Today's date:
Spring 2008

Here We Are: A Response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University. His forthcoming book is Radical Reform, Islamic Ethics and Liberation.

Oxford -- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch legislator and author of Infidel, has accused the so-called "moderate" Muslims of remaining silent instead of condemning acts done in the name of Islam by individuals or governments.

Surprisingly, I was mentioned among the "moderate" Muslim scholars who did not condemn what happened in Saudi Arabia (the lashing sentence of a female rape victim) or Sudan (the indictment of a grade school teacher for allowing her students to name their teddy bear after the Prophet). All the while, I have been paying the price of my regular criticisms of such kinds of actions these past few years by being banned from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and...the United States.

Let us start first with Hirsi Ali's quotation of the Koran. The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with 100 stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. (Koran 24:2)

What kind of message does she exactly want to convey by quoting a verse referring to corporal punishment? That Islam, per se, is advocating violence? That violent Muslims or the so-called Islamic governments acting undemocratically are in fact genuinely implementing the Islamic message? Through her text, the message becomes clear: Islam is an archaic religion, the Koran is a violent text, and the only way to reform Islam is simply to "de-Islamize" the Muslims.

Would it not be possible to quote here tens of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, the Gospels and the Epistles that are violent without reaching the conclusion that Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity are violent per se? Is it difficult to understand that this is a question of interpretation and that to condemn in such a way a religion, by its very essence, is not only unjust but deeply counterproductive? It does not help the inner dynamic of reforms.

Contrary to what Hirsi Ali said -- that no "moderate" Muslims, and in particular myself, had spoken out in protest over these incidents -- I wrote a piece during the Sudanese story (11/28/07) about the situation in Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia as well as in Sudan. I rejected any kind of victim mentality on the part of Muslims, for it would have easily been possible to claim that the media were once again covering only damaging stories about Muslims and the Islamic majority countries. For Muslims to simply blame this "ongoing campaign against Islam, its Book, its Prophet and its values and practices" is no longer enough.

There comes a time, I wrote before Hirsi Ali's accusation of silence among Muslims, where one should take a hard look at the state of affairs of the legal system in the Islamic majority countries and draw some imperative (and constructive) conclusions. It is simply a shame! In the name of Islam, innocent, poor people and women are accused, jailed, sometimes beaten and sometimes executed with no evidence and, moreover, no way to properly defend themselves. A woman, victim of a rape, becomes the accused in Saudi Arabia while a British teacher is jailed because her students decided to name a teddy bear "Muhammad"! And then, in Algeria, two recent suicide bombings have killed innocent civilians. If all this is done in the name of Islam, where are we heading?

Though it should remain neutral and protect justice and people's rights, in the Islamic-majority countries the judiciary system is often used for political reasons or so-called "religious concerns." The problem is much more serious and deep than the series of stories we have been getting in the media. These countries need profound reform, an imperative reassessment. Let's face it. A rape is a rape. It remains unacceptable to start by blaming the woman. To use and instrumentalize the story of an innocent British teacher to show how much "we care about Islam" is pure nonsense and should be utterly rejected!

It is as if the teacher had become a vehicle through whom a government is showing its dedication toward Islam and for some Muslims to convey their anger toward the West. First, anger is not good in itself; second, to send it through a wrong and unjust means must be condemned. Did not the Prophet Muhammad say: "What is built on wrong foundation is wrong"?

One must ask these Islamic-majority societies to be more consistent with their own values and to stick to justice by refusing to abuse Islam.

They must protect the independence of the judicial system and protect innocent people, poor or rich, Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women equally. We cannot remain silent when we read about such unacceptable situations either in the petromonarchies or in the poor Islamic countries. These actions are not done in the name of one of the accepted interpretations of Islam. Because they are plainly unjust, they are purely anti-Islamic.

My condemnation -- as well as those of many other Muslim scholars around the world -- has apparently not been heard. Unfortunately, global information does not mean efficient communication. In the Western countries as well as in the Islamic-majority countries, we witness a kind of selective hearing. People are invited to listen only to what apparently comforts their prejudices or suits some ideological agenda.

This polarization is dangerous because it engenders enmity. Our world needs more courageous, but also more consistent, voices. The reason why voices such as Hirsi Ali's are not heard in the Islamic-majority countries is not because she raises irrelevant questions (some of her arguments are indeed very relevant) but because her criticisms appear to be obsessive, excessive and unilateral. It is as if she wants to please the West and, yes, the West is pleased. But the Muslims are deaf to her voice.

The future belongs to those who are able to consistently exercise self-criticism in the name of shared universal values and not because of blindly belonging to the artificial construct of "Western" or "Islamic" civilization or because of a hidden ideological agenda.

All betrayals of faith and principles must be denounced with the same energy: those of the Muslims when they kill innocent people, or sentence to jail (or death) poor women, as well as those of democratic Western societies when they illegally invade another country, or use torture or extraordinary renditions. It would be good, indeed, to hear more often these non-selective -- and non-selected -- voices.