Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 -21 January 2004
Issue No. 673
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Futures for the West's Muslims

Les Musulmans d'Occident et l'avenir de l'Islam (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam), Tariq Ramadan, Paris: Actes Sud, 2003. pp383

As Mohamed Sid-Ahmed pointed out in a column devoted to Tariq Ramadan, author of Les Musulmans d'Occident et l'avenir de l'Islam, that appeared in this paper earlier this month, Islam is now believed to be the second largest religion in France thanks to the waves of Muslim immigrants from North Africa that settled in the country in the decades after the Second World War. Tariq Ramadan himself is a second- generation immigrant to Europe, his father, Said Ramadan, having left Egypt in 1954 to settle in Switzerland. Grandson of Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in recent years Ramadan has emerged as an influential writer on the affairs of Europe's sizeable Muslim populations, according to the French newspaper Le Monde now being "the central media personality of French Islam, even though he lives in Geneva and does not have French nationality". Les Musulmans d'Occident et l'avenir de l'Islam, Ramadan's most comprehensive book to date, has to do with how Europe's Muslims, whatever their different origins, should conduct themselves as fully European citizens.

"'Staying loyal to Islam' in the minds of first- generation immigrants [to Europe] meant carrying on the customs of their original countries" in the new European context, Ramadan writes. They "sought, without really being aware of it, to remain Pakistani Muslims in Great Britain or in the United States, Moroccan or Algerian Muslims in France and Turkish Muslims in Germany". However, "with the appearance of the second or third generations problems appeared: seeing their children lose, or no longer recognise themselves in, their Pakistani, Arab or Turkish cultures, parents seemed to believe that their children had at the same time lost their religious identities. But this was far from always being the case: many young Muslims, studying their religion, affirmed their sense of belonging to Islam, while at the same time asserting their distance from their cultures of origin" and claiming new European identities.

It is this new "awareness and the birth of a new understanding of Islam" among such second and third-generation immigrants, born and educated in Europe and having fewer connections than did their parents to their countries of origin, that has led, according to Ramadan, "to the transitional period through which we are living today". For members of the younger generation, this "represents the hope of reconciling their Islamic principles with life in the West", and such reconciliation, hard to carry out according to Ramadan, opens up new possibilities both for European Muslims and for Islam more generally, as the title of his book indicates.

Les Musulmans d'Occident et l'avenir de l'Islam is divided into two parts, the first presenting Ramadan's understanding of aspects of Islam and the second his views on the practice of Islam in the non-Muslim West, by which he means chiefly Western European countries. The book appears to have been written for an audience having little or no Arabic and little or no previous knowledge of Islam. While the first part of the book will be useful to those wanting to know Ramadan's views on the different schools of scriptural interpretation and the relevance, or otherwise, of certain historical distinctions, such as that between dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb (the Islamic and extra-Islamic world, respectively), it seems likely that most readers will turn first to the book's second part, where Ramadan examines issues such as "Islamic education", the participation of Muslims in the politics and society of Western countries, the relationship between religion and economics and inter-religious dialogue in an European, or Western, context.

In general, Ramadan thinks that Muslims living in Western countries should participate as fully as possible in the societies in which they find themselves, avoiding any temptation to retreat into a narrowly defined politics of identity or to separate themselves off from the mainstream. Indeed, he writes that anything not specifically forbidden in Islam is by definition Islamic and should be embraced as such.

Religion, Ramadan says, "teaches us to integrate everything that is not contrary to an established principle and to consider it as ours. This is the real universality of Islam, which lies in this principle of absorbing things of whatever origin and which has allowed Muslims to live in, and to make their own, almost all the cultures of the countries in which they have lived, from America to Asia and including West and North Africa. The same thing should occur in the West, where it is also a question of absorbing all dimensions of life not opposed to our beliefs and considering them as completely ours (legally, socially and culturally)." For Ramadan, therefore, there is not, or there need not be, any tension between at the same time claiming a fully Islamic and a Western or European identity.

One way in which these ideas work in practice is shown in Ramadan's attitude towards Islamic schools and education in part two of his book. A problem for Muslims living in Western societies, Ramadan says, is how to "preserve the flame of faith, the light of spirituality and the fidelity to the teachings of Islam in environments that do not refer to God and in educational systems that do not have much to say about religion". This, he says, has led some Muslims living in Western countries to set up alternative schools offering a Muslim education to Muslim pupils. Ramadan is against such moves for pragmatic reasons as well as for reasons of principle.

On the one hand, he says, it is unlikely that such schools could offer an education to all Muslim pupils that wanted to make use of them, and it would be difficult to ensure that the quality of education offered at such schools met the often very high standards offered in state schools in continental Europe. However, more importantly, the separation of Muslim young people from their peers in this way would defeat the very purpose of education, properly so-called. "Studying what is in the main offered to young generations of Muslims in the West today," Ramadan writes, "one is struck by the fact that what is called an 'education', which should be the transmission of knowledge and of a way of being, is in fact a poorly organized 'instruction'...in principles, rules and obligations often coldly presented in a rigid and austere fashion without soul or humanity."

A properly Islamic education, on the other hand, like any education, should allow young people to develop critical skills, independence and self-respect. It should lead to "the permanent exercise of a critical spirit capable of understanding, selecting, reforming and innovating in order to establish links between the universal principles of Islam and the contingencies of the society in which one lives". It should "dispense knowledge concerning the cultural and social environment, history, other human beings, as well as, more generally, the mastering of general disciplines and sciences that give the individual the means to live in his or her time". Ramadan suggests that the best way these aims can be achieved is for Western Muslims to interest themselves fully in the curricula offered by mainstream schools, insisting that their experience be included in history or geography syllabuses, for example, while offering a complementary instruction in Islam to Muslim pupils outside of regular school hours.

In this way, Western Muslims can both educate their fellow citizens in "the history of colonisation, the experience of exile, the plural character of Western societies", all of which they should press to be included on reformed school syllabuses, while reinforcing their own sense of belonging to the society in which they were born and in which "to be a Muslim is not to possess an always foreign and oriental culture, but is to be from here [the Western society in question] and to learn to distinguish between what corresponds to our values and what does not."

This emphasis on participation and on the need for Western Muslims to insist on changes in what are, after all, also their societies leads Ramadan to assign them a central, and no longer a minority or marginal, role in the development of the Western societies in which they live. Indeed, this emphasis links Ramadan's understanding of Islam in general with his description of the particular circumstances of Muslims in Western societies, and it explains his rejection of US-style "identity politics". Such politics, Ramadan thinks, by which different ethnic or religious communities typically organise themselves to further their own ends, while having little to say about the larger shape of the societies in which they live, are inimical to the spirit and the letter of Islam.

"The spiritual community is defined by an adhesion to a group of principles and to an ethic, and not to a community of blood or of shared interests," Ramadan writes. "One does not involve oneself in politics 'in the name of my group', but, before God and in accordance with one's conscience, in the name of certain inalienable principles. The community of the faith is essentially opposed to every form of communitarianism."

As a result, Muslims living in Western societies have a positive duty to act in the interests of all, even if in so doing they are also acting in their own interests. This means that Ramadan argues strongly for Muslim investment in the promotion of human rights, both legal, as in the right to equal treatment before the law, and economic and social, such as the right to housing, education, decent living standards and employment. In so doing, they should ally themselves with like-minded individuals and movements from different religious faiths and cultural backgrounds, and in particular they should be ready to promote "resistance" to the present global economic system.

Indeed, for Ramadan "Islamic teaching is intrinsically opposed to the foundations and the logic of the capitalist neo-liberal system, and Muslims who live in 'the heart of the system' [that is, in the West] have the responsibility to put forward, in collaboration with all those working in the same direction, solutions... for a more just economy and more equitable trade." The operations of the current global economic system "are in total contradiction with Islamic principles, and the Qur'anic revelation is explicit: those who engage in financial speculation and the practice of financial interest are at war with the Transcendent." A section of Ramadan's book is also devoted to an examination of the legal arguments in Islam for and against the levying of financial interest.

Finally, Ramadan's book argues forcefully for the full participation of the Muslim populations of Western countries in the social, economic and political arrangements of their respective societies in order to influence these to reflect their experiences and to approximate more nearly to conceptions of social and economic justice. He is against the root-and-branch rejection of the surrounding environment, saying that only features of such societies specifically forbidden by Islam should be rejected, and he is against the setting up of parallel institutions, such as religious schools, on both pragmatic grounds and for reasons of principle.

However, the book is written at a curiously high level of abstraction, providing few examples by which to measure conduct and having nothing very much to say about what happens when conflicts arise. Ramadan is European by background and education, and he can seem at sea in the few comments he makes about the United States. The economic and political commitments that he says flow from a Muslim religious identity may also raise eyebrows: on the far left as far as the conventional European political spectrum is concerned, these do not even figure in mainstream US political discourse.

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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