Why America Should Welcome Tariq Ramadan

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Alan Wolfe | The Chronicle of Higher Education | 10 September 2004

At the behest of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, the State Department has revoked a visa for Tariq Ramadan, a theologian of Swiss nationality, thereby preventing him from assuming a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. The damage done to academic freedom is serious, but the harm to our country’s efforts to combat Islamic extremism is worse.
Ramadan is Europe’s leading Muslim intellectual. The grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization widely assumed to be responsible for the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, he has captured public attention because of the dual role he has assigned himself. Unlike Muslims of a more fundamentalist inclination, he argues that the Koran can be interpreted in multiple ways. But unlike more radical reformers, like Irshad Manji, a Canadian who was the host of the Toronto program Queer Television and author of The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), he is a true defender of Islam; indeed, one of the reasons he has become so controversial is his argument that Islam can help Europe find a way out of its fatal (in his view) attraction to secularism.
Throughout much of its history, Islam has made a distinction between Dar al-Islam, a society in which Muslims are a majority and subject to Islamic law, and Dar al-Harb, the outside world about which Muslims must be continuously wary. Now that so many Muslims live in Europe and North America, it is time for them to recognize that Islam can flourish in the absence of an Islamic majority, Ramadan argues in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2004). Muslims in the West must engage in ijtihad, he says, defining it as “a constant dynamic of adaptation in response to the time and the context.” While doing so, they should also strive to become full citizens of the countries in which they live, accepting their laws and participating in their political systems.
Ramadan’s work defies religious and political labels. Although he has often been described as the Muslim Martin Luther, he never attacks Islam the way Luther attacked the papacy. He believes that many of the problems Westerners associate with Islam — a propensity toward violence, unfair treatment of women — are ethnic, not religious; get rid of the cultural practices associated with tribal and backward societies, and you will find Islam in its pure form. That side of Ramadan’s work complicates the notion, frequently heard in the debates surrounding his ideas, that he is a “moderate” or a “modernizer.” Read one way, he seems to be a progressive critic of repressive regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia. Read another, he is defending the orthodox idea that there are not many Islams but only one, thereby questioning whether “so-called sociological or cultural Muslims,” as he characterizes those of a live-and-let-live disposition, are really legitimate believers.
Ramadan does have a tendency to express himself in ways that suggest a propensity toward intolerance. In an article rejected by Le Monde and posted on a Web site called Oumma.com, he attacked a number of French Jewish intellectuals, including Alain Finkiel-kraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, and Alexandre Adler, for rejecting universalist ideals in favor of Jewish particularism. Those writers were “cour-ageous” to protest genocide in Bosnia and Chechnya, but where were they on Iraq and Palestine, he asked? Ramadan made one good point: Universalists should judge universally. But by concentrating only on Jewish intellectuals, by throwing around terms like “Zionist” far too loosely, and especially by equating silence toward Ariel Sharon’s policies with support for them, Ramadan opened himself up to charges of anti-Semitism, charges he denies.
Those charges, in fact, may have been the reason why Ramadan was denied his visa. Daniel Pipes, an American conservative, told the news media that “elements” in France let American officials know that Ramadan was not “suitable” for the Notre Dame position. Pipes is closely identified with Campus Watch, an organization that publicizes the names of scholars it considers biased against Israel, but he denies that the group has acted to remove anyone from a job.
Despite the less-than-attractive side of Ramadan’s thought, the decision to exclude him from the United States borders on the idiotic. It is precisely because Ramadan is such a devout Muslim that the United States should be doing everything in its power to make friends with him.
Someone who renounced Islam would be little help in strengthening those voices within the Muslim world that seek an alternative to fundamentalism. Nor would someone who advocated violent jihad against the West. Although Pipes has suggested that Ramadan may have ties to Al Qaeda, no real proof has been offered, and Ramadan’s writings do not espouse violence. If anything, his views give him credibility to speak on behalf of a significant group of Muslims, while bringing Muslims in touch with ideas outside their tradition.
Ramadan’s most important message — his advice to Muslims in the West to make the West their home — is one Americans should particularly welcome. Once Muslims live under laws that recognize equality between the sexes and religious tolerance, it is only a matter of time before a more tolerant Islam grows. Ramadan himself endorses respect for tolerance and diversity only tepidly, but it is likely that the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrants will be influenced by the West’s respect for those values.
Ramadan may speak out of both sides of his mouth, but the U.S. government speaks out of only one — the intolerant side. While Ramadan calls for multiple interpretations of the Koran, the Bush administration acts as if there is only one way to read Ramadan. Confronting Islamic fundamentalism with a Western version of the same thing hardly seems like the appropriate way to deal with a post-September 11 world. By denying Ramadan his visa, we have sent a message to the Muslim world that, for all our talk of bringing freedom there, we fear it here.
If Jews in either France or the United States were indeed behind the decision to bar Ramadan, the damage multiplies, for Jews have long been among the most stalwart defenders of the freedom of thought and religious pluralism that demonstrate alternatives to fundamentalism. The Jewish commitment to the life of the mind is only partially theological (the God of the Hebrew Bible is anything but tolerant of dissent). But Jews have been, until the creation of the state of Israel, a minority in every society in which they have lived. Fearful of the passions of the majority, they have learned the importance of allowing unpopular ideas full expression.
For Jews now to stand in opposition to the free exchange of ideas is to turn their backs on a principle that has served them and their societies well. It also puts them on the wrong side of the effort to strengthen moderate tendencies within Islam. However much Jews and Muslims may be at war with each other in the Middle East, they have a great deal in common with each other in Paris and in Boston. For the first time in its history since the Prophet returned to Mecca, Islam has become exilic, much as Judaism has been since Moses left the country of Ramadan’s grandparents. Jews have been leaders in finding ways to reconcile dietary laws with majority tastes, to overcome discrimination against women within worship practices, and to interpret texts to deal with new realities.
Ramadan opposes Jewish efforts to lobby for their own interests as an inappropriate example for Muslims in the West, but Muslims will have to learn from Jews if they are going to make their home in primarily Christian lands. And Jews in the West, if for no other reason than lowering the hideous hostility between Judaism and Islam, will have to be willing to share their experiences in return. Tariq Ramadan, an intellectual trying to reconcile his old-time faith with his new-found circumstances, ought to be a familiar figure to any Jewish intellectual aware of his or her own tradition. Jews can view themselves as universal representatives of exile or as one particular exiled group. Welcoming Ramadan, they assert their universality. Rejecting him, they retreat into particularity.
In denying Ramadan his visa, the United States has also undermined another of its advantages in the age of terror, especially vis-à-vis Europe. Muslims frequently feel unwelcome in European countries because they perceive them as Christian and secular at the same time, which, in an odd way, many of them are. (The French state bans conspicuous religious symbols in public schools but contributes substantial aid to “private” Catholic schools.) America, by contrast, is most definitely Christian, but it hardly seems correct, in the Bush years, to call it secular. Whatever one thinks of American religiosity, it is an advantage in the war on terror for it demonstrates to Muslims that we are not a country ruled by the Great Satan. That is an advantage we have now thrown away.
We once kept atheists out of the United States; now, it seems, we keep out believers if they believe in the wrong things. In so doing, we appear to Muslims as hostile both to faith in general and to their faith in particular. Thus while the Canadian Manji, whom many Muslims view as an apostate, appears on American talk radio, Ramadan, a theologian, is prevented from taking an academic position at one of America’s most prestigious faith-based institutions.
Tariq Ramadan will no doubt go on with his work. It is too bad that Europe, which was not attacked on September 11, 2001, will be more directly engaged with his ideas than the United States, which was.
Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and professor of political science at Boston College. He is on leave this fall as the George Herbert Walker Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.