By Inas Younis
23 October 2015
Professor Tariq Ramadan has been described as one of the “most important innovators for the 21st century” by Time magazine, and is considered as one of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals. Professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, he is the author of a number of highly influential books on Islam.
Ramadan holds an MA in philosophy and French Literature and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Geneva. In Cairo, he studied classic Islamic scholarship from Al-Azhar University.
After the recent influx of refugees into European countries, how do you see the rise of far- right groups?
I do not think that the rise came after the influx. Over the last 20 years or so, what we have seen in many European countries, like France of course, but even in Britain, Austria and now in Norway and Sweden, is a discourse nurturing fear, coming from the far right parties and populist parties. Sometimes, they are not exactly the same. They are nurturing a sense that within globalization, the countries and people are losing their identities.
The populist parties are normalizing the discourse. So in fact, we are demonizing the far right parties but we are normalizing their discourse. And this is very dangerous because even though they are not going to win the election they are winning the narrative and shaping it in a way that is very problematic.
What do you mean by populism?
There are four main features that define populism. Populism is emotional politics. It deals with the emotions of the people and it nurtures a sense that we should not deal with facts and figures but deal only with anecdotes not rationality.
Second, it nurtures the victim as well as "us vs. them" mentality. Lastly, it offers simplistic answers to complex questions. If for example there is an unemployment problem, then the rhetoric becomes that these people are coming to take our jobs. When you are not dealing with actual politics you will be dealing with these four features.
The refugee crisis was the revealing factor and not the reason for the rise of far right groups. Because when you deal with facts and figures you realize that Europe needs refugees, they need migrants. And all the figures are showing them they need millions, not a few hundred thousand. Why? For one thing, the society is becoming old and the world around, the Africans and Asians are a young population.
What about the integration of those immigrants into new communities; Do you see calls for their assimilation?
The problem once again is to keep repeating as a mantra, “it's not working, it's not working. Those Muslims are not integrating,” and I am saying exactly the opposite. I am saying you are lying. At the grassroots level, far from the controversies at the national level of anecdotes, the historical movement is working. In cultural and religious terms, it’s working. What is not working is something else, which is social justice, urban policies, educational opportunities, and equality.
So we have to reconcile ourselves with the socio-economic approach and not to “ethnocise” or “Islamicise” the socio-economic problems. By doing so, this is where the populists are winning the game. And it has come down to become a discussion about assimilation. But I am sorry, cultural and religious integration is working. We need now to get past the integration discourse.
Don’t tell me if you can integrate, that’s done. Tell me how you can contribute. As long as we keep repeating as a mantra: ‘integration integration.’ We are nurturing this perception that it doesn’t work. The success of integration is to stop talking about integration.
I keep repeating this, but this is very important because the populists are working on emotions, meaning perceptions. So when for example, Huntington was talking about the Clash of Civilizations at Versailles, they responded to him by saying oh no, it’s a clash of ignorance. And I said no, it's neither this nor that, it’s a clash of perceptions. How you perceive and nurture perception is based on Emotions which are based on irrational constructions or non-rational constructions, which is not exactly the same.
How do you see the increasing rhetoric against Islam, especially after the rise of the so-called Islamic state, which uses Islam to justify terror?
Once again, we have to be very cautious. We have to keep the historical dimension here. What is happening with ISIL is not new. It happened also with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It started, in fact, in 1979 with the Iranian revolution and this became the starting point of this negative perception.
Now my take on this is, we as Muslims can keep saying ‘oh this has nothing to do with our religion’. But I think we are not addressing the issue. Yes, we have to come with a very clear religious discourse, saying that this is not Islamic. But we need to have a political discourse. And the political discourse should address the causes and reasons, because it's not as if this just happened out of nowhere.
For example, in the states you have those who say we have to tackle the issues of extremism, and at the same time, their governments are talking to Gulf States that are promoting literalism, which is the starting point of everything. So how do you call your citizens to be moderate when you are nurturing the literalist’s understanding of Islam? So there is a contradiction in terms, and in fact your economic interests are going against your social peace and stability. So you have to take a decision. What do you want exactly? So we need to politicize all of this a bit. We continue talking about the youth as if they are disenfranchised and so on and so forth. But look, it’s more than just frustration. They are asking good questions. They want to know what you are doing with justice in your policies.
Do you think that people’s fears regarding the rise of Islamic extremism are legitimate? And should Muslims share the same fears?
The far-right has been using anti-immigrants rhetoric to win supporters.
We are all scared. Do you know what the common disease we all share with Muslims, people of other faiths or our fellow citizens? It is victimhood. We are all victims. So where are the people who are responsible? You have George W. Bush saying we are victims and you have the other side saying we are victims of the American policy. So welcome to the world of no subjects, the world of all victims.
If you watch TV or the people in the media, of course it’s legitimate to be scared. So we have to acknowledge the fact that people are scared and to differentiate between the fears of people at the grassroots level of ordinary citizens from the way this fear is being ‘instrumentalised’ by populist parties.
It’s the instrumentalisation of fear that we have to struggle against. But we need to respect those who are feeling the fear. We must understand the difference between the grassroots fears of people and the way it’s being instrumentalised.
This is why we have to be willing to explain and be proactive. This is why we need to do, what I called for some 12 years ago, by embracing a “new We.”
How much of the rhetoric now that we are hearing in Western nations is mimicking the rhetoric that have been hearing in Muslim majority countries for decades, especially as it pertains to this growing obsession with identity politics.
Of course, if you have something that we are all sharing, which is the victim mentality, then you will have the identity business everywhere. How do we define ourselves? When you have a crisis in defining yourself, you are going to reduce your identity to only one thing. So it's only when you are at peace that you are going to understand that you have multiple identities. So, in a world where we are all scared, we end up reducing ourselves to one identity and this is the polarization and the ‘us versus them’ develops.
But if you understand that you have multiple identities that are overlapping with others, and that there are things that we are all sharing then, you will be at peace. But this takes time effort and education.
Tariq Ramadan on Muslim Identity (II)
By Inas Younis
23 October 2015 00:00
Why do you think becoming an observant Muslim has become so confusing for young people these days?
Along with other reasons, including negative perceptions, we have a problem with the way we are educating our young Muslims, not only here but in Muslim majority countries as well.
When you are scared, when you are feeling on the defensive or you feel that you are in danger because everything that is being said about Islam is negative, you end up focusing, as a psychological natural reaction to norms, like Halal and Haram, which is wrong. In fact, it is not by law that you are going to be protecting yourself. You protect yourself through meaning and understanding. So, we need more education on the substance and not more on the limits. But as we are scared, it's become all about limits, limits, limits. And this is natural reaction. But it’s not the right reaction.
And sometimes what is natural is not right. The only way to feel at peace is to feel confident with the essence of the teachings, and with your spiritual journey. Teaching what it means to be autonomous, to be free: to free yourself from your ego in spiritual terms and to educate yourself among human being in social terms. This is so essential, so we have a crisis in education, which calls for us to go back to teaching the essence of the message.
Do you think that Muslims need to be more self-critical?
Yes, but you yourself are dealing with Muslims and you can see how self critical we really are, to the point that it has become distressful. All the Muslims are not happy with their leadership, we are not happy with the followers, we are not happy with our mosques, we are not happy with the imams, we are not happy with the men and women. So we are not happy. We are self-critical, but we are unhappy in an emotional way, so it's not structured, it's not sophisticated. We need to be able to confront some of our interpretations. There is such diversity in Islam so we have to be constructively self-critical in a rational and structured way and not in an emotional defeated way, as victims.
You wrote in one of your articles that it is imperative that we reject the “Islamisation” of education and socio-economic issues that require political, not religious solutions. Can you define “Islamisation” then elaborate on what you mean by political versus religious solutions?
When you deal with radicalization in the jails, or in the suburbs in France, or in the cities in the states you might come to think these people have a problem. Islam is creating this radical mindset and so Islam must be the reason. We tend to find cultural or religious reasons for things which have nothing to do with religion. For example, during the riots in France, some ten years ago, the minister of Interior at that time, Sarkozy, asked the Muslim organizations to issue a fatwa against violence. I said, what’s that? These are French people telling their government we need more justice, we need education, we need social institutions. This has nothing to do with Islam. So because you don’t know how to deal with them and to give them jobs and education, you ask the Muslims, where are the Imams. That’s wrong.
And we are doing the same thing everywhere. By reducing the discussion on violent extremism to just one religious side, you forget to deal with the other side, by asking what are your policies. What are you doing in this country? You will have voices which are going to be vocal. They are not going to keep quiet because they feel that they are American. We are Islamizing all the issues. As if the problem is Islam. No the problem is socio economic justice, education, equality. So don’t talk to me about the democratization process if you are not willing to talk about stability. You are making it all politics and structural. It’s not going to work if there is no economic stability. This shift of always turning against culture, or with Huntington’s feeling that the future is not going to be about political interest but about civilizations issues, is shifting the true questions about politics and justice away from reality towards China versus the U.S or Islam versus the west. That’s not the reality. But by shaping the mindset to think in those terms we are falling into the trap.
What is your core identity or is this concept a fallacy?
I have multiple identities some of them will be more at the forefront depending on the context. As a Muslim its quiet clear, I may be a Swiss or American by culture or memory, but at the moment I am dealing with my death or the death of the people I love, I am a Muslim, because this is the meaning of my life.
But when I am in involved in politics, I am a Swiss because I have to vote somewhere. At the moment I am dealing with international issues, I am a Universalist because I want for others what I want for myself. I do not want justice for the Swiss people and injustice elsewhere. So it depends on the context. Of course there is a part of our identity that is there no matter what the context or historical situation. And for me, at the end of the day I belong to my principles.
I will be against my government if it’s against my principles.
I will be against other Muslims if they are acting against my principles. This is what I got from my religion. My brotherhood has limits and conditions. If you are unjust, my brotherhood or sisterhood should react and resist this injustice.
What can you tell me about your personal faith and how it informs your day to day life?
It's an ongoing process. The way you are with Allah (swt) is the way He is going to be with you. There is something that we got from the mystical tradition, the traditional tradition and the legal tradition; renew your intention.
At the end of the day, ask why you are doing what you are doing. Are you doing it to serve God, which means serve humanity, because the best among you is the best to humanity? Or are you doing it for money, power and fame? What are your goals?
So my relationship with Allah is always to come back to myself. It's between you and yourself that you will find the very meaning of God’s presence in your life. I myself do not nurture the sense of guilt. I nurture the sense of responsibility and forgiveness. And this is very important to me.