Out of the 'Muslim ghetto'

Tariq Ramadan has an abundance of labels. And for the most part, he is reluctant to dismiss any of them outright. Because to the Swiss professor and self-styled Islamic reformer, they somehow always fit.

“One of the world’s top 100 intellectuals,” proclaimed Prospect magazine.
“One of the most important innovators of the 21st century,” trumpeted Time. “A Muslim Martin Luther,” declared the Washington Post.

Then there are the other labels that sit less comfortably and give rise to sweaty palms and palpitations in certain circles. “A progressive Islamist,” for example. “Islamic nobility”—a reference to Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, a founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Or just plain “Islamist”. Except, to his ever-growing list of admirers in Europe, the Middle East and South Africa, Ramadan is an Islamist with a twist.

He is a suave, urbane and articulate intellectual who “isn’t like the others”, for whom being a good Muslim means railing against “the West” and all it stands for, and calling on other good Muslims to rise up against the governments whose passports they bear.

The University of Geneva-educated professor of Islamic studies, now a research fellow at St Antony’s College in Oxford, is one of today’s most prominent poster boys for “progressive Islam”. His lectures and writings on Muslim integration within non-Muslim societies have gained him a strong following—and not just among Muslims.

In South Africa last week at the invitation of the Muslim Youth Movement, he gave a series of lectures on the subject that has given rise to his celebrity status: the position of Muslims as citizens of countries where they are a minority, and his call for them to leave the confines of the self-imposed “Muslim ghetto” and engage in society as full citizens.

Though he accepts the term “reformer”, one senses Ramadan’s discomfort with the word. More so, he says, because the term is being bandied about as a catch phrase by a media urgently seeking out “balance”.

“Yes, I’m from the reformist trend, but at the same time trying to be faithful to Islamic principles—with the knowledge that I am a product of my time,” he says. It is this distinction he makes, that he is not calling for a radical overhaul of the faith, that distinguishes him from other “celebrity Muslim reformers” such as former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Canadian writer Irshad Manji.

“I’m not just calling on Muslims to adapt to the dominant system they are living in but to reinterpret their faith and what it means in the world today: to reform it from within,” says Ramadan.

Yet it is this view that has earned him some powerful detractors. In a much-discussed article in the New Republic earlier this year, entitled “Who’s afraid of Tariq Ramadan?”, writer Paul Berman accuses Ramadan of being Janus-faced—of presenting himself as a reformer of Islam when he is in fact a die-hard “Islamist”. Berman argues that Ramadan “excuses” excesses allegedly sanctioned by Islam, such as the ill treatment of women, instead of speaking out against them.

Ramadan “wants to construct an Islamic counterculture within the West—his reconstructed Muslim community, which instead of withdrawing behind ghetto walls will take its place within the larger non-Muslim society”, writes Berman.

Ironically, this statement, meant to illustrate Ramadan’s dubious intentions, is essentially what the Swiss professor is preaching.

“I think one needs to reiterate the ‘normalcy’ of mainstream Muslims,” says Ramadan. “One should not be misled by the speeches coming from the pulpits: Muslims in the main are normal, law-abiding citizens.”

He uses the analogy of preachers outlawing the use of the television to illustrate that not everyone accepts blindly what they hear in the mosques, pointing out that most Muslims have television sets in their homes.

“The pressures of life make one come up with adapted answers,” he says, and this should extend itself to more complex issues, such as how to relate to non-Muslims living in a country where they are in a minority.

It’s not easy for Muslims to deal with the tensions between their faith and modern life, he says. In this sense, Muslims are not unique; the problem is Muslims’ tendency to “ghettoise” themselves. This leads to a classic victim mentality, in which Muslims (including South African Muslims, he says) are wont to blame the problems and ills of the Muslim world on “the other”.

He is cautious about what he calls the overuse of the term “Islamophobia”, which, he says, adds to the nurturing of the victim complex. “I’d caution against its use as a blanket explanation,” he says, but adds: “there can be no doubt that there is today a targeting of people for discrimination just because they are Muslims.”

Ramadan bristles when asked whether Muslims should consider themselves as Muslims or citizens first. “What a non-question!” he says, with a dismissive wave of the hand. For him, the terms are not mutually exclusive.

He acknowledges, however, the tendency among Muslims to support certain causes only when there are Muslims involved. This is one of the reasons he came to South Africa—to see how the lessons of interfaith-cooperation during the anti-apartheid struggle can help “form a new discourse”.

For Ramadan, there is no contradiction between a Muslim identity and one’s identity as a South African, or a European. “We may be Muslims, but there are certain shared universal principles, such as standing up for justice, for women’s rights, for the poor and oppressed.

“There are principles that are for everybody, not just Muslims.”

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