In this year’s Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, Tariq Ramadan came in at number 49 for “dedicating his life to proving that Europe and Islam are not incompatible”–no small task in the world today. Ramadan is considered by many to be a very controversial intellectual. For some, he is too liberal and westernized while for others he is too radical and aims to Islamicize Europe. In his latest book What I Believe, Ramadan lays out his worldview and why it is often misunderstood.
From early on, Ramadan has had to contend with what some see as a problematic family lineage. He is the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ramadan notes that this connection only began to be emphasized when he started to engage the question of Islam’s role in the West.
Ramadan was not always involved with this issue. He started out as a high school teacher and dean in Geneva, Switzerland. In these positions, Ramadan says he never highlighted his religious affiliations but that the principles of his faith prompted him to launch solidarity awareness projects. Also in these positions, he contends, his grandfather was irrelevant. It was only when he became involved in the topic of Islam in the West that his lineage was attacked and he was assumed to be dangerous, even though what he calls for is far from violent.
For Ramadan, Muslim Westerners face increasing negative perceptions since 9/11 and as a result of various crises that include other terrorist attacks as well as events such as the Danish cartoons and the French headscarf ban. In order to cope with these issues, Ramadan argues that it is incumbent upon Muslims to avoid minimizing their identity to one dimension–namely the religious realm–and emphasize that just like everyone else they are made up of multiple identities that constantly change.
Ramadan illustrates this with his own understanding of his identity: “I am Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, Muslim by religion, European by culture, universalistic by principle, Moroccan and Mauritian by adoption.” In other words, when Muslims are asked whether they are first Muslim or their nationality, the question itself is problematic because it is asking them to choose between two realms. More importantly, Ramadan argues that in the case of Muslims, the question is more about loyalty then identity.
In addition, Ramadan calls on Muslim Westerners to avoid being isolated, living with a “minority reflex,” and to become fully engaged members of their societies. That is, they should be “comfortable and at home” in any society. This, however, does not mean aiming for integration, a term he finds problematic because it entails highlighting difference and the need for one group to always adapt. Rather his is a call for a truly pluralistic society. For Ramadan, Europe is in the midst of an identity crisis as Muslim Europeans become more visible. The challenge will be to resist homogenizing European identity to exclude Muslims. Thus, in Ramadan’s assessment, the impetus for action falls on both sides.
Ramadan is important as a Muslim intellectual voice in the West who understands the experiences of Muslim Westerners and the need for pluralistic societies that recognize and accept the differences of its members. A writer like Christopher Caldwell would be deeply troubled by Ramadan’s approach to the issue of Muslim Europeans because while Ramadan does tell Muslims to be committed members of their nations, he argues that it is their right to practice their faith freely and to be seen as equal participants.
Ramadan is not afraid of controversy or criticism as he thinks it is the responsibility of every citizen to critique anything that goes against universal ideals. Because of his call, he is banned from Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria, and Libya for being highly critical of the governments for how they treat their citizens. He has also been denied visas many times from France and Belgium for his asserting that Muslim Europeans, like fellow citizens should be allowed to practice their faith in line with the universalistic ideals of European nations. For example, he has been critical of the French ban of the headscarf in schools and asserts that Muslim French have the right to use legal means to contest the law. He also voiced concern over the recent minaret ban in Switzerland.These bans extend beyond the Middle East and Europe to include the United States. In 2004, after being offered a position at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, his visa was revoked.
Despite the controversy, Ramadan continues to demand that Western nations live by their universalist principles and for Muslim Westerners to embody the core values of their faith in order to live with their fellow citizens.
What do you know about Ramadan? Have you read any of his writing? What do you think of his ideas? Please share your comments below.