Tariq Ramadan challenged an audience of Washington and Lee students, faculty, alumni and community members on Thursday to recognize the hidden ways in which rights and justice are unequally applied.
Ramadan spoke of national narratives that continue to exclude some citizen groups.
"It's not verbalized; it's not legalized," Ramadan said. "Anything that has to do with populism, with nationalism, is dealing with this."
Ramadan led the kick-off event of the W&L Roger Mudd Center for Ethics' Equality and Difference lecture series with a talk entitled "Equality As a Social Requirement and a Human Ideal."
Ramadan serves as the HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University and holds degrees in philosophy, French literature and Arabic and Islamic Studies. In 2004, Time included Ramadan among the 100 most influential people in the world today.
Angela Smith, Roger Mudd Professor of Ethics and Professor of Philosophy, said in an email that Ramadan was chosen as the inaugural speaker of the Mudd Center lecture series because of his work in connecting religious and secular arguments.
"He aims to speak to both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens in Western and Muslim-majority countries, and to build bridges between what he refers to as 'two universes of reference,'" Smith said.
Smith introduced Ramadan before his lecture. She noted that his work as a reformist scholar between citizens of Western societies and between Western and Muslim societies has caused some controversy.
Ramadan addressed this notion of controversy by reminding the audience at the outset of his lecture of the debate surrounding its topic, noting the different forms, traditions and religious references ascribed to equality.
"Equality itself is a contested notion," Ramadan said.
Ramadan described several different factors on which equal rights and justice might break down: class, race and color and gender. He emphasized the importance of race and color in a national narrative, saying that it is impossible "to deal with the United States of America without whiteness and blackness."
He went on to describe his first encounter with the United States, stating that when talking with members of the African American community, the question was not whether they were citizens but how as citizens they were treated.
Ramadan noted his own background as a Muslim living in Europe, saying that he has been considered by some to be "too much Muslim to be a true citizen."
Instead of differentiating people or a national narrative by categories, Ramadan urged that members of a pluralistic society turn to unifying beliefs. He noted that oppression is based on dehumanization.
"We need to come to philosophical and spiritual discussions about what makes us human beings," he said.
In the Q&A session after Ramadan's lecture, an audience member asked a question about his personal view of homosexuality. Ramadan responded by saying that disagreement is the starting point of a pluralistic society.
"But don't ask the people to go against their conscience," Ramadan said. "That's not going to work in a pluralistic society."
Alice Kilduff, '18, attended Ramadan's lecture. She said she considered his message to be conventional.
"I think it was timely," Kilduff said. "But whether or not it was revolutionary, I'm not sure."