A Man with Qualities

A Man with Qualities

He is one of the most outspoken intellectuals today in Europe who is dismissed as too modern by the orthodox and too traditional by secularists. Meet Tariq Ramadan, 47, a cult figure with his good looks and gift of the gab
Mehru Jaffer Vienna

Tariq Ramadan, 47, is interesting because he is one of those rare people who tries very hard to be the change that he wants to see in the world. And unlike his grandfather Hassan al-Banna and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, the professor of Islamic studies favours secular education for Europe’s Muslims. And this non-conformist clarity is bound to spill over into theory and praxis this new year, across 2010, as yet another annual new journey of a new and vibrant debate in Europe.

Grandfather al Banna wanted a ban on all western influences in education and called for religious education in Egypt. Ramadan explains that al Banna was a freedom fighter and intrinsically anti- colonial. His was propagating spiritual resistance against colonialism, but he also believed in a British style parliamentary system for a free Egypt.

Ramadan’s Swiss wife has converted to Islam and their children attend government schools. He is often accused of trying to impose Islam on the West. He, however, begs to differ. To be engaged in a reasoned but traditional approach to life is no crime, he says.

This student of French literature, German philosophy and lover of Fyodor Dostoevsky has discovered that Islam offers values as universal as the European Enlightenment. For him, his religious practice and Islamic identity is very precious. It keeps him grounded in morals and ethics so familiar to him from childhood.

The Geneva-born Ramadan professes that his faith is Islam, his home Switzerland and his culture European. He chooses to protect his Muslim identity, he respects the western constitutional structure and he is loyal to the country he belongs.

He is European and yes he is also Muslim. He does not tire of repeating that there is no contradiction in being European and Muslim on a continent that seems to suffer from a serious bout of Islamophobia.

His appeal to fellow Europeans is to first ask themselves, do they really practise European values? If they do, then they should let others live and dress the way they want to.

Ramadan is often asked to advise the European Union and governments on Islamic matters. When the French authorities wanted to know if the wearing of the burqa is a religious duty or a means of oppressing women, Ramadan replied that there is no obligation to wear the burqa in Islam and there are men who do force their wives to wear the burqa against their will. Ramadan’s advice to the French is that the country should let citizens follow the rules of modesty if they want to.

In the spirit of universal human rights, he promotes the right of Muslim women to wear the veil on campus in France – if they so wish.

For secular Europeans to try and force spirituality and religion out of the life of other Europeans is not the spirit of European Enlightenment. Ramadan would like European Muslims to integrate but it is up to the individual to define what that means. He insists that Muslims should abide by the law of the land but no law should be used to force a human being to do anything against his will. He demands the right of Muslims in Europe to practice their faith and tradition.

Simultaneously, Ramadan believes that religious principles revealed in the Quran are universal and he angers the orthodox by insisting on a reinterpretation of the scriptures. 

The message of his religion, he says, is justice but he lives in a world order that is unjust. His resistance is against injustice. He is critical of the northern model of development that has forced the majority in the world to remain poor and deprived.

Ramadan wrote his PhD on the notion of suffering in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. Over time, his views have earned him many admirers.

Jürgen Habermas, German philosopher and great teacher, is one of them. Habermas has appeared at public dialogue events with Ramadan and he admits that Europe finds Muslims difficult. The Christian, and secular majority culture, particularly in Germany, knows how hard it is for it to practise European values and how reliant it has always been on pressure from outside to learn tolerance.

Europe nurses an evolving identity and the distrust of new arrivals is rooted in Europe’s distrust of itself. There is a great deal of fear and a palpable mistrust of Islam in Europe due mainly to lack of knowledge. There is suspicion of the other as Islam is seen as expansionist. ‘These people want to Islamise me’, is a real European fear felt by atheists, Christians and secularists alike.

Ramadan finds the fear of non Muslims unjustified. He claims that Islam is already a Swiss and European religion and that Muslim citizens are integrated on the continent.

There are common problems faced by people in Europe, both Muslim and non Muslim, like unemployment, poverty and violence. It is up to the Europeans to accept this fast changing reality instead of blaming Islam for the problems they face and wishing that Islam would go away from the continent.

While populist politicians in Europe try to create a rift between Muslims and non Muslim Europeans, Ramadan also blames Muslims for their lack of courage in being positively visible in western societies. He encourages Muslims to talk and debate fearlessly. He talks of tact and dignity.

He would like Muslims to make their life a living example for those around them. He advocates active engagement of Muslims with the non Muslim world and a creative participation of Muslims in all aspects of European society. He would like European Muslims to reach out to Muslims in other parts of the world and help them if possible.

He has no time for violence. He says only non violence and negotiations are a solution. He understands that often people resort to violence but he does not justify violence. He condemns suicide bombings and also the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

After the November 29 referendum when more than 57 per cent of Swiss voted to ban the construction of new minarets, Ramadan had wailed, what is happening in Switzerland, the land of my birth?

The campaign against minarets in Switzerland had appealed to popular fears and emotions. Posters featured a woman wearing a burqa with minarets drawn like weapons on a colonised Swiss flag and it was propagated that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Swiss values.

The Swiss decision to ban minarets has shocked Europe and raised concerns about the identity of an entire continent, exposing deep fears about Islam. The problem is not in Switzerland alone. Surveys show that 44 per cent of Germans oppose the construction of minarets, followed by 41 per cent of the French. Fifty-five per cent of all Europeans see Islam as an intolerant religion.

The truth is that the fear of Islam will grow if people do not speak out openly about their fears and the place of Islam in Europe. Around 15 million Muslims live within the walls of the European Union. Muslims are three per cent of the total population here and Islam is becoming visible.

But, instead of openly talking about the place of Islam on the continent, Muslims are being targeted with symbols. In France the issue is the headscarf, in Germany mosques, in Britain terrorism, in Denmark cartoons, in Switzerland minarets and in Holland homosexuality.

To overcome this paranoia, a serious series of debates that rise above petty symbols are a critical need.

Ramadan quotes surveys showing that 80 per cent of European immigrants from Islamic countries are not practising Muslims. Most religious issues, so often presented as integration problems, are thus irrelevant for them. Yet, they are eyed with mistrust and exposed to a climate of suspicion.

Paying taxes, health insurance and social security, fulfilling their obligations as citizens and obeying the law is not enough. Anyone with a different skin colour, an unfamiliar name, perhaps even difficulties with the language, is compelled to provide proof of their loyalty at every turn.

Ramadan is perhaps one of the most outspoken intellectuals today who is dismissed as too modern by the orthodox and too traditional by secularists. He is accused of hijacking the inter-religious dialogue as occasions to explain the meaning of the Quran to non Muslims.

Fellow Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali born Dutch intellectual and well known critic of Islam, accuse Ramadan of using his good looks and gift of the gab to mislead and confuse young Muslims with ‘doublespeak’. Like Ramadan, Ali stands for universal values, but she finds no solace in Islam. To Ramadan, Ali’s criticism of Islam appears obsessive, excessive and unilateral.

Despite the bouquets, brickbats and death threats, Ramadan continues to talk fearlessly about the futility of the growing fear against Islam. He is worried about western perceptions and is critical of the way Muslim communities represent themselves to the world.

Ramadan’s view of the world is traditional but it is also rational. For instance, Ian Buruma, one of Europe’s most illustrious academic and writer, often finds Ramadan’s values neither secular nor liberal, but are they part of a ‘holy war’ against western democracy. Ramadan’s views are an alternative to violence and that is reason enough, suggests Buruma, to engage in a critical dialogue with him, without fear or prejudice.

On this new year, that makes sense.