Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

This spring, the call of the literary boycotter sounds louder than ever. Both the Paris book fair (which opens today) and its counterpart in Turin (scheduled for 8 May) have picked Israel – in its 60th birthday year – as guest of honour, and invited many of the country's leading writers to attend. Do the fairs salute these authors, or their state? Implausibly, the organisers in both cities claimed not to know the furies their choice would unleash.

They do now. This month, delegation after delegation from Arab countries has queued up to announce their non-attendance, especially after the 50-member Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (IESCO) called for withdrawal. "I'm very surprised at how political this is getting," said Serge Eyrolles of the Salon du Livre. M. Eyrolles, which planet have you been living on?

Boycotts now breed their own theology. That ubiquitous Islamic scholar Dr Tariq Ramadan has subtly refined his own position. He'll stay away from Turin, castigating the fair as "a celebration of Israel which hides the sombre realities of the occupied territories". But he will now be taking part in a pro-Palestinian cell within the Paris programme. The Europe-wide prominence of Dr Ramadan in these debates ratifies his status as one of the most influential public intellectuals alive.

Is he a democratic and reformist force for good or – as a newly-translated polemic claims – a fundamentalist in disguise: a sort of double agent who advances the hard-core Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood under a liberal veneer? The French feminist Caroline Fourest published Brother Tariq: the doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan in Paris in 2004. In his preface to the English version (by Iona Wieder and John Atherton; Social Affairs Unit, £15.95), Labour MP Denis MacShane calls it "a disgrace" that the book has taken so long to find a UK home.

To be frank, I can see why. Fourest writes as a prosecuting counsel. Her relentless indictment acquires a paranoid tinge, as when she suspects the UK government of having done a deal with the Brotherhood to prevent any repeat of 7/7. The insistence on tracing Ramadan's thought back to his Egyptian grandfather, the Brotherhood ideologist Hassan al-Banna, comes almost to resemble guilt by heredity. Time and again, she accuses him of "a double-sided sales pitch that conveys one meaning on the 'inside'and another on the 'outside'". Her ogre grows to giant size: "perfectly capable, on his own, of hastening the coming of obscurantism".

And yet... Fourest marshalls plenty of evidence that deserves a hearing. She attends to the tapes and booklets Ramadan has addressed to ordinary Muslims in France rather than to viewers of Newsnight. And she notes that her portrait of a "fundamentalist preacher" in the Brotherhood vein derives in part from research by Arab writers such as Antoine Sfeir, whom Ramadan sued. He lost, but won a related case. At least, the editors and organisers who often turn to Ramadan should read her book and then, if they wish, invite him anyway.

Meanwhile, the boycotts gather pace. The great Moroccan-French novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun has delivered his verdict. He declined to attend the state banquet in Paris for Israel's president Peres this week, because of his horror at events in Gaza.

So, does Ben Jelloun back the book-fair boycott? Quite the opposite. He calls it a "stupid campaign", a "little game", "a war against culture". Boycotts are "contrary to the spirit of Arab civilisation", and can only "raise the wall of misunderstanding, of fear and hate". If you read French, check out his post at chroniques. For Ben Jelloun, this refusal to talk "only serves the interests of the arms dealers".