BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN
Friday, November 1, 2013
Last week, The Brunei Times sat down with Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born academic and philosopher, hailed as one of the world’s leading Muslim intellectuals. Born to Egyptian parents in Geneva, Ramadan’s grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. His father, Said Ramadan, was also a prominent figure in the Brotherhood, until his exile to Switzerland in the 1960s. A self-described “Salafi reformist”, Ramadan has advocated the study and re-interpretation of Islamic texts and promoted reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and the West. He is currently a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, as well as a visiting professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam’s Sultan Omar `Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies, and director of the Research Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Qatar.
Q: Recently, Brunei announced the introduction of Syariah criminal law and there has been a very negative reaction, particularly in the Western media. Why do you think the Western perception of syariah is so overwhelmingly negative, especially when there seems to be a dearth of understanding of what syariah actually means?
A: Because of what happened over the past few years in the name of syariah in many Muslim countries. So the perception is that syariah is just the penal code. [They think] it’s not about justice, about fairness, it’s not about social justice, education – it’s just about punishment. And punishment if you see what happened in some Muslim majority countries that have corporal punishment, [such as] stoning – the perception is that syariah is this.
So Brunei is going towards implementing something that is perceived in the West as very narrow, strict, harsh penal code. I think on the side of Brunei, if you use the concept of syariah it creates controversy everywhere because this is the understanding. In fact, if you just look at what is happening in the [United] States, you have 22 states where there was an anti-syariah bill saying we don’t want syariah to be implemented. And for them it has everything to do with discrimination and harsh punishment.
We have to explain what syariah is. It is not only law, it’s an understanding of life, life and death. It’s based on education and justice. All this is syariah. Syariah is to respect the dignity of the people, the integrity of the person, the religions in society, pluralism – all that. The penal code should be understood as something that has very, very high and demanding conditions to be implemented. The problem is if you use the term without explaining, you are nurturing negative perception. [It is] very superficial – not superficial – but very emotional reaction to what we understand. So this is why we need to have a better understanding and to spread more knowledge about what it is. And this is why you had such a negative reaction around the world.
Q: There are many religious minorities in Brunei – Buddhists, Christians and other groups. With the implementation of syariah how are the rights of minorities still protected? Because under certain provisions there are still exceptions where non-Muslims can be prosecuted under syariah law, such as zina (adultery) with a Muslim partner?
A: Well this is exactly the point. I haven’t read the whole bill so I don’t know how it’s going to be implemented. But if this is the only reference to syariah without knowing all this, then it’s something that could be worrying because you have thirty per cent of the people are not Muslim, so they need to know how they are going to be protected within the law. So I don’t know if the bill is giving us a clear understanding of it. I haven’t read that, but I think that this is the starting point. I launched a call about 10 years ago suspending the [three punishments in the] penal code. The three things – stoning, the death penalty and corporal punishment. Saying to the Muslim-majority countries, you first have to start with what is the beginning [of Syariah] – social justice, education for all, protection of citizenships, whatever is religion. This is what we have to start with. So when you come now with this bill you have to be very clear on what this means and if there is something which is not clear, you cannot hope that the people are going to react positively if they don’t know how they are going to be protected by law.
Q: Aside from the introduction of the Syariah Penal Code in Brunei, some observers are saying there is a wave of growing Islamic conservatism in Southeast Asia, particularly with the recent Malaysian courts’ decision to ban the use of `Allah’ in a certain Christian publication. What would be your opinion on that?
A: I think we should avoid any kind of emotional reaction coming with religious discourse which is reacting to what we perceive as coming from other countries, the West. In my country of origin, Egypt, Allah is used by the Muslims and by the Coptics [Christians] and for centuries this was not a problem. I don’t see why now we are creating a problem, a controversy around that and it’s a competition around the term. And we are nurturing something which is too much emotional.
Q: Why do you think there is a controversy around that now?
A: Because it’s a competition among different trends and making religion the centre of our reference as Muslims. I think that I would advise all the actors in the political field, as well as civil society, to come with a deep understanding of our religion, and to avoid any populist, emotional use of religion because it creates controversy. And to come with deep understanding and always explaining to the people.
So the only issue I have with such an announcement [on the implementation of syariah criminal law], it came out of a convention – that I can understand – but you have to pave the road, you have to explain to people to make to it clear what you mean. I think that now it’s coming, they will have one year to explain and to do the job, hoping that it will be done in a way which is a wise way and deepen understanding of the people.
What I see in the region is our reference to Islam is too much emotional and not enough spiritual, not enough understanding on the principles of Islam and the steps that should be respected. You cannot just change the people overnight and we cannot instrumentalise religion just to show that we are more Muslim, because we are tougher. Islam is not about being tougher, Islam is about being more just. To be fairer, not tougher. It’s to promote more justice and more dignity, we are not here to punish people first, we are here to educate people.
Q: How can we instil those principles in the current generation of young Muslims?
A: So this is what I have been working on by being here and through my teaching, in the West or in Muslim majority countries. It’s about educating, it’s about avoiding simplistic understanding of religion, deepen our understanding, our principles.
And to understand you can be very open towards the world while very faithful to your principles if you understand them. The young generation should understand that you don’t remain a Muslim by imitating your parents. You remain a Muslim by understanding your principles. You don’t remain a Muslim by imitating, you remain a Muslim by understanding. We need to spread education, we need to spread spirituality, what it means to be at peace with one’s self.
And also in the context of new ideas, global culture, to be selective, to be critical. And I would say to all the students, to all the people – never avoid asking questions, never be scared of critical thinking. But critical thinking doesn’t mean to reject everything that is religious, it is a better understanding. And I think that this is what is missing today.
We are on the defensive, we are trying to protect ourselves, and we think that with the law and harsh punishments, we are going to do the job, and I wouldn’t go for that. I would go for more education and long-term process. We still want our principles to be respected based on better understanding, more education, more critical thinking, less emotion, and more wisdom.
The Brunei Times