Interview: Tariq Ramadan
Named as a “spiritual leader” in Time magazine’s ‘Next Wave’ of ‘global innovators’, Tariq Ramadan is currently a Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Previously, he taught Islamic Studies and Philosophy at Freiburg University in Switzerland. A prominent critic of the ‘war on terror’ policy, Ramadan is one of the most influential Muslim voices in western society — a profile that has regularly gotten him into trouble. Political commentators accuse him of being anti-Semitic and of varying his message according to his audience. In 2004, he was forced to resign as professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace-building at the University of Notre Dame, when the US government suddenly revoked his visa. Since then, Ramadan has been banned from traveling to the US under a Patriot Act provision that bars entry to those who endorse or support terrorism. Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt have acted similarly, for his proposals to suspend Sharia Law, corporal punishment, beheadings and stonings in the Islamic world. On the suspicion of his ties with terrorist groups, he was banned from entering France between 1995 and 1996.
Ramadan’s grandfather was Hasan. Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic-revival movement that began in Egypt and opposed the dominance of secular and Western ideas. When the organisation was outlawed in Egypt in 1954, his parents and their six children fled to Switzerland. As he grew up, he became determined to figure out how simultaneously to be both a Muslim and a Westerner. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, scholars and others have increasingly discussed what is referred to as a ‘clash of civilisations’. On the contrary, Ramadan emphasises the possibilities of reconciling Islamic and Western values.
Tariq Ramadan spoke to Subindra Bogati in London on the issues of Muslim integration, the recent controversy over cartoons depicting Islamic subjects, and Southasian migrants in the UK.
You have been accused of preaching violence covertly.
I am helping young Muslims to remain Muslims. The fact is that I am a Muslim and I am proud to be a Muslim, which is not acceptable to some people. For them, to remain Muslim is too much. They want Muslims without Islam. But I am saying, No, we can be both Muslims and at the same time Europeans, Americans, Canadians or whatever. For them, this is a problem. There is nothing about radicalisation. It is just a question of identity and self-consciousness, and some people don’t want Muslims to feel like that.
What do you say to those who use religion to justify their terror?
I am not only saying it is not Islamic. I am saying it is against Islam. So they are acting against my belief and my principle.
How do we distinguish between a ‘good’ Muslim and a ‘bad’ Muslim?
This is a mystic way of looking at Muslims. You say ‘good’ Muslims are like us and ‘bad’ Muslims are not like us or the others: the Motherhood’ Muslims or radical Muslims. I think this is misleading. The Islamic universe is as complex as the Christian, Buddhist or Hindu universe, where you have shrines, readings, interpretations, histories and memories. We also have Sufis, the mystical groups, the literalists, the traditionalists, the reformists, rationalists, and we have political readings. From here, it is quite difficult and impossible to say ‘good’ or tad’. I am always saying this to my fellow citizens in Europe: The moment you respect me is when you accept that my universal references are as complex as your own.
It is common to quote Islamic historian Bernard Lewis’s thesis that Muslim anger is a product of their failure to keep up with the West and modernity.
It is not completely wrong that the Muslim world in particular is facing economic, scientific and technological crises today. when compared to the West. But I do not think it is because of Islam. There are parameters we need to keep in mind. Power struggles, colonisation, economic colonisation — all of these are the dimensions we have to take into account while assessing this situation. Throughout history, Islam was not the hindrance to development, It became so when you are not self-confident and you perceive that you are dominated by the ‘other’, the ‘West’. You use Islam as the protection instead of using your mind, your critical approach and your creativity. Yes, what we call the ‘Muslim world’, we are going through crisis. We really need to use our resources to reverse our way of thinking. This is what we call ijtihad, making a decision by independent interpretation. This is what I am trying to do.
Has a shadow been cast over the prospects of Muslim integration in Europe after the London and Madrid bombings, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and riots in France?
I think the problem is not about integration. The problem is the gap between the ideals of the society and its current policies. For example, when you listen to the official British discourse, they talk about multiculturalism, living together, pluralistic society. respecting each other, equal opportunities, equal citizenship- this sounds fine, but the reality is otherwise. ‘Equal opportunity’ is not true; ‘equal access to job opportunities’ is not true; `no racism’ is not true. There is a big gap between what you want and what your ideals are, and what kind of things you accept on a daily basis. It is not the integration process. but you are not consistent with your principles. This is why the systems and models are failing. It doesn’t matter whether it is a French or British model – it is the interest that matters. Tell me your ideals and show me your practices.
The involvement of the UK-born and -bred Pakistanis in the London bombings shows that Southasians have not yet been able to integrate completely here. What could be the reasons for this?
Their cultural and religious integration is done. But because of the flawed social and urban policies, social problems remain. My understanding from the beginning was to say ‘don’t blame the others’. It is as if these kids are the sons of two parents: one parent is the Muslim society, and one is the British society. When one of your kids is going astray, you don’t blame only one parent – both of them are equally responsible. We have to say to the Muslim community: What kind of education are you providing? What are you doing on the ground to let your kids understand that British culture is their culture? You are in a process of appeasing or helping them to make them feel they are at home. Here we must be critical towards the Islamic education we provide in our society. It is sometimes oriented towards isolation or self-segregation.
Meanwhile, what is British society saying about Muslims? A real educational agenda is needed – you have to let them feel they are at home. When you go to the history curriculum, the only thing that it says is about ‘us’. white British people. You are forgetting about the memories of these people coming from Southasia. You don’t give value to their pasts, yet you are telling them you are part of their society. which is not true. To be a part of our society means that officially we consider you as our part of society and officially we teach our kids that you are here. So our societies have changed. You have schools in this country where 98 percent of kids are coming from the same background, same religion, same suburbs, and still you are saying that this is a multicultural society. Once again, the British government has a great deal of responsibility. The two parents should come together and work together in order to change the situation.
What is hindering social integration between British and migrant communities?
I think there is a great deal of fear, and you have political forces using this fear in order to set an agenda – I call this as an `ideology of fear’. To build something from this situation, they use an ‘us-versus-them’ theory – the ‘clash of civilisations’, fears, that we are all victims. So we perceive ourselves as the victims of the expansionist’s agenda. On the other side, Muslims feel that they are the targets of a new Islamophobia. So we are in a world of victims, unable to live together. We are driven by emotions, which is really frightening. The riots in the French suburbs show that it has nothing to do with culture or religion.
How have you viewed the Danish cartoons and Muslim anger?
You have governments and people instrumentalising it on the Islamic side. On the other side, you have conservatives using this event saying, ‘We told you Muslims are not for freedom of speech.’ So on both sides freedom of speech is at risk, and Islam is insulted. We respect the freedom of speech, but what you are asking is not about freedom of speech. We are not asking to remove the right to speech, but we are asking you to be reasonable in the way you use the right to speech. I think this is natural and normal. On the other side, the Muslims should take a critical and intellectual approach, rather than just reacting emotionally.
In India, there are often riots between Muslims and Hindu. How can this be minimised?
It will be a difficult proposition, as there are radicals on both sides. For some Hindus, the only way of being who they are is to be against the Muslims. On the other side, radical Muslims are thinking exactly the same way. In between, there is a great majority of Indians willing to live together. They seem to be silent and passive because of the fact that the vocal people are more extremist. But the passivity is not neutrality. You have to understand that you have to take a stand, which is to actively come together. Hindus and Muslims at local levels should come together and be able to say: “Look, we have so much in common. We have common values. common agendas. What we want is for our kids to live together.” I have met so many people in India who are able to do that, but they remain silent. I really think that what we need today is local-level movement. We need a national movement of local initiatives.