Banned from the US on grounds he has endorsed terrorism, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna speaks out on reform, moderation and faith
SOME CALL HIM a Muslim Martin Luther. Last April, Time magazine included him among its list of the world's 100 most influential people of the 21st century. Others say he's an anti-Semitic Islamist radical, a fundamentalist, a supporter of terrorist acts against innocent civilians.
However you look at him, there's no denying that when Tariq Ramadan speaks, a lot of people listen, whether they're Muslims, Jews or Christians.
But in a post-9/11 world where the imagery of terror more often than not calls to mind Muslims, no matter what their beliefs are the emergence of a Western Muslim scholar of Ramadan's caliber can be disconcerting to many.
This fear, bordering on paranoia, recently translated into a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decision on July 28 to revoke a work visa the US had granted Ramadan in May. Offered a chair at the prestigious Catholic-run Notre Dame University in Indiana as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace-building at the Kroc Institute, Ramadan was supposed to start teaching an introductory course on Islamic ethics in August. Despite his having passed rigorous security and background checks, DHS offered no explanation save a statement by spokesman Russ Knocke invoking the Patriot Act, which denies entry to "aliens" who have used a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity."
The public campaign against Ramadan, the 42-year-old grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna, was spearheaded by the American right-wing organizer Daniel Pipes.
Known for his campuswatch.com website, which encourages students to report professors who contest Israeli policies or who could be construed as being anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic, Pipes mobilized his extensive network of web organizations to "circulate the truth" about Tariq Ramadan a series of unfounded allegations that the Swiss national and professor of philosophy and Islamic studies, who taught at the University of Geneva and Fribourg University in Switzerland, is a staunch supporter of brutal Islamist policies in Sudan; that he has links to Al-Qaeda; and that he coordinated a meeting between Egyptian Ayman El-Zawahri (Osama bin Laden's right-hand man) and the blind Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, now in prison for life for his role in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Ramadan has also been vilified for his outspoken criticism of America's war on Iraq, his firm stance against globalization and his condemnation of what he calls the atrocities of "Israeli state terrorism" in the Occupied Territories.
Ramadan has publicly denied the accusations before and was completely cleared of any ties to terrorist groups after an investigation by French security and intelligence forces that ran from November 1995 through May 1996, during which time he was banned from entering France. In December 2003, he was once more thrust into the limelight following an intense television debate with then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, organized by the European Social Forum.
Ramadan has been awash in an outpouring of public support from Western intellectuals since his visa was revoked. Graham Fuller, an expert on the Middle East and former vice-chair of the US National Intelligence Council, told the Chicago Tribune that the visa was revoked after pressure from "pro-Likud organizations [that] want to block people who can speak articulately and present the Muslim dilemma in a way that might be understandable and sympathetic to the Americans."
John L. Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, dubbed the move a "major step backward in intellectual exchange between the Islamic world and the West a defeat for America in the war against terrorism [that] undermines America's efforts at public diplomacy and its credibility in the Muslim world."
Petitions to reverse the DHS's decision have been circulating in the name of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the pressing need to engage in interfaith dialogue with moderate, reformist scholars who belong to the West.
Even those Pipes would have join him in condemning Ramadan have rallied to the scholar's cause: A Jewish group at Notre Dame's school of law issued a statement condemning the revocation of Ramadan's visa and refused to take part in a Fox News show about the scholar; the show's producers wanted them to express their outrage at his appointment.
The author of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Ramadan has penned a total of 20 books and 700 articles. Switching effortlessly between French, English and Arabic, Ramadan's electrifying personality and empowering discourse about the need for Muslims to relinquish their ghetto mentality, to integrate themselves fully into their respective societies both politically and socially while at the same time preserving their Muslim identity has earned him an avid following among Muslim youth in the West.
Ramadan spoke to Egypt Today by telephone from his barren office in Geneva, where he waits with his wife and four children for news from Washington about the status of his new visa application.
It seems people are more obsessed with my genealogy than with my intellectual pedigree. My father, Said Ramadan, was exiled from Egypt in 1954. I was born in Switzerland in 1962, where I grew up. But apart from the family background, the main influence behind my interest in Islam and philosophy was that we were the first generation of Muslims in Geneva. It was hard because I lived in a protected atmosphere at home. Outside, it was difficult to be a Muslim and remain a Muslim. We were political exiles, which made the situation more difficult. At the University of Geneva, I studied philosophy and French literature and, after completing two MA degrees, continued with a PhD on the concept of suffering in Nietzsche's philosophy and later another PhD in Islamic Studies about contemporary Islamic reformist thinkers from Jamal El-Din El-Afghani to Hassan Al-Banna.
In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, I'm not saying that the future of Islam relies on the West. But I think that what is going on now in the West will have a tremendous impact on Muslims in the Islamic world. We are living in free spaces and we're at the forefront of new challenges. How do we deal with, for example, new technologies, the new economic order, new discoveries? To this day, we're still looking for answers from the East. The ulama [Muslim scholars] are not in Europe. They are still living in so-called Islamic countries. In this transitory period we must learn to build our critical minds and come up with new answers. My intellectual project is based on finding solutions from our own [Western] societies. We could even help the Islamic world find ways to deal with things like democracy, freedom, pluralism and a state of law.
You are right, opening the doors of ijtihad [personal reasoning in the interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith] can go both ways. I think we have to be very cautious here. There are rules, limits and conditions to ijtihad. First, it's not open to those who are unfamiliar with the intrinsic dynamics of the Islamic sciences, uloum el-Islam, uloum el-din or uloum al-Qur'an or uloum el-hadith [the sciences of Islam, religion, Qur'an and hadith].
We also have upstream norms and downstream norms. The upstream norms are very important: As a believer in Allah, it's important to know that we are dealing with a book unlike all other books. This is part of the credo. You must always bear in mind that it was revealed, it is Kitab Allah [The Book of Allah]. But we must not understand it literally. The downstream norms include, for example, mastery of the Arabic language and the understanding that there are asbab el-nuzoul [specific events resulting in the revelation of certain verses]. In the interpretation of the Qur'an, the third source for Muslim scholars following qiyas (analogy) and ijmaa (consensus) is context, el-waqei [the reality on the ground]. This is really important because ijtihad is between this and that.
There are two types of Qur'anic text. First are matters where there is no discussion and the meaning is clear and explicit. You don't have latitude to change. For example, all Muslims agree that we have to pray five times a day. But as for other secondary issues, there is mutaghaiyirat (variables), where there is a latitude for changing interpretation. There are universal truths, and, at the same time, there is culture, collective psychology, and specific environments which must be taken into account.
Allah was silent about many issues, and this is out of mercy, not out of forgetfulness.
In Western Muslims, I put forth a vision. The first part is technical, discussing the fundamentals of jurisprudence and coming up with new proposals to counter the traditional divide between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb [the abode of Islam and the abode of war]. I propose a new theoretical perception of dar el-shahada, where we bear testimony, to break this binary vision of the world.
The second part is mainly about the fields within which we must work: spirituality, education, social participation, political involvement, economic alternatives and interfaith relations.
The situation now is really difficult. I was raised in Europe and I know how difficult it is to stick to your Islamic principles and to cope with new realities in these societies where religion is secondary or even a non-issue. Now, what I'm seeing on the ground after working with Muslim communities is what I call the ‘silent revolution.' It's coming. I work with Muslim men and women who go back to the sources and evoke various interpretations to deconstruct ideas that discriminate against women, for example.
No, I reject the mentality of the "other." I emphasize that we are not the "other" and that we are equal citizens. The problem is that we are the other in the eyes of our fellow citizens. In this situation, you have one of two choices: to either victimize and isolate yourself, or to assert your otherness.
It's up to you to show that you are properly part of this society and you have to reform your own understanding. I say to Muslims "This is home for you." That's why I was critical of the title of Youssef El-Qaradawy's book Ahwal el-Muslimeen fil mujtama'at el-okhra [The Situation of Muslims in Other Societies], because he doesn't belong here. He lives in Qatar, it was normal for him to say that and to discuss fiqh el-aqqaliyyat [the fiqh of minorities]. I'm saying, "No. For us, these are not ‘other' societies they are our societies."
It's a problematic position to take because people around us are maintaining and this is part of the game the notion that Muslims are not totally European. This is what the whole European Union controversy [over Turkish membership] is all about. Turkey does not share Europe's Christian heritage and so cannot be part of the group. What I'm proposing is that it's not a question of being Muslim or Christian, it's a question of principles, rights and a state of law. If we respect this, then we are citizens.
You ask about the institutionalization of Islamophobia and the French ban on hijab. Again, my answer is that we are in a democratic country and we can be part of the game. I disagree with Muslims in the Islamic world who say that this law is an Islamophobic law. It is a law of fear. There are so many people in France now who feel they are losing their identity because of the growing number of Muslims among them. When you deal with fellow citizens, you read the law in order to integrate them. But when you are afraid of the people around you, you read the law in order to protect yourself. This law is a mistake, but it's up to us to change these perceptions.
I don't believe this entails giving up a few rights to gain more later. Muslim girls must abide by the hijab ban if it comes down to choosing between wearing the scarf or getting an education. I tell schoolgirls to put on their scarf before and after school and try to find a way to deal with this reality. Having these women in constant contact with their fellow citizens in society means things will change with time. Surveys prove that the younger generations are less afraid of Muslims because they live with them. We must at once remain critical and promote understanding. It's not easy. Many girls are suffering humiliation, but I would not say France is a racist country.
When it comes to religion, politics, democracy and shariah, we must be very cautious about what we say. There are distinctions between shura and democracy. But when you extract from the principle of shura the universal principles necessary to promote your model of society, what do you have? You have the state of law.
In Islam, law is the foremost Islamic science. We are bound by the Qur'an and the sunna. Shariah is all about the state of law. Second, we have equal citizenship. Yes, in Islam we have el-thimmi tradition [regulating our relationship with the people of the book], but at the same time, if we go back to what Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, "Lahum ma lana wa aalaiyhum ma aalayna." [They have the same rights and the same duties as us.] He was speaking about the Jews. In any society, we must promote equal rights. There should be no discrimination in the way we deal with the law. The third principle is universal suffrage. It is not against Islam to say that the leader should be chosen by the people. Finally, there is accountability. The first Caliph Abu Bakr said, "If I'm right, support me but if I'm wrong, redirect me."
There is no problem for us to call it democracy or shura as long as we implement these four main principles in a majority Islamic society. The model should be derived from the people's collective psychology, culture and legacy.
Many elements combine to breed dictatorships in the Islamic world. There is first a confusion between culture and Islamic principles that are manipulated to promote discrimination against people. The instrumentalization of religion is also part of the problem. Religious institutions are often tools to justify the actions of those in power and keep them there.
Another thing is that we very easily put the blame on the West. We must change this attitude. What happened after Islamic countries gained their independence was that these people came, assumed power and imposed oppressive regimes. What we need to do now is promote civil society. People must be more committed, more involved in social issues and also must find alternative ways to resist dictatorships. This victim mentality betrays a lack of creativity in the Islamic world in the social and political spheres.
As for my own relationship with the Arab-Islamic world, you guessed it. I often visit Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia, but I've been banned from entering Egypt since 1995, even though the whole world is saying that I'm a moderate Muslim. It's difficult in Egypt to say that about the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna. Even though I studied at Al-Azhar for 20 months on and off between 1991 and 1995, where I took one-on-one courses with Ali Gomaa and other scholars, when my father died nine years ago, the authorities refused to allow me to even attend his funeral.
I want to come to Egypt, but I'm getting contradictory statements from the Egyptian administration. It makes me very sad.
But no, this doesn't make me reject my grandfather. When I think of him, I put things into context and I think he did some very important things. His beliefs and thoughts were the products of a specific environment and he was trying to cope with that. I deal with him the way I deal with any actor in our history. He was not a prophet, he was not infallible.
I don't believe in slogans. When Hassan Al-Banna said "Al-Islam din wa dawla" [Islam is religion and state] he did not mean it in the dogmatic way people later interpreted it. He was promoting the parliamentary model following Imam Mohammed Abdu. Now Gamal Al-Banna [Hassan's younger brother] is saying Al-Islam din wa Ummah [Islam is religion and Ummah]. (See last month's cover package for Egypt Today's exclusive interview with Gamal Al-Banna, page 166.)
What does this mean exactly? For me, the Ummah is a spiritual sense of belonging. It's a spiritual community. But the concept itself is dangerous because if you say Ummah in the West, people around you will immediately question your allegiance and loyalty. You are Muslim first and then French. We must be very careful with slogans. I will not cry: "Hail the Ummah, whether it's right or wrong." One has to be critical. Even with your own father and mother, Allah orders you to be critical. I discuss this issue of belonging in To Be a European Muslim. I said we belong to the Ummah, but we have to be clear about what it means.
The Muslims in Canada's battle to set up shariah courts to settle domestic disputes is another example of lack of creativity. Within the normative law in Canada, they have huge latitude for Muslims to propose an Islamic contract. These courts are not necessary; all they do is stress the fact that Muslims have specific laws and for the time being this is not how we want to be perceived. We need to show that our way of thinking is universal, that we can live with the law and there is no contradiction.
It's more useful for Muslims to examine the legal framework they have in Canada, which is one of the most open in the world, and come up with something Islamic that at the same time fits the Canadian reality. The term shariah in itself is laden with negative connotations in the Western mind. There is no need to stress that. We can do more and better without creating this sort of fracture and misunderstanding. The very moment Muslims understand there are no contradictions between being Muslim and being European or American, they will enrich their societies.
A major Islamic reform movement is now underway in the West. There is an African proverb that goes: When people start throwing stones at a tree, it means that the tree is ready to bear fruit. This is exactly the reality. People here look at Muslims and say, "We thought they were going to forget everything about their religion and become totally assimilated."
But now European and Western Muslims are saying "No, we are not ready to forget who we are in order to be become who you want us to be."
A major Islamic reform movement is now underway in the West. There is an African proverb that goes: When people start throwing stones at a tree, it means the tree is ready to bear fruit. This is exactly the reality.