What the West Can Learn From Islam

In late September, I finally received a response to the question I had been asking the Bush administration for more than two years: Why was my work visa revoked in late July 2004, just days before I was to take up a position as a professor of Islamic studies and the Henry Luce chair of religion, conflict, and peace building at the University of Notre Dame? Initially neither I nor the university was told why; officials only made a vague reference to a provision of the U.S. Patriot Act that allows the government to exclude foreign citizens who have “endorsed or espoused terrorism.” Though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security eventually cleared me of all charges of links with terrorist groups, today it points to another reason to keep me out of the country: donations I made totaling approximately $900 to a Swiss Palestinian-support group that is now on the American blacklist. A letter I received from the American Embassy in Switzerland, where I hold citizenship, asserts that I “should reasonably have known” that the group had ties with Hamas.

What American officials do not say is that I myself had brought those donations to their attention, and that the organization in question continues to be officially recognized by the Swiss authorities (my donations were duly registered on my income-tax declaration). More important still is the fact that I contributed to the organization between 1998 and 2002, more than a year before it was blacklisted by the United States. It seems, according to American officials, that I “should reasonably have known” about the organization’s alleged activities before the Homeland Security Department itself knew!

I believe the administration refuses me entry into the United States because of my criticism of its Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel, which has led it to acquiesce in flouting Palestinian rights. And undeniably, some American groups that strongly support Israel and will allow no criticism of American foreign policy toward it have been highly critical of me. But academics, intellectuals, and organizations that have supported me — like the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Academy of Religion (I presented a keynote address to its annual meeting late last year by videoconference, since the administration would not let me enter the country to speak in person), the American Association of University Professors, and the PEN American Center — have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech, and they have continued to lend their weight to my legal appeal of the decision.

I am not the only person concerned. The “fear of ideas” that has taken root in the United States since September 11, 2001, with the refusal to grant visas to a number of academics and intellectuals, most of whom are Muslims, strikes at the very heart of American democracy. The muffling of critical opinion should be of immediate concern to all freethinking individuals. To accept such a state of affairs is to accept that the United States, in the name of the “global war on terror” and national security, requires all citizens to think the same way.

There are some subjects, so it seems, about which an American citizen or permanent resident must now maintain silence. A “moderate” Muslim, in particular, should never discuss the Middle East, the suffering of the Palestinians, or the arrogance of longstanding Israeli policy. To force people to accept such limitations is not only counterproductive, but, more important, it impoverishes the open debate American society so desperately needs. In an atmosphere of perpetual fear, tongues remain tied, while those who do encourage a thoroughgoing debate are simply expelled.

We must recognize that American society, like all Western societies, has changed. The diversity of its population has produced a diversity of political views with which we must come to terms, particularly with regard to the Middle East and to our relations with the countries that have an Islamic majority. Millions of Western citizens of the Muslim faith have brought a new outlook toward the world and toward Western policy. Their presence in our midst is a source of strength.

We in the West have entered a phase of transition, fraught with tension. Just as it is true that our societies must make major adjustments, it is equally essential that Muslims, who have been residing in the West for several generations, respond clearly to the challenges of the modern, secularized societies in which they have chosen to make their homes. For the last 20 years, I have been focusing my efforts on the ways that Muslims can live their lives in the West, becoming Western Muslims: Muslims by religion; American, British, French, German by culture.

To promote that view, I have found it necessary to revisit the Islamic scriptural sources. Some of what we highlight today as core principles of Islam derive from the specific cultures of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; we read our texts mainly against the backdrop of a period, since the 13th century, when Muslims in those areas were struggling against Western aggression. They emphasized withdrawing from the taint of the West and drew a border between two different worlds: “the abode of Islam” and “the abode of war.” That polarized understanding of the world, which relies on a specific reading of only some verses of the Quran and of Prophetic traditions, is outdated.

In my work of the last several years, including To Be a European Muslim (published in 1997 in Europe by the Islamic Foundation) and Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (published in French in 2003 and in English by Oxford University Press in 2004), I have examined the key factors leading to confusion in the minds of Muslims about living between one’s culture of origin and Islamic principles. I have attempted to show that one can be entirely European, or American, and Muslim (that is why I have written my books in Western languages). We all possess multiple identities, and we must, as a matter of necessity, put forward the values we share with our Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and atheist fellow citizens of our secularized societies. Social justice, for example, is essential. As the Quran mentions: “God commands you to be just.” So, too, rereading the scriptures sheds light on a concept of the citizen’s attitude toward the state that is compatible with modern life in the West: The Quran reinforces the idea of consultation when it speaks of the shura, which could be a council of advisers to the government: “The Muslims are those who consult each other regarding their affair.” The idea of consultation is also at the heart of Western democracy, and readers of the sources of Western tradition and of Islamic tradition may be surprised to find that the two are not so far different from each other.

We must turn our backs on a vision that posits “us” against “them” and understand that our shared citizenship is the key factor in building the society of the future together. We must move forward from integration — simply becoming a member of a society — to contribution — to being proactive and offering something to the society.

Since September 11, the shift in outlook I call for has become even more urgent. Fear, the obsession with security, and more recently the Danish cartoon crisis over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam’s “evil and inhuman” teachings have polarized the debate. In most Western societies, citizens increasingly speak in terms of us (Westerners) and them (Muslims) — and vice versa.

Therefore I have also tried to tie rereading the scriptures to how, in practice, Muslims can contribute to and be more visible in debates on topics like education, social and urban policy, or marginalization. It is crucial that today’s Western Muslims — men and women — make their voices heard on such issues; they must refuse to withdraw into religious, cultural, or social ghettos. They must no longer see themselves as a “minority.” What I am calling for is an “ethics of citizenship” that would encourage Muslims to make their decisions as citizens in the name of shared principles (competence, integrity, justice, etc.), not solely based on their religious identity.

At the grass-roots level, a “silent revolution” is already taking place in Muslim communities. In everyday life, millions of women and men are building connecting passageways; committing themselves at the social, political, and cultural level; giving shape to a new “we.” Muslims have been active, for example, in helping to produce and circulate the Rotterdam Charter. Initiated in 1996 in the Netherlands, and now being circulated for adoption in European nations, the charter pledges to develop and improve police services for a multiethnic society. In London, citizens’ groups from across the city are working to bring different communities together on common projects, including steps to end discrimination in the job market and in housing. The political debates and ideological confrontations among Western elites fail to embrace those fascinating processes that are emerging at the local level and obscure the living dynamics of encounter and dialogue that are flourishing at the grass roots.

Those processes, which have been accelerating over the last 15 years, are of enormous importance for the contemporary Muslim conscience. On the theoretical and juridical level, they oblige Muslim scholars (ulema) to return to the founding texts to derive new ways of understanding, fresh responses to the challenges of our age. Indeed, as American and European Muslims in the heart of our industrialized, postmodern societies confront complex scientific, economic, political, and cultural issues, they are not finding the answers they seek from the intellectual output of the ulema living in societies where Muslims form a majority. As a result, for the first time, we are witnessing the reversal of a trend: Western Muslims — by necessity of their environments, their new understandings, and their new initiatives — are beginning to have an influence on traditional Muslim societies. Ideas of civil society, of citizenship, of democracy, and of relations with Western secularized or non-Muslim societies are now openly discussed in many parts of the Muslim world; Western Muslims and those living in countries where Muslims are in the majority share in the central debate over what rights and freedoms citizens have. It is, I believe, clear that the experience of Muslims in the West has, and will increasingly have, an impact on traditional Muslim societies.

By the same token, the presence of Muslims in Western societies is of vital interest for those societies themselves. The West today runs a substantial risk of seeing itself as a monolithic whole, as a civilization based exclusively on Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian tradition, to whose specific nature Islam is an outsider. The presence of Muslims makes it imperative to reconsider that selective, erroneous historical construction. Over and above the dialogue of civilizations, the West must undertake a dialogue with itself and revisit the sources of its own intellectual, philosophical, and cultural tradition. People must begin to learn once again that Muslim thought, ever since the Middle Ages, has been an integral part of the construction of Western identity. The contributions of the 11th-century Persian theologian al-Ghazali to the development of the mystic tradition in Islam, and his approach to rationalism, have been widely debated among Western scholars; the integration of Islamic tradition with Greek thought by Islamic philosophers like Averroës in the 12th century continued to influence the Islamic and European worlds for hundreds of years. Similarly, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is widely known in the West for his influential theory of history and pioneering contributions to sociological constructions.

The Prophet of Islam occupies a particular place in the life and conscience of Muslims today, just as he did in the past. In my new book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet (Oxford), I have tried to present the life of the Prophet in a way that helps both Muslims and non-Muslims grasp Islamic spiritual teachings and adapt them to our times. My aim is to invite practicing Muslims to delve deeper into the meaning of the life of Muhammad, and non-Muslims to step back from their own universe and to understand, from within, all that lies at the heart of the faith, love and the deepest hopes of Muslims. I had originally planned to narrate a film tracing the footsteps of the Prophet for a British television station, but since two Arab governments have banned me from entering their territory for my views on Islam and their regimes, that proved impossible. Hence, I have written a “biography.”

From classical sources (for example, from Ibn Ishaq, the eighth-century Muslim historian who was the first to collect accounts of the journeys of Muhammad, and from Ibn Hisham, who later collected and commented on Ibn Ishaq’s work) to more recent accounts, much has been said about the life of God’s Messenger. My aim is not to bring new facts or revolutionary interpretations to light, but to highlight the Prophet’s spiritual teaching and show the significance of his example. According to Muslims, he received and transmitted the last revealed book, the Quran, which repeatedly insists on his eminent and singular position, all at once a prophet, a bearer of news, a model, and a guide. Muslims do not consider the Messenger of Islam a mediator between God and people. Each individual is invited to address God directly, and although the Messenger did sometimes pray to God on behalf of his community, he also insisted on each believer’s responsibility in his or her dialogue and relationship with the One.

During the first five years of Revelation, after the first Revelation in 610, the Quranic message had gradually taken shape around four main axes: the oneness of God, the status of the Quran, prayer, and life after death. The first Muslims were called to a profound and radical spiritual conversion, and that was well understood by opponents within their own clans who feared the considerable upheavals the new religion was bound to bring. A delegation came to the Prophet, and offered him goods, money, and power. He refused. When the time for the annual market period drew near, the clan chiefs posted men at the entrances to Mecca, to warn visitors against him. The Prophet was facing humiliation and mockery. Violence became more common, particularly as clan chiefs attacked poor Muslims and those who had no protection. The Prophet’s safety was ensured by his uncles Abu Talib and Hamzah, but that by no means extended to the spiritual community of Muslims. Muhammad set out to approach the chief of one of the clans, who had wide power. But he was interrupted by a blind man, poor and old, who had already converted to Islam and was asking him to recite some suras, or chapters, from the Quran for him. Anxious to make his case to the clan chief, Muhammad became irritated and turned away. The chief, full of contempt, eventually refused to even hear the matter.

As a result of this incident, a sura was revealed, requiring Muslims to draw a lesson from the incident for eternity:

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. He [the Prophet] frowned and turned away, because the blind man came to him. But what could you tell but that perhaps he might grow in purity? or that he might receive admonition, and the reminder might profit him? As to one who regards himself as self-sufficient, you attend to him, though it is no blame to you if he does not grow in purity. But as to he who came to you striving earnestly, and with fear [in his heart], of him you were unmindful. By no means [should it be so]! For it is indeed a message of remembrance. Therefore let who will, keep it in remembrance.

The Prophet, moved by his desire to protect his community, is reproached by his Educator. Seeking the protection of a person of distinction, socially and politically useful, Muhammad had neglected a poor man, apparently of no significance to his cause, who was asking for spiritual solace. That mistake, that moral slip, is recorded in the Quran, which through the story teaches Muslims never to neglect a human being, never to turn away from the poor or treat them without dignity, never to compromise principles in the pursuit of wealth or faith in a political strategy. The Prophet was never to forget that teaching, and he repeatedly invoked God, saying: “O God, we implore You to grant us piety, dignity, [spiritual] wealth, and love of the poor.”

Thus the Prophet is a model for Muslims through both the excellence of his behavior and the weaknesses of his humanity. The echoes non-Muslims hear help show that more unites us than divides us, and that the life of the Prophet, which stands as a veritable introduction to Islam, can open new perspectives for greater mutual knowledge, dialogue, and encounter.

For Muslims, the Prophet’s life demonstrates first and foremost the importance of love; how crucial it is that Muslims do not reduce their fellow Muslim citizens to the narrow definition of “problems” or “threats.” For non-Muslims in the West, the Prophet’s life should be a reminder of the value of respect. The presence of Muslims is a test for their societies: Much is made of pluralism, of equality, of racial nondiscrimination, and yet a great many Western societies have chosen to apply an “ethnic” or “Islamic” label to social problems rather than devising political and social responses to social crises. The upshot is that Muslims, even though they are citizens, are seen as a problem rather than as partners in a solution. It is inevitable that we find ourselves in a period of tension. Yet, paradoxically, the outcome of contemporary strain in Western societies may well be positive, an occasion to renew their commitment to true diversity.

Seeking out what Muslims love, how they love, and the nature of their aspirations can be the beginning of a difficult but respectful encounter. Far from political debates and politicians, that encounter brings us back to the essentials: learning how to respect the feelings, the loves, and the complexities of those who do not share our faith, nor our entire memory, but with whom we must build a future together.

That is the task to which I have devoted my energies for many years. It was precisely that experience that I have hoped to share with Americans, both in the academic field and on the political and social level. In the view of the current administration, my criticism of American foreign policy has disqualified my work, which I continue to believe deeply relevant to American society. Over and above political decisions to banish or to exclude, we must refuse to accept the notion that borders can stop the free exchange of ideas.

Tariq Ramadan, formerly a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, is a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College and at the Lokahi Foundation for interfaith research and education in London, as well as a visiting professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. He is president of the European Muslim Network, in Brussels. His most recent book is In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons From the Life of Muhammad, published this month by Oxford University Press.