In my 20 years of studying and teaching philosophy, I have learned to appreciate the inherent difficulty in defining and recognizing "the truth." Descartes put it simply: "A clear and obvious idea is true"; Kant aptly added "consistency" as a needed element. My life experience over the past 15 years enabled me to appreciate yet another definition.
In today's world of communication and mass media, truth is not firstly based on coherence and clarity, but rather on frequency. Here, a repeated hypothesis or suspicion becomes a truth; a three-time-repeated assumption imperceptibly becomes a fact. There is no need to check because "it is obvious"; after all, "we have heard it many times" and "it is being said everywhere."
Lately, I have been going through an interesting experience. I am constantly being told "the truth" about who I am: "You are a controversial figure"; "you engage in double-talk, delivering a gentle message in French and English, and a radical - even extremist - one in Arabic, or to a Muslim audience in private"; "you have links with extremists, you are an anti-Semite"; "you despise women" etc.
When I ask about the source of this information, invariably the response is: This is well-known, it is everywhere, check the Internet and you will find thousands of pages referring to this.
A closer examination reveals that what we have is journalists or intellectuals quoting each other, conclusively reporting and infinitely repeating what others said yesterday, with caveats. Rather than using this as an occasion for reflection, the response to this finding is usually: "Well, there has to be some truth in all that."
Strange truth, indeed! I have written more than 20 books and about 800 articles; 170 tapes of lectures are circulating, and I keep asking my detractors: Have you read or listened to any of my material? Can you prove your allegations? To repeat them is not to prove. Where is the evidence of my double-talk? Have you read any of the numerous articles where I call on Muslims to unequivocally condemn radical views and acts of extremism?
How about my statements of Sept. 13, 2001, calling on Muslims to speak out, to condemn the terrorist attacks and acknowledge that some fellow Muslims are betraying the Islamic message?
What about the articles in which I condemn anti-Semitism, criticizing those Muslims who do not differentiate between the political Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the unacceptable temptation to reject the Jews simply because they are Jews?
Are you familiar with my chapters and taped lectures promoting women's rights and a revival leading to an Islamic feminism, and rejecting every kind of mistreatment (domestic violence, forced marriage, female circumcision etc.) and all sorts of discrimination?
Finally, are you acquainted with my extensive study of the Islamic scriptural sources and efforts to promote a new understanding, a new way for Muslims to remain faithful to their principles and, at the same time, able to face the challenges of the contemporary world?
To seek "the truth," one must read, listen carefully, check and recheck for clarity and consistency, and be willing, if for a moment, to be decentred. Very often, even within the academic field, I encounter individuals who are not familiar with my writings. When this becomes obvious in the course of discussion, their final argument is: "Well, aren't you the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood?" As if this was sufficient proof of all the allegations.
My response is: So what? And what do you really know about him and his life history anyway? Furthermore, are one's thoughts genetically transmitted or do one's morals and ethics descend from the vices or virtues of one's pedigree? This obsession with my genealogy is frankly disconcerting, for it is dismissive. Those so focused on my genealogy should examine my intellectual pedigree, which along with my grandfather and father includes Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche.
They should know my academic contributions and the years I spent travelling and working in partnership and on the ground with Dom Helder Camara, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Abbot Pierre and the countless ordinary people from Canada, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and America; Christians and Jews; agnostics and atheists. For 20 years, each has educated me, touched my heart, nourished my soul, shaped my mind and strengthened my faith and conviction. That, and not my genetic heritage, is my life's legacy. Along the way, I have learnt that something was missing in Descartes's way of speaking about truth. Clarity and consistency are not enough: The quest for truth requires deep humility and uncompromising effort. My experience of living with people of different religions, origins and cultures taught me that one will never be at peace with the other if one is at war with oneself.
This simple truth is the essence of my message to Muslims throughout the world: Know who you are, who you want to be, and start talking and working with whom you are not. Find common values and build with your fellow citizens a society based on diversity and equality. The very moment you understand that there are no contradictions between being a Muslim and being an American or a European, you enrich your society.
Promote, from where you are, the universal principles of justice and freedom and leave the societies elsewhere to find their own model of democracy based on their collective psychology and cultural heritage. The path ahead is long and difficult, but there is no other way to succeed except to break our intellectual ghettos, to work together beyond our narrow belonging, and to foster mutual trust in the absence of which living together is nearly impossible. The quest for truth individually and collectively demands research, never judging without studying, clarity, consistency, trust, humility and perseverance.
My move to America and my post at the University of Notre Dame were to enable me to promote and to share this message with Muslim communities and fellow citizens: Is this a threatening contribution? Is it not a needed and urgent message in America in the post-Sept. 11 world?
Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at Fribourg University in Switzerland, is author of To Be a European Muslim and Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. He has been described by Time magazine as one of the 100 most likely innovators of the 21st century.