Today's date:
Fall 2006

Muslims, the Pope and European Identity

Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe most controversial Muslim scholars, is author of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam and was named by Time magazine in 2005 as among the world's top 100 thinkers and scientists. Famously, he was denied a visa by the US government to teach at Notre Dame University. He is currently professor of Islamic Studies and senior research fellow at Oxford (St Antony's College) and at the Lokahi Foundation ( London). In this article he addresses the role of Muslims in Europe and responds to Pope Benedict.

London — We have ample reason to be concerned. The repeated terrorist attacks throughout the world along with the “war against terror” and the increased tensions concerning immigration have combined to portray Islam as a threat to Western societies.

Fear and its accompanying emotional reactions have become a part of the public mindset. Such reactions, while often legitimate, are also being exploited with increasing frequency for political ends.

Hardly a Western society has been spared its own searing questions of “identity” or its “integration”-related tensions. Muslims find themselves faced with clear-cut alternatives: They can adopt the attitude of the “victim,” or they can face up to their difficulties and become full-fledged subjects of their own History. In the final analysis, their fate is in their hands. Nothing will change until they accept full responsibility for themselves, become constructively critical, and self-critical, and respond to the creeping “evolution of fear” with a firmly grounded “revolution of trust.”

HANDLING FEARS, FACING LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS | Events of recent years have brought Western populations face to face with new realities. The increasingly visible presence of millions of Muslims in their midst has made them aware that their societies have changed. This has given rise to fears, and to questions that are perfectly legitimate, even though they may be expressed with a certain confusion.

Faced with these questions, Muslims must express confidence in themselves, in their ability to live and to communicate with full serenity in Western societies. The revolution of trust for which we appeal will depend on self-confidence, on confidence in one’s convictions. The task is to re-appropriate one’s heritage, and to develop toward it a positive yet critical intellectual attitude affirming that the teachings of Islam summon Muslims to spiritual life and to self-reform. At the same time, Muslim immigrants must respect the laws of the countries in which they reside.

Faced with legitimate fears, Western Muslims cannot simply minimize the questions. They must develop a critical discourse that rejects the victim’s stance and criticizes instead radical, literal and/or culture-bound readings of the sources (Qu’ran and Hadith). It is also important that they do not endorse the confusion that surrounds the debates related to their societies: Social problems are not “religious problems” and have nothing to do with Islam as such.

EXPLOITING FEAR | The arguments that were, yesterday, the sole province of parties of the extreme right have unfortunately found a home within traditional mainstream political parties in Europe. At a loss for creative ideas for promoting cultural pluralism or for combating social ghettoization, numerous politicians prefer the dangerous rhetoric of protecting “identity,” of defending “Western values,” of imposing strict limitations on “foreigners” with, of course, the whole apparatus of new security laws to fight terrorism. The implicit terms of the debate are often reduced to a distinction between two entities: “We, Westerners” and “They, the Muslims,” even when citizens are Muslims.

Racist speech proliferates; the past is reinterpreted so as to exclude Islam from the slightest participation in the creation of the Western identity, henceforth redefined as purely Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian; and immigrants are tested at the border to determine their “moral flexibility.”

In response, Muslim citizens must behave contrary to what would be a natural reaction: Instead of withdrawing into isolation, they must make themselves heard, step out of their religious, social and cultural ghettos and move forward to meet their fellow citizens. The policies of those who exploit fear are intended to create precisely what they claim to combat: By perpetually accusing Muslims of not being integrated and of shutting themselves up in a religious identity, these intellectuals and politicians try to isolate them.

A NEW “WE” | The time for reconciliation is at hand. Muslims must engage with their fellow citizens in reconciling their societies with their own ideals. The task today is to compare the proclaimed ideals of human rights and equality (between men and women, people of different origins, etc.) with the concrete practices that can be observed at the grassroots level. We must bring constructive criticism to bear on our societies, and measure words against deeds.

Our societies are awaiting the emergence of a new “We.” A “We” that would bring together men and women (of all religions and those without religion) who would undertake to resolve the contradictions of their society. Such a “We” would henceforth represent this coming together of citizens who seek to struggle together for their future.

This future is now being played out at the local level. It is a matter of greatest urgency to set in motion national movements of local initiatives in which people of different sensitivities can open new horizons of shared commitment and trust.

Together we must learn to question educational programs, such as ones that offer an exclusive teaching of history. At the risk of touching off a competition for most-wounded victim status, a more objective teaching of “our” History must be made official by integrating the memories of those building the current community. On the social level, we must commit ourselves to a far more thoroughgoing social mixing in both our schools and our cities.

Western societies will not win the battle against insecurity through the sole security-based approach. Social institutions, civic education and job creation are imperative within the cities. The commitment of town councils can make a difference in the struggle against suspicion, and citizens must not hesitate to knock on their doors, to remind them that in a democratic society the elected representative is at the service of the voter, not the opposite.

A revolution of trust and confidence, the birth of a new “We” driven by national movements of local initiatives—such are the contours of a responsible commitment by all citizens. The new “We” lays claim to the benefits of a citizen-based ethic; it wants to promote the Western cultural richness; and it knows that its survival will depend upon a new sense of political creativity.

Citizens must think in the long term, above and beyond the electoral deadlines that paralyze politicians and hinder the formulation of innovative, courageous policies. When the elected official has nowhere to turn, when he no longer can translate his ideas into reality, it falls to the voters, to the citizens, to lay full claim to their ideals, and to make them a reality.

THE POPE AND ISLAM | A few sentences spoken by Pope Benedict XVI were sufficient to touch off a firestorm of impassioned reaction. Throughout the Muslim world, religious leaders, presidents, politicians and intellectuals joined their voices with protesting masses angered by a perceived “insult” to their faith. Most did not read the pope’s speech; others had relied on a sketchy summary according to which the pope had linked Islam and violence. But all railed against what they saw as an “intolerable offense.”

Whatever the judgements of these scholars and intellectuals, one would have hoped that they might adopt a more reasoned approach in their critical remarks, for two reasons. First, the unquestionable sincere love and reverence Muslims have for Prophet Muhammad notwithstanding, we are well aware how certain groups or governments manipulate crises of this kind as a safety valve for both their restive populations and their own political agenda. When the people are deprived of their basic rights and of their freedom of expression, it costs nothing to allow them to vent their anger over Danish cartoons or the words of the pontiff. Secondly, what we are witnessing is, in fact, mass protest characterized primarily by uncontrollable outpouring of emotion which in the process ends up providing a living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception. Muslim intellectuals bear the primary responsibility of not lending credibility to this counterproductive game.

Some, arguing that the pope had offended Muslims, demanded a personal apology. Benedict XVI offered his regrets, but the polemic has not abated. There is ample reason to be startled by an obscure 14th-century quote attributed to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos critical of the “malevolent works” of the Prophet of Islam. Indeed, the pope’s choice of examples in his attempt to take up the relationship between violence and Islam does raise questions, if not eyebrows. Equally surprising was his reference to the Zahiri erudite Ibn Hazm (a respected figure, but whose school of thought is marginal) to raise the issue of Islam and rationality. Perhaps the whole exercise was rather elliptical, lacking in clarity, superficial and even a bit clumsy, but was it an insult for which formal apology should be demanded? Is it either wise or just for Muslims to take offense at the content of the quote—simply because the pope chose it—while ignoring daily questions they faced for the past five years on the meaning of “jihad” and the use of force? Pope Benedict XVI is a man of his times, and the questions he asks of Muslims are those of the day: questions that can and must be answered clearly, with solid arguments. To start with, we must not accept that “jihad” be translated as “holy war.” Our priority should be to explain the principles of legitimate resistance and of Islamic ethics in conflict situations, not to encourage people to protest violently against the accusation that they believe in a violent religion.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the crisis is that the real debate launched by Benedict XVI seems to have eluded most commentators, and particularly Muslim commentators. In his academic address, he develops a dual thesis, accompanied by two messages. He reminds those rationalist secularists who would like to rid the Enlightenment of its references to Christianity that these references are an integral component of European identity; it will be impossible for them to engage in interfaith dialogue if they cannot accept the Christian underpinnings of their own identity (whether they are believers or not). Then, in taking up the question of faith and reason, and in emphasizing the privileged relationship between the Greek rationalist tradition and the Christian religion, the pope attempts to set out a European identity that would be Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reason. Islam, which has apparently had no such relationship with reason, would thus be foreign to the European identity that has been built atop this heritage. A few years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger set forth his opposition to the integration of Turkey into Europe on a similar basis. Muslim Turkey never was and never will be able to claim an authentically European culture. It is another thing; it is the Other.

These are the messages that cry out for an answer, far more than talk of jihad. Pope Benedict XVI is a brilliant theologian who is attempting to set down the principles and the framework of a debate on the past, present and future identity of Europe. This profoundly European pope is inviting the peoples of the continent to become aware of the central, inescapable Christian character of their identity, which they risk to loose. The message may be a legitimate one in these times of identity crisis, but it is deeply troubling and potentially dangerous in its double reductionism and in the definition of European identity.

This is what Muslims must, above all, respond to; they must challenge a reading of the history of European thought from which the role of Muslim rationalism is erased, in which the Arabo-Muslim contribution would be reduced to mere translation of the great works of Greece and Rome. The selective memory that so easily “forgets” the decisive contributions of “rationalist” Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th century), Averroes (12th century), al-Ghazali (12th century), Ash-Shatibi (13th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14th century) is reconstructing a Europe that is not only a deception, but practices self-deception about its own past. If they are to reappropriate their heritage, Muslims must demonstrate, in a manner that is both reasonable and free of emotional reactions, that they share the core values upon which Europe and the West are founded.

Neither Europe nor the West can survive, if we continue to attempt to define ourselves by excluding, and by distancing ourselves from, the Other—from Islam, from the Muslims—whom we fear. Perhaps what Europe needs most today is not a dialogue with other civilizations, but a true dialogue with itself, with those facets of itself that it has for too long refused to recognize, that even today prevent it from fully benefiting from the richness of its constituent religious and philosophical traditions. Europe must learn to reconcile itself with the diversity of its past in order to master the imperative pluralism of its future. The pope’s reductionism has done nothing to help this process of reappropriation along: a critical approach should not expect him to apologize but it must simply and reasonably prove to him that historically, scientifically, and ultimately, spiritually, he is mistaken. It would also give today’s Muslims a way of reconciling themselves with the immense creativity of the European Muslim thinkers of the past, who 10 centuries ago were confidently accepting their European identity (not obsessed by the ongoing sterile debates on “integration”) and who deeply contributed to, nourished and enriched with their critical reflection both Europe and the West as a whole.