The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life How have Tariq Ramadan’s experiences influenced his views on the reform of radical Islam and the bridging of cultural differences? What can Western Muslims do to balance faith and modernity? And what lies ahead for the future of Islam in Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world? Ramadan addressed these questions at a press luncheon hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity
Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies, St Antony’s College, Oxford University
LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon and thank you all for coming.
I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are a project of the Pew Research Center, which is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions on issues or policy debates. This event is part of our Pew Forum luncheon series, which brings together journalists and important public figures to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public affairs. The Pew Forum’s partners in this series are Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post.
Our format at these events, as you know, is very, very simple. We have our guest speaker speak for 10, 15 minutes or so, just to get things started. Then we get you folks into the conversation. That’s really what this is about. I should mention that this meeting is on the record and is being recorded.
Before I introduce Professor Ramadan, I should mention and acknowledge Peter Mandaville from George Mason University, who was very instrumental in helping us arrange this event. Peter is a professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs and is the co-director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University. He has been working with us for the last year or so as a visiting fellow, working with a team of scholars who are going to produce a detailed study of the most influential Muslim movements and networks in Europe. We plan to release that some time in mid-to-late June. Is that right, Alan Cooperman? Correct.
Now it is my pleasure to introduce our special guest who really needs no introduction, not to this audience. Tariq Ramadan teaches Islamic studies at Oxford University and holds a senior research fellow position at Doshisha. Okay, I always pronounce Japanese names with my Cuban accent. I can never get away with it. Anyway, it’s in Kyoto, Japan. He is also president of the European Muslim Network, a think tank based in Brussels.
Professor Ramadan serves as an adviser on religious issues for the European Union, and he was also invited to join a U.K. government task force on countering extremism in the wake of the 2005 London bombings. Time and Foreign Policy magazines have named him to their respective lists of the world’s leading thinkers. He has authored or co-authored numerous articles and books, including the 2009 bestseller, What I Believe.
Thank you for joining us today, Professor Ramadan. We look forward to hearing from you and engaging you in conversation. Welcome.
This is why in my last book, you have a series of names and he is one of the people I thank for what they did in supporting me in the face of something which was a silly decision by the Bush administration, preventing me from entering the country for ideological reasons much more than anything else.
I don’t want to talk too much at the beginning. It’s just a very short introduction about my work and really why I am trying to work today, not only in the West but also in Muslim-majority countries. Because if you look at what I have been trying to do, my work over the last 25 years is really on two different levels and also in two different areas.
The first, two different levels within academia, is really to produce books and thoughts and try to challenge some of the traditional, classical Islamic understandings from within, which is also something which is quite important. So books on Islamic issues within the Islamic classical tradition, but also, of course, on Islamic issues in the West. This is at the academic level but also, at the grassroots level, to be in touch with Muslim-majority societies to deal with some of the issues in Muslim communities in the West. So it’s really two areas and two levels.
If you look at the books, there is a series on issues in Muslim-majority countries. For example, the title for today’s discussion, “Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity,” is in fact the title of a book, where I’m trying to deal with Islamic issues and principles and objectives in Muslim-majority countries. I have a series of books on this, so it’s really about what is going on in the Middle East, in Asia, about the contemporary challenges for Muslim-majority countries.
The other series of books is really about Western Muslims. I started by writing a book at the beginning of the ’90s about Muslims in secular societies and then, To be a European Muslim and then, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.
Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation is a book from within the Islamic tradition. It’s to go from what I think are the limits of dealing with fiqh issues, which is Islamic law and jurisprudence, to the fundamentals. And this is across the board. It’s for Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, as well as Muslims living in the West. These are common challenges, and what I am trying to propose here is a radical reform in the way we deal with the scriptures – rethinking the classical way of reading the scriptural sources and also addressing the contemporary challenges of promoting and applying Islamic ethics for our time.
We need to go from adaptational reform to transformational reform, which is not to adapt ourselves to the way things are, but to propose applied ethics to change them for the better. So it’s with the contribution of Muslim scholars in Muslim-majority countries as well as with the contributions of scholars in the West that we can come to a better understanding of the very meaning of reform, and this is something which is important.
Having said that, what is also important is to promote a shift in the center of gravity of authority in Islam. And this is what I am trying to advocate in the book, that we cannot rely on scholars of the text. We need to bring on board scholars of the context if we want to be serious about contemporary challenges. This is something which is quite important. But it has to do with a shift in the center of gravity of authority. Why? Because what we are used to is the Islamic answer only coming from scholars of the text.
When it comes to social sciences, when it comes to medical sciences, for example – I am using this as an example in the book because I am treating seven practical areas in the second half of the book, case studies, where I am saying, Muslims are doing good in medicine, but they are not doing so good in anything which has to do with social sciences, with education, with women, with economy, with philosophy and politics. I’m trying to come up with a new framework for Islamic applied ethics.
This is a book where I’m talking really about our contemporary challenges. It’s really about, not only the West – because I think that we should be careful not to confuse Western issues with Muslim-majority countries’ issues, but we should also be careful not to disconnect everything by saying, oh, this is not the same. I am saying from within that there is only one Islam, but there are many interpretations and many Islamic cultures, and what we are dealing with today in the West will have and already has had tremendous impact in what is going on in Muslim-majority countries.
So there is a dialogue. With my position now at Oxford, what I’m really trying to do now is to establish a double network of scholars in the West and in Muslim-majority countries talking to each other at different levels to promote this applied ethics. It’s a kind of practical translation of the main statements of that book.
The last book, What I Believe – this is something which was, in fact, a request from a publisher, an Italian publisher, telling me, all your academic books are too thick, too big, to be read by people. They are not reading. So we want something which is a simple book for people in a hurry to be able to understand what your position is about Western Muslims.
What I Believe is really a summary of what my positions are on Western Muslims. “Western Muslims” means in Canada, in the United States of America, in European countries, as well as in Australia. I visited all these countries, and while I was banned from the country, I kept on being involved in discussions with Muslims living in the States.
This is something that I am following because I really think that we need this kind of dialogue about the Western experience. Because even though people are saying, oh, it’s quite different between Europe and the West – and that’s true; between Europe and the States, it’s quite different – still there are common challenges, and we are dealing with things that we have to understand in a comprehensive way.
So that’s it. This is what I’m trying to do, and now, my main concern is really to go for something which is this Islamic applied ethics for contemporary challenges and connecting the Muslim-majority countries with the West, knowing that what we are coming with as responses to our challenges is read and listened to in Muslim-majority countries. This is what I am experiencing when I go to Morocco, to Jordan – in the countries where I can go that are Muslim-majority countries.
Then in Asia – for example, I was in Indonesia – it’s really clear that our contribution coming from the West is listened to, is heard – even in Malaysia, for example; recently I was there. The Singaporeans’ experience when they speak about the Singaporean Muslim identity is exactly what we are saying about us being European and Muslims at the same time or American and Muslims at the same time.
So this is connected and I think that these are the challenges ahead and we have to face this. This is what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to promote from within. There is this critical discussion from within with Muslim scholars, Muslim intellectuals and this critical dialogue, an open dialogue with the surrounding society in the West, but also in Muslim-majority countries. Thank you.
LUGO: Thank you. Okay, it’s your turn to get into the conversation. Let’s begin.
RAMADAN: No. This is why it’s quite important to read what I am trying to say because I’m quite critical in the way we are translating sharia law. Let me be clear about what is going on in the West. For me, the sharia is translated in the book I wrote, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, as the way towards faithfulness, as in which way we are respectful towards some of our objectives and purposes and aims.
For example, when I am in the United States of America or European countries, where I have the laws saying that we are equal before law, this is my sharia. I don’t need anything else. It’s not two closed systems. I think that this is the wrong way to put it. This is the wrong way to understand it. This is why I am challenging some of the Islamic trends from within by saying this closed or narrow understanding of what is sharia is something which is wrong.
You can get the sense of what I was trying to say in the discussion we had in the U.K., for example, when the Archbishop of Canterbury was asking for sharia to be accepted or at least to allow the Muslims to come to this. First, what he was saying is that within the latitude given by the common law in Britain, this is something which is already done, that Muslims can find their way within the law. This is what the Christians are doing, the Jews are doing, the Muslims are doing.
I tried to explain that he was not well-understood and not rightly understood. But my answer to this was, the Muslims don’t need a parallel system. They just abide by the common law, and within the latitude of this law and the flexibility of the Islamic legal tradition, we can find our way.
And my answer to this is just look at the great majority of the Western Muslims in the States, in Canada, in Australia or in European countries that just abide by the law and don’t have a problem. They are not asking for specific laws. I would say that as to the objectives, we are closer to some of the Islamic ideal in Western countries than in the great majority of the Muslim-majority countries. And I would go for that much more than for the opposite.
KIM LAWTON, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY: You spoke, Professor Ramadan, about dealing with the sometimes tensions between Western issues and Muslim-majority countries. One practical way where this has played out has been at the international level on the lines between free speech and defamation of religion. I’m just wondering for you where those lines are between freedom of speech and when it’s inappropriate, insulting or defaming someone else’s religion. And are those lines universal or do they vary from region to region?
RAMADAN: I think that we have to be fair to our history and to understand from where all these stories are coming. When it comes to the legal framework, I am saying to the Muslims, we don’t need new laws against blasphemy or things like this. I think that what we have now, it’s enough. We don’t want to limit freedom of expression.
When we got this cartoon issue, I was in Denmark at this very moment. Then what you have even here now is this new story about the cartoons. Just take an intellectual critical distance with this. This is legal. To ridicule religions is something that is part of the Western culture. It has to do with the history. So we don’t want to go for something which is, oh, we need laws to prevent people from doing this. I think that the Muslims should understand where they live, and I would like this also to be understood in Muslim-majority countries, that we don’t have to go against this.
Now, we are dealing with laws, and I think that we just have to stick to the laws and say, this is legal. We also know that there are things that are illegal because they are connected to racism and statements that are not acceptable. There is no absolute freedom anywhere. So we just go for this. It’s just when it comes to insulting people, racist statements, we need laws to prevent this from happening. But we all agree on this. So this is, I think, universal and I think that this is where we have to go.
Now, there is something which is much more psychological. We have to take this into account – we are not coming from nowhere. Our culture and the way we read law has to do also with our memory. And when we had, for example, Muslim groups in Europe saying the way to show that there is no equality in the way religions are treated and no freedom of speech is to insult the Jews, to show to people that we Muslims are not equally treated, I told them this is the wrong way forward. Why? Because you have to deal with sensitivity and you have to deal with collective psychology. Yes, it’s legal to insult the Jews and to laugh at their suffering. But it’s wrong. Ethically and because of the collective psychology. So this is not the answer. The answer is not to touch the sensitivity because it’s within the legality.
This is why I am saying to Muslims, take a critical distance but let the people understand around you that even if it’s legal, you don’t like it. That’s it. React by saying, I don’t like this. It’s not part of me. I am not laughing at religion by definition. It’s not part of me. It’s cultural. Even Buddhists are not going to like it because they are not used to this. So I would say this is why we should understand we need to deal with psychological issues in a psychological way and to understand that there are collective sensitivities that we have to talk about. It’s coming from mutual knowledge.
But the answer is not to come with law to prevent people. And this is what I’m saying to the French today on another issue, exactly the same. I say, you are responding to the burqa and the niqab with law restricting freedom, and I think that’s not going to work. It’s not the way forward. So don’t go that direction. Speak more about education, psychology. Changing mentality takes time.
I would prefer them to understand that from within we can do the job as Muslims by saying, the niqab or the burqa are not Islamic prescriptions. This is what I believe the mainstream believes as well, even though we have tiny groups saying this. So I would say we have to be very cautious not to translate every sensitive issue into a legal issue. We are wrong by doing this.
LUGO: Ross? Speaking of “South Park.”
ROSS DOUTHAT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Speaking of "South Park," Professor Ramadan, just sort of as a follow-up to Julia’s question, I wonder if you could talk a bit more about what you do think Islam has to offer to the West, maybe particularly to Europe, but speaking also to the American context as well. I think it’s a very interesting and subtle idea, the idea that reform is something that moves in both directions. But I wonder if you could elaborate on the direction of Islam reforming the West.
RAMADAN: Something which is really important for me is that if we are people of conviction – religious people or humanists today – look at the way I’m putting things. I’m not speaking about the Islamic economy. I’m not speaking about Islamic finance. I’m not speaking about Islamic medicine. I’m speaking about Islamic ethics in medicine, Islamic ethics in finance.
Meaning what? That we have a common ground, a common area, where the Christian ethics, the Jewish ethics, the Muslim ethics, the humanist ethics could provide something in that field to reform this for the better. This is where we have to come together. It’s for me to break this perception that we have our sciences – Islamic sciences, Islamic finance – and we have an alternative – which is wrong. It’s not true. We don’t have an alternative.
We have some principles and some objectives. But when I deal with Christians, when I deal with some humanists on the ground, I can see that they have the same objectives. This is where a Muslim presence with a deeper understanding of what Islamic ethics are is to question the ends and to think of the means.
So this is, for example, to be able to say, you have to be involved in education in the West, not by creating Islamic schools, which are mainly schools for Muslims. It’s to come to the principles. What are we talking about? About knowledge. So it’s for us when we understand Islam the right way to ask ourselves what our Islamic tradition is giving us to think about spirituality in a consumerist society, for example. It’s always to think about the ends. Why are we doing this?
In economy, for example, just to say we have an alternative Islamic economy by thinking with no riba, no interest, no usury – this is a dream; it’s not working. In fact, we are changing the words, but we are doing exactly the same. In fact, we are seeing the same results with other names. And I think that this is hypocritical.
I would say that we have to go deeper here. This is why I am talking about a new “we.” My presence as a Western Muslim is coming with ethics, with questioning the ends, with a philosophy of life. I find people having exactly the same questions as mine when it comes to the ends, when it comes to the meaning of all this, when it comes to the way we fast or the way we deal with products or the way we deal with the global economy.
The way we deal with justice, the way we deal with no discrimination in the job market, the way we deal in your country with some people who are saying there is a second-class citizenship in this country when you are black American or you are Latino – there is something that you have to question here. And I think that this has to do with our ethics, applied ethics.
I’m not going with something which is specifically Islamic, but something that Islam could be involved in when it comes to a discussion of the ends. And 99 percent of my lectures to the white American or European or Western audiences are always about, oh, you as a problem. I want to change that. It’s me as a contribution.
DOUTHAT: Can I follow up quickly? I guess I just want to press you on the division that you seem to make a little bit between the idea of an Islamic ethics, which can be universalized and can be compatible with the Christian ethics, the humanist ethics and so on, but then there’s the question of theology and spirituality specifically.
I think one of the conversations that people have about Europe is the idea that there is a particular spiritual crisis in Europe related to the decline of Christianity and that some people – perhaps yourself, perhaps not – feel that an expanding Islam could be part of the answer to that crisis. How do you feel about that frame? Do you think there is a religious or spiritual crisis in Europe that Islam could be part of the answer to?
RAMADAN: No, I think that we are all facing a crisis from within. I have been dealing for 25 years with the Muslim communities in the West and even in the States. I can tell you something: we are facing a crisis from within. There are two crises, in fact. In the West and in the States even, we have a religious crisis, but not even a religious crisis – an identity crisis: Who are we, what do we want, how are we going to have a blossoming personality and to be coherent with all our universes of reference? This is something which is common to all of us.
So the people who are now saying, Islam is the solution; it’s coming and we have a spiritual – I think that this is wrong. It’s not because the number is increasing at an exponential rate. I’m not at all happy with the quality that we are having from within. So I would say that this is where the Muslims should be self-critical.
I have been doing this. If you read the book, What I Believe, I’m self-critical from within because when it comes to education, when it comes to being less formalistic and comes to the deep essence of spirituality, this is where the Muslims are facing exactly the same crisis. This is where we need to reform our understanding of Islam: our educational processes and our educational methodology that we have within the Islamic communities or the Muslim communities in the West.
I’m not at all happy with this idea, first. And second, I really think that we have to go through tremendous change in mentality with the Muslims now in the West. I think that the mainstream is understanding this and we are improving. I would say that over the last 30 years in the United States of America, in Europe, in Canada, in Australia, you can see the changes. You can see that something is moving.
To say, oh, Europe, it’s a secular continent, there is a spiritual crisis there so the Muslims are taking over – this is rhetoric. This is something which is nurtured on the basis of fears. I would say the populists are using this in a way which is quite worrying today throughout Europe. But I think that it’s not true; it’s not the way things are happening. I would say that they are much more integrated on three areas, and I’m always advocating the three L’s: They abide by the law of the country, they speak the languages of the respective European countries, and they are loyal to the country.
Now, as to the religious identity, deep crisis – really deep. And it’s not an easy way forward, I would say. So to idealize this in saying, oh, there is no problem, they are just expanding, is wrong.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK, THE NEW YORK TIMES: If you were in a different context – in a Muslim-majority, more traditional context – could you find a basis in the Koran and in the Islamic tradition for the kinds of things that you appear to be arguing for – a kind of pluralism, what we call separation of church and state, the individual freedom of expression? That’s easy in this context to sell those ideas, but how would you sell that on the other side?
RAMADAN: “The other side.”
KIRKPATRICK: You set up two sides; your conversation said that was –
RAMADAN: No, no, that’s okay. I was joking. Partly joking. (Laughter.) Look, if you look at all my books – and many people, they don’t understand what I am trying to do – if you want to be listened to by Muslims, you should be rooted in the tradition. So when I went back to Egypt, for example, I went with the all-intensive, classical tradition – what we call, in Arabic, bi haqq al-riwaya – the right to teach. I did this in seven specific disciplines. Why? Because I knew that, first, I needed it, and then, that you are heard when you speak from within.
Every single book that I have been writing on these specific issues is rooted in the tradition. For example, Radical Reform: The first three chapters are rooted in history, in usûl al-fiqh fundamentals. I’m doing this. Now the book is in Arabic; I’m trying also to be involved in this.
The book I wrote on the Prophet and his life is all on classical tradition, so no one can come and say, no, it’s not true. And I’m saying for example, today, in the time of the Prophet, men and women were together in the mosque. If anyone is telling me no – look, this is the reference. So you can’t say anything.
When I was calling for a moratorium, it was misunderstood in the West as saying, we have to condemn. Condemning is not the way forward. You cannot condemn sitting in a cabinet in France. No, you have to understand the very logic from within.
So in the name of Islam, relying on text, I was saying, if you are serious about the text, if you are serious about the conditions, if you are serious about the society, you cannot implement this. I’m pushing for an intra-community discussion because changing mentalities takes time.
The point is that I’m rooting all these thoughts into the tradition. This new applied ethics, for example, is rooted in the classical tradition. The great scholars of Islam saying, this is it. Am I right? If it’s wrong, tell me. If it’s right, go ahead; let us talk about it.
When I went to Morocco – Tétouan – Tétouan is very traditional – 35 scholars disagreed with the moratorium, said it’s wrong. They disagreed on some of my issues about applied ethics. And then we had a discussion. I can tell you that it’s moving, I’m moving, we are in connection.
The mufti of Egypt, Ali Goma’a, said that the call for the moratorium was something which was interesting. He supported the substance of it while he told me a call for a moratorium was wrong; you have to deal with the scholars. My response is, I have been talking to the scholars seven years. In private meetings, we agree. Publicly, we don’t.
It’s a public call now that I want, so I’m challenging this. If you listen to the connection that I have with the Muslim-majority countries, in many of these countries – for example, in Indonesia, in India, in the Middle East, in Jordan, even in Egypt, where I’m talking – I cannot enter there, but I am talking with scholars. This is something which is quite important. I can tell you that anyone who is serious about this, check if this is heard or not. It could be rejected by many scholars.
For example, I was in Qatar. Recently, I was in petrol monarchies when I gave lectures. The rooms were full of young Muslims, men and women saying, this is it; this is exactly what is challenging for us. So this communication is getting on. It’s what I am trying to do.
But once again, there is something which is quite important: having exactly the same discourse as to the substance but different references as to the way you limit this debate to the Islamic sources. It’s quite important. When you speak to Muslims, you have to come with Islamic references. Otherwise it’s not going to work. It’s even perceived as a betrayal because we also need to understand that by talking that way, very often the people are saying, oh, are you playing the game of “the other”? Are you playing the game of the other side, so to speak?
This is why you have to be very, very, very clear on saying, no, I’m not talking – you know the moratorium and other things that I have been saying, for example – from the very classical tradition we are distinguishing different authorities in Islam. So don’t tell me it’s coming from the West.
Our historical experience of secularism is all about dictatorships because this is the way it was implemented in Egypt, in Syria and other countries, so the historical experience doesn’t tell you something about the essence of separating authority. But if you come to the classical tradition, you find that this is there; this is something that had to be studied in a deeper way.
So I’m challenging this by coming from within. And this is very important for me to be understood by my fellow Western citizens. If they don’t understand what I’m trying to do, that if we need this to be moving and we need this intra-community dialogue – you need to understand the universe of reference of “the other.” If not, it’s just waiting for us to be arrogant. I’m sorry, some of our fellow citizens, our intellectuals, our scholars, the way they talk to the Muslim world is just perceived as arrogance in a state of power – in a situation in a power struggle. And I would say that this is not helping us to move forward.
JEFFREY BROWN, NEWSHOUR: I just want to follow up on that. You say that many of the scholars agree in private but publicly, no. You were just at the end there starting to talk about the barriers to having a more public dialogue about these kinds of issues. Expand on that. What are they? What keeps them from speaking about these things and agreeing on them and talking more about pluralism and other issues in public?
RAMADAN: Yes, that’s a good question. There is a double problem here. The first one is the situation in Muslim-majority countries and especially in Arab countries. There is no freedom of speech; it’s very difficult. For example, the leadership of Al-Azhar [religious institution] today is chosen by the Egyptian government. This is the way there is a disconnect between the people who are representing Islam and the community sometimes.
The second thing which is important is that now because there is no critical discussion, it is very much about emotions and details. If you take a decision on the headscarf, for example, you can lose the community. If you take a decision on something which is perceived by Muslims – perceived, which has to do with perception and psychology – you can lose the community. So they are scared. Many of them after the discussion in Tétouan, they came to me and said, we agree with you, but we are not going to say it; we’re not going to say it.
And you understand the psychology. This is where you understand that the intrinsic political and religious logic within the country is making it very difficult because they are trying to be connected to the community and not to be perceived as threatening the authority. So they are in-between, and you are coming here telling them, you have to speak. The point for me is really that we as Muslim scholars living in the West, we should be instrumental. We should be instrumental by asking the question and coming with some of the responses and answers, and to push on that.
For example, I have been saying for 15 years that female mutilation is wrong. I had scholars, even from Al-Azhar, saying, no, no, no, no, we have some prophetic tradition; it’s not so, so haraam. It could be understood as a prescription to push and to push with our questions and our responses by saying, it’s not Islamic. Then two years ago to get 15 Muslim scholars from Muslim-majority countries to say, it’s not Islamic; we have to stop that. This is where there is a dialogue which is quite important. We need to understand the logic in Muslim-majority countries: Some scholars cannot speak, so who is going to do the job?
But just waiting for them to speak – and you have to understand this – some of the secular authorities don’t care about new challenges. They want to show their people that they are very strong in Islam. So on very specific symbolic issues, they can be very tough, just to tell people: we are Muslim and we protect Islam. On the serious issue of democratization, they are not ready to do the job. But on very specific religious detail – for example, the chance to condemn 20 homosexuals in Egypt, to be able to say: look, we are Islamic. And it works on emotions. But it doesn’t work on changing the mentality from within.
As from here, very often we are playing the game, accepting this. I think that this is where we should be consistent in understanding that some of the most secular countries and secular governments in Muslim-majority countries, they can use a very traditional position on Islam just to protect themselves from being perceived as betrayers.
More than that: On the cartoon issue, on the ban on minarets, what can you see? You see that they don’t want their population or the people to demonstrate, but they are ready to use this just to show their people, we are attacking the West because the West is against Islam.
The cartoon issue didn’t start in Denmark. The Danish Muslims were very wise and very calm. It came from the prime minister refusing to meet with the ambassadors. They perceived this as disrespectful. They went back to Egypt, they went back to Syria, and it started from there. It’s a political instrumentalization of something which happened in Europe but was perceived there.
It’s very easy to say to the people, it’s against the West, than to say, more freedom in our country. So it’s a political game; it’s quite complex. And I think that you need to understand where the scholars are in the whole process and not expect from them things that they cannot deliver – not as a first step. It’s a long process. Still, yes, I agree with you: We need more courageous scholars. That’s for sure.
AMY SULLIVAN, TIME: You mentioned earlier the identity crisis that many Muslims in the West have been going through, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the different experiences of Muslims in America and Muslims in many European countries because it seems like there are two different experiences there.
For many Muslim Americans, it’s more a question of figuring out how to balance or incorporate their identities as Muslim, as American, as man or woman or whatever the multiple identities are. In many European societies, however, there’s just not the same experience or tradition of having a dual identity or a multiple identity, and it seems like that would pose different challenges in terms of integrating.
RAMADAN: Yes, there are different challenges and there are common challenges. The first one, the big picture, is just to say that the immigrants who came to Europe were from economic exile, modest backgrounds, not very knowledgeable about Islam. They came just for jobs, and very often they confused Islam and their culture of origin. They were poor, modest and living in the suburbs in a very difficult situation.
Then you have also a society which welcomed them, but more secular societies than the United States of America, and religion was a problem. For example, you cannot understand what is happening in France if you don’t have in mind two things: first, the very specific relationship between the state and religion in France. Before Islam, it was church and state, and the relationship with the Christian church is important.
The second thing, the relationship between France and Algeria – the old, previous colonized country – this is something which has to do with the psychology in the whole discussion. Add to this that today in Europe with this new presence, there is this perception that we are forgetting about the socioeconomic problems, the class segregation, and we Islamize all the problems. It’s as if Islam is at the center of all the social problems in the suburbs when it comes to the job market or housing. I think that this is quite specific to Europe.
Now, it’s more complex than that because in the United States of America, the immigrants, when they came, they were much more knowledgeable and they were equipped to be able to see a difference between the religious principles and the cultures of origin. The very specificities of the American environment had them do this. They said, okay, I can have half an identity: American and Muslim. The fact is that they were not facing socioeconomic problems the way they were in Europe. So this is something which has different challenges. It’s much more about identity and being involved in the United States and the American dream.
Now, there are still common challenges, and we have to deal with this when it comes to what is happening today in the States with the African-American Muslim community, where they are in the inner cities and facing something which is quite interesting by saying, we are citizens but we are facing a second-class citizenship, which is in fact not only a religious problem. But the religious problem is added to socioeconomic problems, such as discrimination. This is where you can find parallels with what the Muslim communities in Europe are experiencing.
Add to these challenges something which is now part of the identity crisis and the lack of intra-community dialogue – the fact that we have a great deal of racism within the American Muslim communities. Islam is against racism, but Muslims could be racist and this is happening.
For example, in this country you had two conventions at the same time in Chicago. African-American Warith Deen Mohammed had one convention at the same time as the ISNA. So the immigrants and the African-American community, they were not dealing together. These are fractures from within.
Come to Europe; you will see exactly the same internal challenges when it comes to Turkish or Moroccan Muslims. We are dealing with this still. When you speak about feeling at home as a European, you have to go beyond that if you are obsessed with the countries of origin and all these things.
Add to this the class segregation that we have reached among Muslims now in Europe. They are succeeding on the social ground in the inner cities, but there is a gap between them and the experiences of people who are still in the suburbs. This is also something which is experienced in America. So I would say, yes, there are different challenges. The very specific environment has to be taken into account, but still we have common challenges within – internal challenges.
Just to tell you my own story, my first connection with the States was not with the immigrants. In fact, Malcolm X was in touch with my father. All I heard from this story was about African-Americans. When I first came, I was connected to them and then you understand, wow, they are questioning not the religious dimension of their integration but the socioeconomic reality.
This is where we find common ground because this is what they were questioning. Even more so, they were questioning the new immigrant by saying, you are not representing Islam; you are not representing the only Islamic reality in this country; you have money; you are in the suburbs and we are in the inner cities. We are facing discrimination; we are facing the fact that there is social discrimination in this country.
So this is something that helps us to understand that the American dream is good for some and problematic for others. If there is a European dream, it would be the same questions that we have.
ALAN COOPERMAN, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE: Professor Ramadan, as I am sure you know, there’s been a recent flare-up of a long debate in the United States over the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to U.S. foreign policy, and I’m wondering if you’d care to weigh in. How central or primary do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the challenges that the Obama administration faces all around the world?
RAMADAN: Look, it’s quite clear to me that I have been banned from this country exactly for my positions on that: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the Iraq war because when I went to the American Embassy in Switzerland, 80, 85 percent of the questions were around my position and why I was critical of the unilateral support of the United States of America towards successive Israeli governments. I said, you have to be more balanced; it’s not going to work like this. And then, your war in Iraq is illegal, and I think that this is not the way forward.
Saying something which I continue to say, I think the Palestinian resistance is legitimate, the means are not. So killing innocent people, I’ve said it for years. This is something which is quite important for me – to be clear on that.
Now, yes, I really think that it’s central. It’s central psychologically speaking, politically speaking and in the way that you feel at home in this country. Because at the end of the day, you can get social integration, intellectual integration, but miss psychological integration because something is missing, which is the sense of belonging.
The sense of belonging is what I call critical loyalty. I’m loyal to my government when I am able to say, I abide by the law, I love this country, but I don’t like your policies and I am critical, and not see my citizenship or my belonging questioned because I’m critical. I think that this is where we have to be together – you and me. This is what I call the “new we,” where we are citizens and we are critical.
While I think that what should come now from the new administration is really to deliver on that, it’s quite difficult. I said this from the very beginning. First term, what we got as the first speech one year ago from President Barack Obama was a very good speech – very good. I commented on this by saying, this is the first time we see someone speaking in that way: very cautious with the wording, very cautious also by not only addressing this to Muslims in Muslim-majority countries but also to Americans by telling them Islam is an American religion and Muslims are contributing to the future of this country. He was talking about a “we” as the American nation, and this is very important. Then, to speak about the suffering of the Palestinians and about the fact that we have to look at this issue seriously –
Now, I think that what we got during the last weeks and months is really tension between the Israeli government, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Obama administration. Still, now, these are words and things are going on there. I would say that within this term, it’s going to be difficult. Next term, I think it’s quite important to see things moving in support of Palestinian rights.
What I am saying to the Muslims is, just don’t assess the Obama administration or any American administration only on that because this obsession with this foreign policy is not helping us to be citizens and to be involved in all the discussions. So I would say, at the same time as we are expecting something from the Obama administration, we also have to say to the American Muslims, you have to be involved in all the discussions.
When it comes to health, for example, what happened in this country is just tremendously important for all the American citizens. You have to be involved in this; you have to be involved in education. You have to acknowledge the fact that there are constructive steps when it comes, for example, to meeting with entrepreneurs and Muslims and trying not to be obsessed only with the idea that Islam means we talk about terrorism.
No, Islam means we speak about America; we speak about being American. This obsession has to be reassessed from within by Muslims, but we need both. It’s a more balanced approach which is needed. But I would like, yes, the American administration to be more balanced on Palestinian rights. And it remains central. It remains central even though I think Muslims should be much more involved in everything which has to do with global politics, beyond only this issue.
MICHELE KELEMEN, NPR: I’d like to follow up. As you mentioned this entrepreneur meeting this week, I wonder how you assess the Obama administration’s outreach to Muslim communities – whether that’s working and whether you think they’re sort of leaning toward that instead of democracy? I mean, is this an either/or prospect?
RAMADAN: No, I wouldn’t think instead of democracy or in spite of talking about democracy. I would say that it’s quite clear that the Obama administration is much more well-perceived by Muslims around the world in Muslim-majority countries. It’s not so difficult after what we got for eight years. But I would say that yes, something is changing, and there is lots of hope coming from Muslims in Muslim-majority countries.
But still, they are suspicious about the room for maneuver he has to change his policy and the way he is dealing with some lobbies here – pro-Israeli lobbies – and is he able to change anything as to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to go beyond words?
Because if you look at the first steps, some of the symbolic actions – for example, the fact that I am here with you today is coming from a symbolic act – we are opening up. I spoke with the ACLU and others; they are saying yes, it’s changing. There is a shift. It’s quite clear there is a shift.
So we have to be constructively positive on this. There is a shift. Now, up to which limit? How are we going to deliver? Is it going to follow on this? I think that the speech one year ago in June and what is happening – you have to push on this by speaking much more about domestic policy when it comes to the Muslim presence, living together – not only words; it’s just really practicality.
For example, when it comes to people still in jail for ideological reasons, this has to be changed. Guantanamo should stop. Reassessment of what is going on at the borders of this country – these are practical measures that are expected, and then beyond the discourse and the symbolic actions that we have.
So I would say on this, we really need to see more than that. But by and large, if I have to assess what is going on, I’m positive on many of the things that I am seeing, and I’m trying to remain constructive. But still, really, I’m critical on security measures, on the Middle East policy. And still, I cannot be but critical on what is going on in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
I have serious questions about supporting Karzai in Afghanistan and the way we are dealing with the reality of the Iraqi future today. This is, for me, problematic. I would have thought on some of these issues he would have been more effective. But once again, it’s politics and it takes time.
ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK: Could you elaborate – when you first said that the Bush administration banned you for what you said were silly reasons, mostly ideological – can you explain that? And were you one of a class of citizens who were banned? Or what were the circumstances around that?
RAMADAN: The whole story is that in 2004 I was supposed to come to teach at Notre Dame University. Nine days before coming, I was called by the American Embassy in Switzerland telling me that my visa has been revoked. At first no reasons were expressed; it’s just revoked. Then the PATRIOT Act, and then the allegation that I was connected to terrorism, which was dropped after the second interview, because they asked me to reapply.
I went, I reapplied, and they sent someone from Homeland Security who came all the way from here to Bern, and he was asking about my donations to organizations. I mentioned 10 organizations. Among them was one Palestinian organization supporting – and this was what I knew about them – educational projects in the occupied territories. And then, a few months later, I got the response that my new application was rejected because I gave money to an organization which was blacklisted in the States – because I gave this money. It’s 700 euros that I gave.
But they made a mistake. The first mistake is that for a European to live in Europe and to have an organization which is not blacklisted in Europe, it is quite normal that you can give money. This organization was even in touch and dealing with the mayor of Lille, who is now the first secretary of the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry. She was dealing and still is dealing with this organization. And they have a twinning project with a Palestinian city. So this, for me – they were known.
But the second big mistake was that I gave the money between ’98 and 2002, and this organization was blacklisted in 2003. I got a letter from the American administration telling me, you should reasonably have known that they were connected to Hamas. My answer was, you mean by this that I should reasonably have known before your own administration that they were going to be blacklisted in the States. So this is what I call a silly reason.
But the judge in New York said, Tariq Ramadan couldn’t have known this, but the law was retracted. So the point is I got from the U.S. administration and people coming – even the civil servant who came from Homeland Security – it’s just all about, “What is your take on Iraq? What is your position on Palestine?” And that’s it. This was 80 percent of the questions that I got. This is, for me, an ideological exclusion because, at the end of the day, I lost a professorship at Notre Dame University.
Now, I’m not coming back. My project is not to come to teach in the States. I’m very happy where I am at Oxford University. I will be visiting the country. But in 2004, it was quite heavy to face this. And these arguments are just, I’m sorry, silly and, I think, saying much more about the U.S. state of affairs at that time than about me.
LUGO: And did I hear correctly there was somebody from DHS at the airport to welcome you?
RAMADAN: This time, yes.
LUGO: This time.
RAMADAN: The first time, I waited two hours. They asked me, who are you going to see? Where are you going to speak? And there were some questions.
LUGO: This was your visit to New York –
RAMADAN: Yes, yes, two weeks ago. But this time they knew that I was coming and it took me three minutes. Very quick, very good – even faster than Switzerland.
DUIN: Tomorrow there’s going to be a big report coming out on religious freedom around the world. And as you know, one of the West’s biggest values is freedom of religion and the right to change your religion. You were talking about dialogue with other Muslims.
I think that all four schools of Islamic thought say that if a Muslim changes his religion, it’s punishable by death. In your dialogues with other Muslims, is this something you’re bringing up? And if so, have you been able to get anywhere in terms of talking about religious freedom and the right to, if you’re Muslim, leave your religion?
RAMADAN: Yes, this is why it’s good to read what I’m trying to say and not to Google my name. In a book I wrote in the beginning of the ’90s, and then in another book in ’97, and then in another book recently, and even on The Washington Post and Newsweek’s On Faith, we were asked a few years ago about our position on women and on religious freedom.
My position is clear, and I have said it many times: from the very beginning, scholars during the 8th century, including one of the main scholars, Sufyan al-Thawri, have said that it’s possible, according to Islam, to change your religion. This understanding of the two Islamic traditions – a very narrow understanding and out of context because this has to do with people changing their religion in time of war, coming to the Muslim community and taking information and being, well, betrayers, in fact – they were betraying the community.
But nowhere do we have in the Islamic tradition, and even in the Prophet’s life, anything saying that he killed someone because he changed his religion, or she changed her religion. If you look at my book on the Prophet’s life, you can see that I mention three main cases where they changed their religion and were not killed, and he knew about this. So my position on this and On Faith – this was my position; I said this almost 20 years ago.
And I have been going on within the Muslim-majority countries and in Muslim communities saying and repeating this. I have been criticized. I have been just put outside the realm of Islam. For example in Mauritius, the mufti of Mauritius was saying, “Tariq Ramadan is kafir murtad.” If you know Arabic, kafir – “infidel” – in the way he was using it, murtad – “he is an apostate.” This is the way he was treating me, but I kept on saying this.
Then the mufti of Egypt even on On Faith also took a similar position by saying, the punishment is not to be killed. It’s possible to change religion. And you know what happened? He said this and then the council of scholars at Al-Azhar said, no, no, he was misunderstood. And he answered, saying, no, this is what I meant exactly. So there was a dialogue between him and the council.
So my position is clear. I’m challenging this, saying that this is possible. And once again, I have been saying this for 20 years.
KATHY SLOBOGIN, CNN: I’m sure you’re familiar with what’s been called the narrative embraced by apparently many Muslims, that the United States is at war with Islam.
RAMADAN: Sorry, I haven’t heard.
SLOBOGIN: Okay, well, it was just featured on a “60 Minutes” piece two nights ago, but it’s the idea that the United States is at war with Islam and apparently believed by many Muslims, a very potent recruiting tool for jihadists. And I’m wondering if you could give us your ideas on what the United States government can do that would be effective in countering that narrative, or what the United States government is already doing that’s been effective.
RAMADAN: But what is the narrative, exactly, that you are talking about?
SLOBOGIN: Maybe it’s a Western term, but it describes the belief that the United States is at war with Islam, and it views American foreign policy through that prism.
RAMADAN: Yes, once again, you may have groups – tiny groups and minority groups – nurturing this narrative. But I can tell you that the mainstream Muslim presence – Muslim organizations and communities – they don’t, at all, buy that. They just reject this.
So I would say it’s exactly the same as what we have in Europe. In fact, it’s not only about the United States of America. There are people saying the West is at war with Islam. And they are saying exactly the same, this tiny minority, in Europe and even saying that I’m too much a Westerner to be a true Muslim, while in the West I’m too much a Muslim to be a true Westerner.
I am in between this. But the mainstream is experiencing this exactly. It’s experiencing this: that we think that our life in the West, in the Western countries and the legal framework – it’s us. We don’t have a problem with this identity. –
So what could be the strategy?
First, understand something which is quite important. It is not for Americans without the Muslims to face this. It’s to understand that American Muslims are your partners on this, and not the people you choose. You don’t go for some Sufi saying, oh, this is the good Islam; let the Sufi represent Islam. Because by doing this, by choosing the authority or the representative, you are alienating the whole community. Let the Muslims come with their people, and it could be diverse.
When you are dealing with Christians, you are not just choosing the moderate Christians. You are choosing the people who are heard by the community, and they could be conservative. You have some vocal, conservative Christians in the country, some vocal Orthodox Jews in this country. They are quite strict, but they are heard.
As long as they are not advocating violence, they are not breaking the law – they abide by the law – and they are American citizens, you listen to them, even if you don’t like them or you don’t like their ideas. You have to do the same with the Muslims. It’s just not to control who is talking or speaking for Muslims; it’s to facilitate the process of having representation of Muslims that is wide enough to be in the mainstream and to challenge the views of these radical, violent extremists. This is where we can work together.
So first is to facilitate the process, which is a strategy. Second is to understand that the American Muslims are your allies because they are the second victims of this discourse, this narrative. The first are the people who are killed, but the second is them because it’s coming back to them; they are suspected as Americans.
This is what I got when I came to the ISNA convention just before I was banned from the country. I got people who were so scared as Americans because the rhetoric coming from the Bush administration was, “with us or against us.”
And I’m saying, I’m sorry. I’m against these violent extremists, but I’m against the American policy today around the world. I can be against both, and it’s not for you to question my loyalty to our values. It’s in the name of our common values that I am doing this because I think that what you are doing in this country is wrong.
So here we are, where it’s exactly the same. For example, in France or in Belgium, we are talking about the burqa and the niqab. I am saying and repeating, I am against this. I don’t think it’s an Islamic prescription when we deal with this. But if you go to – (inaudible) – by preventing them, it’s not going to help us. Let us be allies to come together and to know what we are talking about, and then to go through a pedagogical, educational process from within to challenge these views by saying this is not Islamic.
Let your citizens be allies, your fellow citizens be the new “we” we are talking about when we come to common challenges. So I would say there is no Western answer without Muslims. It’s a Western-Muslim answer against anything which is done by instrumentalizing the Islamic teachings. I would say that this is where we are powerful and we can understand.
So when you are talking about terrorists, when you are talking about violence, when you are talking about this narrative, I will be the first to be at the forefront by saying, I will not buy this. I will condemn it and I will say, this is not only wrong, this is anti-Islamic. You are working against us. But I want us to be together to understand that we have common values and not to be suspected because some of the Muslims are saying this. So the suspicion is misplaced. It’s just misleading the whole common narrative that we are building.
My next point, by the way, is exactly on our common narrative. It’s our Europe, our West. What are we talking about? What are the values that we are sharing and in which we have to work together? Because at the end of the day, if we get this message, it is that we have common enemies, and for Muslims, some of their enemies are Muslims.
And for the West, some of their enemies are Western intellectuals who are ready to forget our values in the name of spreading around fears. I would say that one of the most important dangers for us, as Westerners, is just to forget our values, is just to betray them because we are scared.
It’s just to deal exactly in the opposite way. It’s just to be ready to do things that are – just, it’s crazy. Four minarets in Switzerland and 66 percent of the population voting against minarets. And so where are we heading? What is happening? And just after September 11th, what we heard in this country is worrying. So we have to be very cautious. We have common challenges here.
SUSAN GLASSER, FOREIGN POLICY: Thank you very much. Just quickly, I wanted to follow up on something interesting. You sort of left us with this notion that you are not happy with the way events are progressing in Afghanistan and Iraq today, and I wanted to ask you to clarify because you specifically mentioned President Karzai, and I’m curious what your critique of him, specifically, is.
And then more broadly, I was hoping you could give us a sense of the context in which you think your ideas are being received in Muslim-majority countries. You mentioned your recent trip to the Gulf and the warm reception you got there. What is the level of appetite and interest in an intellectual movement at this point for what you call a transformational view of reform Islam, if you will?
And to what extent have your ideas really become part of any kind of a mainstream intellectual dialogue in the Muslim-majority countries? It’s very easy to see the appeal of your ideas in a Western context, not only here in the U.S., but also in Western Europe. You identify yourself as a European. But where do your ideas – how do they take root in the Middle East? Thank you.
RAMADAN: Look, I’m not happy with what is happening in Afghanistan and in Iraq. If you are asking me about Afghanistan, I would say if you look and you study history, and you listen to what is said by some of the specialists who are there, it’s a lost battle. And I think it’s a lost battle. I think it’s not going the right way. To rely on someone who is perceived by all the Afghani people as protected by the United States of America and being a corrupt man in the way he is dealing with social affairs and political affairs and the economy is something which is not going to be accepted.
So I would say the very man is not respected by the Afghani people. He is not. He is protected, and understood as protected by the United States of America. If you are serious about transparency, about democracy, about dealing with the reality of the Afghani setting and the environment, it’s really to look at a broader picture with people who are now – it’s a very difficult and complex issue, and I would say that we need an international force just to maybe do the job in a way that is helping the Americans leave the country, if we are serious about this.
If it’s just about protecting your geostrategic interest as it is today and economy, go ahead. You can just have a peaceful Kabul and war all around. But all the specialists are telling you, it’s not going well. We are losing ground. So this is my understanding of what is going on. You can send soldiers. The complexity and the difficulties of the environment and the way it’s organized in tribes and the Islamic trends there make it very difficult. I would say that I was expecting something else from the current administration, to tell you the truth.
About what is going on in Muslim-majority countries, I would say that students and scholars are listening to what we are doing. Now, is it a trend among the population? There are three things that are important today. What the people are expecting in Muslim-majority countries and especially in Arab countries is much more democratization and freedom, and to have something that is on this.
So when they see, for example, that we, as Western Muslims – and once again, for me, it’s really also to be able to speak from an American perspective or Canadian perspective or a European perspective – and not only Western Europe; Eastern Europe is very important for me, just to teach Western Europe that it’s not because we are economically developed that we are culturally – to patronize and to lecture the Eastern Europe countries because I really think that this, also, is problematic.
But in Muslim-majority countries, when you go there and you speak with the people, you can see that there is an elite, yes; there are students, there are scholars. Now, what needs to be done is really to translate this to something which is not emotional belonging to the Islamic words of reference, but something which is more elaborate that has to do with education and democratization. We will win this struggle and battle if we go also for something which is more democratization in the Muslim-majority countries and more education on that field.
So I would say that, for example, even in Pakistan, when I went to Pakistan, of course, I was dealing with elites and we still have very traditional trends. They are the majority when it comes to organizational realities. But when you speak with citizens and the way they deal with it, we can understand that there is something which is open to new – (inaudible) – and this is where we have to work. It would be very difficult with Islamist organizations or organizations on the ground, but I would say that there is a way to be understood, and this is where we need to have this connection.
So I’m not saying that we have reached that level. I’m saying that there is room for maneuvering here, that we need to carry on this discussion between intellectuals and Muslim scholars. This is why one of my projects now is really to work on that. It’s just not to say you are Western Muslims who are doing a good job. It’s really to connect this with Muslim-majority countries, with scholars, with intellectuals. And I want the scholars and the intellectuals, professors teaching within academia in the West, to be much more in touch with Muslim scholars coming from a specific traditional setting. This is very important, to have this kind of connection and to create this. So I would say this is what we have still to do, but I can tell you in some areas we have signs that things are moving.
A few years ago, we were not perceived as legitimate in that work. Still now, for some, we are not legitimate. We are now Western Muslims and this is not the real Islam. I can give you an example. For 20 years I have been involved in training women to reject, in the name of Islam, the cultural projection onto their religion transforming this into a patriarchal religion and to try to come with something which is a liberation process.
Even in the book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, I am speaking about an Islamic feminism, saying that in the name of Islam, you reject the cultural alienation and also the literal understanding. So I went with this, and we have a connection, for example, with women in petrol monarchies. And some of the women are connected with groups in Saudi Arabia. There are things that are done and produced there that we have to listen to because this is the future, and this is also among students.
So I would say it’s difficult. Resistance is there. It’s a struggle from within. But we need, I would say, to institutionalize this relationship between us, here in the West, and them in Muslim-majority countries. It’s a long process. I’m not saying that we are winning now, but I’m saying that there are channels of communication that are working quite well, and much more than what we think.
LUGO: Thank you, Professor Ramadan, and thank you all for coming. (Applause.)
RAMADAN: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation.
This written transcript has been edited by Amy Stern for clarity, grammar and accuracy.