Friday, September 17, 2010

Tariq Ramadan

On leave from his post at Oxford, Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim theologian and public intellectual, is currently in the United States, where he has been speaking and writing on various occasions. The current controversy over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan has, of course, heightened his visibility.

Who then is Tariq Ramadan? He was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1962 and was primarily educated in that city. He is a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. His most important theme is that the Muslim diaspora in Western Europe and North America must adapt to its new cultural setting, while at the same time remaining true to the core beliefs of Islam. While this project is laudable in principle, Ramadan’s efforts have elicited some skepticism because of a sense that he shades his views, offering one emphasis to Western audiences and another to Muslim ones. In 2009 Foreign Policy magazine ranked Ramadan 49th in a list of the world’s top 100 contemporary intellectuals.

Indeed, Ramadan comes from a distinguished line of Muslim thinkers and activists. He is the son of Said Ramadan and the grandson of Hassan al Banna. who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Gamal Abdul Nasser exiled his father from Egypt to Switzerland, where Tariq was born.

In Geneva Tariq Ramadan studied Philosophy and French literature at the Masters level. He then wrote a PhD dissertation entitled “Nietzsche as a Historian of Philosophy.” He completed his studies with work on Islamic theology at Al-Azhar university in Cairo.

As of 2009, Tariq Ramadan was persona non grata in Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria because of his "criticism of these undemocratic regimes that deny the most basic human rights." Curiously enough, he had the same status for several years in the US. In February 2004 Ramadan accepted a professorship at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. At first granted, his visa was then revoked by the State Department under the “ideological exclusion” provision. After several court appeals, the ban was finally lifted on January 20, 2010.

To put the matter in the vernacular, his approach to Islamic theology is to see whether it can afford “wiggle room” with regard to inhumane and intolerant precepts that conflict with established Western principles of human rights. He emphasizes the difference between religion and culture, which he maintains are too often confused. More particularly, citizenship and religion are separate concepts which should not be mixed. Along these lines he claims that there is no conflict between being both a Muslim and a European; a Muslim is required to accept the laws of his country. He likes to sum up things in terms of capital letters. Thus he enjoins the three L's: language (meaning that Muslims must be proficient in the language of the country where they reside and not just in their language of origin); law (accepting that the law of the host country is supreme); and loyalty. In keeping with the last principle Muslims must accept that when a host country is in conflict with a Muslim-majority country, Muslim citizens must side with their country of citizenship. (He is not quite clear--or convincing--on this last point.)

Ramadan recommends that Western Muslims create a "Western Islam" just as there is a separate "Southeast Asian Islam" and an "African Islam.” where cultural differences are implicit. By this he means that European Muslims must reexamine the fundamental texts of Islam (the Qur’an, the Hadiths, and the legal deliverances of the several schools that seek to define sharia), interpreting them in light of their own cultural background, influenced as it is by European society.

In this process of reinterpretation and exegesis Ramadan emphases the principle of context. With the Qur'an and Hadiths we must acknowledge that they stem from a tribal society very different from our own, sifting the texts accordingly. By the same token, some repugnant practices current among Muslims, such as female genital mutilation and "honor killings" reflect contingent conditions in the countries of recent residence. The problem with this approach is that if everything is contextual, what in fact must we believe? As with some Christians, religion turns into a spiritual cafeteria, where we choose one dish but disdain another.

Ramadan rejects the common Muslim division of the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War), on the grounds that such a division is not mentioned in the Qur'an. For Ramadan, what is important is "dar al-shahada," the "Abode of Testimony" [to the Islamic Message]. He holds that Muslims are "witnesses before mankind"; they must continue to review the fundamental principles of Islam and take responsibility for their faith. With seeming liberality, he avers that for him the "Islamic message" to which Muslims are expected to bear witness is not primarily the particularist, socially conservative code of traditionalist jurists, but a commitment to universalism and the welfare of non-Muslims; it is also an injunction not merely to make demands on un-Islamic societies but to express solidarity with them. These are fine words. Yet as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and Ramadan’s more detailed explications do not always seem in accord with these lofty sentiments.

At all events, he emphasizes a Muslim's responsibility to his community, whether it be Islamic or not. He decries the “us vs. them” mentality that some Muslims have adopted vis-a-vis the West. He also recommends encouraging Muslim scholars in the West who are versed in Western mores, so as not to rely on religious studies that come only from the Islamic world. He wants more Islamic philosophy written in European languages. He thinks that European Muslims' dependence on an imported, "external" Islam, leaves them feeling inadequate and insecure, one of the main causes of alienation from European culture.

Not surprisingly, he is also worried about Western perceptions of Islam. He says the Muslim community has done a poor job of representing itself, allowing westerners to confuse Islam with contingent cultural traits, as well as with current political realities in the Middle East. He believes that many avowedly Islamic countries have governments that betray the principles of Islam. Historically, if I may interject, that Caliphate has not been distinguished by its preference for democratic principles.

In a 2003 French television debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers, a punishment rooted in the Qur’an and stipulated in the sharia provisions known as hudud. Ramadan said that he opposed stoning and that he favored “a moratorium” on such practices, but refused to condemn the stipulation outright. Many observers, including Sarkozy, were outraged. Ramadan later defended his position by arguing that, because it involved religious texts, the law would have to be properly understood and "contextualized." Ramadan argued that in Muslim countries, the simple procedure of "condemning" won't change anything, but with a "moratorium" the way could open for further debate. The problem with the moratorium concept is that it suggests that any lifting of the provision would be temporary. Indeed, it is hard to see how it could be anything else, since stoning is part of the Qur’an. In terms of reason, how could there be any debate about judicial murder?

Adulterers are being stoned in Iran, while homosexuals are being hanged. What are Ramadan's views about homosexuality? In his "What I Believe" he devotes two pages to the subject. As with misogyny, he concedes that the perception of homophobia is damaging the image of Islam in the West. Some way must be found to reduce this harm. Possibly gay Muslim groups--which exist only in the West--can be helpful. However, only heterosexuality ranks as part of the "divine project." Evidently Ramadan sees Muslim homophobia as simply a PR problem. This discussion is a good example of how he tries to have it both ways.

Ramadan wrote an article entitled, “Les (nouveaux) intellectuels communautaires,” which the French newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro refused to publish. did eventually make the text public online. In the article he criticizes a number of French Jewish intellectuals, such as Alexandre Adler, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann and Bernard Kouchner, for allegedly abandoning universal human rights, and giving special status to the defense of Israel. Ramadan was accused, in return, of anti-Semitism and having used inflammatory language.

In her 2009 book "Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan," the French feminist writer Caroline Fourest presented the results of her scrutiny of Ramadan's fifteen books, 1,500 pages of interviews, and approximately 100 recordings. She concludes that "Ramadan is a war leader," and the "political heir of his grandfather," Hassan al-Banna, stating that his discourse is, "often just a repetition of the discourse that Banna had at the beginning of the 20th century in Egypt." She argues that "Tariq Ramadan is slippery. He says one thing to his faithful Muslim followers and something else entirely to his Western audience. His choice of words, the formulations he uses – even his tone of voice – vary, chameleon-like, according to his audience."

Christopher Caldwell, author of an antijihadist book on Muslims in Western Europe ("Reflections on the Revolution In Europe," 2009) describes Ramadan as being "the very embodiment of double language," which Caldwell defines as, "not saying two different things to two different audiences," but, rather, as "preaching a consistent message that will be understood in different ways by two different audiences." According to Caldwell, "When Ramadan speaks of 'resistance," and calls on Muslims everywhere to wage it.." "Europeans... have chosen to believe that... he really means 'reform.' He does not. He means jihad."

The title of Paul Berman’s 2010 book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” deliberately echoes that of Julien Benda’s classic of times past, “The Treason of the Intellectuals.” Berman’s polemic is largely directed against Ramadan, together with those Western writers like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ashe whom he perceived as his dupes. However, Berman's argument is so obsessive and over-the-top that it largely fails in its purpose.

For his part, Ramadan denies contacts with terrorists and other Islamic fundamentalists. He also rejects the claims of anti-Semitism and double talk, ascribing the charges to misinterpretation and an unfamiliarity with his writings. He states: "I have often been accused of this 'double discourse', and to those who say it, I say - bring the evidence. I am quite clear in what I say. The problem is that many people don't want to hear it, particularly in the media. Most of the stories about me are completely untrue: journalists simply repeat black propaganda from the internet without any corroboration, and it just confirms what they want to believe. Words are used out of context. There is double-talk, yes, but there is also double-hearing. That is what I want to challenge." He points out that two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he published an open letter, exhorting Muslims to condemn the attacks and the attackers, and not to "hide behind conspiracy theories.." and that less than two weeks after the attacks he had stated that “The probability [of bin Laden's guilt] is large, but some questions remain unanswered ... But whoever they are, Bin Laden or others, it is necessary to find them and that they be judged,” and that the interview had been conducted before much evidence was publicly available.

Tariq Ramadan's 2009 book "In the Footsteps of the Prophet" is a popular life of the Prophet Muhammad. The author’s main purpose seems to be to familiarize non-Muslims with the ways in which the faithful understand the story of their founder. Yet those looking for something meatier are likely to be disappointed by Ramadan's sentimental hagiography, which corresponds to what one might find in the Muslim equivalent of Sunday Bible school lessons.

The prophet is said to have had respect for animals, saving a litter of puppies, but engages in animal sacrifice. Ostensibly, the prophet respected the religious practices of others, but went about smashing the art of unbelievers and blackmailing his adversaries into converting to Islam. He preached love and forbearance, but ordered the execution of 600 captives. He abhorred slavery, but on capturing a city doled out the women as loot to his army.

An interesting question is this: how much influence does Ramadan actually have in the Islamic world? His audience seems to be mainly non-Muslim Westerners, especially those like Karen Armstrong and John Esposito who have adopted a benign stance towards Islam. Yet in most Western countries 80% of the imams are financed by Saudi Arabia, which means that they are likely to have Wahhabist (fundamentalist) views.

Liberal commentators in the West frequently assert that we know too little about Islam. Point taken. However, the information proffered must not be sanitized. We need to see the dark passages in the overall picture as well as the brighter ones.



Blogger Stephen said...

There are gay groups in the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, and in Turkey, and, I think, in Egypt, all inside dar-al-Islam.

1:36 PM  

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