportunity of the Gulf War this fanatical cult might have been condemned to fitter away its fading mental energy in the odium theologicum such groups are famous for, but in February 2003, the 'Stop the War Coalition’, a thinly disguised SWP front group, was to put a million marchers out on the streets. The seed had been planted. By changing its name to Respect, and adopting a communalist strategy the far Left at last managed to put an MP into the Commons, and gain a major Local Authority in the nation’s capital, unheard of achievements for a party more familiar with student agitprop than real power. Needless to say there was a price, and Lindsey German, one of the key SWP figures in the new alliance, was quick to hint at it
'I’m in favour of defending gay rights', she graciously intoned, 'but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth [created by] people who won’t defend George Galloway and regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence'.
If Paris was worth a mass, Tower Hamlets was worth a few queers, and Ramadan, was a prime beneficiary of this degraded species of Popular Front. The Revolutionary Communist League adopted him as their pet Islamist and at umbrella forums like the European Social Forum he was able to shift Orwell’s snob Bolsheviks into some nasty ideological ghettoes. As the political identity of the left became submerged in the nebulous resentments of the anti-globalisation movement, the more its anti-capitalism simply degenerated into a primitive protest against the modern world owing as much to Heidegger as Marx. In a grovelling interview with Ramadan, Ian Buruma remarked with affected curiosity that Ramadan was a ‘Noam Chomsky on foreign affairs and a Jerry Falwell on social matters’ but this is a mainstream position in these intellectual climates, not least in France where, with anti-Americanism as strong on the Right as the Left, the latter, a certain Poujadist primitivism, carries fewer political risks.
It is this decaying moral health of the Left which has given the likes of Ramadan such generous room for manoeuvre, and given the rise of the Fascist Left, Ramadan doubtless thought he had enough cover to retread a few familiar lines about some intellectuals thinking with their blood. The eternal Jew was back, and perhaps if the personal odyssey of Roger Garaudy from dialectical materialism to holocaust denial was anything to go by, there may now have been a bandwagon to jump on. Taking aim at Levy, Glucksmann , and Kouchner, Ramadan tested the waters with a submission to Le Monde airing his solipsisms on the ‘communitarianism of the New Intellectuals’.
‘Intellectuals as different as Bernard Kouchner, Andre Glucksmann or Bernard Levy, who had taken courageous positions on Chechnya, have curiously supported the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq’.
Curious indeed, the names said it all. A faithful barometer of bien pensant Left wing pro-Palestinian sympathies, Le Monde’s editor nevertheless smelled something rotten, refusing five times to publish it, and he was to experience a similar rebuff from Liberation. He had pushed a bit too close to Vichy but given the intellectual and moral torpor of the Left the incident did him no long term damage.
Ramadan’s emergence as a key interlocutor in the Francophone world was co-terminus with the decline in France of secular Republican values on the Left and its ill-advised indulgence of political theology. Faced in the nineties with the seemingly intractable problems of delinquency, and social breakdown amongst the North African underclass, even socialists began to lose their nerve and to talk the language of faith. The immediate beneficiaries of this narrowing of political vision were the Islamists, who under the guises of slum missionary outreach have assumed a de facto social control which now seems virtually impossible to roll back. By some limited measures, this Faustian pact was a partial success – some feral youths may have been given a pious alternative to crime but is the decline in burnt out cars a price worth paying for the stifling control of the Brothers?1 More than a few feminists like those represented by Ni Putes Ni Soumises (literally Neither Submissives nor Whores) are sceptical, and it is not difficult to see why. In the banileu veiled women were once in a small minority but now unveiled women, even non-Muslims2 feel it prudent to wear one lest they fall prey to the gang rapes used as a means of enforcing female piety. The horrors of these tournantes, literally pass-arounds were catalogued in harrowing personal detail by Samira Bellil herself dragged from a train at the age of 14 and raped whilst other passengers managed to distract themselves, and it is depressing to contemplate that but for her book this reign of violent misogyny might have passed almost unnoticed outside these blighted suburbs.
Still, what has this to do with religion? On the face of it not much. One hears it endlessly repeated that the regressive customs associated with Islam are actually prescribed by primitive tribal traditions, rather than the pristine core of the faith, and this is doubtless true in abstract terms. Deuteronomy might even shade the Koran here, but faith and culture are not so easily separated. The appeal of a stripped down Islam thrown back on a 7th century code of honour, to the fragile egos of the male underclass should be obvious. It is the shrill faux piety of the uneducated and it is hardly a surprise that the Islamists should have concentrated so much of their proselytising energies on petty criminals.
Ramadan like the countless basement Imams who set up shop in France’s ailing suburbs is obsessed with female modesty - his opposition to France’s banning of the veil and his appearances before the Stasi commission marked his rise to public prominence and struck a resonant note with the kind of men who, the welfare state has freed up to tyrannise over weaker vessels. What else this might extend to is evident in Ramadan’s remarkable endorsement of a fatwa permitting men ‘to forbid their wives to visit certain women, Muslim or not, if he fears that it will be prejudicial to his wife, his children, or his marital life’. This is pretty mild stuff by the standards of his idol Yusef al Qaradawi with his foaming anathemas cast down on sluttish rape victims, but this surely, is setting the bar a trifle low.3
What then is one to make of his declaration that the aim of the Salafist reformist ‘is to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs'. Superficially there is much to commend in this plea for integration, and Ramadan is unequivocal, for example, in his opposition to separate religious schooling for Muslims, a vocal public concern in many European countries, but when one considers who is integrating to what, the benefits seem less clear. As Ramadan is quick to point out ‘we agree to integration but it is up to us to determine the contents’ – this is the language of takeover not conciliation and it is spelled out in concrete steps through his encouragement of Muslims to enrol in state schools and subvert the curriculum, and to exercise the political rights they are denied in most Muslim countries to bring about an Islamic state. It is important to note that though Ramadan’s name is frequently associated with the quest for a ‘Euo-Islam’ it has none of the reassuring connotations attached to Bassam Tibi's original interpretation. The latter wanted to Europeanise Islam, Ramadan wants to Islamise Europe. Western audiences are prone to forget that Ramadan is deeply committed to the sacred obligation of dawa (literally invitation); the prosletysing and expansion of Islam, and when one considers this fact it is hardly surprising he should resist the ghettoization of the faith into ethnic enclaves. All one can say in such circumstances is three cheers for ghettoes.
In view of the much vaunted search for moderate Muslims as political interlocutors for Europe’s fastest growing faith, the influence of such shady Islamists in policy making circles might appear a counter-intuitive outcome, but it is in fact an almost tautological necessity. Moderate Muslims by definition are willing to exercise all their political rights as citizens without special appeal to the authority of a 7th century Holy Book, and have invariably lost the ear of governments, who, concentrating myopically on the threat from violent extremism, have been obliged in any case to move to the extreme margins. As Republican terrorists in Northern Ireland used to say, if you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution, and it is only against this atmosphere of implied threat that the likes of Ramadan can pose as a moderate. It would have been better, needless to say, to avoid the problem. Its effect on the political process and the morale of western societies has been has been a deeply corrosive one. In Britain it has led to the obscene indulgence of the Muslim Council of Britain, and the courting of extreme Salafists on the plausible enough assumption they would be more credible mentors for would-be suicide bombers.4 Given the putrid sentiments one is obliged to dignify with forbearance however, one still needs to ask; is renouncing violence really enough?
The Prophet and the Last Man
Much depends here on whether you think anything is worth fighting for, and to judge by its ideological fashions, Europe speaks with one voice and it is here that one can appreciate the real significance of Ramadan’s self-description as a ‘European by culture’. As a cursory glance at his pronouncements makes clear, what this boils down to in substance is an indulgence of the self-loathing masochism which its intellectuals have heaped up since the war. Like the whining guru of Arab martyrdom Edward Said, Ramadan is fond of invoking the nihilistic wisdom of Michel Foucault, the French cult philosopher whose toadying pilgrimages to the Mullahs in Teheran, were an early portent of that meeting of minds between Islamic fundamentalists and bastardised Marxism. Even by the standards of his degraded trade, Foucault was an unusually repulsive man, his dreary philosophy nothing more than a search for base motivations and an essentially amoral pursuit of those ‘limit experiences’ where man stands close to death. Foucault never managed to be a Che Guevara, and the sixties passed with nothing more than a tepid student sit-in to his credit, but as the personal was now political, he could at least charge his private vices with an air of metaphysical profundity as he acted out his death wish in seedy San Francisco haunts. Foucault was probably the most influential intellectual on American campuses in the seventies, and it says much for the intellectual torpor setting in amongst the new elites that an extended disquisition into the existential significance of sadomasochistic homosexual encounters could count as the greatest intellectual event of the twentieth century.5 Foucault, however, is the climax of western self-abnegation, and this is what makes him such a quotable authority for Said and Ramadan; his is the penultimate ideology of western suicide and a great home-grown indictment against a culture he wishes to destroy. He is in some ways the most consistent postmodernist – if all words are weapons the advantage inevitably rests with those who can clearly identify their enemy, and Ramadan is meticulous in exploiting the language of western self-loathing. Despite his self-styled status as an Islamic scholar, it is worth bearing in mind that most of his politically important arguments are not couched in theological terms but in the slippery semantics of New Left orthodoxy; the value of tolerance for example is systematically undermined by resort to Marcuse’s concept of repressive tolerance – i.e. the notion that tolerance under conditions of inequality simply reinforces existing hierarchies of domination – and the arguments for his proposed substitute – the (completely insincere) affirmation of all cultures – is couched in the kind of vapid therapy speak which could just as easily have come from the California Task Force to Create Self Esteem. Still, Ramadan has faith. Doubt if one is to take his statements at face value is literally inconceivable, but it is worth dealing with the counterfactual, that Islam, like Communism before it, is also a God that is failing for so many of its nominal adherents. We are so accustomed to equating hysteria with conviction that we often overlook the true nature of fundamentalism, suggestive as it is more of a weakness of faith than genuine piety. Nietzsche, who was himself familiar with spectacle of non-believers trying to will God back into existence and restore some meaning to their fractured existence, captured the psychological foundations well when he remarked that fanaticism was 'the only form of willpower to which the weak and irresolute can rise’. Confronted simultaneously with the facts that religion is both a source of culture and a groundless myth, most mortals will tend to overcompensate in this way, and the shrill identity politics it spawns poses insuperable challenges for any regime of open enquiry and liberal tolerance. Traditional defenses of multiculturalism, such as those put forward by Kymlika have assumed its compatibility with tolerant liberal values on the shaky premise that individuals are moved towards inter-cultural dialogue by the disinterested pursuit of truth, but this is manifestly not the case with minds closed for essentially psychological reasons. Solidarity always trumps truth. For as long as it can.
Modern Islam is a brittle creed, caught up in the conspicuous superficiality of dress codes and pious machismo which are simply the flipside of that long melancholy withdrawing roar of faith which, so long as we offer nothing but a fatuous cultural modernity to its refugees, is actually our danger not our opportunity. Still, it is a self-inflicted wound.
A Depressing Postscript
In 2003 Ramadan took part in a televised debate with the then Minister of the Interior Nicholas Sarkozy ostensibly to debate the banning of the burqa, but the conversation soon moved on to less promising areas. Noting that Ramadan’s brother Hani, also a schoolteacher, had recently confirmed his support for stoning women to death for adultery, Sarkozy called on Ramadam to condemn outright the practice which is still widely carried out in Islamic countries in conformity with Sharia law. Even in our temporising non-judgemental times this should not have been a big ask. But it was – all Ramadan could call for was a moratorium
The transcript of succeeding exchanges make astonishing reading.
Sarkozy: A moratorium.... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?
Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.
Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?
Ramadan: No, no, wait.... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community.... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, "Me, my own position." But my own position doesn't count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr. Sarkozy. It's necessary that you understand....
Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan....
Ramadan: Let me finish.
Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.... But that's monstrous--to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It's necessary to condemn it!
Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable--that's clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world.... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That's too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, "We should stop."
Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.
A career ending moment? Curiously no, there are few propositions so stupid that an intellectual will not believe it and the credulity of the French intellectual class clearly knows no bounds. Perhaps pride of place has to go to Olivier Roy for the most imaginative justification. In refusing to condemn stoning against the demands of a government minister, Ramadam had upheld the autonomy of the religious sphere from the control of the state and hence struck a blow for secularism. Sarkozy was the tyrant, Ramadan the progressive. This is impressive stuff by any standard, and explains and coming from France’s prominent authority on Islam explains why Ramadan’s serial misspeaking carries so few consequences in Europe.
Still, Ramadan was left with his panel and Ramadan was savvy enough to realise the panel needed to include non-Muslims who could be relied upon to find the stoning of women as a debating issue, and he certified his credentials as a ‘European by culture’ by mining a postmodern slew which many sensitive illiterates on American campuses would have been awe-struck by. The scholars Ramadan declared would be drawn from fields relating to ‘power relations, the relationship to language, modes of expression and communication, generational relations and/or gaps, knowledge and behaviour transmission modalities, male-female relations, group relations, collective psychology, even "rites of passage" established or not, which remain present even in the most modern societies’, and would toil earnestly in ‘Fatwa committees’. Nothing much came of this bold idea bar some more strangled eloquence from Ramadan, principally owing to the dearth of likeminded Islamic scholars; Qaradawi being the first to pan the idea that stoning loose women was anything less than a scared obligation. That alone is a depressing fact which speaks volumes about the leadership of the Ummah, but at least they are wolves in wolves clothing.
 As it happens it may not be justified even on these limited terms. Few now seriously deny the involvement of Islamist groups in fomenting the French intifada.
 One suspects he would have been happy for Samira Bellil to be stoned to death for adultery, a very real prospect when Sharia law is applied. As he put it on Islam Online “To be absolved from guilt, the raped woman must have shown some sort of good conduct… Islam addresses women to maintain their modesty, as not to open the door for evil… The Koran calls upon Muslim women in general to preserve their dignity and modesty, just to save themselves from any harassment… So for a rape victim to be absolved from guilt, she must not be the one that opens… her dignity for deflowering…”
 These calculations do not always work out:
The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.
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