With a Grain of Salt: Poor Tariq Ramadan
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
Tariq Ramadan is a Muslim in the west and it shows. The poor man is trying to walk a tightrope or rather he is trying to thread a red-hot needle with his bare hands through a rats' nest of secularism, western philosophy, global geopolitics, Islam, the war on terrorism, Islamist jehadis and the Muslim theological grand poo-bahs - and all that without singeing anybody.
After researching him and reading his book Western Muslim and the Future of Islam, two feelings struck me. The first was pity for Doctor Ramadan and the second was befuddlement at what exactly it is that he is trying to achieve. But he can definitely be called a reformer! Let us explore this remarkable gentleman.
Over the past few months, I have been exploring Muslim reformers (although many have quibbled with me whether those on my list are real reformers or not). My point to them was, look, they are trying to change something and deal with some of the challenges Islam faces. Obviously, there will be people who disagree, but when dealing with religious reform, it takes all kinds. Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism had their fair share of reformers, and Islam is no stranger to either reformers or their critics.
Now who is a reformer and who is not depends on where you stand. For example, here is a list of Muslim reformers found on wikipedia, the public contribution encyclopaedia. My sister snorted so hard at some of the members on that list, that I could not stop laughing. Nevertheless, Tarik Ramadan is a reformer, but he is not on the wikipedia list, which is in itself interesting. We have previously written about Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani, and Raheel Raza and now we explore Tariq Ramadan.
The barebones of his life are well known. He is the grandson of Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Al Banna's son, Said Ramadan fled Egypt after the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and settled in Switzerland, where Tariq was born. With two doctorates in Philosophy and Islamic Sciences, he teaches in Switzerland and the UK. He was going to take up a teaching position in the USA, but his visa was revoked by the US State department. He is widely read in the francophone part of the world (although he was also forbidden to enter France at some point). Given his recent statements, for example on 9/11 and the moratorium on the hudud laws (more on this later), his views are considered to be important across the western (both muslim and non-muslim) world. Having said that, his philosophy is not accepted in the traditional Muslim world.
As and how I read more about and into his views, I kept on getting more and more puzzled and confused as it is difficult to pin him down. This confusion arises as one expects people to be consistent and Tariq Ramadan is difficult to characterise as consistent according to the generally known philosophical perspectives. Consistency depends on which frame of reference one is using. I can be consistent as a Britisher looking at the world, but I also write as a Hindu, a Bengali, or an investment banker. Many times, these various views can be inconsistent when compared to one another. Similarly with Tariq Ramadan, as broadly speaking, I could divide the frames of reference for Tariq Ramadan into four categories.
The first category is that of traditional Sunni scholarship which is grounded in the vast theological panoply emerging out of the Al Azhar, Saudi universities, the seminaries in India and Pakistan, etc. The second category is the left, which, for recent geopolitical events (such as anti imperialism), is related to the Muslim world. The third category is what I would call as the western secular state and intelligentsia, currently embroiled in a war on terror (both inside their countries and outside in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.). The fourth category is what I would call as the western Muslims. I believe Tariq Ramadan puts himself in the last one, and this last category is where the challenge lies.
The state of western Muslims is where the inconsistencies come barrelling out. Living in secular states means an immediate disconnection with the first category of traditional Sunni scholarship. This disconnection is fundamental. This is not the place to go deep into the differences (this is for a future essay), but that a religion which considers itself to be holistic and providing a complete way of life and framework for humans - whether it be political, social, economic, civil, criminal, what have you, cannot be easily reconciled with the western secular state. This is the area where Tariq Ramadan has dared to enter and this is the reason all the other three categories viciously pounce on him.
So on what basis are they pouncing on him?
The western secular states, for example France and USA, do not like him for his support given to Islamist doctrine and soft-pedalling the role of terrorists on 9/11. The traditional Sunni clergy hates him as he asks for reopening ijtihad (debate and systematic theological interpretation of Muslim beliefs) and delves into some fundamental areas such as the hudud laws. The Left looks askance at him because he wants to bring religion into the purview of the state, and accuses him of being against women's liberation and gay/lesbian rights. The broad group of western Muslims are also divided internally, and many inside this group itself disagree violently with Ramadan's views.
There have been many intersections where there have been debates, but I will concentrate on two defining moments. The first was his reaction to 9/11, and the second was his call for a moratorium on the hudud laws.
9/11 has become almost like a litmus test for judging the loyalty of people. I believe this is wrong; as asking for a simple, "are you with me or against me?" is simplistic and ignores millions of other factors and nuances which are factored into making political or social choices. He answered the question about his views on the perpetrators of 9/11 by simply asking "who gains?" and posited that no Arab or Muslim group will gain.
As you can imagine, this went down like a lead balloon.
Daniel Pipes, a person of a rightist persuasion has enumerated a laundry list of allegations, issues, questions on why Ramadan isn't kosher. It is quite possible that this list may form part of the reason the US State Department revoked his visa to work in the USA. On the other hand, Ramadan has often spoken out publicly on his opposition of terrorism and has condemned Islamist terrorism. He has also said the resistance in Iraq is just. Therefore, the evidence is puzzling here.
The second example is even more confusing and this is to do with the Hudud laws. Hudud laws are Islamic laws, which define punishments for certain gravely sinful activities. So for example, if you steal something - your right-hand is amputated; if you commit adultery - you are stoned to death etc. etc. This is a massive simplification as there is a huge corpus of law behind these, but the result are these punishments in certain cases. As you can further imagine, this goes down like an uranium bomb in western and leftist circles. In 2004, in a debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan refused to condemn these laws, but instead asked for a moratorium. This, in turn, sent the grand poo bahs of the Sunni theological world into a collective apoplectic fit.
"The Hudud are a part of the religion, they are Quranic, and they can be neither subject to debate nor discussion," said Mustapha ash-Shuk'a, one of the muftis on Egypt's Al-Azhar Legal Research Commission. "Whoever denies the Hudud recognized as revealed and confirmed or who demands that they be cancelled or suspended, despite final and indisputable evidence, is to be regarded as somebody who has forsaken a recognized element which forms the basis of the religion."
As you would know, Al-Azhar is the premier Sunni Islamic theological institute and its opinion carries great weight. This type of reaction was also received across the Muslim world. Not only that, but also the great and good of Western Muslims turned against him.
The respondents are very learned members, such as Dr. Muzammil H., the president of the Fiqh Council of North America, Dr.Taha Jabir Al-`Alawani, the president of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi, the president of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, and a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Dr. Salah Sultan, the president of the American Center for Islamic Research, Columbus, Ohio, and member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, etc. Each and every member of this august group had issues, calling it variously as "unfounded innovation", "juristically baseless" etc. They implored him to withdraw it post-haste and the debate has carried on.
Now this example shows how the poor man gets it from all ends. The leftists and western secular states are offended because he is not supporting western values of not indulging in and abolishing of barbaric punishments. The traditional Sunni Muslim establishment is furious and almost accusing him of apostasy while his other western Muslim compatriots, people who might be expected to support him, turn on him. Now you see why I feel sorry for him?
Tariq Ramadan is at a peculiar place. He is as close as one can get to Islamic theological aristocracy by dint of his ancestry; he is as close as one can get to being on the top of the heap on Islamic jurisprudence and theology; he is the perfect person to be seen as being on the cusp of western secularism and Islamic thought; he is trying to balance a secular consumerist society with traditional Islamic thought. If a person of his intellect, genes and erudition cannot reconcile the two strands, one wonders who else could.
He is asking for this moratorium for a good reason. It is actually a good compromise. Think about it. No believing Muslim can claim that these Hudud laws are not compatible with modern life if she or he does not want to be accused of being an apostate and wanting to change Islam, being a western stooge or being in the pay of the Zionists (I did not find this accusation, but I am sure it must be out there). On the other side, currently, nobody outside the Muslim world will agree that lopping off the right-hand of a thief is good, however good the justification can be.
However, Tariq Ramadan's point is that given the supercharged nature of Islamic discourse in the world, one cannot expect a solution. The Muslims will think it is the western world trying to impose its values on them and negating Islam and so it is better the solution comes from inside Islam itself. Meanwhile, let us press the pause button on these punishments while and for as long as we debate and discuss. It sounds reasonable to me, but as we have seen above, reason seems to fly out of the window when and where religion is concerned.
It is an interesting if theologically based debate for the future, namely how Islam and the world will see each other. Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi, chairman of the Islamic Organizations in Europe considered this call an innovation following the "woman leading men in Prayer in the United States and the opening of a women-only mosque in Holland, and now we have the Hudud moratorium call from Switzerland."
When somebody like Dr. Rawi says things like that, it just goes to show how far we still have to go in terms of aligning Islam and the world. But may a thousand flowers bloom and may these differences disappear. Let us remember the objective is for us to be good human beings at peace with our fellow human beings and in love with all our different gods.
Dr. Ramadan, the very best of luck to you.
All this to be taken with a grain of salt!
With a Grain of Salt: Poor Tariq Ramadan
- » Published on July 02, 2006
- » Type: Opinion
- » Filed under:
- » This is part of a regular feature, With a Grain of Salt.