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Articles, Commentaries, History, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Tariq Ramadan—Islam reviewed from within

PENANG MONTHLY editor Ooi Kee Beng and Roketkini editor Wan Hamidi Hamid interview Professor Tariq Ramadan on the sidelines of the 3rd Penang in Asia Lecture organized by Penang Institute at the Traders’ Hotel, 17th July 2012. The writings of Tariq Ramadan have often been criticized for being contradictory, and in this conversation, they to understand the apparent tension between the thinker and his audience. Tariq Ramadan is Swiss-born and is Professor in Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, and was listed among the 100 most influential people in the 21st century by Time Magazine in 2004. He is the author of many noted books, the latest of which is on the Arab Spring, titled The Arab Awakening.

Ooi Kee Beng: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me after your very long day. Again, welcome to Penang. The point you made in your speech today, which struck me the most, was that about the lack of confidence on the part of Muslim societies today. I know you have talked often about this, and you have a list of seven “C’s”, the two most intriguing of which I find to be Confidence and Compassion. Can you elaborate on these for us?

Tariq Ramadan: I mention the seven “Cs” in my book What I Believe (2009). I was referring generally to Muslims in contemporary times.  I witness in my travels, be it to Africa, the Middle East, or here to Malaysia, that Muslims today suffer from a severe lack of Confidence—the first “C”; we are in something very close to a psychological crisis in how we deal with our own references and our own principles.

The starting point of everything if you are engaged in political change is to believe, and through being strongly rooted in your own traditions, to be convinced that you have something to bring to the discussion, and that your presence is useful and necessary. There will be no reform and no change if you are not confident.

Common to all religions and all philosophies is the teaching that you must start with yourself. As far as you have to trust someone, you need the last “C” as well, which is Compassion. And also with compassion, you have to start with yourself.

I was speaking in Kuala Lumpur a few days ago [on Rethinking Islamic Reform at a fundraiser jointly organized by the Islamic Renaissance Front and the Institute for Policy Research], and I was telling the Muslims that our message is one of love and forgiveness.

We have a word in Arabic—Rahma—which means to be merciful and to be kind to oneself; to be amending and no condemning; to be loving to Nature. We are now coming into the month of Ramadan [starting on 20 September], a month that the Messenger, peace be upon him, called the Month of Rahma, the month of mercy.

Muslims, I think, are often obsessed with rules and they forget meaning, and that is why they lack confidence. They are obsessed with limitations and they forget the ends. They lack compassion in many of the things that they are doing. We are too quick to be judges and not enough in being welcoming of people in our heart and with our ears.

OKB: This is partly what you mean when you talk about revolution having to come from the bottom upwards, isn’t it? You are appealing to the individual Muslim, and to changes within him, are you not?

TR: Yes and no. In understanding yourself, you have to understand your references, your religion and the dynamics within your society. But you should not sacrifice yourself in the name of your community. That is why in all my lectures, I end by asking my listeners, “Take good care of yourself.” This is important because in a movement we can all easily get lost and end up, not as a group of activists but as a group of agitated people. We end up with a lot of agitation and little vision. This is connected, and of course I think revolution has to be connected in this way, to the idea that changes to come from the bottom up.

I advocate national movements that are based on local initiatives. In Malaysia, for example, it is important that states and local dynamics drive changes, instead of things being imposed from on high.

Wan Hamidi Hamid: Speaking of obsessions, why are so many Muslims so obsessed with the Islamic state, with sharia law, and with hudud?

TR: When you are under threat, you tend to defend yourself by referring to rules and principles, lessons and meanings that you are familiar with. This goes for everybody, not only Muslims. The European secular states do the same when they feel themselves threatened by immigration, for example.

This is a natural reaction or reflex to this. Having said that, natural does not mean it is right. I think it is wrong. We have to go beyond that. The rational and intellectual attitude should be to respond with meaning, to economic imperialism and other such threats.

Sharia, as I mentioned in my talk earlier, is not a set of repressive laws; it is a set of high noble objectives—respecting justice; the dignity of human beings, be they men or women; freedom of expression; and equality before the law. In Malaysia, if you want to be true to the Sharia, you start by acting against corruption.

WHH: But in Malaysia, these obsessions have become populist politics.

TR:  This is the way we react. When people are scared, they are more emotional. And when they are more emotional, they are less open to arguments and more open to slogans. Emotional politics drives people not by content but by slogans—“to be harsh is to be Muslim”; “Islamic state”, etc. They are attracted by superficial slogans. All politicians have a responsibility here to stop this, and you as a journalist have the responsibility to work against this. We must not play this game. Politicians will play with the mind of voters, and journalists will play with the minds of readers; but what they are doing in the long term is to undermine the things that bind us together as a society.

We will not be able to write the narrative of the future, but will instead be divided by very superficial issues.

OKB: The world at large, and the Muslim world as well, have had a period during which it had had to deal with modernity, if I may use that word broadly. As you have rightly pointed out, there have been many responses of very different types, which have not been very positive. Now, in naming your latest book The Arab Awakening, are you denoting a broad awakening from the negative effects of these responses?

TR: No, I am using The Arab Awakening in contrast to popular terms like “Arab Spring” or “Revolutions”, because I don’t believe that what we are witnessing in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen or in Bahrain, are revolutions. In fact, some of them are military coup d’etat, like in Egypt.

“Spring” is a very positive term used by the media and others to express dynamics coming from the bottom. But what is happening is also a chess game between new political and economics actors, between new economic and political realities. The BRIC countries are challenging American interests and European presence in the Middle East.

So the message of the book is to be cautiously optimistic. What has to be taken positively in itself is of course the shift, the mindset shift in the Arab world towards the idea that “we can remove a dictator”, and do it through street protests. This is very important. Now, are we witnessing a revolution—economic, political and social? I don’t see it so far.

WHH: State authorities and others are saying that pluralism is a bad thing. What does this mean?

TR: No, no.  You can’t in a country say that pluralism is a bad thing and try to give it your own normative definition. Pluralism denotes a social situation where various religions and cultures exist together.

In Malaysia, pluralism is a fact, like it or not. You have to live with it. So, to say that pluralism is a bad thing, to say No to pluralism, is to confuse the issue.  Acting as if pluralism on theological grounds undermines our religious preeminence is simply not correct. I am not simply saying I respect the Christians, I respect the Buddhists, I respect the Hindus, I respect those without religion. I am saying I respect my religion, and so I respect others. I show confidence in my own values. It is this state of confidence that you need to place in your way of dealing with pluralism. In my book called The Quest for Meaning (2010), the subtitle is Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism. You do that by saying that pluralism is a fact.

Now you have to go beyond this fact and manage pluralism by giving equal rights to citizens, by respecting their freedom of worship, their freedom of conscience; by respecting the choice of the people. You cannot say “I respect the choice and the dignity of the people, but I don’t respect your freedom of choice and your freedom of conscience”.

That is not the sign of a society. That is the sign of a repressive state.

You have to use the term and try to get normative understanding. The best message you can send out is to show that you are not scared of your fellow citizens who are not Muslims.

OKB: You rightly pointed out that education should be at the centre of this revival. But we do have a chicken-and-egg situation here, as I am sure you would have sensed. How do you go beyond the individual and get regimes to initiate educational systems as the main point in the agenda, which can effectuate values such as the emancipation of women, when these regimes are in all probability the enemy?

TR: You are right. This is what I try to say in the book. Something dangerous is happening in the Muslim world. There is a polarization going on between the so-called secularists and the Islamists. And both sides are taking their legitimacy by being opposed to the other side.

The secularists say to the Islamists, “You want a theocracy; you are backward. We are the progressives; we are leading the country towards enlightenment”. But in doing that, they have been supportive of dictators. In doing that, they cut themselves off their own society. But election figures now show that these people are totally disconnected from the people. They are marginal.

On the other side, we have the Islamists who say, “You are westernized; you are colonized; and you represent the ideology of others. We are the guardians of our religion”. But then what you have among them is a very superficial legitimacy.

What we end up with are not visions, but polarization. We have to stop this and come to the real questions. This is where we need political activists among our citizens; people on the ground setting the priorities.

If you are serious about social justice, if you are serious about women’s rights, it is not a matter of asking the people to wear this and not to wear that. We have to ask, “Are we talking about education? Are we talking about equal opportunities? Are we talking about equal salaries for the same skills for men and women, which is essential?

It is a reform process. We need a radical change of mindset. We need politicians who simply say “We are not into this very superficial process of polarization. Let us go towards political visions that we can sufficiently share.”

We have many people now seeing clearly the prevalent divide-and-rule strategy throughout the Arab world, and of course here in Malaysia as well.  So you might have to come with a political vision with the minimum agreement on the priorities in our societies.

And it is not about qualifying the state. It is about promoting global education for all. This is where Buddhists, Christians, and others can also be faithful to their ethical principles. How are you going to have democracy if the people are not educated about their duties and their rights? That is a contradiction in terms.

OKB: That was one of the points I appreciated most in your book.

TR: Thank you.

OKB: The other is this.  You worry about how ignorance is used the norm, even as a goal, instead of knowledge. That is a danger of course. This ties in with how one is to cut through these curtains of confusion that are in the way, and you mention cultural strength — your Islamic references –- as a way out of this dichotomy.

TR: Yes, I highlight the fact that we keep repeating that politics is important; economics is important. And that is all true. But there is the third dimension that is critical in the global world, which is culture. That is not only in the Muslim world. Of course, as a Muslim, you need to be thinking about Islamic ethics and culture. I usually say there is no culture without religion; and there is no religion without culture. but religion is not culture. So there are differences, and we need to think about that. It is important from an ethical viewpoint, and also from a cultural viewpoint.

If you look at the Middle East and ask what has been produced by the Arab cultures over the last half century. What? In thinking, in sciences, in entertainment, in art,  in poetry; only very superficial stuff. And you want to celebrate and to feel good in your society; it is essential (that excellent things are produced).

It is not enough to be a citizen. You need to have a sense of belonging. When you travel, and people don’t talk your language, you don’t feel at ease. You don’t have points of reference. This is very important.

So how do you make people facing global culture feel at home; to feel at home not with Coca Cola, but with local drinks? Coca Cola is a way of life; and they were right in saying they were going to fight Chinese Tea because Chinese tea is also a way of life; a way of drinking together. It’s not Coca Cola versus Chinese Tea. It’s one philosophy of life versus another. We need to take this difference very seriously. Globalization is not happening only on economic terms; it is happening on cultural terms.  The world culture is another name for westernization; and westernization is consumerism.

You have to work on creativity; you have to work on imagination. What is the genus that is coming out of your culture? The Arabs are not asking that. What is being done in Malaysia? When Malaysians show me the Twin Towers and say they are as good as them, what “them” are they talking about; what inferiority complex are they nurturing?

Let us come to what is really Malaysian, to that which is part of the narrative, and to that which is part of the culture here. We need to come to a very deep awareness of this kind of resistance.

You tend to react to fringe issues; and you tend to react with prohibitions. But the issues are not central to your culture, to your narrative. The point is what is creative in your culture. What do you celebrate in your culture? What? I don’t know. I think this is central to the liberation process.

OKB: Yes, I would agree with you. Now, looking at how your ideas have developed over the years, do you think that somewhere along the way, sometime soon, you will have to develop a theory on economics as well? As you say, democracy without economic empowerment does not mean very much.

TR: You know, I have three fields in which I am working. I work on Islam from within; on Islamic jurisprudence, principles of ethics, I am working on Muslims in majority societies; and I am working on Muslims as minorities in the West.

In my book, Radical Reforms (2008), I write about the fundamentals of Islam at the point where we are now. The subtitle is Islamic Ethics and Liberation. So the main point is about how we go about the process of liberation, and I mention seven case studies such as medical science, education, gender, etc. One of them is Environment and Economics, because this is where we have to work. This was a book full of questions because I was setting the framework and trying to see where lie they problems.

What I am starting to do now at the Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) between Oxford and Qatar, based in Qatar, to do now is take the seven fields plus four others to analyze the question of applied Islamic ethics. One of the fields is economics. I am not happy with Islamic economics and Islamic finance. I am challenging this and saying that we have to go further.

So yes, it is a field where we have work to do, along with culture and art. Gender is another issue where I think we should only focus on women, but also on men. We do have a big problem with men.

OKB: What would you say to people who say your thinking is reminiscent of socialism?

TR: Well, I don’t have a problem with that. You know, many Muslims already in the 1960s have been saying the socialism actually came from Islam. As a Muslim, I am close to socialism. I don’t know who came up with it first, but there are things…if you look at me, I am definitely on the left-hand side of the political landscape.

Now, I am taking from my own experiences, but also from my references. Now, there are things in my thinking that may appear Marxist, but I did not get them from the Marxists. One can see that some things Marx said were not far from the religious traditions. For example, we do have the idea that the economy should be at the service of the people and not the other way around.

WHH: It is often said that Marx said that he was not a Marxist. Is Tariq Ramadan afraid of and tired of being misunderstood by others?

TR: Yes I am. I see it all the time. Even here in Malaysia, I hear people say that they are following Tariq Ramadan’s advice, and yet what they say is not exactly what I have been saying.

I have to be exposed to this, and keep on explaining and talking. Sometimes it is my fault. I have not explained myself well enough. I have to be clearer and expose my thoughts better. You move around, you speak a lot, but people may not read, and they misunderstand without knowing it. So I have to be very cautious, and I keep referring people to the books or my websites.

OKB: I think that your approach is not run-of-the-mill so it is harder for people to catch on. Misunderstanding is probable.

TR: Yes. Many here in Malaysia do tell me they feel at ease listening to what I have to say. They gain some confidence. But then, it is also easy to gain confidence and yet remain on the surface of what I am saying.

You know, sometimes, I am more understood by people of other faiths than I am by Muslims. They go further in understanding the consequences of what I am saying. Muslims sometimes don’t do that.

But that is why I have a responsibility, and I keep writing books. I am close to 30 books now. I try to make things clearer. I get criticized in the West for being too Muslim and in the Muslim for being too Western.

 OKB: Let me say that until yesterday, I was quite confused by this Tariq Ramadan. But today, listening to your comprehensive Penang-in-Asia lecture, I could understand you. You made perfect sense.

TR: There is something I repeat. I like what the philosopher Charles Taylor said of me once. You know, people were saying that Tariq Ramadan is confusing, he says one thing here and other things there…it sounds like double talk and there are a lot of ambiguities in what he says. Now Charles Taylor said that Tariq Ramadan does not have ambiguous talk. What he says is very clear but it is aid in between two ambiguous universes of references.

OKB: Yes, I do get that. I had wanted to ask you who is it you actually talk to. Who is your target audience?

TR: Everyone. I am not talking only to Muslims. You must listen to the substance. If you one day see that the substance of what I say to Muslims and what I say to others seems difference, please come to me and tell me this. It would be most helpful, really.

I try to keep the substance constant. The referencing must of course be different. I use Muslim references when speaking to Muslims, and not to others. The level of language also differs. When I talk to my students, I use different references than what I would use when talking to ordinary people.

This is not always easy, and I get criticized. You know, what I said today about how we have deal with migrants and how we have to be self-critical does not make me a lot of friends, for example.

WHH: I want to ask you, to your mind, Is there a difference between being a good human being and being a good Muslim?

TR: Yes, there are differences. Fundamentally, it is the same because our natural state is dignity. But being a good Muslim refers to a revelation, and to things required of you. The difference between being a good human being and being a good Muslim then, lies in the Six Pillars of Faith, the Five Pillars of Practices. You can be a good human being without God, but you cannot be a good Muslim without God. This is a deep difference.

The important thing to learn here is that the origin of goodness is not standardized. In my book The Quest for Meaning, I say that at the summit we may have universal values, but the humility for all of us is to accept that there are many paths to get there, not one path. No one has monopoly over the right route.

WHH: Are you comfortable with the practice of adding adjectives to Islam—Moderate Islam, Liberal Islam, etc.?

TR: No, I don’t use these things. I don’t like them, but of course you do use qualifications coming from within. You can have mainstream and less mainstream. So in my book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2003), you can have literalists, you can have reformists; you can have mystical Sufis; you can be rationalists. Not moderate, though. Moderate in what sense? You can be liberal religiously but dogmatic politically, and even support dictators and anti-democrats.

Liberal is a very confusing term as well. Liberal democracy may be about human rights and such values while Liberal economy may just be the exact opposite.

We have to differentiate between the religious categorization and the political stance. Just because you are an Islamist, it does not mean you are an anti-democrat; and just because you are a secular Muslim does not mean that you are promoting democracy.

OKB: You speak quite a bit on individual dignity. Can you say something on that, in conclusion?

TR: Dignity in itself is important. I is also important when we speak of behavior we don’t like. I am asked often about Islam and homosexuality. My answer is: Islam, like Christianity and other religions do not accept homosexuality. But as Muslims, we need to understand that although we don’t agree with what you do, we respect your dignity as a person. Your dignity is not touched by the way I am dealing with you.

This is a great teaching from the very beginning. You may condemn behaviors but be careful condemning beings.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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