Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 December 2006
Issue No. 824
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan: Dangerous thoughts

Tariq Ramadan has been called a dangerous man. The idea that a thinker can be dangerous seems to belong to an earlier time, when thinking was believed to trigger revolutions. In the context of the present, a time when the transitory moment is prioritised over the sensibility of quietude requisite for thinking, it is more of a radical claim, which nonetheless suggests that there is an interest in Ramadan's ideas, for he has found an audience beyond the confines of the universities in which he teaches, and he has also found his critics -- or rather his critics have found him. It also suggests that, in place of the sensibility of reciprocity required for engaging with thinkers, there is in present-day society a tendency both to value and to censure them.
By Anita Mir

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Ramadan has taken on the role of public intellectual in the West -- to be distinguished from the many scholars-turned-TV gurus who appear on screen as experts providing analysis on demand. Like Bertrand Russel and, more recently, Edward Said, Ramadan is a public intellectual who is actively engaged in society, utilising the public sphere together with accessible language to popularise his ideas. While Said wrote in newspapers, Ramadan gives public addresses. In its political as opposed to theological register, his work revolves around the notion that Muslims in the West can remain true to both their faith and their (non-Muslim) nation, combining both allegiances without contradiction or conflict. From the standpoint of an activist, indeed, this is far less radical than the thought of Marx or even Mill, favouring, as it does, reconciliation over revolution.

The question, rather, is why it is perceived to be threatening enough for Ramadan to be called a dangerous man. I put this question to two representative academics. Tim Niblock, a professor at Exeter University's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, explained, "I think it may be worth noting that the position in the UK is rather different from that in France and the US. In the latter two, the hard line towards Ramadan emanates from the government side [and is taken up by the popular and 'intellectual' press], whereas in Britain the government has been generally favourable towards him and the problem has come mostly from the popular press [with the 'intellectual' press being more supportive]. Indeed, to some extent in Britain the criticism in the popular press has been a political instrument with which opponents of the present government have sought to discredit its policies towards the Muslim communities in Britain, on the grounds that they are too lax." Niblock's counterpart in the US was rather more blunt: "A cynical reply is that much of the Western media feels uncomfortable with anyone who has the ability to represent Islam in a decent light." Perhaps Ramadan is dangerous because, by calling Western Muslims to the middle path -- the traditional space of Islam -- he disrupts the increasingly prevalent viewpoint that the majority of Muslims are radical rather than moderate? Perhaps, more simply, it is Ramadan's tendency to disappoint interviewers, who, often ignorant of his work, are unable to reconcile what they want him to say with what he really does say.

It was my Egypt-based clerical friends who had encouraged me to read Ramadan, whom I had known of as a Swiss scholar who was also a grandson of Hassan El-Banna, the famed founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would have been hard not to have heard of a man who was among Time magazine's top 100 thinkers of the age, who came famously under attack in the French press and who, refused a visa to the US where he was to teach at the University of Notre Dame, ended up teaching at Oxford, where he also joined the UK government task-force against terrorism and was accused in the British press of preaching one doctrine to the Middle East, quite another to the West. Suddenly, as it seemed, he had appeared everywhere: on TV, at the government circuit of meetings, on the platform, speaking to enraptured or quizzed out crowds in their hundreds, disrupting all.

I am meeting Ramadan in a London café on one of those dark wet winter evenings, the kind tourists are likely to see as being exemplary of English weather, and he doesn't look as robust as he appears on stage. He looks rather wearied, and perhaps somewhat wary; happily the conversational hiccough subsides once we start talking about his work.

"Western Muslims are facing new questions in a new environment," he begins. "It is not the first time Muslims have been a minority in a society but the first time we have been a minority in a secular society." In contrast to the religious pluralism of the Middle East, the pluralism developing in the West today requires adjustments on both sides. "Muslims," Ramadan says, "have to understand secularism from a Western viewpoint, the neutrality of the public sphere," while Westerners have to realise that, for Muslims as for other religious groups, religious values cannot be taken off in public, put back on in private. And the resulting tension manifests in, among other public controversies, British Home Secretary Jack Straw asking the women who attended his constituency surgery -- that is, an open meeting between an MP and the citizens he represents -- to remove the niqab (full veil) they were wearing, giving rise to much indignant debate. For Ramadan, Straw's comment was "the right question coming from the wrong person at the wrong time".

But, as he puts it, "we are in a transitional period." First-generation Muslim immigrants had lived in ghettos, now their children, though accused of isolating themselves, are more visible and spread out. Western Muslims, he maintains, rather than seeing the West as a space hostile to their religion, should see it as a space conducive to religious practise. In To Be a European Muslim he defines "the fundamental question for Muslim communities living as minorities in Europe" as "how to maintain a spiritual life in a modern -- understood as both secular and industrialised society and, consequently, how to transmit the necessary knowledge which permits genuine freedom of choice". As well as taking account of the problems arising from this, he suggests, Muslims should assess the rights they do enjoy in the West, many of which might not be available to them in Muslim-majority countries: not only the right to practise Islam but to knowledge, autonomous representation and appeal to the law. It is true that, following events in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western Muslims might find it hard to reconcile conflicting loyalties but when citizens feel their government has done wrong, they must fulfil their civic responsibility by voting against it.

"There should be loyalty at different levels to different entities," he says. "The principle is simple. There should be two kinds of belonging: a legal and a spiritual one. Nor does the spiritual belonging have to be exclusive to the Muslim community: I am with my Muslim community when it does right and loyal to my social community when it does right." Doesn't that kind of thinking require highly developed ethics, though? When it is understood, Ramadan argues, it is very easily applied. What, then, about those Muslim militants who, rather than the ballot box, head out to the streets, weapons in hand? "If we look at the case of the 7/7 London bombers, we see that they were educated, intelligent and socially integrated; what they were not, was psychologically integrated. The evidence from this as from other situations suggests confirms that there is no link between radical Islam and social maginalisation. The Muslim community has to be and is addressing the reasons why some of its youth turn to radical Islam but we must remember that it is a very small minority who do so." What about Muslim organisations that, denying the existence of a problem, insist that Muslims are the victims of a propaganda war? Ramadan nods: "To deny the problem and to be obsessed by it is the same thing. We have to see what we can do to prevent such things from happening, to provide an atmosphere that leads to the highest level of integration -- which is psychological integration."

Many first-generation Muslims who arrived in the West at the close of Empire were too burdened financially to successfully integrate, Ramadan argues in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, and the situation is now radically different. New immigrants had known religion mainly as a cultural practice and transmitted it to their children without a firm knowledge of its edicts, managing nonetheless to instill in them "an intuitive understanding of and respect of faith". With younger Muslims turning to the sources, Quran and Sunna, new sides of Islam are emphasised, perhaps endangering the cultural relativism of Islam in its Arab, African and Asian forms? "I don't have a problem with cultural dress," Ramadan responds, "unless cultural practice stops you from being open to how Islam is practised in different countries, producing the idea that only Islam as it is practised in, say, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, is correct. There is of course a serious issue at stake here: when cultural dress is mistakenly understood as a principle of Islam, as, for instance, in the case of female genital mutilation."

At several different levels, Ramadan is seen as a Muslim leader, so what does he have to say about the notion of a universal leader or khalifa in Islam? "It is unrealistic," he says. "I believe that when we talk of Muslim leadership we have to think of a bottom-top approach, first looking at the local level and then at the national level. European and international platforms for Islamic scholarship for Islamic scholarship already exist; it is the grassroots dimension that needs to be strengthened."

The starting point for Western Muslims should be a shift in perspective: from seeing the West as Dar Al-Kufr (the abode of non- believers) to seeing the West as Dar Al-Shahada (the abode of those witnesses who bear testimony) -- a concept adequately explained in To Be European Muslim : "Muslims now attain in the space of testimony, the meaning of an essential duty and of an exacting responsibility: to contribute, wherever they are, to promoting good and equity within and through human brotherhood. The Muslims' perspective outlook must now change from the reality of 'protection' to that of 'contribution'."

Perhaps Ramadan's idea is revolutionary after all, for though it calls for neither a redress of power nor a redistribution of wealth, it does call for a re-visioning of reality as it exists, pointing to how it could exist in the future. In this new phase of Islam it will not be "just Western Muslims who will have a role to play; it will be a two-way process between Muslims in minority Muslim countries and those in majority Muslim countries." He is equally clear about his own place in this future arrangement. In the November/December 2004 issue of Foreign Policy he said, "I am just a symbol of what's coming, which is a new generation of Muslim leaders, mean and women, able to speak English as you are speaking English, French as they do in France. They are European, they are American, and they are going to speak for themselves."

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