Tariq Ramadan -- a member of the world's most famous Islamist family, as the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan el-Banna -- spoke at Stanford University on April 12, 2011, in a lecture entitled, "The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism."
Sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, the event was packed, with people spilling out the auditorium doors and standing in the aisles. The audience of at least 250 appeared to consist largely of Muslims and non-students, most of whom hung on Ramadan's every word. In summing up the palpable awe of the audience, Stanford religious studies professor Shahzad Bashir, who gave the introduction, gushed that:
If ever there were a case where the speaker did not need an introduction or a very short one, it would be for Dr. Tariq Ramadan.
Ramadan is a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and despite his extensive writings on that subject, he adhered closely to the title of his talk, rarely mentioning religion until the question and answer session.
In the first of what would become a series of open-ended, philosophical questions, Ramadan began by asking the audience how to find meaning in the relatively short time they are given on earth. "What is the meaning [of all this]?" he asked rhetorically. After pausing for a moment, he added an unexpectedly blunt and morbid caveat: "One day you will not be able to pose that question -- because you are all going to die." The audience responded with nervous laughter.
Ramadan then lamented the lack of understanding between the ethnic majority populations in "pluralistic societies," or developed nations, and the minorities. He argued that education is the key to reconciliation: "You have to educate yourself . . . by [leaving your] comfort zone and [understanding] other traditions hands on." He pointed to the existence of "segregated societies" in the U.S., Britain, and other countries as evidence that many "pluralistic societies" were not rising to the occasion and that "the Anglo-Saxon model of hybrid identities is failing." He pointed favorably, however, to France's de facto model of allowing ethnic communities to form their own enclaves instead of integrating into French society. Perhaps he forgot about the 2005 teenage immigrant rampage through the banlieues or the recent ban on face-coverings. It seems that multiculturalism's sharp decline in popularity has yet to reach Ramadan.
He continued by delineating the three concepts that make up a peaceful and progressive society: humility, respect, and consistency. Humility, he explained, means believing that "the other [religious] traditions have something to give me. . . . [It] means listening first and then talking." Ramadan defined respect with the following sentiment: "Not only am I humble with what I think, but I acknowledge the fact that your opinion is legitimate, although I don't share it and I don't understand it." He contrasted respect with the concept of tolerance, arguing that "tolerance is about power" (as in, a superior deciding to tolerate an underling), while "respect is on an equal footing." Ramadan's description of the final dimension, consistency, deserves to be quoted in full if only because the world would be a more peaceful place if his radical co-religionists would take it to heart:
Consistency . . . is the relationship between humility and respect. [It] means that at the very moment you are sharing values and speaking about principles that are, for you, the best principles there are; you also are able to be critical with your fellow members of your tradition. . . . [It means] that you make the difference between what are your principles and where are they implemented. . . . What we have very often are people comparing their principles to the practices of the other. . . . When you compare your ideals with the practices of the other, you are always the winner.
Ramadan's point was that congratulating oneself for moral superiority over opponents is unhelpful and that judging cultural ideals against real practices is an unfair comparison. The problem with all this high-minded rhetoric is that Ramadan's behavior can hardly be called humble, respectful, or consistent. In 2004, he was banned from entering the U.S. after it was discovered that he had donated funds to a charity with ties to Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization designated as such by the European Union, Canada, Japan, and the U.S. His statements are littered with misleading historical inaccuracies
and conspiracy theories, including a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in which Ramadan questioned whether al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind the 9/11 attacks. As for consistency, French author Caroline Fourest was able to write an entire book,Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, detailing the contradiction between Ramadan's public support of diversity and respect and his active support of political Islamism.
He continued to describe difficult concepts such as suffering, love, and the end of life, while shying away from the politicized subjects on which his career has been built. In a blatant case of pandering, he implored his audience:
Don't forget to tell the people you love that you love them. . . . Profound love is the way by which you liberate yourselves and look at yourselves in a positive way.
That statement would have been beautiful if it had not come across as so painfully insincere. It could have been inscribed in a greeting card.
Similarly, Ramadan described all belief systems as essentially equal:
Think of it as a mountain. We all have the same top, but there are many ways to reach it. Humility is realizing my path is not the only one.
Though this is a wonderful concept that goes over well with audiences, Islam has shown over the centuries that it is forging a path to quite a different summit in quite a different manner from most of its counterparts -- something that Ramadan did not acknowledge.
Having apparently discovered his inner flower child, he added, "In every tradition, peace is the final goal. Peace within, peace without."
He then elaborated on the need for people to:
[R]ead books, read more, get a sense of history . . . [and] get a sense of religions. . . . Often when you ask other people about other religions they have no idea. Or they don't even know about their own religion. . . . A basic knowledge of religions is necessary if you are serious about pluralism.
When Ramadan next stated that, "in the Islamic tradition, philosophy was perceived as something which was against religion; which is completely wrong," he was exactly right. The influence of Enlightenment philosophy on Western Europe cannot be overstated, and an equivalent intellectual revolution never occurred in the Islamic world. If anything, the Enlightenment's analogue in the Middle East has been the rise of Islamism and violent jihadist groups, with Ramadan's grandfather being one of the latter's first leaders.
The question and answer session led to a thorough airing of the political views that had been previously gone unexamined. In response to a question about how "the weaker" such as "Palestinians, Muslims and blacks" should resist "oppression," Ramadan recounted how, as he put it, "when Israel was killing innocent people in Gaza," Switzerland chose to break its neutrality and take the side of the Palestinians; not to do so would have been to implicitly support the "oppressor." The implication was that if even neutral Switzerland decided to support the Palestinians, everyone should. He did not bring up Hamas's use of human shields or its deliberate choice to store weapons in hospitals and near U.N. buildings, nor did he mention Richard Goldstone's recent recantation on the entire official narrative of the Gaza War.
The obligatory question, "What is jihad?" also came up. Predictably, Ramadan responded by repeating the standard apologist line: "The meaning of jihad is not really war. . . . Jihad is to make peace with yourself." He then made the blatantly false statement that "the association of jihad with war is from the Crusades." On the contrary, Islamic jurisprudence has considered "jihad" a term for warfare since at least the tenth century, 100 years before the Crusades.
Finally, in response to an audience member asking how to respond to those Islamists who refuse to accept Ramadan's rosy view of reality, he stated that, "there are people in every single religion . . . [who] think dialogue is worthless. . . . In every religion there are people who are not ready for it." He then suggested, "You can sometimes challenge them by referring to the text." Unfortunately, it is by referring to the text -- the Koran -- that many Islamists have successfully recruited young Muslims to violent jihad around the world. Ramadan offered no solution to this problem.
It is no exaggeration to say that the world would be better off if everyone adhered to Ramadan's notions of humility, respect, and consistency. Such idealistic pronouncements, however, only serve to obfuscate the real issues facing the world today. It will take more than words, for instance, to stop the persecution of Christians across the Muslim world, the violence directed at Israel, the export of Wahhabi supremacism from Saudi Arabia, and the brutal Iranian theocracy. Ramadan would have done well to explain how his lofty "philosophy of pluralism" can be brought down to earth and used in real solutions to society's most intractable problems.
Jonathan Gelbart is a senior at Stanford University majoring in International Relations. He is the president of Students for an Open Society and former world news editor of the Stanford Review, an independent publication. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.