The U.S. government is so convinced that Tariq Ramadan is dangerous, it revoked the Muslim scholar’s visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame. Some in Europe think Ramadan is an anti-Semite who preaches moderation out of one side of his mouth and hate out of the other. Others, though, think he’s the man to reconcile Islam with modernity. So, who is right?
FOREIGN POLICY: What do you think is more of a problem in Europe today: Islamophobia or Judeophobia?
Tariq Ramadan: I think that both are problematic. I think that, yes, we have Judeophobia, and this is unacceptable and we have to condemn it. To tell you the truth, beyond discussing and comparing Islamophobia and Judeophobia, there is a new wave of racism arising in many European societies. And I think we don’t have to put a hierarchy between this and that. All racism is unacceptable. Some Muslims today feel they are targeted because they are Muslims or Arabs, and this is the case. But it is dangerous to speak in that way. Especially in Europe now, there is a competition: Are the Arabs or Muslims more targeted than the Jews? I think that all together, if really we are citizens-and it’s exactly the same in the United States-all kinds of racism are wrong. If we see acts of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, we should condemn them not simply as Jews or Muslims. As citizens, we have to condemn all these cases.
FP: Would you like to see Europe become a Muslim-majority continent?
TR: No. Not at all. For me, the most important challenge is for everyone to remain who he or she wants to be. The challenge today is to make Muslims understand [that] you don’t have to be less Muslim to be more European. You can be both. And this is also what I am saying to the converts…. Remain European. Do not Arabize yourself, or Turkishize yourself, or Pakistanize yourself! Remain who you are. The pluralistic society I want is a society where anyone can chose what he or she wants to be and [remain] faithful to his or her principles. So for me the point is not to Islamize Europe. The only thing I want is for Muslims in Europe and America to be able to remain who they want to be and to live with others….I don’t want to spread my religion. I just want to share with people, knowing that when I encounter the other, he or she helps me to be more of who I want to be. The dialogue between the other and me is the richness I want to keep.
FP: Do you think there is a special role for Arabs within Islam?
TR: No! I am telling the Muslims and the Arab Muslims to be careful. The Arabic language is the language of Islam. But the Arab culture is not the culture of Islam. I am saying this to the Western Muslims and also the Asians. I visited Indonesia last year, and sat with the Majelis Ulama, which is the council of scholars. And there, among the 30 scholars, were seven women; and this is not happening in the Arab world…. The Arabs should learn from others, because this is the best way of facing new challenges. And in the near future, the Western Muslims are going to send new answers to the Arab world.
FP: You’ve said that you believe that Israel has the right to exist. Do you hope that one day, Israel will become part of a broader Middle Eastern common market? Is that the solution?
TR: My point is that Israel is here. I hope beyond that. I want [Israel] to be an open society where there is equal citizenship for all people. This is what I am advocating, and in that way, of course, it will be part of an open market. It will be part of the reality of the region. But my hope is not just for Israel. I want Egypt, Jordan, and other countries to promote the same universal values…. In every country it shouldn’t be [that] if you are a Muslim or Jew, you have more rights than others. Let us be consistent. When I say there are second-class citizens in Israel, I can say exactly the same for Egypt…. And I’m saying it for Saudi Arabia, where there are not even citizens who are not Muslims.
FP: You’ve criticized some French intellectuals for abandoning their universal principles in favor of an almost unconditional support of Israel. Would you make the same criticism of Jewish-American intellectuals and politicians ?
TR: I don’t know. I don’t know them. My point was not to criticize people just to criticize them…. I was not only speaking about Jewish intellectuals. I knew some of them were not Jewish before [I criticized them]. But one of them, [Pierre-André] Taguieff, said…[that] 3 million Muslims-this is the figure he had of Muslims in France-are 3 million potential extremists. And I said, be careful when you say this. [Alain] Finkielkraut says that the new anti-Semitism in France is mainly coming from Arabs and Muslims. So the way they are now targeting a specific community is to have a sectarian way of dealing with our common challenges. So let us come to universality and avoid dealing or indulging in this perception of reality. This was one part of my criticism. And this is why the article was called “Critiques From the New Sectarian Scholars.” And I didn’t put “Jewish” here because I knew that some were not.
The second point is that when we speak about oppression throughout the world, all the oppressed people should hear you saying that you protect them. So my point was that you are keeping silent-the majority of you-about the Palestinian reality. So please say something about this. You can speak about Chechnya, Kosovo, Iraq, but the point is that you are forgetting the oppression in Palestine. Let us be consistent ….When I criticize Saudi Arabia, I’m not Islamophobic. And when I criticize Israel, I’m not anti-Semitic. This is the central point for me. I said in the article that the future belongs to the people…from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and agnostic traditions [who] will be able to go beyond their belongings and to speak in terms of common universal values and denounce oppression.
FP: How do you feel when Islam is used to justify terrorism ?
TR: Horrified. But responsible. When the Luxor terrorist attack took place [in Egypt] eight years ago, long before 9/11, I wrote a letter from a Swiss Muslim to his fellow citizens saying that this is not acceptable…. We have to condemn this as Muslims and as human beings. And we have to do whatever possible within Islamic communities to spread better understanding about who we are and what we can do to deal with other people. We can have a legitimate resistance to oppression, but the means should be legitimate. Terrorism, which kills innocent people, is not Islamically acceptable. Within Islam there is an accepted diversity-you can be a literalist, a Sufi mystic, or a reformist, so long as you don’t say others are less Muslim than others-and we must never say that terrorism or violence is part of this accepted diversity.
FP: Why do you think there are so many intellectuals in Europe and the United States that seem to bear an animus against you?
TR: I don’t think that there are that many in the United States, to be honest. In France, it’s sometimes just a personal situation. But I think mainly it’s that I’m coming with a new discourse. I’m saying to Muslims, remain you who are. Part of it is the way I articulate it-advocating independence, critical thinking, and freedom of speech. In France today, the history of the Algerian colonization is not forgotten. When you have an Arab face and you speak French like the French do, and you say, “I am a Muslim,” there is a great deal of suspicion. I am just a symbol of what’s coming, which is a new generation of Muslim leaders, men and women, able to speak English as you are speaking English, French as they do in France. They are European, they are American, and they are going to speak for themselves.
FP: One argument that has become very popular in Washington is Bernard Lewis’s thesis that Muslim rage is a product of their failure to keep up with the West and come to terms with modernity. What’s your opinion of that ?
TR: I think there is a great deal of mistrust, and sometimes hatred toward the West. But it’s not only coming from an intrinsic dynamic of Islam or the Muslim world. It’s also coming from a perceived policy, which is not for all the people but mainly to protect American or Western interests. And there is one point which is essential, and this is a pity, because I am saying to the Muslims, Be careful. The Middle East is not the cause of our problem; it’s the consequence…. But the perception is very emotional, very sensitive. The idea that whatever is the stand of the Palestinians, the only [U.S.] support is for the Israelis. So this unilateral impartial support of Israel is perceived emotionally [by Muslims] as, “Okay, your way to deal with Muslims and Arabs is just to protect our interests and to support your allies.”
FP: Would you prefer that the Israelis not build their security fence ?
TR: Of course…. It’s against all that we are speaking about. What does it mean? You know, we are all happy in Europe that the Berlin Wall was destroyed and we are [one] people…. What do I want for the future of Israel and the Muslims and the Arabs? It’s to live together. It’s to promote the society where we are equal citizens. Then we live together. What does it mean, this wall? It means that you are not me and this is just a symbol of two fears living together, not two people…. The best way to protect the Israelis is to understand that the Palestinians have rights and we have to respect them…. I condemn all the suicide bombings…. But I can understand that in this context, something is happening here [that] is explainable…. But explainable doesn’t mean justifiable…. When exactly did this start?… It was in 94. For more than 50 years, these people were just trying to resist. It means that after we started this Oslo peace process, three years later they felt there is no hope. So when there is no hope they are just acting as people without hope. And the best way to come back to a kind of hope for the Palestinians is not to build the wall-it’s exactly the opposite-it’s to give them hope again.
FP: How do you think the Palestinians should resist ?
TR: It’s really difficult. In my view, it’s a legitimate resistance, but they have to use legitimate means to do that….a kind of determined nonviolent and primarily organized resistance…. The only way for us to hope for a legitimate resistance with legitimate means is for us to speak up in their name. But to keep quiet here and say, “Okay, stop this,” is not going to work, because for them, [this violence is] the only way for them to be heard at the international level. So let us speak out, be heard in their name in order for them to stop. Because this should stop now. An international network of nonviolent people speaking in the name of the oppressed Palestinians is needed.
FP: Should a Muslim girl who doesn’t want to wear the veil do so if her parents insist on it ?
TR: No. It’s an act of faith, and I’m saying to the parents, don’t force your girls to wear the hijab [headscarf]…. No one should be forced to wear it, and no one should be forced to take it off.
FP: Which head of state in any Arab country comes kind of closest to your idea of what a leader should be ?
TR: No one.
FP: Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, argues that you think it is acceptable to lie to non-Muslims about your true intentions. How do you react to that ?
TR: You know, this is exactly the opposite [of what] I have been saying for the last 18 years to Muslims and non-Muslims. I’m always saying, “Just please have one word in the mosque, one word, and when you go out of the mosque, [stick with that] one word.” When he says that I lie, let him come with evidence…. It’s just allegations repeated and repeated…. Fouad Ajami is coming with very, very old French criticism, without evidences and just spreading suspicion about me because I am the grandson of [Muslim Brotherhood founder] Hassan al-Banna.
FP: Why do you think so many Arabs and Muslims, even in Europe, still believe that the Israelis or the Americans were in some way behind the 9/11 attack ?
TR: These conspiracy theories are the way Muslims are avoiding attacking the issue and facing up to their responsibility to be self-critical and to build. It’s just a way to be passive, to think that we can blame the other, and say, Okay, the West hates Muslims, and that’s it.