Exclusive: Tariq Ramadan

‘Muslims should not react in an emotional way. They, in a peaceful, calm and non-violent way, should show that they don’t care about hatred…’
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

Suave, articulate, and always elegantly dressed, he is currently a cult figure in Europe and extremely popular in the Middle East, especially among the young. He prefers to call himself an ‘activist professor’.
Tariq Ramadan’s life has been spent in Europe where he studied German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others. Something unusual for someone who is the maternal grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al Banna. Even his father, Said Ramadan, was a strong advocate of ‘political Islam’ and had to move to Geneva after Gamal Abdel Nasser took over in Egypt. Now a professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford, Ramadan’s early days were spent grappling with issues concerning Islam. A strong critic of Salafi literalist and other violent trends that he says, are just a tiny minority, Ramadan terms himself a ‘Salafi reformist’. Despite this, he has been in the middle of more than one controversy. The US refused to allow him to enter when the University of Notre Dame appointed him as professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace-building. He was denied a visa because he had given donations to Palestinians via legitimate and legal European charity institutions. He was banned by the French in 1995, the ban was eventually lifted. They also branded him anti-Semite even though he has taken public positions against anti-Semitism. He was also ridiculed in the West when, in a debate with Nicholas Sarkozy, he refused to take an extreme position against the stoning of women and called for a ‘deeper understanding’ of the issue. Hailed as the Martin Luther King of Muslims, Ramadan, 48, reaffirms his idea of ‘Islamic socialism’ which combines religious principles with anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics. One of his refreshing terrain of theory and praxis is that he wants contemporary Islam to integrate with the modernity of western civilisation. Looking for answers since the sudden outburst of anger and violence across the Muslim world after a crude, inflammatory and vulgar trailer of an anti-Islamic film was put up on YouTube,  Hardnews spoke to Tariq Ramadan, who is based in  London . Excerpts:

 

What could be the reasons for provocation of Muslims like the recent film, coming time and again from the West?

I think we have to understand that it is not coming from the West. It is coming from very specific groups and some populist tendencies. You have the populists, you have the Far Right, you have the Zionist and Israeli groups who are targetting the Muslims and trying to provoke clashes to show that Islam and Muslims are not in agreement with democratic values and that they are alien to Western civilisation. One controversy subsides; a worse one begins. After the Danish cartoons, the Dutch video Fitna and several low-grade irritants, a short, crudely executed — and scrupulously insulting — film has inflamed deep-seated resentments. Several hundred furious demonstrators gathered in front of the American Embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In the confusion and violence, a US ambassador and three diplomats were killed; elsewhere, embassies came under violent attack, with many wounded and serious material damage. Literalist Salafis succeeded in mobilising a relatively small number of demonstrators — over-excited young people and ordinary citizens who, firm in their intention to protect the Prophet’s reputation, joined in to express their rejection of the US government and its policies. Since we have emotional reactions coming from people from the other side, specifically the Salafis literalists, who are responding to it by being dogmatic and violent, like the attack in Benghazi and many other places, that is why such problems are getting magnified.

 

What could be the larger agenda of the Zionists or the Far Right behind such provocation?

Their larger goal is this: they have a political agenda, a new enemy, that is, Islam and Muslims. So, sometimes, it is just for geo-strategic or ideological reasons in the Middle East, just to show that Israel is on the right side of the West, and Muslims and Islam are on the other side. They are using populism and emotional politics within  society to promote hatred, racism, bigotry and Islamophobia. This is what they are trying to do and they are nurturing the idea that Muslims cannot be democrats by definition.

 

 Could the forthcoming US election also be a reason behind these recent provocations?

Yes, of course. What is happening is that President Barack Obama is in a very fragile situation just before the election. Hence, the Tea Party and neo-conservatives are pushing in that direction and there are some trends who are trying to create this tension because it will help the Tea Party, it will help the people who are supporting the Republicans. It doesn’t mean that the Republicans are responsible for it. But the people who are  instrumentalising it, the evangelists — the Coptic people, as it is said — just before the election speaks of their agenda. This is also to destabilise the Muslim majority countries as a way of dealing with their interests in those regions.

 

 Is this violence and widespread protests all over the globe a manifestation of crises within Islam?

Yes, I think that is what is happening in the Muslim majority countries. We have to understand that the Salafi literalists, who were only involved in religion before, are now also involved in politics and there is a power struggle within the Sunni tradition between the literalists, the reformists, and the Sufis. The literalists are using emotional populism to drive people against the West and to demonise the West. And you have on the other side the divide between the Shias and the Sunnis and we can see this in Syria. So the people are caught between these two populisms and some of the Muslims, the people, are reacting very emotionally. We cannot defend this. There is a great deal of frustration in terms of unemployment, poverty, corruption; they are surviving with their religion and they care about the Prophet, they care about their religion and they can see the West targetting what helps them to survive, so they are reacting in an emotional way. Some trends are pushing in that direction to get religious credibility, to gain ground.

 

 You think the West is also using the Salafis for its own interests?

It’s exactly the same thing. We have two kinds of populism talking to each other. So you have the West pushing them and using them, and sometimes with multiple contradictions. The allies of the West are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other petro monarchies and they are alike when it comes to protecting oil but they are pushing in a direct direction which is problematic when it comes to what they are doing on the ground against the West.

 

 So how does one deal with this diabolical attitude?

I think we should avoid populism and come to a deeper understanding of our shared values just to show and tell the people once again that the non-violent uprisings in the Arab world display that millions of people in the Muslim world are peaceful and non-violent and they are advocating freedom and democracy. And these are the true representatives. People in the West are not only those who are making these videos, films and cartoons — these are the people who have an agenda. The great majority of Western people are not following in the footsteps of these very dogmatic ideologies of the neo-cons, the Tea Party and the evangelists. So, this is where we have to come together, the people from different states, different religions, different backgrounds; come to the shared values and not be driven by emotional politics driving us towards clashes.

 

 Even after the Arab Spring, we saw all sorts of fundamentalist forces gaining ground and a spurt in violence.

Yes, we have to be very cautious. The media, naturally, is covering these events. Even though there is a great deal of violence in these happenings, it is done by a very tiny majority of people and we should not be misled by these people. They are looking for a political ground. They do not represent the millions of Muslims. You also have to take into account the geo-economic and the socio-economic factors. In southern countries, people are facing many other problems and they are directing their frustration towards the West. Muslims in the West are leading  peaceful and comfortable lives and not reacting with violence. So let us take into account all the dimensions and not fall into the trap of
essentialising civilisations or religion.

 

 Where would you locate the violent ways of the Salafis in the Islamic framework?

No, the first Salafi trends, they were not violent. The great majority of Salafi literalists are not violent. Now, we have a very tiny minority of people, a very very tiny group against the Muslim majority who are advocating violence for change and killing non-Muslims. They are not even within the frame of accepted diversity in Islam. They are anti-Islam in their action and behaviour. We have to face them and say that this is not Islamic. And the Muslims who are choosing to be conservative, I think that’s fine. It is their business and we should let them do that as long as they are not violent.  

 

 Do you see any problem among the Muslim religious scholars? Also, whenever any blasphemous content appears, we have seen extreme reactions from the Muslim clergy. We have seen death fatwas earlier. Isn’t there space for a moderate approach?

Unfortunately, today’s Muslim religious scholars and the leaders of various trends are caught up in ideological confrontation — and often a clash of egos — that creates division and transforms them into dangerous populists who claim for themselves the title of sole and authentic representatives of Islam. Within Sunni Islam, as within Shi’ism, between Sunnis and Shi’ites, scholars and schools of thought lash out at one another, forgetting the fundamental teachings and the principles that unite them and instead splitting along doctrinal or political lines that remain secondary at best. The consequences of these divisions are serious. Populism pushes people to vent their emotions blindly in the guise of legitimacy.

On the question of blasphemous content, I think what is necessary is education. We have rights and we cherish rights, the freedom of speech and expression, but what is important is that we should look at our responsibility. We should stop being obsessed about rights but rather we should create a sense of ethical behaviour. It may be legal to mock and ridicule the suffering of someone but it’s not right, it’s not ethical. It is legal to ridicule the suffering of the Jews during the World War II but people are not doing it because it’s silly, it’s unethical. So people should have a better understanding of what sacred means for people, what cultures mean, what a system means and stop criticising. It is very easy today to do this to Muslims.

So, Muslims should not react in an emotional way. They should go beyond this. They, in a peaceful, calm and non-violent way, should show that they don’t care about hatred and they are ready for dignity and working together with dignified people whatever  their religion or with no religion. 

 

 Once again it seems that radicalism is rising among Muslims all over the globe...

No, that is not true. I feel it is more visible in the media but it is not rising. We also need to ask why these very tiny radical groups are visible exactly where there are very important economic resources. They happen to be in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan is not only a country, it’s a passage to the oil resources, the gas resources and lithium resources in the region. Now we have new trends which are very extremist in Northern Mali. This is where recently the most important oil resources in Africa were discovered after Algeria and Libya. Suddenly, we see these extremists. Clearly, there are people who are pushing them. Some of the members of these extremist groups are very sincere religiously but very naive politically. And behind them, pushing them, are people who are not sincere religiously, but very smart politically.

 Who are the people behind them, pushing them? Is it a reference to the petro monarchies?

It could be some monarchies, as happened with the Taliban and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, it could also be  from behind the scenes from Western countries. As we know, Americans were pushing the Taliban during the early 1990s. It could also be a way for them to be in the country and to control. You know — unsettled, disturbed countries are the best places to control.

 

 What is the way forward?

The way forward is to work towards democratisation, not to nurture internal divisions and violence. I wrote a book called Islam and the Arab Awakening and I wrote that the way forward is to set priorities right. It has to do with education, social justice and the struggle against corruption, about the economic order and stability. These are the essential questions and we need the leaders to do this. What I did through an article on my website which is an appeal to the contemporary Muslim conscience: I have asked the scholars that it’s time for courage and you can’t blame just the people who are emotional and act in such a way, we have to understand the context. They are surviving with their sacred. The onus is on the intellectuals to be critical, to promote a better understanding of the political agendas. The scholars and intellectuals lack courage.

 

 Recently, we saw the divide between Shias and Sunnis becoming more apparent. We saw Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah coming out and saying ‘We will defend the Prophet’...

No, this is one of the most important challenges in the future. Something has to be done in that field. Nasarallah sent a strong message to the Sunnis, that we are Shias and we care for the Prophet and we will defend him. It is again an emotional message to the people and the world. Once again, deep down, if you look at the situation in Syria, it is a fracture between the Sunnis and the Shi’ite. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012