Islam’s European Reformation?

 
 

The controversial Tariq Ramadan’s latest book promotes a “Western” version of Islam. Is he the “Muslim Martin Luther”?

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Late last month, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton lifted a six-year visa ban on the Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan, an Oxford professor and Europe’s premier voice of reformist Islam, had been prohibited by the Bush administration from entering the U.S. on the grounds that he had given money to the Palestinian militant group Hamas – a charge he vigorously denied. Ever since, Ramadan has polarized public opinion in both America and Europe: the left lauds him as a “Muslim Martin Luther,” while the right demonizes him as an extremist in sheep’s clothing. Despite the passionate debate, neither side has shown much interest in the substance of Ramadan’s message – conveniently summarized in his concise new book, What I Believe (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Ramadan wrote What I Believe as “a work of clarification.” In it, he emphasizes that his goal is to fashion a distinctively “Western” expression of Islam that does not require Muslims to choose between their national identities and their religious one. According to Ramadan, a person can be both fully Muslim and fully French, British, or German; these multiple identities shift and blend depending on the situation we face.

Ramadan’s intellectual agenda reflects his own unconventional upbringing: his maternal grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical group that championed the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt and which launched the modern era of Islamist politics. Ramadan’s father, Said, was one of al-Banna’s senior deputies, and after al-Banna’s death, he went into exile with his family in Geneva. There, he committed his life to preserving and disseminating al-Banna’s legacy. The first of Said Ramadan’s children born in Europe was Tariq. Caught between the Islamist cauldron of Egypt and cosmopolitan Geneva, Tariq grew up parsing his multiple and seemingly competing identities. As he writes, “I am Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, Muslim by religion, European by culture, [and] universalist by principle.”

After a secular education at the University of Fribourg and religious training at Al-Azhar University in Cairo (the global center of Sunni learning), Ramadan made a name for himself  in the nineties as an expert on European Islam. It was a prescient concern. By that time, it was clear that the latest waves of immigrants—mainly Muslims from North Africa, Turkey, and south Asia, who had come to Europe to jumpstart manufacturing industries left crippled by the war—were not integrating properly. Despite having lived in Europe for decades and even having raised a new generation there, Europe’s immigrant Muslims were steeped in social, economic, and religious discontent. The discontent was exacerbated by widespread unemployment, low rates of education, and a seeming unwillingness to engage with the culture of their new countries. Most disturbingly, the malaise encouraged some young Muslims to experiment with rigid, literalist interpretations of their faith—expressions of Islam that promoted the use of Islamic law, sanctioned honor killings, and even condoned terrorism in the name of religion.

This powderkeg has prompted deep reflection among white Europeans and the European Muslims who live among them: Is Islam fundamentally opposed to European values? How can governments integrate groups unwilling to desegregate themselves? Is Europe a secular or religious continent? These represent the signal questions facing Europe today; and for much of the past fifteen years, Tariq Ramadan has been at the center of the debate.

Ramadan’s fame owes not only to his timely academic interests. He has also attracted considerable controversy. His connections to the Muslim Brotherhood have earned him deep suspicion. Meanwhile, in a 2004 book the French journalist Caroline Fourest chronicled examples of Ramadan’s alleged “double-speak”: instances of Ramadan modifying, even contradicting himself before Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, preaching a liberal message of integration, at the same time urging Muslims to resist European culture. Among his most notorious statements came during a 2003 debate with current French president Nicholas Sarkozy, in which Ramadan called for a “moratorium” on stoning, refusing to support an outright ban.

Despite the rancorous debate surrounding Ramadan’s true beliefs it is worth trying, at least for a moment, to separate the ideas from the man and ask whether Ramadan offers a workable solution to Europe’s “Muslim problem.” Fundamentally, Ramadan’s project focuses on integration. He wants to see Europe’s Muslim communities become full participants in their adoptive cultures, such that “Muslim” and “European” are regarded as complementary identities. Islamic and European values rest on a common bedrock of moral teachings, he argues, grounded in the pursuit of “justice, solidarity, and human dignity.” Acknowledging these shared principles could contribute to several goals: ending the tug-of-war many Muslims sense between their Islamic and European identities reconciling native Europeans with the immigrants who live among them; and building a multi-cultural society where difference flourishes among common civic principles.

Establishing common ground is key if Islam is to become a true interlocutor in the European conversation. To that end, Ramadan urges Muslims to distinguish between the cultural trappings of their faith, which tend to separate them from their new countries, and the essence of their faith, which has the potential to transcend cultures and continents. Many of the most troubling practices in Europe’s Muslim communities—such as stoning or genital mutilation—are “un-Islamic” in Ramadan’s view. They represent vestiges of Algerian, Egyptian, or Pakistani culture that immigrants have failed to jettison as they have settled in their new lands. So long as these groups continue to huddle in ethnic ghettos, resisting pressure to join the mainstream, they will cling to these practices.

Ramadan’s solution is to develop a new “Western Islam”—a radical “reconstruction” of the faith that upholds core beliefs shared by all Muslims, but which also embraces important European values, such as freedom of religion and respect for women. If history furnishes any clues, Ramadan’s “Western Islam” could become a reality one day. Over the centuries, Islam has proven remarkably durable and dynamic, capable of spreading among diverse cultures and across far-flung continents. From the first hundred years, when Muslim armies carved out an empire stretching from Portugal to China, to the fourteenth century, when Sufi missionaries began preaching deep in southeast Asia, to our modern day, when mosques rise around Detroit, Paris, and Rome, Islam has shown itself adept at inhabiting new cultures as it maintains its strong sense of self. While the situation in Europe may appear grim at the moment, there is ample precedent throughout history of Islam’s ability to adapt—even if it often entailed conquest.

On balance, Tariq Ramadan presents an attractive solution for Europe’s “Muslim problem.” Europe’s Muslim communities are not leaving anytime soon, so the present gridlock between them and the European mainstream must come to an end one way or another. There are far worse outcomes than what Ramadan proposes. Yet What I Believe suffers from a few key weaknesses.

First and foremost, for a work of clarification, What I Believe does little to dispel the most trenchant criticisms leveled at Ramadan: his alleged sympathies toward the Muslim Brotherhood and instances of double-speak. He dismisses them offhand, writing, “I will not waste my time here trying to defend myself.” While Ramadan understandably may not want to spend the entire book answering attacks, criticisms leveled against him are deep and detailed, and warrant more than the brief retorts we read.

Second, Ramadan goes to great lengths to portray European Muslims as peaceable, upstanding citizens. This is clearly a corrective to the Islamophobia that festers among certain sectors of the European public. For the vast majority of Muslims, Ramadan is undoubtedly right: Many immigrants have made the transition from Algeria, Turkey, or Pakistan with remarkable ease and now lead successful, stable lives in Europe. But Ramadan seems unwilling to concede that one of the biggest problem facing Europe’s Muslims may not be integration per se, but rather, the temptations toward fundamentalism and violence. Ramadan deals with these explicitly only once in a chapter on “Challenges,” where he commits a paragraph to describing them. Individuals such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—the Christmas-Day bomber radicalized during his time at University College London—may be few in number, but they are the fruit of a broader culture that, at its worst, sanctions extremism, and at best, finds it difficult to denounce or defuse it.

The book’s third shortcoming concerns identity politics. Throughout, Ramadan argues that Muslims must be given a sense of belonging in European culture if they are ever truly to integrate. But as he reads the accounts narrated in textbooks, university syllabi, and popular culture, he finds a biased version of European history that excludes the achievements of Muslims. If Muslims do appear in the story, it is often as the ominous “other” lurking in the background as Europe undertakes its grand march from “Plato to NATO.”

For Ramadan, this traditional plotline is not only misleading, but also dangerous. It dismisses the major contributions of Islam to European civilization, especially the role of Muslim philosophers in transmitting classical learning to the medieval West. By denying these contributions, he argues, modern-day European Muslims are made to feel like second-class citizens in a civilization their ancestors helped to  build, but for which they get no credit.

In principle, Ramadan is correct: without Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna or Averroes, there would have been neither medieval Scholasticism nor the Renaissance. These contributions are substantial, and cannot be underestimated. Yet at the same time, to portray Islam as a constitutive part of Europe, a distinctively European achievement, or a core aspect of European identity from the beginning, is itself a misleading brand of revisionist history. To be sure, Islam played a huge role in the formation of Europe, but primarily as Europe’s existential rival and occasional collaborator. Islam is part of Europe’s modern identity, but it need not justify its place today by rewriting the past. As religious observance declines across Europe and the continent loses touch with its Christian roots, now is precisely the moment to recover a sense of historical self, not dilute it further.

This was part of the message in Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg, where he urged Europeans to recover their true cultural identity—an identity the Pope grounded in the twin legacies of Greek philosophy and Christian faith. For Ramadan, this approach is both reductionist and exclusive, for it essentializes a rich, textured history in order to protest the bugaboo of the multi-cultural present.

But Ramadan misses the point of Benedict’s speech, which in fact contains a kernel of wisdom that might be useful for Europe’s Muslims too. Over the centuries, Christianity has succeeded by translating the philosophical principles undergirding the faith into good public policy. It is no coincidence that secular ideologies such as universal human rights or economic subsidiarity took root in the Christian West; they represent political extensions of Christian ethics. Muslims need to consider the same principles that undergird their faith, and imagine how these principles can help them live as citizens in their new European environment. The currency of debate in Europe is not the Qur'an or the sayings of the Prophet, but the rational convictions enshrined therein. Islam has the intellectual resources in its past to excavate these principles; it just needs to relocate them.

Tariq Ramadan is an optimist, and in these times filled with apocalyptic predictions about “Londonistan” or the minarets of Notre Dame, it is refreshing to hear some good forecasts. Still, Ramadan’s optimism may also be his greatest weakness: In his eagerness to shrink the chasm between Europe and Islam, he seems to have lost sight of their fundamental and abiding differences. Thus, he succumbs to the temptations of flaccid ecumenism, which compels no one to reexamine his fundamental assumptions. Islam is not some exotic form of continental philosophy we can simply drop into the European equation and expect to balance effortlessly. Rather, it is a significantly different variable—and balancing this equation will take a lot more than liberal readings of the Qur'an mixed with a dose of Enlightenment thought. But the existence of a chasm between Europe and Islam does not necessarily entail the spread of bigotry or segregation. Neither group needs to whitewash its convictions or rewrite its past in order to live together. Islam has the power to enrich civil society in Europe—it can begin by identifying first principles it shares with the cultures around it.

Christian Sahner, a Rhodes Scholar, is presently a doctoral candidate in History at Princeton University. In May 2009, he worked with Tariq Ramadan on a symposium on religion and politics at the University of Oxford.

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