Europe's silent revolution

From the archive (legacy material)

Omayma Abdel Latif | Al-Ahram Weekly | 21-27 October 2004

Tariq Ramadan speaks to Omayma Abdel-Latif about the future of Muslims in the West.

“Some in the West cannot get themselves to believe that you can build an identity that is truly Muslim and truly Western at the same time. They are so obsessed with a clash between the two cultures, that they don’t see this happening”

“Who is Tariq Ramadan?” a British journalist asked me recently, reflecting the debate currently raging in certain European media circles over the young Muslim intellectual. But this question also reflected the general sense of confusion, often verging on scepticism, as to what to make of Ramadan and the intellectual project he has been developing for almost two decades now.
To some he is a brilliant young philosopher who brings together what is best in both Islam and the West. He is a bridge builder between two civilisations, a vocal activist calling for universal justice, and one of the shaping forces of our time. His detractors, however, accuse him of double-talk, delivering a gentle message in English and French, and a radical one in Arabic; of projecting a liberal face in order to conceal his true “Islamist agenda”. Worse still, some have even labelled him “the Trojan horse of Jihad in Europe”. As such, he is now a central figure in any debate around the future of Islam on the continent.
When I posed the question to Ramadan himself, however, he answered simply, as though the controversies which his mere presence often seems enough to create, are in fact completely irrelevant. “I am a committed intellectual who is a Muslim, and at the same time facing the challenges of his time,” he said, then quickly added, “it is really important for me to be an active scholar connected to my community.”
Born to Egyptian parents — his grandfather was Imam Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement — Ramadan grew up in Geneva, his father Said Ramadan having been forced into political exile when Gamal Abdel- Nasser clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood and executed some of its senior members. In Switzerland, Ramadan studied philosophy, and wrote his doctorate thesis on Islamic studies and Nietzsche. He has written more than 20 books and some 800 articles, while there are 170 tapes of his lectures now available. He currently teaches at the universities of Geneva and Freiburg in Switzerland.
It is this multiple identity — at once academic and activist, committed Muslim and active Western citizen — which sets the 42-year-old Ramadan apart from other Muslim intellectuals of his generation. Working simultaneously from the perspectives of both Islamic sciences and Western philosophical traditions has earned Ramadan a reputation for quoting the Qur’an and hadith in the same breath, and with the same mastery, with which he alludes to Nietzsche’s critique of Western rationalism. More important, however, is the duality of being “truly Muslim and truly Western”, as he once put it — of bringing together the Islam tradition, to which Ramadan assigns himself, and the West in which he was brought up and received his education. Moreover, he is doing this at a time when the two are generally seen as pitted against one another in an ugly conflict — though not, perhaps, one of their choosing. The debate, some argue, is therefore about what Ramadan represents, rather than who he really is.
But what does America have to fear from Ramadan to deny him entry onto its territory — the man named by Time magazine last April as “one of the world’s top hundred thinkers”.
Ramadan was about to begin a term as professor of Islamic ethics at the University of Notre Dame when this incident blew up. But it was no surprise either when dozens of American scholars of Middle Eastern studies protested against the move in a petition to US Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month.
“Was I too scary for the classroom?” Ramadan posed the question in the pages of The New York Times. Although he was not told why his visa was rescinded, he believes the decision was a political one. It was the fruit, he says, of a sinister campaign led by certain Zionist neo-cons, and in particular Daniel Pipes, who put pressure on the authorities and invented an unfounded allegation about a possible link with Al-Qaeda.
“They simply did not want the voice of a Muslim who seeks common grounds with the West to be heard,” said Ramadan. “They consider it a threat to have Muslims offer a different reading of the situation in the Middle East than their dominant version of reality, and to have Muslims calling for a reconciliation rather than confrontation with America and the West.” Yet Ramadan is no stranger to such tactics which aim to silence him.
For 20 years now, Ramadan has dedicated himself to developing a model for “a European Islam”, which would allow the Muslim citizens of Europe, or the Western Muslims, as he likes to call them, to abandon their ghetto and become active citizens. According to such a vision, Islam has a role to play in the future of Europe, and should therefore be represented in any debate on the future of the continent. By offering a new reading of Islam’s primary sources, Ramadan wants to provide an alternate way of imagining Islam and Islamic rules for the relationship between Muslims and others, thus developing an Islamic theology of pluralism and justice.
It is precisely the current reading of Islam’s primary sources which Ramadan believes is behind the sorry state of affairs the Muslims find themselves in today. “Our reading of our Islamic sources and references,” he explains, “is much more about how we protect ourselves from the dominant civilisation. There is something in the way we invoke our Islamic references, the way we read our history, legacies and traditions. We tend to examine those references very often through what differentiates us from the West or from the Other, and not what there might be in common between those traditions and the Western tradition.”
A new reading of those references is, therefore, warranted, in order to achieve a better understanding of these universal values, some of which, Ramadan believes, find their origins in the Qur’an, Sunna and Islamic culture. “I think we need to be confident of our own legacy and heritage, and not make our relationship with the West the yardstick by which we measure everything.”
Given the far-from-friendly past with which that relationship is burdened, and a present which invokes theories such as the clash of civilisations, the undertaking is colossal. Ramadan says that he makes no apologies for taking a critical look at both Muslim and Western societies, and at their attitudes towards one another. Nevertheless, he reserves much of this harshest criticism for his fellows in the Islamic heartland. Nor can he conceal his sense of confusion when faced with the way some Muslims perceive the West. “Very often when I visit some parts of the Muslim world, I feel I am caught between two attitudes: one is a total fascination with the West, and the other is a total rejection. These are both emotional attitudes, which should be avoided.”
He also criticises the lack of any attempt on the part of the majority of Muslims to understand the philosophical debates currently taking place in the West and the intrinsic dynamics within the societies where they live. This is where Ramadan believes Western Muslims can make a difference, and seek that which unites rather than separates them. In Ramadan’s words, he is looking for the voice of the voiceless in Europe, and the “voiceless” here being the Muslim majority societies. “In my lectures I tell people that whatever is not opposed to our values we should take up and add to our legacy. This is part of the Islamic tradition, which is the principle of integration. We can take from the Western model that which is in accordance with our own values, and that means a lot of things.”
Despite his strong defence of Islamic traditions, Ramadan does not believe that an Islamic model of society exists per se. And this is perhaps where we can see most clearly the personal dilemma of Ramadan himself. His belief that many Western values can easily be reconciled with those of Islam means he does not believe that there is such a thing as an Islamic economic order or an Islamic state, for example. “These are just words and slogans,” he insists. The problem, he continues, “is that we act as if everything in our culture of origin is right: but this is a wrong perception. Not everything in European culture is against Islamic principles, and by the same logic, not everything in the Egyptian or in any other Arab culture is in accordance with Islamic principles, either. There are many things in our culture that are not faithful to our religious principles.”
Thus he believes that a process of tajdeed (renewal) will eventually lead Muslims to a better understanding of the foundational texts. This process is likely, however, to be hampered by the lack of freedom prevalent in Muslim societies. Ramadan acknowledges this fact, and points out that the state of affairs in certain Muslim societies has reached a point where even what he describes as “the accepted diversity” which is part and parcel of the Islamic tradition is not reflected in public debate. “In Islam we have an accepted diversity, where the literalists are accepted as much as the Sufis and the rationalists, as long as we are within the limits of what we know as part of our legacy,” he explains. This accepted diversity provides the ground for a process of intra-community dialogue which Ramadan finds sorely lacking in the Muslim world today. But in order to revive such a tradition, he believes that “we need more pluralistic societies and more political debates. We need to engage people in the political as well as the social processes.” In Ramadan’s view, any reform process must begin from the religious establishment, in order to make it more “connected with the society, so as to be able to read the realities around it”.
The establishment, Ramadan argues, has to avoid the perception that the more repressive it is, the more Islamic it becomes. This attitude has to change, particularly where issues such as women’s rights and the right to violence in the name of Islam are concerned. “It should be made clear that we are not addressing those issues just because the West is interested in them, but rather because they are a problem for us. If the West says that Muslims have a problem with women, we should not adopt a defensive attitude and deny it. I believe that Islam has no problem with women, but Muslims do, and so does our culture.”
Ramadan points out that part of the problem is that Muslims have developed an obsession with rituals — the halal and haram — while Islam is much more than that. “Yes, there is halal and haram, but these are the limits, and in between the two limits there is a road, a path. There is what we call Shariaa, with a variety of ijtihadat, belonging to four different schools of interpretations. The specificity of the Islamic call is to promote peacefulness and responsibility. We are changing this, by being obsessed with the limits, and in the process creating a very uneasy Muslim character, who always feels troubled and guilty. We are constantly speaking about beliefs, and are not working towards building up our personalities. I think there is something missing here, and the discourse coming from the Islamic institutions is not helping Muslims in anyway.”
Which brings Ramadan back to his first point, about the necessity to re-read the Islamic references. “We should not reduce Islam to the rituals. We need to understand the other dimensions of the religion, including spirituality, intellectual dynamism, and self-criticism. These were all part of our tradition, which we have lost because of our recent history.”
He believes that the failure of the religious institutions and many Muslims to speak out against “those who monopolise the terrain of Islamic discourse in order to serve a political position” has resulted in the fact that “anyone can be seen to speak in the name of Islam”. True, Islam has no church or clergy, but this in itself cannot account for the chaotic situation Muslims find themselves facing nowadays, when people without the least religious knowledge are able to issue fatwas. “It is really important that we do not let just anyone speak in the name of Islam. We have to be very cautious in the way we speak and deal with the fatwas,” he insists. “It is really important for all of us to draw the line and to say, No, this is not Islamic, and we are not going to condone it whatever the context.”
While he believes that in both the Iraqi and the Palestinian cases the context should be taken into consideration, he does not think even that can justify certain sorts of behaviour which are clearly not acceptable from the standpoint of Islam. “We should say that there are kinds of behaviour that are condemned per se and there is no way to try to justify them. The context may explain, but it does not justify. Whatever the context, beheading people and taking innocents hostage is not Islamic, and should be condemned as such by all Muslims.”
So how much does he think that Middle East politics is shaping the presence of Muslims in the West? Would it not be wise for them to keep a distance from what is going on there?
Ramadan begs to differ. “I listen to some fellow Muslims who say we want to keep a distance from what is going on in the Middle East, but if we are here and keep quiet we are not going to change the situation. We have to spread information and offer an alternative reading of what is going on there, an alternative perception of this reality, and let people understand that it is legitimate to resist an occupation, even though we can disagree on the means that can be used. It is a legitimate resistance, even if it is using illegitimate means. We have to be clear on that, and that is why I am asking the Muslims in the West to be the voice of the voiceless.”
But how can they play this role when even his own people remain silent in the face of the controversy surrounding Ramadan in the West? “There have been no attempts in the Arab or Muslim world to join the debate he provoked, let alone defend him,” Al-Ahram and Al-Ahram Weekly columnist and political commentator Mohamed Sid- Ahmed wrote a year ago.
Such attitudes leave the likes of Ramadan caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Arab and Muslim world whose causes he is defending are unwilling to commit themselves on his side; and on the other, there is an atmosphere in Europe which Ramadan himself has described as an “unhealthy schizophrenia”, a sense of uneasiness with the Other that now permeates the general discourse.
Are not Western Muslims likely to be considered fifth columnists if they raise their voice against the injustices done by their governments to the people of Iraq and Palestine? “Very possible,” responds Ramadan. “Our history in Europe is very short, and we are already being labelled and criticised for the same things the Jews were attacked for during the 1940s, such as our ‘double loyalty’. The only way to act against this type of allegation and slander is to remain consistent and honest. We must speak with a single voice, both inside the mosque and outside, within the Muslim community and outside it.”
But even that sense of consistency has not prevented Ramadan from falling prey to a vile media campaign against him in France, because he dared criticise certain second-rank French media intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut for their anxiety over Muslim immigration and their support for Israel. Ramadan puts the wave of anti-Muslim slurs which filled the French papers within the context of a campaign by “those who are scared of the impact Muslims have had as the emerging citizens of Europe”. In Europe now, he explains, the situation vis-ˆ-vis the Palestinian uprising has changed. Many people support the struggle of the Palestinian people, because they now know more about the reality of what is going on there. “For the Zionist groups, this is a danger and a threat, because the Muslims can now present another version of the reality of this conflict.”
While Ramadan agrees that there is a constructed ignorance in which Islam is willfully ignored, neglected and distorted, he still believes that Western Muslims have no alternative but to become full and independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. They have to leave their ghettos. “I think it is not just a question of ignorance about Islam, or that people don’t know much about the religion,” he insists. “Sometimes the distortion is deliberate and structured and there is a clear agenda behind it.”
The onus is, therefore, on Western Muslims to change this situation. Ramadan tells his audiences that they may be ignored by the system, but they won’t be ignored by their neighbours. A recent study showed that Europeans between the age of 18-24 were more receptive to the idea of a Muslim presence in Europe than their elders are. The reality of living together, explains Ramadan, will change the mentality. “Even if the system is promoting ignorance or structured ignorance, daily life will change the situation. It is up to us to realise that there are different ways to promote knowledge about who we are. As parents and as citizens of the West, we have to show real commitment and work within the mainstream school system to promote better knowledge. We need to ask for the programme to be reconsidered and oriented in a new way so that we can spread real knowledge of Islam.”
Muslim voting power is yet another asset which Ramadan believes should be maximised to serve the interests of the Muslim community. “This voting power — if organised — can force the system to abandon its current neglect of its Muslim citizens. If the system and the ruling elite in the media continue to promote this constructed ignorance, it will backfire and it is their interests that will be at stake. That is the kind of situation in which people very often react…”
Despite his underlying optimism, Ramadan acknowledges that the current atmosphere is undermining the work of people like himself who seek to act as bridge builders between Islam and the West. He does not take the attacks on him personally though, because he believes that they strike not at him, but at the core of what he truly represents. “Some in the West cannot get themselves to believe that you can build an identity that is truly Muslim and truly Western at the same time. They are so obsessed with a clash between the two cultures, that they don’t see this happening.” This may explain why some see the project which Ramadan has dedicated himself to as controversial. And indeed, Ramadan himself acknowledged this fact in his recent New York Times article.
“If you are in between two worlds and you try to remain consistent and critical, you are trying to challenge both of them,” he explains. “On the one hand I tell Muslims that, yes, Islam is great, but not all Muslims are great. By the same token, I criticise the West, because of the lack of consistency in their policies. Yes, they are the dominant civilisation, but they should realise they are not the only civilisation. My project is controversial, because it is not following the mainstream in either case. Instead, it is challenging the accepted version of reality to which both societies adhere. However, I think this is a constructive and positive controversy, because controversy which promotes justice is better than consensus which accepts injustice.”
Thus Ramadan challenges both those in the Muslim world who accuse him of trying to modernise Islam, and those in the West who accuse him of concealing an Islamist agenda, to quote from any of his works if they can find even one passage which will support such an argument.
Right now, the Muslims of Europe are going through what Ramadan describes as “a silent revolution”. “I know that it is a difficult process,” he says. “There is bound to be tension, criticism and slander. But all this is part of the game. Things are moving ahead. It will be difficult, but inshaallah, the result will be a better and more positive Muslim presence in the West.”