Tale of a Muslim Martin Luther
There is an Osama bin Laden who some Muslims love. And there is Tariq Ramadan, who many Muslims swear by. I am one of them.
Forty-five-year-old Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, is part-intellectual, part-reformist, part-controversial, but a full-on fundamentalist. “A fundamentalist,” he asks, “is one who relies on the fundamentals of what he believes in. So what’s wrong?” And fundamentalism — whenever it has come to mean something untenable — is not an Islamic concept at all, he argues, but a Protestant one.
So, just who is Ramadan and why is he as much liked as hated? He is a Swiss citizen of Egyptian origin residing in Britain, and who the Time magazine has named as one among “the 100 most important innovators of the 21st century”. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the fiercely anti-West Muslim Brotherhood, who many say sowed the seeds of the al-Qaeda. This, however, he denies.
Ramadan shot into limelight in 2003 after a fiery debate on national television with far-right French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, now president. Sparks flew as Ramadan took on Sarkozy for calling Muslims in Paris neighbourhoods “scums”. Then, four years ago, the US refused to let him take up a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame.
For his ardent admirers, Ramadan is a “Muslim Martin Luther” with a rockstar’s popularity and a diplomat’s tact. With stirring speeches, he is out to reconcile Islam with a hostile world. To his critics, depending on who they are, he could be a “dangerous guy” on a “covert mission”, “Janus-faced and doublespeaking”, an “anti-Semite”, and — for hardcore Islamists — a reformer trying to dilute Salafist Islam.
Whenever he speaks, young, educated Muslims file in as if it were another call to prayer and play his speeches on CDs that are widely marketed. On a muggy evening, a crowded New Delhi audience had just heard one, in rapt attention, when he spoke on “Islam, the Quran and Western Muslims” during the “Dialogues of Faith Series” at the India International Centre. As soon as he finishes his lecture, a mob homes in on him, eager to introduce themselves, speak to him and take down his contact details.
It’s an assorted group: students from Jamia Millia Islamia, a UN official, a JNU professor, a French journalist and a few others. He hesitatingly hands out his business cards, asking: “…but what will you do with it?” There is a distinct aura and, clearly, he has fans among people he has never interacted with before.
“We as Muslims are struggling to preserve our identity,” he tells me. As always, he sports a neatly clipped beard and, in a black jacket and loose blue shirt, he looks like a scholar with a very functional dress code.
Western critics have often accused Ramadan for having a “forked tongue”. The controversial Muslim scholar says he comes from the reformist tradition of Islam but at the same time, had asked “all people of conscience” to boycott Italy’s largest book at Turin for honouring the state of Israel on its 60th statehood anniversary earlier this year.
Ramadan says it is the understanding of the Islamic texts — and the context — that needs reform. Moreover, Muslims should create a creative presence wherever they are.
In a globalised world and across societies, people have become more concerned about identities and that is where, he feels, the Islam-versus-Rest conflict partly begins. There is the Old Muslim Presence, he says, and the New Muslim Presence and many feel threatened of the latter. “We are coming up with problems which we never had. In India, where I have come after a gap of 10 years, I feel Muslims are much more vunerable now and palpable. One can feel their sense of insecurity.” This is because of the narrow understanding of Hinduism and Islam that some politicians have in this country, he says.
For European Muslims, Ramadan is an inspiring figure because he is fighting for mainstreaming of Muslims. He says the integration (of immigrant Muslims) is long over. “What integration?” he asks, adding: “What we are dealing with are post-integration issues. And do not forget, we all have to get out of the minority mentality.” He feels when Muslim rioters ran amok in the suburbs of Paris, they displayed French characteristics, proof that they were only acting their nationality. “What do the French do when they are unhappy? They protest like these Muslims did.”
Despite his anti-US stance, Ramadan is one ‘opportunity’ the West doesn’t want to let go of because he is strongly opposed to things like “Islamic order” and “terrorism”. “Killing of innocents is anti-Islamic. How many times have we told you that?” The clearest view of his ideals comes from a paragraph deeply buried in one of his most famous books, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2004). “The aim, he writes, “is to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”
And, by the way, he feels the term “Islamic terrorism” and questions like “are you Muslim first or an Indian” are an oxymoron. And only morons ask them.
(This annotated profile of Tariq Ramadan recollects from an earlier converstaion with the author during his 2007 India visit, which was covered in the print edition of the HT that year.)