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A bridge across fear: an interview with Tariq Ramadan

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is main site Editor of openDemocracy.

“I want to go beyond the perception that I am only different from you, or that difference is the beginning and the end.” In an interview of remarkable range and frankness, the influential Swiss–Egyptian philosopher, teacher and writer Tariq Ramadan talks to Rosemary Bechler of openDemocracy about his life’s project: bringing Muslims and Europe home to each other.

openDemocracy: What is the personal background to your attempt to elaborate a fully European Islam?

Tariq Ramadan: I come from a family where everything was drenched in I

“I want to go beyond the perception that I am only different from you, or that difference is the beginning and the end.” In an interview of remarkable range and frankness, the influential Swiss–Egyptian philosopher, teacher and writer Tariq Ramadan talks to Rosemary Bechler of openDemocracy about his life’s project: bringing Muslims and Europe home to each other.

openDemocracy: What is the personal background to your attempt to elaborate a fully European Islam?

Tariq Ramadan: I come from a family where everything was drenched in Islamic references, where my parents were totally involved in trying to live and teach as Muslims.

During the first twenty–three years of my life in Switzerland, I visited Egypt many times, and my sole dream was to return to what I considered my home country. But slowly I began to feel that I belonged elsewhere. I was linked to the principles of Islam, but culturally I was much more European.

Ten years after I got married, I decided to take my children with me to Egypt and study the Islamic sciences. When I returned, I had the constant feeling that something was missing. I talked to many people who wanted to remain Muslim, but who felt an intimate contradiction between the wish and the practice: how can we be Muslim? Especially in France, the pressures on them were very strong; the headscarf issue started there as early as 1989.

I realised that we needed two things: a rooted understanding of our religion, and a deeper understanding of the western environment. I started by exploring the Islamic teachings, rules and principles from within and to extract from them what was “universal”. This was also a personal odyssey: remaining a Muslim in Switzerland meant that I could no longer simply draw on an Egyptian “belonging”.

I needed to explain two things, both to myself and to others. First, how was it possible to live these universal principles in a new context; second, how to link the insights from my study of western philosophy and political sciences to our universal values, preserving them at the same time as having a personality totally rooted in the European?

I soon realised that there were major obstacles, beginning with a very superficial understanding of Islam. To remain a good Muslim in Europe, one felt obliged to be a Pakistani Muslim or a North African Muslim. This was a real limitation for me. But at the same time, it was an experience I shared with the grassroots Muslim organisations, Muslim leaders and the people they led.

openDemocracy’s Europe & Islam debate contains a wealth of perspectives and arguments – from Ahdaf Soueif to Nelcya Delanoe, Gilles Kepel to Fuad Nahdi, Cem Őzdemir to Mona Abaza, Tariq Modood to Usman Sheikh

To create bridges between these two realities is to risk being criticised by both sides. But the great majority of Muslim organisations – in what I call a silent revolution – are facing this challenge. Among them are many Muslim women. During the last year, I trained more than 300 Muslim leaders, many of them women. It is going to be difficult and slow, but this is the future – because it is the only way to respect ourselves and the Other too.

When people like what I am doing they say: “your ideas are great; but you are alone!” When they don’t like it they say: “be careful of this man because behind him there are huge numbers of people!” The reality is that I am at the forefront of a process that is coming from the Muslim leaders themselves.

A matter of perception

openDemocracy: Your project seems to lead in two different directions. First, it involves reforms you would like to see in western countries. Second, it requires an auto–critique of the Muslim “way of life” in its broadest sense. So you are walking a rather precarious tightrope, where you risk alienating people on all sides?

Tariq Ramadan: Yes, but the main focus of my critique is not European societies, where I see no obstacle to Muslims remaining Muslim, but on the way that Muslims’ behaviour is governed by scriptural sources and a legal inheritance which has to be revisited. The question is: how should we read these sources, this legacy?

What I call the reformist school of thought is not the literalist, the traditionalist, or the rationalist one, or the Sufi version of the reformist path. Its central argument within the Islamic diversity of thinking is that because we live in a new context it is imperative that we reconsider our sources. We argue that we must grasp the texts and the contexts at one and the same time.

For over fifteen years, I have tried to assess what room is available within the Islamic legacy to extract new thoughts and interpretations without sacrificing respect for our Qu’ran and the prophetic tradition. Not everything has yet been revealed. I believe that this silence, which encourages us to be creative, is coming from God. I am not alone here; a whole religious and prophetic tradition tells us that it is from mercy that God remains silent on some subjects.

Moreover, our new environment in Europe or the United States helps us to reread the sources. This is not, as some may think, an attempt to westernise Islam. As I see it, what I am doing is translating sharia, searching out the way towards faithfulness. This is not a question of law for me, but a way of remaining faithful to my beliefs and principles. This is my first and main concern.

My secondary focus is on the way that this new phase for Muslims in Europe and the United States raises a question beyond integration, namely how we could be a richness for our societies and make a real contribution. This task has nothing to do with a critique of western mores. What I am saying, rather, is that if you have principles, you also have an ethical code which arises from those principles. We can use those ethics as active citizens, to help work for the future betterment of “my society”.

What prevents us from becoming totally involved in our societies today is not legal frameworks, but a matter of perception. The very bad perception of Muslims determines the way that people read the law. If that perception changed, there is considerable latitude in European countries to respect Muslims – including their belief in their worship, and the practice of their faith.

Four principles of Islamic identity

openDemocracy: You draw attention to a trap in thinking about Muslims: “the dualist or binary approach”. Could you say more about this?

Tariq Ramadan: In our tradition there is an emphasis on “us” versus “them”. This was perfectly normal as part of the geo–strategic reality during the Middle Ages. If you compare models, societies, even dress, such a polarisation can always be found. It is not just wrong in today’s world; the message from our sources suggests that this is not the right approach. A superficial reading of models could lead to binary conclusions, but my reading of the sources is that their principles remain the same, even though their translation into any given culture or language may be different. If we go right back to the principles, we find that we have something in common.

For example, I say that the west today, indeed the whole world, is Dar al–Shahada (the space where we bear testimony). The message to Muslims is: remain a Muslim if you want; bear witness to the message of your religion before people; this is as urgent in Europe as it is anywhere else! But I want to go beyond the perception that I am only different from you, or that difference is the beginning and the end. Yes, I am “different”. But it is simply not sustainable to live with this notion that as citizens we differ more than we have in common.

Within the Muslim community, it is my profound experience that such attitudes lead to psychological problems. Young Muslims in literalist groups are told: “Europe is not your home. It is Dar al–Harb (the realm of war). Its people are not Muslims”. These people are defining Muslim identity in opposition, so that the less you are westernised the more you are Muslimised. They then require you to build your identity against others, not relying first and foremost on your own principles.

This is why it is so important to say that the Muslim identity is not based on superficial principles. In my book To Be a European Muslim I showed how the four principles of Islamic identity are totally open: grace, practice and spirituality; religion (understanding the text and the context); education and transmission; action and participation.

For openDemocracy’s discussion of the problems of Muslims in Switzerland, see:

  • Francis Piccand, “Islam in Switzerland: dialogue between cultures”
    (January 2003)
  • Francis Piccand and Amira Hafna al–Jabaji, “Islam in Switzerland: the discussion”
    (January 2003)

You can have any cultural dress – European, African, American or Asian – but these principles are open. I can come to Switzerland, or to French culture or literature, and take ownership of everything that does not contradict these principles. This reaches beyond the binary vision. I refer to it as the “principle of integration”. Everything which is good is mine; if you have a bad idea, it remains yours! The source of a good idea doesn’t matter: what is important is that it is good. This is what we need to understand first about our practical and daily lives.

openDemocracy: Is this where you identify another trap, in relation to diversity, one you characterise as “minority thinking”?

Tariq Ramadan: When you live in the European landscape and come to understand its social fabric, you are not a minority citizen. You are, simply, a citizen. This is where we must affirm that we have values that come from the Islamic tradition, and that these values are held in common with our fellow–citizens and with the whole of society. When I call for social justice to remove racism and discrimination from European societies, I am invoking majority not minority values.

I spend a lot of time with green parties, discussing bio–ethics, social justice, discrimination and racism, precisely because I understand these problems we have in common. I am speaking here as a citizen – the same as you, and as much as you.

I think that governments, and indeed the majority of the population, often try and push Muslims into speaking and feeling as minorities. The European Council for Fatwa and Research, set up in 1997, is an example. It has proposed something called fiqh al–aqalliyyat (the law and jurisprudence of minorities). I have a real doctrinal problem with this notion. There is no such thing as a minority answer and a different majority answer. We have to speak as citizens.

A dialogue in pluralism

openDemocracy: You talk a lot about dialogue. Is a real exchange between Muslims and non–Muslims as important to you as that within the Muslim community? Is this the basis of your criticism of faith–based schools?

Tariq Ramadan: I spent the summers of my youth working with solidarity organisations, alongside Christians, Buddhists, Jews – in India, Africa and South America. I learned from this experience how essential it is to detach yourself from your own viewpoint, to see your own starting–point in perspective – and to require the same of your interlocutor. Only if this is possible is dialogue meaningful.

I am totally against the concept of tolerance. It too often means: “I accept that you are here, because I have no choice. I ignore you, but I suffer your presence.” This is no way forward. Respect means mutual knowledge, and not only what you can glean from the other’s holy book. No one can ever “know” me by reading the Qu’ran. Some Muslims merely glance at the Bible and point to what they see as horrible discrepancies. But the point is that the book is the book; the reading of the book is something else. Osama bin Laden is reading the same book as me: but not in the same way!

openDemocracy profiles the militant Antwerp leader Dyab Abou Jahjah and explains the background of his Arab European League:

  • Dirk Jacobs, “Receive or take rights” (October 2003)
  • Nick Ryan, “Between fire and sword: Antwerp’s choice” (May 2004)
  • Rosemary Bechler, “Everyone is afraid: the world according to Abou Jahjah” (May 2004)

Of course, culture can also be a problem, and sometimes hard to know how to deal with. If you become obsessed by these cultures, your fellow–citizens begin to get jumpy. But people need to understand that all these north Africans or Pakistani people amongst us present no kind of risk for the dominant culture, but an asset, because diversity is so vital.

Islamic values and universal rights

openDemocracy: When there is a contest between Islamic values and the human rights principles enshrined in some European constitutions, which take priority?

Tariq Ramadan: When you reach the level of universality, priority or precedence doesn’t work. So, if you ask me whether or not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as universal as these Islamic values we are talking about – I will tell you “yes – no problem!”. The only problem for Muslims concerns the precise way you apply these principles.

The universal declaration specifies that someone can change his or her religion. People often say that this is not permitted in Islam. There are arguments on both sides, and there are Islamic scholars and ulam who say that it is possible. I agree with them: you cannot label or categorise universality.

I was against the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights – especially when each paragraph ends “according to the sharia”. At the level of universality, “western” and “Islamic” values are converging. For me, justice and equality come from my Islamic teaching: it has reached the level where these universal values are the same for you as they are for me.

openDemocracy: But doesn’t this evade some of the most controversial legal and moral questions where Islam as a political system, including the sharia, conflicts with western values?

Tariq Ramadan: What is “Islam as a political system”? All the concepts I use have a very specific definition. Sharia, by my definition, is not law. We must think about the law when trying to be faithful to a specific goal; but sharia is something extracted by human rationality in order to pave the way towards faithfulness. Here I reject the notion of al-fiqh (the body of law) coming first. It is not first for me.

One interpretation of our laws asserts that during a famine it is not possible to apply the punishment of cutting off of hands. Some Muslims see in this a proof that laws can adapt or improve. My point is different: that this ruling was saying that in the name of our goals, the literal understanding of this rule was wrong. This is a system of values, and not a “political system”.

Within this whole system, I differentiate between principles and models. For example, from the Greek concept of democracy we take at least four principles: state of law; equal citizenship; universal suffrage and accountability – the main universal principles in the western model of democracy. These four principles can also be extracted from Islam, merging at that point with the universality of this system.

I want to sustain these four principles, but to elaborate specific models in the Islamic world that respect them. Every society should respect its culture, its memory and its collective psychology. A specific model that embodies established, respected principles is the aim.

This is what I say to the literalists (such as the Hizb ut–Tahrir): “what is this political system you talk about?” We have to respect some universal principles, but there is no Islamic state. To imitate what was done in 7th century Medina is not only a dream. It is a lie. You cannot do that now.

openDemocracy: The western European democratic tradition was born of a confrontation with religion, the Judeo–Christian tradition. Many who respect your clear opposition to literal readings of sharia law and to autocratic regimes in the world of Islam might feel that you create problems for your followers by avoiding this?

Tariq Ramadan: This is a selective interpretation that ignores the part played by the Protestant tradition, emphasised by Max Weber. Western democracies were indeed all founded through a reaction against religion, but religions too fed into this reality.

In any case, any attempt now or in the future to cut Muslim communities off from their religious frame of reference will fail. Look at Europe and America today. When Muslims arrived there, many believed they would be assimilated and forget all about religion in two or three generations. Exactly the opposite is happening. People are returning to their religious roots. So, face reality!

You can, if you want, try to persuade people that to live in a democracy means putting their religion aside. But they will tell you that they are not ready to do that. I am not ready to do that. I was born here. I have studied western philosophy. I feel myself totally integrated into western society. But I don’t want to forgo my tradition.

Is it possible to find new answers that help me to be at once totally Muslim and totally a citizen? I say: yes, but by recognising that my involvement in society is based not on religion, but on a specific ethics.

The Europeans you invoke are actually doing the same thing. They could be agnostic, atheist, Marxist, Christian, or Jewish; nourished by their convictions in their daily lives as citizens. So am I; so what is the problem? I am trying to take from my convictions, values and ethics things that help me to be totally involved in my society. That is what I mean by the ethics of citizenship.

openDemocracy authors debate the arguments over France’s ban on religious apparel in schools:

  • Johannes Willms, “France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?” (February 2004)
  • Patrick Weil, “A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf” (March 2004)
  • Svend White, “Hijab hysteria: France and its Muslims” (April 2004)

How would it work? An example is the way that certain British Muslims instruct others to vote only for Muslims. This “communitarian” approach is common throughout Europe and America. But I argue the exact opposite. In the name of your tradition, you have to find those people who are most competent, who are accountable, and have the deepest integrity. These values are not in contradiction with Islam, but more than that, they are totally rooted in the tradition of citizenship in this country. So you have to vote for a Muslim or non-Muslim having these qualities. This is what an ethics of citizenship is.

The relevant point is not where I come from in proposing this point, but where I am leading people to: the understanding that they are part of these societies.

The public and the private

openDemocracy: Doesn’t your emphasis that you can be simultaneously a good Muslim and a good citizen re–import the very “privatisation” of religion that is – standard in western, but not Muslim, societies? Doesn’t it in turn put you at odds with a lot of Islamic teaching?

Tariq Ramadan: This perception of private and public spheres is not mine. In the western public sphere today, religion is visible (should it be less visible, by the way?), as are values, dogma, and practices that pertain to the most intimate aspects of people’s private life. These need to be respected, but so must the collective rationality that as a whole constitutes the public sphere.

In this regard, there is absolutely no problem within Islam. From Islam’s very beginnings, there is a clear distinction between the sphere of worship (the relationship to God) and the public sphere (the relationship to people). There is a distinction in Islam, but there is no divorce.

So, when living as a European citizen, I respect the public sphere; and there I am nourished and inspired by my own convictions. I am with God on Friday, but also on Saturday, on Sunday and on Monday – not by imposing dogmas, but by having a certain way of life faithful to my ethics. I am speaking from within and trying to be consistent. Consistency is the best way to live.

The main problem for Muslims now is that their practices are more visible than those of Christians or Jews. Take the month of Ramadan: if we were to meet in October or November, it would not be possible for me to sit with you here. It is visible that I am practising my religion. Am I then a threat to the public sphere? Not at all. The public sphere, after all, is not telling you to be invisible. It is saying only that you must respect the collective rationality organising our sphere. I am doing that.

True, I can be criticised by Muslims, but my challenge is in speaking to the Salafi, the traditionalists or some other radical groups, from within. I invite them to tell me their problems, so that I can quote the verses of the Qur’an, the hadith, and ask them to give me their further proofs. Today, any credence I possess within the Muslim community comes directly from that encounter.

The French culture wars

openDemocracy: There has been a barrage of criticism directed against you in France. The reaction to your statement, Criticism of the New Communitarian Intellectual, included accusations of anti–semitism. Your partnership with the anti–globalisation movement was also a target. How do you read this?

Tariq Ramadan: For the last ten years I have criticised every slight manifestation of anti–semitism in the name of Islam. An American journalist who spent a week with me testified that at the very moment I was called “anti-semitic”, I characterised such attitudes as un-Islamic before thousands of Muslims.

It must be possible for us to be critical towards Israel without becoming Judeo–phobic or anti–semitic (or indeed, Islamophobic in the case of criticism of Saudi Arabia). I can’t stress this enough. I give no support towards any kind of anti–semitism or racism. There is no hierarchy between racisms. We have to struggle against every manifestation of this stuff.

I knew that Criticism of the New Communitarian Intellectual would provoke a reaction, although I had no idea that it would be so extreme – five months of constant barracking, without pause. (Its title did not, by the way, mention the word “Jewish”, and I knew that Pierre-Andre Taguieff at least – the person who said “three million Muslims represent three million potential extremists” – was not himself Jewish.)

What I wanted to point out was that these erstwhile universalist intellectuals were now becoming communitarian in a quite specific way, and targeting the Muslim community as the source of a new anti–Semitism in Europe. The last sentence of my concluding paragraph was quite clear: “The future belongs to those who from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist agora will rise up from their respective communities, and come together on a common ground against any and every form of racism.”

The accusation of anti–semitism that immediately descended on me did not achieve its purpose with my anti–globalisation partners. Its authors then found fresh ammunition in my grandfather and brother, then in my views on women and feminism, finally in my relationship with radical groups. Instead of answering my challenge to them, they sought to destroy me.

After what happened to me in the last five months, many Muslims are thinking and saying: “If they don’t want to speak to you – they won’t speak to any of us!” They know how much I am criticised from within the Muslim community by its more literalist elements.

The question now is how to move on from this simplistic branding? A start lies in the way that this article has helped me to carry some clarifying distinctions and formulations into the Muslim community – as well as to articulate the ground where we have to stand up for our rights, and not let ourselves be victimised. This was a really formative period: in many ways, a great experience!

America, Europe and the future

openDemocracy: You will soon begin a professorship at Notre Dame University in the United States. What new opportunities does this afford you?

Tariq Ramadan: For the last five years I have been very involved in American Muslim organisations, and particularly Afro–American organisations. These are very important for me. But I will remain close to the reality of Europe as director of a new programme – “Religion, Conflict and Peace–building” – and maintain my office in Paris. Indeed it is vital that these contrasting western experiences are put side by side. This is what I want: to bring people from Europe together with those in North America two or three times a year to arrive at a shared understanding of how we can change things.

This is the future! Of course, I don’t know how long I will stay, because it is not necessarily that easy for a Muslim to live in North America nowadays. Let’s see how it goes.

Photographs by Michael Rebehn, design by Simon Tickner for openDemocracy.

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