Tariq Ramadan targets the struggle of balancing Muslim roots, European present.
Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 1002
By Sarah Wildman | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
PARIS — The lecture draws such a crowd at the Institut du Monde Arabe that its organizers begin to panic. Tables are removed and more chairs added. Still, by the time Tariq Ramadan arrives, it’s standing room only, with stylish 20-somethings – many wearing headscarves – lining the walls.
For this throng of jeunes de banlieue – sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants struggling to break free of the impoverished suburbs ringing French cities – Mr. Ramadan is a combination of spiritual leader and rock star.
Soft-spoken, with the charisma of Bill Clinton, the Swiss-born professor teaches at the University of Fribourg and the College de Geneve, but travels extensively around Europe on speaking engagements. He offers a fresh approach to Islam’s troubled encounter with the Western world: a “third way” of integrating Muslims into European society.
For a rising generation in search of an identity that straddles Muslim roots and a European present, the paramount question is “how to be at the same time fully Muslim and fully Western,” says Ramadan, who has been speaking on this issue for about a decade. He urges young Muslims neither to assimilate – and thus lose their culture – nor to separate themselves and reject Europe. “The essence of my work,” he says in an interview, is to break down the “us versus them,” or “ghetto mentality.”
Ramadan’s credibility among his young listeners is powerfully enhanced by his lineage: His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the radical Muslim Brotherhood to fight the British occupation of Egypt.
But that same lineage makes some French wary. Ramadan, now in his 40s, was once associated in the French press with the radical-leaning Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF) because he gave speeches to their followers.
But the professor is critical of extremism and fundamentalism. He has spoken out against French mosques that receive money from the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, concerned that this reliance will promote radicalism, imported along with imams from these countries. He publicly distanced himself from his brother Hani Ramadan after Hani published articles advocating literal interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law.
An advocate of inclusivity
Ramadan calls himself an independent, promoting Western values of open dialogue by using his bully pulpit liberally. The activist scholar is known for his stance of inclusivity toward women, Europeans, and Jews. At times critical of the West, he also takes his coreligionists to task for the Sept. 11 attacks and for anti-Semitism.
Ramadan has written a series of books aimed at reconciling the relationship of Muslims, their faith, and their adopted countries. He presents, says Jocelyne Cesari, a resident scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, “what young people want to hear … [the idea] that you can find a way to practice Islam without questioning the basic values and norms of European society and secularity.”
Writing and lecturing primarily in French, Ramadan has had particular impact in France. The majority of his audiences are the descendants of immigrants from France’s former colonies, especially Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The majority of immigrants first came to France to fill labor shortages in the 1960s and, like their counterparts who went to other West European countries, were expected eventually to go home.
But by the 1980s, it was clear the newcomers were in France to stay. They began to debate what it means to be a Muslim in the West – a situation that the Islamic world has seen as incompatible. With some 5 million Muslims, the largest number in Europe, France has been struggling to understand and integrate this ever-growing population, only half of whom are citizens.
Ramadan asks Muslims to go back to the sources of their faith- – the Koran, sharia – and reread them to find ways to live comfortably in the secular West. In his 1999 book, “To Be a European Muslim,” he wrote: “Whereas one might have feared a conflict of loyalties, one cannot but note that it is in fact the reverse…. Loyalty to one’s faith and conscience requires firm and honest loyalty to one’s country: Sharia requires honest citizenship.”
That means engaging in the political process, talking to political parties, and making clear requests for rights as citizens.
“That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he says. “Even for a Jew, even for a Christian, even for anyone who has some values, who wants to be faithful to his or her values. It’s difficult to have a spiritual life in a modern society.”
For Ramadan, jihad is not a war against non-Muslims, but “a spiritual effort to remain faithful to values. “You can’t base policy only on confrontation,” he says, referring to the volatile choices of another European Muslim, Belgium’s Dyab Abou Jahjah, because confrontation eventually only “promotes and nourishes a rooted feeling of victimization.”
Recognizing common ground
While Ramadan wants Muslims to integrate into and learn from Europe, he also asks that Europeans work to accept the Muslims among them. Many of Ramadan’s followers believe that racism and a fear of Islam contribute to the high unemployment rates among young people in their communities – hitting 30 percent in some of the banlieues. One way toward better understanding, he says, is to promote “inclusive memory” – recognizing the commonalities and overlap between Muslim philosophy and Western philosophy – so that Muslims “feel part of” and invested in “the present.”
To reframe the dialogue between Islam and the West, Ramadan proposes that Muslims, rather than seeing the West and Western democracy as “anti- Islamic,” view democracy as “a model respecting our principles.”
Accordingly, France, in the spirit of democracy, should be more flexible on such issues as the right to wear a headscarf – a decade-long area of contention between religious Muslims and the French government. Girls and women are not allowed to wear the scarf to school, as France believes it contradicts the laws of laïcité, or separation of church and state. By keeping girls who wear the scarf out of school, Ramadan says, the state pushes them toward Koranic schools – thus separating them and their families from public schools and the mainstream. The result could be insularity and ultimately, perhaps, radicalism.
Like any spiritual figure in a secular country like France, Ramadan has his critics. Some, like Olivier Roy, an expert in the Islamic World at National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) say that Ramadan’s philosophy is ambivalent because it doesn’t offer anything to Arabs who choose not to practice Islam, who simply want to be French. Some worry that his admonition to return to Islam’s sources will inevitably lead to fundamentalism.
Others disagree. “I think that people don’t understand what he wants to do. They put on him the image of Hassan al-Banna, but they don’t really listen to what he is saying.” says Ms. Cesari.