The reformer to his admirers, Tariq Ramadan is Europe’s leading advocate of liberal Islam. To his detractors, he’s a dangerous theocrat in disguise.
By Laura Secor
From the Boston Globe, 30 November 2003
When Tariq Ramadan delivers a lecture, the room is invariably packed to capacity. Afterwards, dozens of young Muslim men are likely to throng the stage, seeking his definitive guidance on everything from veiling to animal rights to how to live with dignity in a secular society.
“What I am doing with them is at the same time important and dangerous,” Ramadan says of his work with these young men. “It could be dangerous if you let them think you have the answers. I try to tell them, ‘I am not what I’m saying. I’m only trying to be.”‘
At age 41, Ramadan, an elegant, Swiss-born intellectual, imam, and activist, has become a magnet for young Muslims in France, Switzerland, and Belgium. He’s done it partly by making himself personally accessible to the devotees who purchase audiotapes of his lectures and often travel for miles just to hear him speak. And he’s also done it with his unstinting criticism of their community’s inclination toward insularity.
Outside the Muslim community, Ramadan is the object of both admiration and suspicion. He’s the Muslim Martin Luther, the American and French press have sometimes rhapsodized: He advocates that European Muslims use their unique experiences to lead a movement toward reform within Islam. He is “two-faced,” critics reply: He sounds like a moderate, having adopted a vocabulary that he knows will be accepted by secular Westerners, but he is actually herding Francophone Muslims down the path of extremism.
Traveling with Ramadan on a whirlwind November lecture tour in France, I found no particular discrepancy between the sermons he delivered to Muslim audiences and his published work. (Ramadan has written some 10 books in French, and Oxford University Press has just brought out his “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.”) Nonetheless, Ramadan’s message is itself fraught with the complexities and contradictions of Europe’s Muslim community, which often seems to occupy two worlds – one traditional and religious, the other fast-changing and secular.
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In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the mutual uneasiness between Europe’s Muslim immigrants and its non-Muslim majorities has deepened. France, which has some 5 million Muslim citizens, largely immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa, is particularly preoccupied with the social and political implications of its changing ethnic makeup. Its tough-minded interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has threatened to expel Muslim extremists; he has also worked to set up a special council of Muslim clerics, and he advocates a form of affirmative action to raise French Muslims from poverty.
French Muslims perceive themselves as marginalized not only by poverty and discrimination but by a sort of cultural dissonance: They inhabit a country that permits many things their religion prohibits – alcohol, open sexuality, unrestricted musical and artistic expression. That same country prohibits some things their religion may require, such as the wearing of headscarves in public schools. For many Muslims, the response has been to forge an inward-looking community based on religion and country of origin.
That approach breaks down for Ramadan’s core audience: the second-generation immigrants whose country of origin is France. Their homes may be culturally Arab and religiously devout but their peers are often modern and secular. Ramadan exhorts these young Muslims not to make Islam a ghetto. Rather, he says, secular society is a place where they and their faith can flourish if they simply learn to manage their freedoms and to accept and participate in their country’s cultural and political life.
“The Arabic language is the language of the Koran because the Koran was written in Arabic,” Ramadan tells me. “But Arab culture is not the culture of Islam. And I think that it’s very important to say to the younger generations of Muslims, ‘You are not asked to remain Pakistani or Arab Muslims in America or in Europe. You are asked to remain Muslims.”‘
In Rennes, in the French province of Brittany, a Muslim women’s organization hosts Ramadan’s Sufi-inspired lecture, “The Fast of the Body and the Fast of the Heart.” More than 300 people attend. Ramadan speaks at length, in lilting, rhythmic, lyrical tones, about the Ramadan fast. Its object, he says, is to make one aware of human fragility and dependence. Through mastering our appetites, we find inner peace, and when we are at peace with ourselves we are able to serve others.
Ramadan suspects that the French Muslim community as a whole is not at peace with itself. Many Muslims perceive Western domination everywhere, and so cling to the most rigid interpretations of Islam, as though the more anti-Western they are, the better Muslims they become. “That is proof not of a crisis in Islam, but of an identity crisis among Muslims,” Ramadan tells the crowd. “The sign of a flourishing civilization is that it is not afraid of itself and so it is not afraid of others.”
European Muslims should not aim to be ingratiating, Ramadan insists, but virtuous. “We could hold 3 million lectures to say, ‘Islam is not violent. We’re nice. We’re practically cute at times.”‘ The audience laughs. “But ultimately there is only one thing that will really make the difference. It’s people who, both inside the Muslim community and as citizens outside of it” behave with dignity and generosity.
The audience has questions, both during the lecture and after it, when young men detain Ramadan for about an hour. What about music? Education? Veiling? Ramadan offers prohibitions, but mild ones. Music is allowed, but only if it elevates the soul. Veiling should be welcomed as a spiritual act, but no woman should be forced to veil. Islamic education should be offered extracurricularly, but Muslims should take advantage of French public schools like everyone else.
“To be with God is not to be primarily with his prohibitions,” says Ramadan. “It’s to be with his presence.”
The Koran, Ramadan maintains, is open to multiple interpretations that take historical and cultural context into account. But that doesn’t mean Muslims should assimilate blindly. Don’t watch vulgar television or wear shoes made in sweatshops, he admonishes. (Ramadan sees a concern for the rights of the poor as integral to Islam, which also prohibits interest-bearing loans, such as those from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This train of thought leads Ramadan to be active in Europe’s antiglobalization movement. One young man wants to talk to Ramadan about the common perception that the Arab community is anti-Semitic. How can they accuse us of anti-Semitism when we are Semites? he demands.
That’s just deflective word play, says Ramadan: We know very well that there are Muslims who hate Jews, and we should stand against them.
I saw Ramadan exhort hundreds and even thousands of Muslims against anti-Semitism in Rennes, Lille, and elsewhere. “There is no Islamic legitimacy for anti-Semitism,” he told a crowd in Corbeil. The message is an urgent one in today’s France, where a recent spate of attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues is widely thought to be the work of Muslim or Arab citizens.
And yet, the very week of our travels, Ramadan stood accused of anti-Semitism himself. In mid-October, he’d published a controversial essay on Oumma.com, a Francophone Muslim website.
“For several years,” wrote Ramadan in the polemic, which neither Le Monde nor Libération would publish, “French Jewish intellectuals previously considered universalist thinkers have begun . . . to develop an analysis increasingly oriented toward a community-based concern that tends to relativize the defense of universal principles like equality and justice.”
According to Ramadan, such well-known French intellectuals as Bernard Kouchner, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Alain Finkielkraut have inexcusably failed to condemn the repressive policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. What’s more, Ramadan claims these intellectuals have assumed political positions – in favor of a war in Iraq that Sharon, too, favored; against Pakistan, the enemy of Israeli ally India – premised upon an implicit Zionist worldview and a privileging of Israeli interests over humanist values.
The article had barely circulated when Lévy compared it to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Kouchner denounced Ramadan as an intellectual villain, and three Socialist Party leaders disowned their collaboration with Ramadan in the antiglobalization movement, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur that Ramadan preached hate and echoed the rhetoric of far-right leader Jean-Marie LePen. On Nov. 1, Lévy published a blistering attack on Ramadan in Le Monde. Called “The other face of Tariq Ramadan,” the article accused Ramadan of double-talk, fundamentalism, and even links with Al Qaeda.
(In July, a Swiss newspaper reported that, according to a lawsuit filed by a group of families of Sept. 11 victims, an Al Qaeda suspect in Spain had been in regular contact with Ramadan. The suspect had mentioned Ramadan’s name in a telephone conversation with the Islamic publishing house Twahid, which publishes Ramadan’s books. Ramadan denied knowing the suspect, and the Swiss government affirmatively cleared him of suspicion. For his part, Ramadan has frequently condemned Islamic terrorism. Ramadan was both furious with Lévy, and more than a little bit hurt. Would it have helped, he asked me, if he had written, “certain Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals,” since after all one of those he named was not Jewish? Why was the phrase “Jewish intellectuals” more stigmatizing than “Muslim intellectual,” which he was regularly called in the press, and which didn’t bother him at all?
Ramadan did not seem to comprehend that the problem was deeper than that. His article had imputed loyalties and motivations to intellectuals on the basis of presumed ethnicity. Moreover, he’d accused these thinkers of working in the interest of a foreign state in a conspiratorial fashion.
And yet, even as Lévy seized the moral high ground in the pages of Le Monde, Ramadan appeared to be doing the real work of combatting anti-Semitism where it counted, in the poor ethnic suburbs known as the “banlieu.” A pall of suspicion had nonetheless fallen over him, and a dialogue ended before it began.
Secular France can’t seem to decide if Ramadan is friend or foe. He is, after all, an Islamist, meaning that he believes Islam furnishes a political as well as a spiritual worldview. For majority Muslim societies like those of the Middle East, Ramadan envisions a reformed, moderate, but nonetheless Islam-based political and legal system. In the end, such a system would look a lot like Western secular democracy, he says, though its legitimacy would derive from Islamic sources.
Ramadan’s vision may be a radical improvement on nearly every existing Islamic system of government; indeed, he is a harsh critic of virtually all the world’s Muslim rulers, and Saudi clerics have issued fatwas condemning him. But is Ramadan trying to square the circle when he says a reformed Islamic system is compatible with secular values?
Take, for instance, the harshest Islamic corporal punishments, such as stoning adulterous wives or cutting off the hands of thieves. Ramadan personally finds such penalties unacceptable and un-Islamic. He believes a moratorium should be called on them while Islamic scholars ask themselves three questions: What is in the texts? How does the contemporary context affect how we read the texts? Is the policy implementable?
Ramadan seems confident that this reevaluation will lead to radical reform. What’s more, he believes he is providing language and tools to dismantle abuses from the inside, rather than simply flatly condemning the Islamic system from without, as secular critics do.
But what if the best efforts of Muslim scholars still reveal a God who insists on cruel and discriminatory punishments? There can be no recourse to extrinsic principles, such as human rights or equality. The final word lies in the Koran and with those who interpret it.
So are reformists like Ramadan mitigating the worst excesses of a cruel political system, or are they simply sugarcoating it? If the former, moderate Islamism is perhaps the greatest hope for human rights in countries ruled by sharia (Islamic law). If the latter, moderate Islamism, whatever its advocates’ intentions, looks more like a potentially deceptive sales pitch.
The towering figure behind Ramadan’s school of reformist Islamism happens to be his grandfather, Hasan al-Banna. In 1928, during the period of British colonization in Egypt, al-Banna, scandalized by what he saw as the licentiousness of a westernizing Cairo, founded a group called the Society of the Muslim Brothers. The group’s doctrine – fiercely anti-colonial, religiously and morally conservative, and economically redistributionist – has since inspired a panoply of Islamist movements across the Arab world, with leaders ranging from moderates like Ramadan to the most violent extremists such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad founder Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In their day, the Muslim Brothers accepted the parliamentary democracy Britain had exported to Egypt as fundamentally compatible with Sunni Islam. But they felt it should be revised to enforce Islamic morality and law. Like Ramadan, they believed Islamic teachings should be interpreted in light of contemporary context. But the context of colonized Egypt was morally restrictive and politically anti-Western.
Hasan al-Banna was assassinated during Egypt’s anticolonial revolt in 1949, most likely by British agents. In 1951, al-Banna’s eldest daughter married one of her father’s followers – his “spiritual son,” as Ramadan puts it, a passionate and pious lawyer named Said Ramadan. But in the mid-1950s, Gamal Abdal Nasser, Egypt’s nationalist president, cracked down hard on the Muslim Brothers, who were imprisoned, hanged, exiled, or forced underground. Nonetheless, the group continued to exercise spiritual and political influence not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world.
Ramadan’s parents fled Egypt in 1954, finally settling in Switzerland, where Ramadan’s father founded an Islamic center in Geneva. Tariq was born in Geneva in 1962, the youngest of six children. He was a voracious reader and a spiritual seeker who imagined that the answer to his quest lay in the land of his father’s birth. But when, at 17, he finally visited Cairo, Ramadan was disappointed.
“It was a country where people lived the same way we lived in Switzerland – with sadness, disappointment, hope,” he recalls. “My father was full of energy, and when you go back to the country that produced him, you expect, because you are young, a country like him. But the people were not like him.”
In Cairo, Ramadan immersed himself in Islamic study, completing the full religious training of an imam in less than two years. Back in Geneva, Ramadan earned a master’s degree in French literature and two doctorates, one in Islamic studies and the other on Friedrich Nietzsche, whose critique of Western rationalism fired his imagination.
Ramadan taught during the year and spent his summers taking groups of students to various Third World countries, where he arranged meetings with leaders of the Roman Catholic liberation theology movement, with the Dalai Lama, and with grassroots activists. “It was not done through the Islamic window, it was solidarity work,” he says. But in the early 1990s, he began to speak about Islam.
Ramadan committed himself to life in Europe when he married at age 24. He fathered four children, made European Islam his project, and began publishing books and lectures. A store and mosque run by his publishing house is adjacent to his office in Seine St. Denis, a Muslim neighborhood outside Paris. But France is by no means Ramadan’s only base. He also lives in Geneva, teaches philosophy in Fribourg (also in Switzerland) and flies nearly once a month to the United States. He works with the European Union and the anti-globalization European Social Forum in Brussels, and he speaks out often on contemporary issues. While he strongly opposed the American invasion of Iraq, he says that US troops should stay in the country until it is stabilized.
Keeping up with Ramadan during Ramadan wasn’t easy. I finally lost him in Lille, where he spoke at an enormous mosque. A young woman led me upstairs, past a mountain of shoes, into a humid, low-ceilinged room where veiled women were packed knee-to-knee on the carpet, their only view of Ramadan on a closed-circuit TV. The Koran says not to dress in order to attract the gaze of others, Ramadan was saying. American Muslim women sometimes protest that it’s because they wear the hijab on the streets of American cities that people stare at them. Ramadan’s reply, he tells the congregation, is “Yes, but it is not the same gaze.”
A veiled woman next to me repeats approvingly to her friend, “It’s not the same gaze.”
Nonetheless, Ramadan hastens to add that we misunderstand the Koran if we presume that women who veil are more pious than those who don’t, because how she expresses her spirituality should be a woman’s personal choice.
When Ramadan finishes speaking, the crowd starts to break up. On the TV, we can see the young men, as usual, gathering around Ramadan with their questions and reactions and the elation of meeting a mentor for the first time. The women, in endless varieties of the much-discussed hijab, occupy a separate space, in every sense concealed.
Ramadan does not approve of segregating mosques. He believes women should be permitted to interpret the Koran, and he waxes enthusiastic about Muslim feminist movements. It occurs to me to wonder exactly how many imams are likely to think like Ramadan does, even in a hypothetical reformed Islamist state.
Right now in Europe, however, there is a generation of Muslims hanging on Ramadan’s every word. Is he making moderates into Islamists, or Islamists into moderates? From a secular point of view, only the second option may be desirable. To Ramadan, however, the two processes are inseparable: They are two halves of a whole.