The Why and What of Being Muslim: Parsing Tariq Ramadan


The day Tariq Ramadan came to the university to speak, I had just been teaching my social anthropology class about the contradictions between the ethical and pragmatic aspects of Islam. How can people claim Islam is egalitarian when Muslims around the world use religion to justify intolerance and patriarchy? I hadn’t been thinking about Ramadan, the Swiss philosopher and Islamic scholar who is the grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but since he was here and would be speaking about tolerance in Islam, I asked my students to go listen to him. Ramadan’s father was exiled to Switzerland, so Ramadan grew up in the European intellectual tradition, studying Islam at both the University of Geneva and Al-Azhar University in Cairo. After years of being denied a visa by the United States government, losing him a position at Notre Dame University, and after a challenge that worked its way through numerous courts, Ramadan was finally able to come to the US this year.

Ramadan is a lean man with receding gray hair, a closely trimmed beard and burning eyes, a charismatic figure. I saw two of my students in the auditorium seats before me, a young woman of Indian heritage, the other African-American. They alternated between gazing spellbound at the stage and scribbling furiously in their notebooks. I filled page after page of my legal pad. So many quotable quotes, both from the Quran that Ramadan recited in Arabic, then translated, and from the man himself. He gave us verses from the Quran that praised diversity (“If it had been God’s will, you would be one community.”) and that demanded a connection to the Other (“He created out of you the other, and between you love and mercy.”) and toleration (“You have no power to impose belief on others. If God had willed it, the world would be all believers. Who are you to impose your belief on others?”). Indeed, according to the Quran, difference and struggle are necessary because they provide a balance of power (“If God hadn’t set people against each other, the world would be corrupt.”).

Ramadan made the insightful point that toleration is at base a relation of power, as in “I will tolerate you.” So the Quran requires not just passive toleration, but active knowing (“God has created you men and women, nations and tribes, so that you know each other.”) Only active knowing, Ramadan suggested, leads to mutual recognition and respect and to people being on an equal footing. Referring to the recent New York City mosque controversy, he said, “When you don’t know who you are, you will be scared of who you are not.” This point resonated with me because I am writing a book about the battle over Turkish national identity between secular Turks who have called the shots about what Turkishness meant for three quarters of a century and pious Muslims who have invented a new Turkishness, with different lifestyles, clothing, loyalties and national rituals. Neither side tolerates the other or wants to know anything about them. The pious Muslim government in Turkey is pushing through liberal laws as part of their EU membership bid, but fails to implement them, except in regard to their own interests, for instance, to lift the ban on wearing headscarves at university. Secularist elites tend to support the ban on headscarves and would like nothing better than to outlaw free speech that challenges them, all in order to preserve a liberal secular society. In other words, intolerance for anyone different is high across the board, all the while people are presenting themselves as ethically liberal. Democracy becomes a matter of “I won, so my norms trump yours.” Perhaps Ramadan had an explanation for that as well when he said, “You end up loving the people with whom you share hopes.” The population of Turkey apparently no longer shares the same hopes, and there is no love lost between the various factions. (The secularist/pious divide is shorthand for more complex sets of hostilities that also include confessional, ethnic and social class divisions.)

I was carried along by Ramadan’s sheer persuasiveness and by the sensible nature of his message: Be humble. Make the effort to know those who are different so that you respect them, not just tolerate them. With luck, you will come to share their hopes and love them.

Ramadan swept the audience away on his golden river of words, clinging to the barque of his masterfully delivered optimism. We all wanted to believe. But an undertow of ungrateful skepticism kept pulling at me. Was this realistic? Do people really operate on the basis of a set of ethics, or are they driven by more base motivations like fear, greed, lust, and the desire for power or revenge. Admittedly, my dark view of human nature might have been colored by the fact that, besides scholarly books on Turkey, I also write mystery thrillers that have honed my interest in the daily corruptions of the heart.

I sneaked a look at my students. They were whispering to each other, earnest looks on their faces. I could almost hear them thinking, where’s the beef? Or rather, where’s the pragmatic side of Islam, the sort of Islam people practice or think they are practicing, the Islam steeped in local cultural norms, hierarchies, and in-group/out-group animosities?

Muslims don’t step from the Quran (assuming they even know what it says) into life. They put on undershirts ironed by their mothers and shoes shined by a street boy, then step into the mud of their daily relationships. Ramadan had anticipated this criticism early in his talk by pointing out, reasonably enough, that one should compare Muslim values with Western values, not Muslim values with Western behavior, and vice versa. People can be taught the proper way to be a Muslim, he implied, if they are told what ethical Muslim values are, although he admitted that his interpretation of the Quran is but one of many. “Tell me what you teach your kids,” he said, “and I’ll tell you what kind of future they are constructing.” He is so right, I thought, holding tight to his barque and kicking away my dark distractions. My favorite quote from Ramadan was, “To be ignorant and to think you are free is a contradiction in terms.” My head exploded with cross-references from the Tea Party to creationism to Turkish nationalist textbooks.

It seems I wasn’t the only one in the hall caught by the undertow. One of the first questions asked when the audience was let loose on Ramadan, was whether ordinary people could achieve the kind of self-knowledge Ramadan was advocating. “Isn’t this the language of the elite?” the student (sadly not one of mine) asked. “People fear people, not the religion.” Ramadan responded that he had faith in people’s ability to grasp ethical principles. My head agreed; my despicable gut whispered, “Oh, you sweet fool.”

The questions raged on, some aggressive, some respectfully inquiring. One person asked why no moderate Muslims were speaking out against violence. Ramadan gave several examples of Muslim groups around the world that had done just that, but lamented that this had not been reported in the media. He urged Muslims to stop having a victim mentality, a minority mentality. “You’re an American.” Being Muslim in America should be normalized, he said. “Muslims are only visible when we speak about Islam. Instead we should see them everywhere, in education, in politics…” I found this interesting and a bit contradictory, since he was advocating increased visibility, along with the invisibility of assimilation. Sharon Zukin has written that whoever has the power to frame a space, that is, impose a vision of it, can claim that space. Can one say the same about whoever frames an identity? Or an issue? Who has the power to frame what being Muslim means – control over how that identity is socially constructed, where and what Muslims are visible and which are invisible? I’d place my wager on the media, not on Tariq Ramadan, much as I admire his optimism, and not even on the desires of Muslims themselves. A person’s identity is always a dialectic between who he thinks he is and who others allow him to be.

We took it all apart in class the next day, the students lasering in on the core conundrum. Ramadan represents Islam’s intellectual tradition, the orthodoxy of the Quran and Hadith, the why of things. Islamic jurists and their myriad untrained usurpers on the Internet and elsewhere, by contrast, engage in orthopraxy, telling people what they must do. The purity of Ramadan’s vision is sullied by the murky fatwas and contradictory opinions emerging from politically coopted jurists, Internet preachers, ignorant judges that mistake local custom for Islamic law, and people like Mullah Omar and that other bearded man hiding in the border region of Afghanistan. All Muslims. All excruciatingly visible. Their messages heard by many more Muslims around the world than the golden words of Tariq Ramadan and millions of ordinary ethical Muslims. That other unanswered question remains, though: Why do Muslims listen to them and not to the likes of Ramadan? Perhaps Ramadan needs to host an Internet advice site where he translates his principles into everyday practice. A little reverse alchemy.

Even my students, middle class youth with little more than a speeding ticket in their short pasts, were more cynical than Tariq Ramadan. Maybe that comes from watching all those thrillers and cop shows on TV. But I can’t help thinking that I am serving intolerance by allowing the students to upend Ramadan’s barque instead of encouraging them to embrace his ethical optimism. What else, besides armies, do we have to fight the bad guys? Does a liberal education in the pragmatics of power undercut an ethical education based on faith in the possibility of good? I miss the feeling of hope inspired by Tariq Ramadan, even as I undermine it.