Europe's Muslims Show the Way
Tariq Ramadan has become one of Europe's most controversial figures as he has attempted to bridge the gap between Muslims and the mainstream in France. His latest book is Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2003). Time listed him last year as among the world's top 100 thinkers and scientists.
Though he was appointed Henry R. Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, the US government revoked his visa.
Ramadan spoke from Geneva with NPQ about the two French hostages taken in Iraq. Accompanying this interview is a commentary by Ramadan about the US revocation of his visa.
NPQ | All previous hostages taken in Iraq by Islamist groups have been allied in some way with United States policy there. But two journalists from France—the main country that opposed the US war in Iraq—were taken by a group calling itself the Islamic Army. They demanded the end of the headscarf ban in France.
Does this signify a new stage of global terrorism that fuses the struggle against US policies in the Middle East with a radical opposition to Western secularism? After all, Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, denounced the headscarf ban at the time it was passed by the French parliament earlier this year, saying France was "defending decadence" and joining the "crusader hatred" of Islam.
Tariq Ramadan | My fear is that people like Al Qaeda's Ayman Zawahiri at the global level are combining at the local level with a group like the Islamic Army of Iraq, which kidnapped the French journalists. Both have the same agenda: using anti-Western rhetoric and acts of terror to promote a break between Islam and the West. By attacking the headscarf ban in France, they are using an argument that is emotionally appealing to Muslims around the world who feel oppressed by the West, and especially by this new law in France, which is seen widely as anti-Muslim.
Zawahiri and the Islamic Army of Iraq want to leverage this emotional appeal to bring Muslims over to their binary way of thinking—that the world is divided between "us and them."
My fear is that, sometimes, this works. Even though France stood with the Arabs against the Iraq war, it was nonetheless condemned as anti-Islam several months later when the headscarf ban was proposed. The headscarf issue has not been critically understood by the common person but has been engulfed with emotions and passions.
This does not mean the average Muslim accepts kidnapping and the killing of hostages. No. But at the same time there is a growing acceptance of the perception—an atmosphere, something in the air—that there is an "us" and a "them" in today's world. This kind of attitude is disastrous.
NPQ | How should France or other Western governments respond to these kidnappings? How should Muslims in France and the rest of the West respond?
Ramadan | Western governments should not give in to this kind of blackmail. This is not acceptable. Western Muslims must not only reject out of hand any sympathy for kidnappings and hostage-taking, but also the poisonous "binary" view of the world.
Western Muslims must be explicit if they want to be understood both by their own society and by their fellow Muslims—a tricky situation. To tell the truth, to be an American Muslim critical of American policy in the Middle East, you are treated as if you are not truly loyal to your country. People say you are more Muslim than American. My view is that a true citizen speaks his mind constructively in a free society. In fact, America and Europe should take advantage of the Muslim presence to learn how to deal with the Muslim world at large.
At the same time, Western Muslims must spread the message that "we live in democracy, we respect the state of law, we respect open political dialogue and we want this for all Muslims." We are not betraying our Muslim principles by embracing an open society. We embrace secularism because it enables us all to live together. It is the condition of religious freedom—ours and others'.
Western Muslims have a great deal of responsibility toward the future of the Islamic world, which their experience can shape. There can be countless models, but the principles are universal: the rule of law, equal citizenship irrespective of religion, universal suffrage, accountability of leaders.
NPQ | How should pious Muslims who oppose the headscarf ban in France cope with it?
Ramadan | I was against passage of this law. But now that this law against "religious symbols" in public schools—including the headscarf—has been passed, it is the law. If you are a French citizen, and a Muslim, you can continue through democratic dialogue to try to ﬁnd a way that accommodates both the law and Islamic faith.
For example, you can push for an interpretation of the law which allows Muslim girls to wear "discreet" head coverings that are not a sign of fundamentalist sympathies but only of respecting one's religion, of freedom of conscience. For example, why not a bandana that covers only the hair? Women who are not Muslims wear that all the time.
No one should be able to force a woman to wear hijab or not to wear it. Above all, it would be a mistake to ban women from the mainstream public school system—the opposite result of what the law intends, which is integration according to the principles of French citizenship. And Muslims should not seek to protect themselves in some kind of a defensive, parallel school system which isolates them in a ghetto from the rest of society, creating a sort of schizophrenia. Rather, Muslims should complement the mainstream institutions in other ways with spiritual aspects of their own culture.
But Muslims must be clear to their fellow citizens and Muslims around the world: We are respecting the law, even if we disagree with it. We have to stand with the French government. Outside interference by the likes of Ayman Zawahiri and the Islamic Army of Iraq is unacceptable.
NPQ | After the Madrid bombings and now the kidnappings of the French journalists, do you expect a backlash against Muslims in Europe?
Ramadan | Yes. The backlash is already here. The atmosphere is electric, with a great deal of suspicion toward Muslims. It seems the same in America: My visa for a longstanding professorship at Notre Dame was suddenly revoked because of "suspicions" about my activities and connections.
But Muslims should not indulge in victimization. We should not be on the defensive and isolate ourselves. We have to refuse to be potential suspects. We are Muslims and believe in what we believe. We are citizens. Condemn what is wrong, promote what is right.
The Truth About Me: The US Was Wrong to Revoke My Visa
Geneva—In 20 years of studying and teaching philosophy, I have learned to appreciate the inherent difficulty in defining and recognizing "the truth." Descartes put it simply: "A clear and distinct idea is true," while Kant aptly added the needed "consistency."
Over the years, I have also learned that in the world of communication and mass media, "truth" is not firstly based on clarity, but rather on frequency. Repeated hypotheses or suspicions become a truth; a three-time repeated assumption imperceptibly becomes a fact. There is no need to check because "it is obvious"—after all "it is being said everywhere."
I have been reminded of this lesson, when after having been granted a visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame by the United States government, it was revoked—without explanation—at the last moment, causing grief for my family and me.
I remain in Switzerland, hoping this mistake will be rectified and reflecting on how I am constantly being told "the truth" about who I am: "You are a controversial figure"; "you engage in double talk, delivering a gentle message in French and English and a radical, even extremist one in Arabic or to Muslim audiences in private"; "you have links with extremists"; "you are an anti-Semite"; "you despise women," etc.
When I ask about the source of this information, invariably the response is: This is well-known; check the Internet and you will find thousands of pages referencing it.
A closer examination reveals that what we have are journalists and intellectuals quoting each other, infinitely repeating and conclusively reporting what others said yesterday with caveats. Rather than being an occasion for reflection, the response to this finding is: "Well, there has to be some truth in all that." Strange truth indeed!
I have written 20 books and 700 articles, and 170 audio tapes of my lectures are circulating. I ask my detractors: Have you read or listened to any of this? Can you prove the "links" to terrorists? To repeat allegations is not to prove. Where is the evidence of my "double talk"? Have you read the articles in which I call upon fellow Muslims to unequivocally condemn radical views and acts of extremism?
What about my statements, issued on Sept. 12, 2001, calling upon Muslims to loudly condemn the terrorist attacks, and to acknowledge that some Muslims betray the Islamic message? What about the articles in which I condemn anti-Semitism and criticize Muslims who do not differentiate between the political dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the unacceptable temptation to reject Jews because they are Jews?
Are you familiar with my chapters and lectures promoting women's rights and a revival leading to an Islamic feminism, and rejecting every kind of mistreatment and all sorts of discrimination?
Finally, are you acquainted with my extensive study of the Islamic scriptural sources and efforts to promote a new understanding, a way for Muslims to remain faithful to their principles and, at the same time, face the challenges of the world?
To seek "the truth," one must read, listen carefully, double check for clarity and consistency, and be willing, if for a moment, to be objective. Very often, I encounter individuals, even academics, who are not familiar with my writings or speeches but have formed a strong opinion of me. When their baseless allegations are refuted, their final argument is, "Well, aren't you the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood?" This is taken as sufficient proof of the accusations.
My response is: Is one to be judged by another's words and deeds? Are one's thoughts genetically transmitted? Do one's morals and ethics descend from the vices or virtues of one's pedigree?
This obsession with my genealogy is frankly disconcerting, for it is dismissive. Those focused on my genealogy ought to examine my intellectual pedigree, which along with my grandfather and father includes Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche, among others.
They should examine my academic contributions and the years I spent traveling and working in partnership and on the ground with Dom Helder Camara, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Abbot Pierre and the countless ordinary South Americans, Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans, Christians and Jews, agnostics and atheists. For 20 years, each has educated me, nourished my soul, shaped my mind and strengthened my conviction. That, and not my genetic heritage, is my life's legacy!
Along the way, I realized something was missing in Kant and Descartes' way of speaking about truth. Clarity and consistency are not enough: The quest for truth requires deep humility and uncompromising effort. My experience of living with people of diverse religions and cultures taught me that one will never be at peace with the other if one is at war with oneself.
This simple truth is the essence of my message to Muslims throughout the world: Know who you are, who you want to be, and start talking and working with who you are not. Find common values, and build with fellow citizens a society based on diversity and equality.
The very moment you understand that being a Muslim and being American or European are not mutually exclusive, you enrich your society. Promote, from where you are, the universal principles of justice and freedom, and leave each society to ﬁnd its model of democracy based on its collective psychology and cultural heritage.
The path ahead is long and difficult, and our collective success hinges on breaking out of our intellectual ghettos, collaborating beyond our narrow belongings and fostering mutual trust without which living together is nearly impossible. The quest for truth individually and collectively demands research, never judging without studying, clarity, consistency, trust, humility and perseverance.
My move to America and my post at the University of Notre Dame were to have enabled me to promote and to share this message with the Muslim communities in that country and beyond. Is this a threatening contribution? Is it not a needed and urgent message in America in the post-Sept. 11 world?