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Tariq Ramadan interviewed post-Arab spring

We are making a mistake, a very big mistake if we look at what we call the Arab Awakening only by looking at the whole dynamics in political and not in economic terms.

Heather McRobie:  I’d like to begin with the concept of Islamic democratic secularism and the statement in your book, Arab Awakening, that, “at this precise moment Muslims will only have proven the singularity of Islam when they demonstrate its universality.” Could you explain what you mean by this, and the concept of Islamic democratic secularism?

Tariq Ramadan: It’s part of a whole discussion about ethics in my work. I focus on Islamic applied ethics in many fields, and here I am saying that coming back to the Qu’ran and the sunnah as our reference point does not mean that we depend for our ethics on  ‘Islam as opposed to the others’. I look to Islamic ethics to find something that can provide the basis for shared values with other traditions, and ultimately universal values. This ties into the point I made in another book, The Quest for Meaning, that the only way for values to be universal is if they are shared universal values.  My main point is, in this quest for value the aim is not to express your distinctness from others, but about being able to contribute to the discussion of universal value.  What I’m advocating is an intellectual revolution – it’s a different mindset concerning the ethical benchmarks by which we live.

Rosemary Bechler: In Arab Awakening those Islamic values are deployed both as a critique of western values and Arab worlds in their present state. Together they amount to a comprehensive critique of capitalism as a system, a critique which you also find reflected in the Arab Awakening which is the subject of the book. Do you think these seismic processes will take that path and build on that critique?

TR: Unfortunately, some of the theses I put forward in those pages have now been proved all too correct. For example, in the concerns I voiced at the beginning of the book, when I said that I was cautiously optimistic, but that there could be a polarisation with secularism, and that in that polarisation, Islam was avoiding the main questions. The nature of the state is one thing, but there are other major challenges - what it will take to tackle the issues of social corruption, for example, social justice, and the economic system – and what are the future challenges when it comes to equality between the citizens, in particular in the field of the job market and equal opportunity for men and for women? This is at the centre of the question that is the Arab Awakening.

What I see now is that even with the Islamists, who have been portraying themselves as the alternative to corruption and dictatorship and in defence of more transparency, there is one respect in which they have now changed completely. Since the beginning of the 1920’s, Islamism was very close in positioning in some respects to ‘liberation theology’. But that is no longer the case. Now the most important example of the last fifteen years is the move from Erbakan to Erdoğan, creating the Turkish model that has been highly successful in economic terms, but only in fact by buying into and succeeding in being integrated into the global economic system. 

I don’t see anyone today, whether you look at the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda in Tunisia or people working in Libya, or even the Salafi, who have a different position on the economy. The Salafis are now very much involved in politics, having changed their strategies over the last five years. As we know, though they have their own very particular take on the whole political discussion - they are obsessed with the political structure -  they don’t talk about economic dynamics either.  So this is why in Saudi Arabia and Qatar they can be very very powerful at the grassroots level, by being very strict about what is lawful and unlawful in ethical and political and cultural terms. But they are not talking about the economy either.

RB:  Don’t they talk about the need for redistribution? One gets the impressions that the Salafi argument is often more concerned about looking after the poor?

TR: Yes, but within the system.  You can be a very charitable capitalist.  Like Sarkozy was saying, we have to ‘moralise capitalism’, which for me is a contradiction in terms. 

But this is my position and my position is that these questions are not answered or addressed by the movement now.  I think we are making a mistake, a very big mistake if we look at what we call the Arab Awakening only by looking at the whole dynamics in political and not in economic terms.  This brings me back to what George W Bush said in 2003, when they were talking about democratisation. He said that it might be the major challenge for them, not to deal with democracies per se but the challenge of a new economic balance in the region.  I think that this is very important, when you look at the influence of China and India in the region. These are new players here, and they are very efficient. They can compete with the US.

RB: Do you see anyone who is talking about this in the Arab world?

TR: They are talking, in a way they are trying to find a way to get new partners in the region.  For example, one of the first visits of President Morsi after he was elected was to China.  They are looking at the new relationship between Turkey and Egypt which is also important.  So does this just amount to being integrated into the economic order, to stabilise the Egyptian economy. It could be. Or might it be about something deeper than that? I think we have to consider that it is about a deeper challenge.  When I wrote the book I said that for some young Islamists in Tunisia and Morocco and Egypt - the model is Turkey much more than Iran.  When I visited Turkey people were so happy: they were so pleased that I had chosen them as the model. So I had to say, ‘No, you are not my model: what I was saying was that you are the model for some young Islamists’. 

'The Turkish road is not my model because I am critical of the way you are dealing with freedom of expression, of how you are dealing with the treatment of minorities, and your economic vision.’  But at the same time, I say, I’m watching what you are trying to do and I think there are things that are interesting in the Turkish approach, which for the first time in the last decade has started to shift towards the south and the east, opening almost fifty embassies in Africa, and having a new relationship with China.  That is just huge.

So it might be that they are accepting the rules, and understanding that there is a shift towards the east.  There’s a change in Turkey’s positioning vis-a-vis the EU – and now we understand that this was very smart - they used the EU against their own army.  But that doesn’t mean that they were obsessed with the west.  They were trying to find a way to confront the Turkish army with their own contradictions – “you are talking about a secular state but then you want a secular military state, and we want a secular state which is in tune with the requirements of the EU.”  So they simultaneously use the EU against the army and meanwhile, they shift towards the south and the east. That’s interesting.

I don’t like this vision that Turkey is successful because it is as successful as the western powers in economic terms. But I do think they are trying to find a new space in the multi-polar world, and this is what I am advocating.  I don’t think that Muslims have an alternative model. An ‘Islamic economy’ or ‘Islamic finance’ doesn’t mean anything to me. But I do think that in the multi-polar world, it is time to find new partners, to find a new balance in the economic order.  And this could help you to find an alternative way forward. The way that Turkey, for example, is now very close to Egypt, and they are dealing with Malaysia and Indonesia on new terms.  We don’t talk a lot about Indonesia but they are a very important power in the region.  So I think we still have to assess and analyse these dynamics.

H.McR: Many of the developments this summer in the countries of the Arab Awakening spoke to the concerns raised in your book.  Take developments in Tunisia, such as the set-backs and delays in constitution-drafting.  Do you see this as a reversal, the sign that the revolutions are derailing?  Who will the constitutions of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya speak to and who will they speak for?

TR: Yes, the drafting of the constitutions is interesting and the discussions around them revealing in many ways.  I take it as a discussion of very important symbols revealing many different problems.  My take at the beginning was to warn that Tunisia might be the only successful country, the only one to justify us in talking about the spring, while all the other countries were less successful, if not failing. Now the point is that even in Tunisia it is not going to be easy, and this is where we have a problem.  The problem is that the constitution should have been and was an opportunity, exactly as Moncef Marzouki tried to do, to bring together the secularists and Islamists with so many of the same views. What was clear was that they would have been able to find agreement, because Rachid Ghannouchi and Ennahda went so far as to say that they were not going to insist on putting sharia into the constitution. They accepted that this wouldn’t happen, but that instead it would have been couched in terms which had an Islamic point of reference. 

Now the problem is that you have two trends that are in fact objective allies in destablising the whole process of this discussion: on the one side the very secularist elite that is doing everything to paint a picture that they are in danger from ‘the other side’ and on the other hand, the Salafis, who are constantly putting Ennahda on the spot by questioning their religious credentials – ‘who are you? What are you doing? You are just compromising everything.’  And the secularists are saying about Ennahda, ‘they are not clear because they want to please us and they want to please them.’

The secularists are playing a dirty game.  You can be tough on Ennahda’s policy and critical of some unclear statements which have been made, but they are playing games with this and pushing in such a direction is not helping the country to stabilise in such an important year. The constitution is after all talking about the vision for the future of the country. It is the opportunity to create a democracy. And in fact all the Islamists, that is the reformists not the Salafis, now they all say that they want a civil state, a civil state with Islamic reference points. They are not talking about an Islamic state, or sharia in the way this was once understood in the fight against the colonisers, or just afterwards in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. They have changed on this. Now, this meant that there was room for agreement between the different trends. 

But not any more. It’s very difficult now because we have this new integration of the Salafis into the political landscape.  We have to ask questions – who is pushing them and who are these people, who in eight months in Egypt can say ‘democracy is against Islam’, and get 24% in the election.  If you read the Rand Corporation on who supported the Salafis in Egypt, what you learn is that up to 80 million dollars’ worth of support was poured into Egypt before the elections by organisations that are not state, they are very precise on this, but Qatari and Saudi organisations.  So it’s very worrying to see that they are getting the money and they are playing on all the symbols now – religious symbols pitted against your credentials for power, and the Islamists are being put into a situation where they can lose everything.  I wrote a piece in the New York Times which said, Winning might be the beginning of losing, because you might win but you are losing your credibility by being put in this situation of being constantly challenged on religious terms, where you are not improving anything, and of course it takes time to reform a society. 

So the question about the Salafi is an important question as I say in Arab Awakening, and have often  repeated since. Now I am really underlining the importance of this, because we really don’t have very good memories. Remember – the Taliban in Afghanistan were not at all politicised in the beginning. They were just on about education. And then they were pushed by the Saudi and the Americans to be against the Russian colonisation, and as a result they came to be politicised. (They are not exactly like the Salafi because the Salafi think that they need to be re-educated, Islamically-speaking, convinced that they have to follow the prophet in a very literalist way.) But they too were pushed, so that it’s very strange now to see the Salafis being very vocal, sometimes violent, and developing this element now of Salafi jihadists. In fact these jihadists are acting against the interests of every single country – in Tunisia, in Egypt, now all of a sudden in north Mali.

So I would say that it is strange to see the allies of the west pushing such trends that are against the interests of the country, and at the same time, here we all are, celebrating democracy. The problem with Salafis is that they are religiously sincere and politically naïve.  And they allow themselves to be supported by people who have no religious sincerity but who are politically very smart, especially when it comes to their economic interests.

RB: Can we return to our opening question about ‘Islamic democratic secularism’ – a concept that I  first heard about from Egyptian thinker and activist, Heba Raouf Ezzat, who you cite in your book. What she was promoting was very much an anticipation of the combination of non-violence and pluralism and its unforgettable impact on the movement in Tahrir Square.  Is there any chance of that impulse of unity across divisions surviving and being strengthened in this crisis?

TR: The way it was expressed in terms of solidarity in the first phase of the massive demonstrations is not going to survive for long: the people who were thinking this way got perhaps 2, 3, 5% of the votes.  They were marginalised. But still, I think many thinkers and activists, even in the Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the people who left the Muslim Brotherhood to follow Abou el-Fatouh, these people do have an understanding that the relationship between religion and the state must be re-thought and re-assessed.  They’re not going to use the concept of secularism in any straightforward way, because the concept of secularism is still far too loaded in that part of the world.  When Erdogan went there and said ‘don’t be scared of secularists’ the Muslim Brotherhood rejected that outright. 

But in fact without using the term, this is exactly what they are doing.  They are moving towards the very essence of talking about the ‘civil state’ and that is exactly what we are talking about here.  For years they have been talking about civil society, now they have progressed as far as thinking about the civil state.  The ‘civil state’ is what I speak about in the book when I speak about ‘ethics in politics’, which is acknowledging the fact there are two authorities, two powers, two ways of influencing power, and that ethics should inspire the political vision of what is good governance, but that you cannot have an imposition of religion.  I think politics is evolving in that direction, even within segments of Islamism.

RB: Is the dialogue across national borders also important, between Muslims in Europe and in the Middle East, for example?

TR: Yes, there are ongoing discussions about this too.  The problem with what we call the ‘Arab spring’ is that these are very nationalistic experiences.  Tunisians are concerned with Tunisia, Egyptians concerned with Egypt and so on. 

But still I have been invited I don’t know how many times to Turkey, where Turkey has been following very quickly in the footsteps of what is sometimes referred to as the movement of cyber-dissidents. They have been training young people and also encouraging them to come into contact with western Muslims.  What they ask me to talk about is precisely secular democracy and Muslim democracy – this, of course, is what the Turkish government also needs to be selling to the young Islamists in the Arab countries. It is this kind of understanding that they also share with someone like Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia.  So you can see the connections beginning to form. If in the very near future Anwar Ibrahim succeeds in Malaysia, he is positioned as very close to the Turkish experience, and many in the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda have a similar perspective. So there are important relationships across national boundaries.

Remember, after all, that the name of the AKP in Turkey came from Morocco: after a meeting with the people in Morocco they started using the same name. So there are deep connections, and also a great interest in our experience in the west. This is something that they are listening to – very much so – you cannot imagine how much the books that I am writing are sought after by people in Turkey, who are eager to hear what I am saying about our experience of authority, power and the secular system. So this is very important, and it works especially well because I am coming from this background – that is also important. 

About the authors

Tariq Ramadan, a philosopher and writer who is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, has written numerous books advocating the study and re-interpretation of Islamic texts, and working on the position of Muslims in the west and within Muslim majority countries: most recently Arab Awakening (2012) and The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (2010).  He is an advisor to the EU on religious affairs, in particular on “Islam and Secularism”, and also the President of the Euro-Muslim Network, a Brussels-based think-tank. Read a profile of him and interview with openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler.

Heather McRobie is a novelist, journalist, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She has written for Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Foreign Policy, amongst others.  She researches and lectures on public policy at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and previously studied at the University of Oxford, University of Bologna and University of Sarajevo. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature explores the issue of hate speech in literature and the philosophy of freedom of expression.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie 


Rosemary Bechler is the mainsite Editor of openDemocracy.

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