Tariq Ramadan: The Muslim Martin Luther?

The author of "To Be a European Muslim" discusses terrorism, the problem of Saudi Arabia and whether Islam can peacefully coexist with the West.

By Paul Donnelly
Published February 15, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Tariq Ramadan is not a household name in the United States, but the Swiss professor could be one of the most important intellectuals in the world. Ramadan's thinking, his methods and his personal history are all connected to the same question: Islam's encounter with the modern world. Can the youngest of the world's three great monotheisms co-exist harmoniously with the Western world and its Enlightenment legacy? Or is it fated to be reactionary, closed off from the world, an excuse for terrorism and failure?

Ramadan's books, mostly in French, focus on the growth of Muslim populations in Western Europe -- that area once called Christendom. For America, founded on the separation of church and state, the presence of religious minorities is simply a fact of life. Centuries of Americanizing newcomers (and expanding American identity to include them) tends to obscure how revolutionary -- and rare -- that is for the rest of the world. The questions in Ramadan's English-language book "To Be a European Muslim" identify just how profound a shift being Muslim in a non-Muslim country is for Islam itself: "Early in Islamic history ... [jurists ruled that] it was not possible for Muslims to live [outside of Muslim-ruled states] except under some mitigating circumstances. What bearing does this have on those Muslims who came to work and are now living in the West with their families? What about their children and their nationality? Can they ... be true, genuine and complete citizens, giving allegiance -- through the national constitution -- to a non-Islamic country?"

At the start of the 21st century, there can be few more important questions.

Ramadan's theological inquiries cut to the heart of the motivations of the Sept. 11 terrorists, of the apocalyptic claims of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranian mullahs. Above all, however, they are concerned with that disputed terrain where Islamic tradition collides with modernity.

Ramadan has the credentials and credibility to confront Islam's modern identity on its own terms. Muslim scholars recognize that no one is more orthodox in his methods and sources, or more innovative in his conclusions. He is genuinely radical, rather than reactionary. Quiet, thoughtful and deeply religious, he closes an e-mail: "May the Light protect you and go with you and all the people you love."

Ramadan's personal history is inextricably tied to his thinking. Born in Switzerland in 1962, Ramadan received a classical Islamic education (he wrote his dissertation on Nietzsche) and went on to become a high school principal and later a professor at prestigious European universities (College of Geneva and Fribourg University). Ramadan's grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schooteacher and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the journalist Milton Viorst called "the flagship of fundamentalism in the Arab world." It was al-Banna who most effectively connected Islamic fundamentalism with the struggle against colonialism. That struggle still reverberates in countless ways today -- many of them deeply alarming to his grandson, interviewed by phone from Geneva.

If Islam is beginning what in a Christian context would be called a Reformation, you might be cast for the Martin Luther role. Do you have a list that you would nail to a church door?

I don't have a list. I know what might be the priorities when we think about reform and revival within the Islamic landscape. And the first thing for me is the way Muslims today are reading our text. There are a lot of misconceptions within the Islamic communities. We have to come back to a very thorough understanding of what it does mean to have a text coming from God. This is an Islamic credo, and at the same time we have to know that some principles are universal and eternal, and some prescriptions should be understood in a specific context.

It is also important to understand the way that scholars, from the very beginning, tried to present some normative tools to read the Quran. For example, when someone says there is no difference in Islam between politics and religion, we have to say that the sources are the same, for example the Quran and the Sunna [lessons from the life of the Prophet], but the methodologies are different. This is the problem we have today in the Muslim world : we repeat slogans, but we don't know exactly what they mean.

When I am speaking about worship and social affairs, there is a crucial difference. In worship we have to do what is written and in social affairs everything is open, except what is strictly forbidden. And these differences are extremely important.

Islam is now the excuse for the world's premier us vs. them ideology.


You wrote in "To Be a European Muslim" that Muslims need to get past the us vs. them worldview, the old concept of Dar al-Islam, the Islamic world, opposed to the non-Muslim world (the Dar al-Harb, the House of War), and propose the new concept of a House of Testimony, a Space of Witness, available to Muslims anywhere.

That is exactly what I was saying about the way we are reading the text. Some Muslims are saying, "We are more Muslim when we are against the West or the Western values" -- as if our parameter to assess our behavior is our distance from or opposition to the West. They are promoting this kind of binary vision of the world that comes from a very long time back in the Muslim psyche. We have to get rid of this kind of understanding and evaluate if an act or a situation is Islamic or not, on the scale of the Islamic ethics and values per se, not against any other civilization

Our values are not based on "otherness." Our values are universal. We have to come to the understanding that it's not "us against them," it's us on the scale of our own values. This defines the place I live in. That is to say, my role in this world is to understand that I am a witness to the Islamic message before mankind.

We need an intellectual revolution within the Muslim world. We are Muslims according to our spirituality and these universal values, and not against the West, not against the Jews, not against the Christians, not against secular people. The way I'm trying to re-read our texts is based on the awareness that this message is universal: that is why, for instance, the definition of our Muslim identity could by no means be a closed one against the others. This definition will help, God willing, in the way we deal with others.

The concept of Dar al-Islam is a hindrance today within the Muslim world. Even when we speak of Dar al-'ahd [the House of Treaty, which stipulates that Muslims living as a minority among unbelievers should live peacefully but without truly joining these societies], it means peaceful coexistence but it also promotes this kind of binary vision, "us and them." It does not allow us to feel that we are part of the Western societies, that we are sharing with others our values and belonging.

It's always, "OK, I'm with you but ..." It's not enough for me. It's still a very old understanding of our belonging to Islam. When I'm speaking of Dar-ash-Shahada, the abode, the space of testimony, I'm saying we have to get past these tendencies.

In the modern context, what does Dar al-Islam, the House of Submission, mean?

It means the space where the Muslims are in the majority. People will say it is where the rules of Islam are implemented, which is not the reality for the majority of the people who are speaking about Dar al-Islam. We have other definitions: the Hanafi school of thought, for instance, says that Dar al-Islam is the space where we are at peace, where we are safe.

Which of the two definitions is for me the [most] accurate, today? Am I not in a safer place, in the West, than in the majority of the so-called Islamic countries experiencing dictatorship?

It's very difficult for Muslims, we don't have a safe place [to call Dar al-Islam]. So even this word, for me, is relatively outdated. It's not because we are in the majority that we are faithful to our principles. It's not because we are in the majority that we are in a safe place. That is why, in my perception, we have to say that all these concepts are outdated, and come to new concepts.

But it is more than that. I was talking to Muslims in the States, and they said: "Oh, it's just new concepts." I said, no, it is a new understanding of our texts. It's a new understanding of our universal values and these universal values, we can share them with others -- with Christians, with all our fellow citizens in our countries. And this will help, in the near future, Muslims throughout the world to understand their own references.

You wrote that for the last seven centuries Islam has followed a path of blind imitation, and that in applying thoughtful judgment it isn't so much that Islam will modernize, as that it will renew itself. What did you mean?

We are not against modernity. The problem is that mainly, since the 13th century, we have not read our texts in order to face up to reality of modernity, but to take a defensive posture in order to fight against Western hegemony, to fight against "the other." And to withdraw within ourselves and be preoccupied with speaking of halal [lawful] and haram [unlawful]. You know, this kind of discussion and obsession of limits is not all that Islam is about. This is not the real message of Islam. Yes, we have limits, but we have to face the reality to reform the world, not just to resist aggression or indulge in the feeling that we are oppressed by others. This has to change.

My perception is that what we need has to come from within. Sometimes when I am speaking to non-Muslims, I say, don't ask us just to follow your models, your ways or paths, what we need is something from within. We need Islamic tools that will help the Muslims to understand better what the main message of Islam is.

What are the tools we can use? First and foremost is ijtihad, which, as you know, is the reasoning effort of creativity according to our sources, but facing our context and our environment. To achieve it from within takes time but it is the only way.

If I'm speaking to Muslims today, and tell them that we have to imitate Western society, the Western models, they're not going to listen because they are still in the binary perception of reality. I have to come back to find something from within, and promote this kind of contextualization and promoting of Islamic values.

For example, the way Muslims for the last 20 years have answered the question "What is the Islamic identity?" is revealing: they were confusing Islamic principles and their culture of origin, which is wrong. The Pakistani or the Turkish or the Egyptian culture have nothing to do with Islamic principles. They are but the dress of these principles.

The fact that we are living in the West, helps us to come back to this deep understanding of what are the Islamic principles. Now we have to face a new culture and take from that culture what does not contradict our principles, and face new challenges. I think this is now helping Muslims.

For decades what the press lumps together as radical Islamic groups have committed terrorist attacks, with the Sept. 11 attacks taking this to a whole new level. Your grandfather Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, historically the most important and inspirational of radical Islamic groups. He said that Islam is "all-inclusive ... a home and a nationality, a religion and a state ... a book and a sword."

The problem is that that was a slogan used in a specific situation under English colonization. He was using slogans against the Western presence in Egypt, and trying to understand from the Islamic sources the kind of project he wished to implement. It was in Egypt, but it was wider than that. This is one thing I'm trying to communicate to Muslims, especially to the Muslim Brotherhood: they repeat Hassan al-Banna slogans, but they do not always understand what he meant.

His point to the English colonizers was, you have to go away. We don't want you here. We want a society here that is based on our Islamic principles. In one way, he was a reformer, saying that we have global principles in our text and a new context in which to read the text. He said, speaking about the Quran, for example, we have the Shura [a council that advises government], and we can take from the concept of consultation we have in our source, but also take from the West organizations that they have promoted from their history, and try to adapt them to our history. He was of the opinion that we can take the parliamentary system, and adapt it to the Islamic context.

[Hassan al-Banna] founded more than 2,000 schools, and he believed that we have to take the pedagogy that we find in the West, and adapt it, because it is very effective. This was completely new for people. His point, with which I agree, was that we don't have to look at the West as a monolithic reality.

He was very young when he started, and he changed his opinion on many issues, for example pluralism. He believed that the English were trying to create political parties to divide the Egyptian resistance. He thought it was a game the colonizers were playing against them, and he thought, "we have to be united." But at the end of his life [al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, during Egypt's struggle for independence], he said, we can use the plural parties. We can ask the Muslim Brotherhood to join any party you want, and play the political role you want in this society. He changed.

If we read what he said at this time about sharia [Muslim law], it was absolutely not all about the penal code. He was promoting social justice. This is why, afterwards, we had two groups within the Muslim Brotherhood, people who believed "we have to educate people, we have to implement social justice," and others following the other aspect of some of his statements, which were dealing with government, dealing with power, saying that we need a khalifa [a restoration of Ottoman-style Muslim rule]. I think he was very engaged in the society with tools and the means to change it. He wanted an Islamic society, and he understood that the state is but a means. But after Gamel Abdul Nasser took over, he persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood. In jail, some of the followers understood the message in a different way. They were upset with those in power. They said, what we want is to kill them, to take over the government: we reject Gamel Abdul Nasser's authority. There was a shift within the Muslim Brotherhood.

You are a Swiss citizen.

Yes. When I speak about citizenship, I am a Swiss with a Muslim background. But when I speak of philosophy, my perception of life, I am a Muslim with a Swiss nationality. In French, we have the problem of which word is the first: "Frangais musulman ou musulman Frangais" [French Muslim or Muslim Frenchman] and we make a big problem out of this formulation or phrase. It is an artificial dilemma: when we are speaking of philosophy, and you ask me which comes first, I am a Muslim. If you ask about my civic and political involvement, I am a Swiss. It is as simple as that.

Isn't there a difference between what your grandfather said and what you mean by this? Who are you first?

Of course there is a difference. What I took from him and from all the reformists throughout Islamic history was not their conclusions, but rather their methodology. This is important for me. They said: We have the Quran, we have to understand the Quran through contextualized reading. They did that, adapting the reading to their own environment. Now, I am in Europe -- and it is the same for those in the States -- we face the same situation. We have to follow similar methodology. You have a philosophy of life, which enables you to think that your life has meaning, and after this life you will be called to account before God. This is part of my philosophy -- my life has a meaning, but also ethics and values. It's exactly the same situation for a Jew or a Christian or a humanist.

Now, as a citizen, I have to ask myself: what could I take from the culture I live in, but also from my sources, which can help me to be a true citizen? My loyalty to my country must be genuine -- this is why I am coming back to my sources, and taking elements or values, which are universal.

Let me give you an example that applies three principles. When I have to vote for someone, am I going to say that I am going to vote for the Muslim only? Or only the one who is telling me, "I am going to give you a mosque, or some advantages"? Or should I vote for the one who holds universal values, which are consistent with my Muslim values and at the same time can help our common society? We have three very important values, or principles, that are our references.

First, I have to vote for the more competent man or woman. Competence is a specific feature. I am not going to vote for you just because you are a Muslim, I want you to be competent.

Second point: intellectual probity. Honesty. Integrity. That is important for me. If I'm supporting you, I want you to be upright.

The third principle, is that I want you to work. I want you not to forget about the people for five years, and then come back asking me for a new vote. I want you to be active at the grassroots level, and to serve the people who elected you. This is your duty.

These three principles are completely in accordance with the Islamic references. But they are based on values that are universal. These are new answers. Of course Hassan al-Banna or others during the '40s, or in an Islamic society today, might have other answers in other social, economic or political fields because of difference in the context. But my point is, that my living in a secular society in the West helps me to understand the universality of my message, common values with my fellow citizens. This is a complete shift in our perception of our new societies.

Let's talk about economics. I know Muslims who accept that the Quran prohibits lending money at interest, period. They have a problem with the whole of the modern, globalized economy -- and much of the Muslim world is an economic basket case. Other religions, like Christianity and Judaism, had a similar prohibition, and resolved it by saying simply: times have changed. Can Muslims do that?

When we speak about ribbah [Arabic for "usury" or "interest"], the text is explicit. When the text is explicit, you can't say it is not, because that would be saying: we'd have to change the text. If you have to face the contemporary economy, if you want to play a role, of course we have to find solutions. But in the end, the principle is that we have to avoid ribbah.

I know which way we have to go. I know the path. At the end of the day, what we have to find is an alternative, to promote an economy without ribbah. Why? It's not only to help me to respect formally the Islamic proscription, but also because I'm sure the contemporary economy does not necessarily promote justice and development for all the people of the world. My point is that this kind of liberal economy based on speculation and ribbah is not the solution.

At least what we have to know is that Allah asks us to find alternatives, find new solutions ... I was discussing once with Michel Camdessus, who was the president of the International Monetary Fund, that at least at the grass roots level, we have micro-credit programs to try to avoid this kind of ribbah. To think locally, and to create bridges with other economists, who are trying to avoid speculation, which is part of the ribbah process.

I know what's reality. But I'm not going, in the name of performance, to forget the Islamic proscription. The Islamic proscription is pushing me to be more creative and dynamic to find alternatives at least at the grass roots levels.

My forthcoming book, "Western Muslims: Facing the Future," will be about practical issues, about education, social involvement, political participation, cultural and economic alternatives and I will speak about that aspect of our activities. This will make some noise in the Muslim communities, because I'm trying to say that we have to go in, in order to find a way to go out. When looking for solutions it's not possible for always to speak outside the economic process. People are stuck, because they don't know how to deal as Muslims with the classical economy.

Is this possible, or is this a dream? [laughs] For many it's a dream. I think it is the only way. But at least it helps to be resistant. In any case, a dream which helps you to live your reality with dignity and justice is a good dream.

You and many others make distinctions between Islam and terrorism, and many other anachronisms, crimes and distortions. But at some point the hairsplitting among scholars comes smack up against the Salman Rushdie fatwa. I was struck that in your book, you didn't use it as an example.

Because it is not a strict matter of itjihad [reasoned judgment]. From the very beginning, I was against the fatwa. The fatwa is not an Islamic answer to what [Rushdie] did. In that field, what we need is not itjihad, we need intra-community dialogue. This is the other aspect of our struggle today -- we need also to acknowledge that we have a problem of authority within the Muslim world. We need to know who is speaking in the name of what -- that is to say, who is legitimate to speak. This was also my position after Sept. 11, that we have to be self-critical within the Muslim world.

But it's not enough. We have also to say where we draw the line, to say that this act is Islamic and can be legitimized, and that one is not. Even if someone is part of the Islamic landscape, we have to be able to say, for example, that to say you can kill a Jew, a Christian or an American, only because they are American, Christian or a Jew, has nothing to do with Islam. To ask the people to kill Salman Rushdie because he wrote a book, telling people that you are going to be paid for that, this is not Islamic.

This is the responsibility of the Muslims, in the States, and in Europe and throughout the Muslim world, that we have to agree on the essentials of our religion, and to say: this is not Islamic. This stance is lacking today.

It becomes an institutional question.

It could be, yes.

I was particularly struck by your concept of the House of Witness, and your application of the surah that calls for competition in good works between Muslims and unbelievers. But of course, Islam has no pope. Strictly speaking, one reason Islam does not have a separation of church and state is because Islam is not a church.


So, from a purely institutional point of view, how would you have this dialogue within Islam that would say, we don't care that he's an ayatollah, he's wrong?

This may be the main challenge we are facing now. In the beginning, the fact that there is no church in Islam, in our minds, was an asset. It was something that was positive. But if we don't know how to deal with it, it would become a weakness. We don't have a church, which in our perception was a way to accept diversity, to accept different tendencies and to let the people find their own way. But now there is a lack of authority. Even bin Laden, who is not a scholar, could say things -- and some Muslims are not following him because he is Islamically right, but because he is giving them some kind of pride ... This is not the solution.

In the near future, Muslims in the West are going to help Muslims in the Islamic world. Because we are facing challenges and we can do things that are forbidden in the so-called Islamic countries. We need to think about think tanks, platforms, councils that would share views and opinions that could be critical toward Islamic authorities. For the time being, we are afraid of that. We are not self-confident. We are a bit afraid of being branded as out of Islam, or too Westernized. People are speaking from Medina in Saudi Arabia with this kind of influence that is coming from a kind of literalist Salafism, sometimes called Wahabi [the sub-branch of Islam closely associated with the Saudi ruling family], and their strong financial support is helping this school of thought to settle, so to speak, in the West. That poses a problem.

We have to think about institutions, organizations, platforms, think tanks, councils, which will help the Muslims. We have one example, the European Council for Itjihad and Research, with Muslim scholars from the West and also from Islamic countries. But it's not enough.

Are we talking about an organized House of Testimony?

No, no. To organize the Muslims in order to have a voice, which is pluralistic, but which at the same time is legitimate and authorized to say something. One that, like you said, can say "Okay, he's an ayatollah, but we don't agree with him." Having many legitimate voices within is important, but also we need a unified voice authorized to criticize some opinions within the Islamic world that we may disagree with. We need people who are ready to say, we don't agree with, for example, what is coming from Saudi Arabia.

How much of a problem is Saudi money and Wahabi influence?

It is a problem. They are a minority group today, but they are very active. Their number is growing today because of their money. The approach to Islam they are promoting is for us a real catastrophe.

They are not going to help us. I respect their views, as long as they have their views for themselves, and try to live in accordance with their own principles. But now we have a very strong problem from this school of thought, coming with money and planting these ideas throughout the world, playing upon the feelings of Muslims. That way, there will be more Muslims who will be against the West, believing that everything that is Western is against Islam. That to be a Muslim means to act against the West, or to act far from Western values. This kind of understanding is today promoted by these kinds of schools of thought and we have to be very, very careful about that.

Let me be clear: It's your view that Wahabism spread through money and intellectual influence out of Saudi Arabia, out of Medina and Riyadh, is intentionally promoting an anti-Western philosophy?

By them, of course. But also by Western governments. We know that.

What do you mean by Western governments?

Many Western governments keep quiet about what they are doing, because [the Saudi Wahabis] have money and they can pay. They are also promoting and presenting a very bad image of Islam.

Let me be very frank and honest about that. If someone wants to demonize Islam, it could help to let [the Wahabis] work. Afterward, you can say: "look at what the Islamic reality is" and you show the Wahabi posture. It could help you today, but tomorrow it will promote fractures within Western societies. It is a very short-sighted and dangerous strategy. Even in the States, if you want to build a mosque, it is sometimes easier for someone coming with Saudi money, than it is for some Muslim citizens in America who do not have money, whereas if there is a state behind you, well, we know the money will help.

Western governments are sometimes very blind, or apparently blind, about what is behind the Saudi politics, the Saudi policy. We have to be very careful. It's the responsibility of the Muslims in the West to say something, and to be very critical. This is why, in the West, I am promoting financial and political independence -- in order to bear witness to our message in the West, and to be completely free. To work as European citizens and American citizens, we have to be completely free.

Let me tell you, some governments are not happy with me, because I am very critical. This was said to me here in Switzerland, don't speak so harshly against the Saudi government, because we have $450 million in trade with them. Because of the money, we don't want Muslims to be vocal about the reality.

I was very critical since '96 about the Taliban -- but at the same time, I was saying that the Saudi government, other Islamic governments, were [also] supporting tendencies that would be damaging. Just look at what's going on in central Asia, in Indonesia, in Malaysia -- these same kinds of trends are happening there, and no one is speaking out. A dictatorship is a dictatorship, with or without money, religious or secular, pro or against the West ... at the end of the day these qualifications are not the question. A dictatorship is not acceptable and must be rejected as such.

Paul Donnelly

Paul Donnelly writes about immigration and citizenship.

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