Tariq Ramadan, Courageous Reformer or Deceptive Leader?

The Swiss-born scholar and advisor to various governments is heralded as a Muslim superstar but others are more wary of his objectives. By Omar Shahid.

FRANCE-ISLAM-RELIGION-UOIF

Tariq Ramadan speaks during a meeting focused on “Faith and Resistance, Reform and Expectancy” at the yearly meeting of French Muslims organised by the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) in Le Bourget, outside Paris, on April 7, 2012. Jacques Demarthon/AFP

Dr Tariq Ramadan is a visionary, a charismatic leader of Muslims in the West and one of the world’s most pre-eminent thinkers. Often referred to as the Muslim Martin Luther, he has a charm about him. Speaking in fluent English with a slight French accent, his talks contain words of wisdom and provide clarity on difficult issues. Naturally, being an influential figure and an outspoken Muslim, he polarises opinion. On the one hand, he is regarded as a hero by Muslims across the world. But, on the other, he is accused by many Western secular people of engaging in double talk: delivering a gentle message in French and English but an extreme one in Arabic, having links with extremists, being an anti-Semite, a religious bigot and promoting the oppression of women.

So who is the real Tariq Ramadan?

Dr Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, philosopher and academic at Oxford University, has been teaching for 30 years. With dozens of books under his belt, backed up by around 1,000 articles and hundreds of lectures, uncovering the essence of his message is a tricky job. In a 2004 article for The Guardian, he says the charges levelled against him have been made up, repeated and then believed. People regurgitate myths without checking themselves, he argues.

In 2008, many of these accusations resurfaced in a book called Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, written by journalist Caroline Fourest and published by the right-wing Encounter Books. In it, the author says Dr Ramadan is two-faced; he panders to the West with moderate speeches and talk of universalism and tolerance, while radically preaching to his faithful Muslim followers. One professor from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana put it like this: “He is accused of being Janus-faced. Well, of course he presents different faces to different audiences. He is trying to bridge a divide and bring together people of diverse backgrounds and worldviews.”

The charges against him are generally symptomatic of a larger issue: some people just can’t take popular Muslims rising to mainstream prominence, especially when they are charismatic, intelligent, articulate and have power over the masses. Dr Ramadan is seen as a threat: he is at once true to his religion, yet radically modern in his approach. This doesn’t work well for Islamophobes, who would prefer a binary world of unthinking: literalist/extreme Muslims or sell-out/liberal Muslims who want to see their religion changed. Dr Ramadan is neither a literalist extremist or a sell-out. He is seen as a voice of reason, who understands his religion to be – in essence – about universalism, spirituality and respect for all.

Dr Ramadan, who is married with children, wants Muslims to escape their minority status in the West and play a central role. “Normalise your presence without trivialising your existence,” he says. He also wants to redefine what it means to be a Muslim in today’s world. Yet, it would be a gross misrepresentation of his views to believe that he wants to change or reform Islam itself. Instead, he argues, it’s the collective Muslim consciousness that needs altering. He offered the following advice at a conference called Rethinking Islamic Reform at Oxford University in 2010: “Islam is not to be reformed, this is not the right way to put the question. We have to reform the Muslim mind and our understanding of the text,” he said.

There are not many in a better position to head the challenge. Born in Switzerland in 1962, he is the grandson of the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has an MA in Philosophy and French literature, a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies, and received rigorous training in classical Islamic scholarship from Al-Azhar University. He has even done a doctoral thesis on Nietzsche, a 19th-century atheist philosopher.

Despite his messages of integration and pluralism, in 2004 he was banned from entering the US. The ban lasted for over five years and was instigated for his alleged financial support of Hamas, through charitable donations to Palestine. Following the decision to allow him to enter the US, Dr Ramadan said: “The first accusations of terrorist connections (subsequently dropped), then donations to Palestinian solidarity groups, were nothing more than a pretense to prohibit me from speaking critically about American government policy on American soil.”[i]

Known for speaking his mind in an uncompromising manner and standing by his moral convictions, Dr Ramadan inevitably lands himself into trouble. However, he is also accused of not going far enough to condemn certain practices within his faith. In The Guardian, he has called for a moratorium on corporal punishments in Islam (such as stoning) citing that ulama or religious scholars aren’t in agreement on the interpretation or authenticity of the texts which refer to such injunctions, nor the political and social contexts in which they’d be applicable. He also says that the application of sharia today is being abused and that these punishments are partly done as a visible display of bravado by Islamic countries who want to appear defiant and in opposition to the West.

His detractors however, have said he is a coward for not calling for an all-out ban. But Dr Ramadan shows no signs of giving in and seems to care little about what others think. He heavily criticises the Israeli and Egyptian regimes and expects others in his position to do so, too. The lack of condemnation of injustice around the world by certain Muslim scholars is one of the reasons he is boycotting the two biggest annual Islamic events in North America: ISNA and RIS.[ii]

I met him once in 2010 in London, where he was signing copies of his new book The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism. In the book he argues, among other things, that people need to transcend their ego and standing in his presence, there was something transcendent about him – my mother, who had never heard of him before, recalls feeling a sense of “peace” in his company.

 

Dr Ramadan, who labels himself as a “Salafi reformist”, also believes Sufism, or the mystical dimension of Islam, is at the essence of the religion. Indeed, within the faith, he is deeply respected by a wide variety of Muslims. And outside the faith, he is respected as an intellectual, reformer and advocate of “moderate Islam”. As one of the biggest names within the Muslim community and one of the few public Muslim figures that Western people are familiar with, he is a global phenomenon.

The real Tariq Ramadan is someone who is worthy of our attention. Sure, there are things he has said that, if you are to interpret them in the worst possible way, may be unsavoury. But his life and works testify to his underlying message of universalism, human dignity, respect and understanding.

 

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