Tariq Ramadan, What I Believe. Review.
Review. What I Believe. Tariq Ramadan. Oxford University Press. 2009.
Tariq Ramadan is a “controversial intellectual”. He faces “many-sided opposition”. The soft-spoken supporter of “solidarity, human dignity, and justice” is accused of “doublespeak”.
He describes his position, .“Criticisms first of (and mainly in) France, then taken up by some French loving groups of some ideological currents, have built up a haze of controversy around me and my commitment.” He asks, “What are the “ideological and/or interests” of these groups?”
Not too savoury, as we shall see.
Ramadan, by contrast, tries to “build bridges between two universes of reference”, “Western and Islamic ‘civilisations’” “and “between citizens within Western societies themselves”.
What is this book’s contribution to this “process of mediation”?
It’s an “opportunity to read me in the original and simply get direct access to my thought”. To show that we “share many common principles and values”. That it is possible to ‘live together’” (all liberal English Anglian inverted commas Ramadan’s). He declares that he belongs to a “reformist trend” within Islam. Which is? A “great and noble religion.”
And what of the West’s achievements? “Freedom and democracy.” Its faults? “Murderous ‘civilising missions’, colonialisation, the destructive economic order racism, acquiescent relations with the worst dictatorships, and other failings”.
Ramadan is bold enough “to contradict accepted opinions” – even by raising these all-too often ignored features of the Western world. Particularly the “other failings”.
There is much in this pamphlet on the need for Muslims to engage in Western society. Its tone throughout is high ‘inverted comma’ clericalese. He pleads for Islam’s European future as part of a new ‘We’. “Western Islam is now a reality” – that is there are European populations with Muslim beliefs immersed in Western culture. So, “Islam is a Western religion”.
Apparently this is a big plus. For bridge-builders this implies, Openness to Others (reciprocally), “Handling Fears” and “post-integration” pluralism. Up to, political engagement, and a commitment to worrying about the rights and oppressions of other groups than Muslims (why does this need to be said?). This has to be negotiated through “the fluctuating multiplicity of personal identities”.
Islam, in all its complexity, has to reach into the public domain. This will come about not by playing on “community feelings” and “community-oriented political logics”. A much more ambitious strategy is afoot. Much like the early Christian Christians the Muslim faithful need to integrate, to become part of the institutions of the state. Why? Muslim organisations would wield power and influence. As bearers that is, of a “consistent global vision”. This would be one that assembles a variety of interests in an effort to capture a position in society.
Not only politics are important. There is a need to dispel ignorance of Islam’s intellectual richness. The religion’s contribution deserves a larger place in the culture. Revised syllabi, he argues, may help. There needs more mention of Muslim thinkers, from al-Kindî (ninth century), al-Ghazâlî (twelfth century) to Ibn Khaldûm (fourteenth century).
With these figures taught in schools and universities we will change the attention already given, no doubt, in Europe’s school trivium to Thomas Aquinas, Dun Scotus, and Anselm of Canterbury.
Not everyone from an Islamic background wants to span the division between Islam and the West. More shame them, apparently. Ramadan is forthcoming about his battles with Qu’ranic literalists – those who see in the Qur’an signs enough to justify their rigorist interpretation of the Sharia. Who, though he is fairly coy about this, do not exactly like non-Muslim societies, or indeed non-Muslims. Other distances are more tractable. There are Muslims soaked in traditional cultural practices that turn to the Qu’ran to lend weight to “patriarchal reflexes, failure to respect women’s rights”, other customs “wrongly associated with religion (excision, forced marriages..)” These reactions are wrong, but their reform has to be handled sensitively, by, for example, education – for which Ramadan’s services are graciously offered.
To start with he separates cultural accretion from religion. Why? That in “my Sharia” “all the laws that protect human life and dignity, promote justice and equality, enforce respect of Nature, and so on” are part of the “way to faithfulness to Islam’s objectives”. Take what is true to this, and, as for the rest, well we are not sure. Applied to law and jurisprudence he argues for “radical reform”.
Of what? There are plenty of ‘controversial’ parts of the Sharia, throughout all the different schools of Islamic ‘law’. Quite a few subjects for a would-be reformer. Including the Hudud ‘claims of God’ – punishments against Theft, Highway Robbery, Extra-Martial Sex, Apostasy and so on. These – applied in many countries under what at least some scholars call the Sharia (many with as strong qualifications as Ramadan) are renowned for what we shall call in non-clericalese, obscenity and brutality.
The laws categorised as Qisas, “eye for an eye” – (the law of the Talion) are not mild either. In this what exactly is a matter of custom and traditional and of divine law? Sometimes a particularly weaselly attempt is made to say that the Sharia will only really exist in a ‘pure’ Islamic society, with no penalties being carried out – presumably as there will be no theft, no sexual impropriety, no unbelief, and indeed no crime whatsoever.
More modestly Ramadan once made a call for a ‘moratorium’ (not abolition) on many of the harshest Islamic penalties. This request doesn’t get a mention here. The idea was dropped without support. What happened on the Way? Did it not shine a light on Ramadan’s reforming path that others may follow? What are his proposals now?
What I Believe contains many similar cases of illumination smothered in obscurity. Anyone convinced that Ramadan is a ‘progressive’ will find it hard to dredge up any specific economic and social progressive ideas. Beyond condemnation of domination, marginalisation, discrimination, and other platitudes that would disgrace even a Social Forum sermon.
As they say in the trade, the art of the political publicist lies in spinning phrases broad to encourage people to dreams.
But we shall enter the murkiest area of all. What are Ramadan’s core principles? What exactly is his Islam? It is founded on the Qur’an. Is this a “shared universal”? As we find little details about his religious beliefs in What I Believe, to find out we have to cite from his other works.
In the Messenger (2007) he states that this “revealed Book the written text, is made up signs (ayat), just as the universe, like a text spread before our eyes, is teeming with signs. When the heart’s intelligence, and not only analytical intelligence, reads the Qu’ran and the world, then the two texts address and echo each other, and each of them speaks of the other and of the One. The signs remind us of what it means to be born, to live, to think, to feel, and to die.”(P 41)
This doctrine, based on the “the oneness of God, the status of the Qur’an, prayer and life after death.”(P 39 – 40) is, for Ramadan, non-negotiable. Any critical reading and reasoning (ijihâd) rests on this block. As he says in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2004) “The whole of creation, in its most natural state, is the most immediate expression of the order intended by the transcendent.”(P 12)
In this sense there is, he has stated, no Islamic theology (in the manner of testing the road to the Divine). The existence and presence of God is just ‘there’ – it cannot be questioned, only recognised and accepted. Hardly much of a basis for a “shared We”. Now much of his call for mutual understanding, and gentle reform makes a worthy Must-do list. But we would fain find a justification for the justification behind all this: that is, his religion is just affirmed. And affirmed. Islamic reformism is a matter of applying reason after having accepted unchanging principles, not on focusing reason to the principles themselves.
This shows, then, that Ramadan is trapped in the chains of absolute and pitiful religious dogmatism.
When God has shown himself so clearly, we can understand Ramadan’s ire at the “ideological currents”, and the ‘highly sectarian ideologues of secularism” who deny his presence. The “historical quarrel with “religion” – not just Catholicism by the way – is a source of endless irritation to someone who knows God is great, and that’s it.
Ramadan has trouble accepting that we might want to prevent people with his faith, any faith, from laying down the ground rules of politics. French laïcité is only a model in this respect for the way it has drawn up the battle lines. That is a political declaration of the need for religious influence to be removed from the public administration, as the creator, the foundation stone of the public sphere.
The French state is as flawed as any Western democracy. Its secularism is riddled with compromises, from the host of subsidies for recognised religions, such as for Catholic education, to, strangely unmentioned by Ramadan, proposed subventions for what he calls the “free and autonomous practice of Islam”. While it has passed laws (highly progressive ones) against ostentatious religious symbols being used as a weapon for communalist and sexual apartheid, in education, under Sarkozy it risks reintroducing – and spreading – state support for religious institutions.
From state funded religious representation (extended to Muslims), to state sponsored training (now spread outwards to Islam), there are material reasons to be wary about those who think that France, for all its advances, is a fully secular state. In other words, France, which has made progress in secularist terms, risks retreating. Faced with those with the certainties Ramadan pushes. Against secularism, for religious rights, and (unmentioned here) has made some distastestful coments about people with a non-Christian background on the way – guess which one…
Ramadan avoids any discussion of this. He has met with some “top French specialists” whom he’s happy to name drop. He now accepts what “specialists of secularism” tell him, that “militant atheism” is a problem. That is, he is not happy that these people “try to spread their influence and find a number of supporters the world over, in the media as well as with some intellectual or some political parties”.
What of other threats to his plans for more influence for Islam? The far-Right gets a brief mention; apparently their principal baneful effect is to demonise Muslim in terms that used to be applied to Jews. The fact that the extreme right’s main thrust is against foreigners en bloc does not raise the possibility for him that this is their spring of action, and targeting Islam a mere offshoot.
But it is secularists who get the most stick. Ramadan painfully tries to separate out good feminists from bad, those who accept Muslim cultural difference from those with a “Western-centred view” who criticise Islam. He speculates, “some women might find liberation through Islam” (how, is left unspecific). Perhaps wisely he does not repeat his defence of the Veil in The Messenger. That Muslims have thereby “spiritual training and asserting a femininity that is not imprisoned in the mirror of men’s gaze or alienated within unhealthy relationships of power or seduction.”(P 213)
Instead he claims, probably even more unwisely, that behind feminist criticisms of Islam “paternalism looms large”. For gays he promises respect, though not a moratorium on religious criticism of the “opinions and actions of homosexuals as to their sexuality”.
Finding time to assail Pro-Israeli and neo Conservatives (Ramadan’s foes “are varied and diverse”), he ends by spitting out venom against ex-Muslims, “who gain recognition, fame, and some financial benefit.” More than a hint of a threat looms, “I say ‘Peace’, with force, tranquillity, and dignity, to all the instigators of lies, hypocrisies, and wars.”
Some instigators have clearly stung Ramadan. It requires all his sense of “humanity, dignity and ethics” to stay patient. What I Believe was no doubt written too early to include a section justifying his appearances on the Iranian state propaganda outfit, Press TV – or the resulting “controversy” that saw him slung out of his Rotterdam sinecures.
But, hey, let him smart.
To escape criticism it is not enough to accept the separation of religion and state, particularly when your strategy is to conquer positions of political influence.
We remain ready to question the aim behind this march through the institutions. That this remains hitched to a dogmatic, intellectually sparse, doctrine is a problem. As one sympathetic specialist puts it in general terms Islam is the “putting one’s life and livelihood at the service of divine sovereignty which is the Qu’ran’s constant theme, to ensure that it is everywhere recognised.”*
Ramadan’s appeal to divine sovereignty is a blatant falsehood. No post-secularist waffle can disguise this. Or reach an accommodation with him – for all the indulgence of the British religious establishment (from Oxford onwards), and its state sympathisers. The danger (amply documented) is that these authorities, while repressing, overzealously, violent Jihadists, are acceding to some of the pressure of Islamists – reformists if you will – in an effort to re-found the lost religious emprise over moral and political life.
Atheists are indeed secularists. Though not the only ones to want to have public institutions that have no basis in religion, that are neutral between all kinds of belief. From this follows efforts to fight attempts to affirm a religious influence on public life, such as Ramadan’s attempts to shore up the existing power of the faith establishment by joining it.
This is one the things that democracy is about. As indeed are a host of issues, from socialism as opposed to capitalism, or social against private ownership, that no doubt divide unbelievers and believers alike. But there remains one common atheist claim. That all forms of religion, Islam included, are fundamental misconceptions of the world.
At the heart of Ramadan’s failure to define what he really believes is a serpentine evasion of justifying his doctrine. Is this because his faith in God’s Messenger is that the message is not provably ‘there’ at all? That what he and the faithful follow cannot win an argument on its basic tenets?
To answer this tolerance, pluralism, and acceptance are not enough. We know that believers, of all stripes, dislike their mythology and sublime feelings being tramped over by the hobnail boots of rationalists. Tough. For atheists, we would wish that at some point, that those trapped in religion come to recognise that their ideas are false. That they would come to the Light of a Godless reality.
This part of the atheist message is non-negotiable.
* P 94. Daniel A. Madigan. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an. Edited Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Cambridge. 2006.