Ramadan: European Muslims should not identify with just one identity
|Sunday, September 27,2009 15:32|
Known as a philosopher and Islamic scholar, nearly any book Ramadan writes or statement he makes becomes a topic of frequent discussion. As is known, last month he was dismissed from his job at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands because of his involvement in a television program on Iran's Press TV over the past year. Ramadan is currently a professor at Oxford University. We had the opportunity to speak with him during the colloquium titled “Muslim Media and Muslims in the Media” organized two weeks ago in Potsdam. We asked him questions that are on the minds of European Turks and Turkey's friends.
Here is the interview, as translated from Turkish:
Dr. Ramadan, your dismissal from Rotterdam University due to a television program despite the fact that you are a leading Muslim intellectual in Europe makes us question Europe's standards on freedom of conscience. In this respect, can you share with us your thoughts on the course of freedom of the press in Europe?
As European and Western Muslims, we all know about the right named “freedom of expression” in the countries we live in. I was born in Switzerland. I lived in and visited many different European countries. I've also been in predominantly Muslim countries as well. There is something called the freedom of expression. You can freely express your thoughts and criticize other people's thoughts as well. But the point we have reached today is truly thought provoking.
Particularly after Salman Rushdie and Denmark's caricature issue, some people have been adamantly arguing that freedom of expression is an absolute right, especially when the issue has to do with Muslims. What we are saying is that the freedom to express yourself was not and cannot be an absolute right. If there is racism or if words directly insult someone, then the limits of the freedom of expression have been reached. That means this right has limits. But still, a portion of people take advantage of loopholes in the law against Muslims. For example, using libelous statements against handicapped people is not prohibited by the law. But because the law does not grant protection [to these people] does not mean that it's OK to hurt their feelings. You cannot put emotions and ethics aside.
New anti-discrimination laws not needed
Now there are two trends concerning this issue in Europe. The first is freedom of expression is an unlimited and absolute right. The second is putting Muslims in such a situation that regardless of the type of reaction you show, it will mean a blow to the freedom of expression. This is not the fact of the matter. This attitude may be legal, but it is not humane. The truth is that there is no need for new legislation over this issue in Europe. Enforcing the current laws would be enough. Implementing these laws when foreigners are discriminated [against] and Muslims are attacked would be enough. By this I mean that even if statements are made within the legal framework, the common sense we use to understand each other must be taken into consideration.
One last point, I am not trying to say that all Muslims are people that are absolutely beyond criticism. Of course we are going to be criticized. We don't evaluate every criticism within the context of Islamophobia. We certainly need to distinguish between these two points. As I said during the conference, if you have trust in people, then freedom of expression is an honor, a privilege. But if you do not have trust, then freedom can become a weapon you use against your counterpart.
It is clear that your dismissal from Rotterdam University was unfair, and you have indicated that you will pursue this issue at a legal level. If the legal conclusion is not what you wish, are you considering taking it to the European Court of Human Rights? Can you elaborate on this a little?
I was dismissed from Rotterdam University within the one-day-and-a-half open door time period. I was on vacation at that time. They had a preliminary copy of the speech I made on Iranian Press TV in their hand. I have told some members of the press as well [that] while I was hosting the program on Iranian television, the pressure applied on European members of the press was not applied on me in any way. I selected the topics as I wished, and I invited any guest I wanted. Let me share with you an experience I had on a television program in Europe. The host of the program was constantly receiving directions, and he was trying to guide me in line with those directions. I said to the guy: “Look, I have never been placed in the situation that you are in on Iranian television. I can truly freely express myself, but you cannot. I am free, but you are not.”
I think another important point is that when I signed a contract with the university, I was hosting programs. No one forbade me from doing them nor did they include that as a condition in the contract. Moreover, they know that I have been against the Iranian political regime for the last 20 years. I have criticized this several times. Yes, I took my dismissal to court, and the trial will proceed within the domestic law of the Netherlands for now. My lawyer says that we have a legitimate case. That is clear, but the university and its administrators are truly upset over it, and that does not make our job any easier. If we don't get the expected result from the national court, then certainly I will try international ways. I will not be unresponsive to my firing. This is not just about my dignity. Of course they tainted my reputation, but I think I set an example for everyone, especially European Muslims, that has been victimized in the same way. Anyone that is in the same position must take action. They must utilize legal channels. Respect yourself so people can respect you.
You are an advisor on integration and identity for many organizations. As you know, European states have a more religion-based understanding of the Muslim identity. Neither Pakistanis nor Turks nor Arabs are identified as an ethnic minority. They are not bestowed minority rights. Generally speaking, they are expected to unite around the Muslim identity. In your opinion, where should ethnic identity stand? What should the real identity of Muslims of immigrant origin be?
I have spoken with Muslim friends, whether from Canada or Europe, about this issue several times. Actually, we have multiple identities. For example, I am of Egyptian descent. I am Egyptian by memory, European by culture, Muslim by religion, Swiss by nationality and universalist in my principles. So which of these identities is the most important? Well it depends on the situation. If I am going to vote, then I am Swiss because I am a citizen of Switzerland. If you ask me about the meaning of life and death, then I am a Muslim because I believe in Islam's teachings about those issues. The primary identity depends on the necessities of the situation. I always say do not fall into the trap of describing yourself with just one identity or describing yourself with an identity that your counterpart does not recognize. If I have to absolutely define myself, then I have six different identities in six different dimensions. This does not pose a problem or a dilemma.
Islam in Turkey
Islam is practiced in Turkey or in other words there are Turks' experiences with Islam. What do you think about Muslim Turks? What are the differences between Turkish Muslims and their Arab and Iranian brothers?
In terms of being a Muslim, they all have a Muslim identity. But in terms of being a Turk, the culture is Turkish. I visit Turkey very often. It's impossible to talk about a single type of person in Turkey. It changes according to what part of Turkey you're in. Some places you go to, you see that the people in Turkey protect Islam more than any other Muslim country. Then on the other hand, there are people that have lost touch with their roots. There are some places in ?stanbul where you cannot help but ask, am I really in a country where the majority is Muslim or am I in a place that has been colonized by Western culture? You see some people that religiously have a Muslim identity and culturally a Turkish identity, but have a culture that has been colonized by the West. Actually, I don't really have a problem with that if cultural colonization was preferred, if people consciously chose to be that way, but if they were dragged into it, then there is a problem. I was in Turkey this past Ramadan. I visited mosques, and I felt a strong sense of being Muslim. But I also saw people eating and drinking during the day as if they have nothing to do with Islam. That means Turkey is not a simple, but a complex society. Take, for example, the European Union. Of course wanting to join it is a nice thought, but before that, the Turkish people need to ask themselves this question: What do we want to be in the future? Are we a bridge? Or are we going to be the first country to be colonized? The answer to this question is very important. Turkey's heritage is grand. ?stanbul's history is captivating. Its past is very magnificent, and I would like for it to always be that way. I would not want it to fall prey to a non-spiritual industrial development.
I would also like to learn about your thoughts on the Justice and Development Party [AK Party], which is in power in Turkey right now. Do you think AK Party politics serve as a bridge between Europe and Muslims? How much of what they have promised has actually happened?
They are trying to find a middle ground between the standards set by Europe and the country's tension. They have developed a positive understanding about European criteria over the last 10 years. I think this is a very important development. But they are being forced to struggle with forces that are against the European harmonization policies which they are trying to implement. Under the pressure of especially the military and some civil society organizations and gangs, the situation has become very fragile. In fact the party can barely speak about some Islam-related issues which other political parties can easily discuss. They are afraid of becoming a target. They are being attacked by those who only see the system's secular structure. When undersigning new plans, they should not engage in an activity at the expense of losing Turkey's values. In this sense, there is a serious need for transparency. Their actions should be taken, not because of pressure, but because of choice and democracy.
Turks in Germany
Turkish Muslims in Germany in particular are showing more interest in education and are starting to open up private schools. Is this something peculiar? Or something that is a must?
Frankly, I don't support the idea of a private school. I think in the future Muslim primary education centers should be the schools attended by the majority. Muslim students and non-Muslim students should be able to come together at these schools. One should not become a foreigner to his own countrymen in the same country. But of course there are restrictions in state schools on teaching religion and learning ethnic languages. But still I think those kinds of needs can be compensated in afterschool courses. We should not build parallel societies.
The truth is that it varies according to the philosophy of the education that will be provided. There are two points, a Muslim school and a school which Muslims go to. These are two different things. I believe a school that Muslims go to will bring about a separatist approach. But that won't be an issue in a school opened by Muslims and that is open to the society in general. This problem is not an issue especially in schools opened by people who support the Gülen movement because these schools are completely open to the society. As long as they are open to the world and society, they are good for the society.