Tariq Ramadan: 'We Muslims need to get out of our intellectual and social ghettos'

Can this erudite Swiss lecturer really be the man branded by The Sun as the 'acceptable face of terror'? Paul Vallely meets Tariq Ramadan

The day the first bombs went off in London, a Swiss academic issued a press release condemning the outrage. "The authors of such acts are criminals and we cannot accept or listen to their probable justifications in the name of an ideology, a religion or a political cause," it said. Even though it was signed by a Muslim, Tariq Ramadan, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Geneva and president of the Swiss Muslim Organisation, it received little coverage.

Four days later Tariq Ramadan was brought to the attention of the British public a little more dramatically. The front page of The Sun launched a blistering attack which claimed that Ramadan was "more dangerous" than extremist clerics like Abu Hamza or Omar Bakri. His moderate tones, the paper said, presented "an acceptable face of terror to impressionable young Muslims".

The coverage was shot through with errors and inaccuracies. Other papers repeated the story without checking the facts. The London Evening Standard managed in the space of just 10 short lines to include no less than four mistakes, the most pernicious of which was that Professor Ramadan condoned suicide bombings when he vehemently condemns them.

In fact, Tariq Ramadan is one of the brightest hopes for achieving the reconciliation between Muslims and the rest of society which is perhaps the most pressing agenda for the post-bomb world. Which is why he was a key speaker at a conference sponsored by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Metropolitan Police yesterday. And why he was last year named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most important innovators of the 21st century. And why in academic circles he is widely known as an erudite and provocative scholar who has dedicated himself to working towards the creation of a new European style of Islam.

In a world in which Muslims and secularists occupy two distinct compartments, from which they can shout at each other without ever really listening or understanding, Tariq Ramadan offers the possibility of a new kind of dialogue. It is deeply rooted in Islamic theology, but it is informed by a post-Enlightenment Western intellectual worldview. It may well be the way of bridging the gap.

The implicit message of the terrorists to Muslims, he said this weekend, is: this is not an Islamic society; it is not your society. "We have to say it is your society," he says. "Now more than ever it is imperative for Muslims to be active citizens and to be proactive."

In part that means supporting new laws to tighten security and ban clerics who incite violence. "I have never been very happy with [the leeway given to] some of these people - Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri. Yes, of course, we need freedom of speech, but there should be limits. People who say it is Islamic to kill and not respect the law and to spread hatred are outside those limits. But we must not tackle security in a way that undermines human rights and makes every Muslim feel discriminated against."

And it is imperative now, he says, not to restrict ourselves to that security agenda. "We must understand that British Muslims are part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need to build partnerships at the local level. Muslims should collaborate with the local authorities and police. And the local community should try to trust Muslims. Focusing exclusively on security is not the way to build mutual trust."

The Muslim community now must face up to wider responsibilities. "Muslims now need, more than ever, to be self-critical," he says. That means educating young Muslims in more than religious formalism. They must be taught that "the capacity to promote social justice and the protection of the integrity of every individual, woman or man, rich or poor" is what determines authentic Islam.

What turned four young Muslims born and brought up in Yorkshire into suicide bombers was a radical and literalist Islamic discourse which the mainstream Muslim community did not do enough to pre-empt, he says. Disdain was not enough. "They needed to assert that this kind of talk is not just unIslamic. It is anti-Islamic."

But there is something more subtle. Too much of the internal conversation within the Muslim community at present nurtures a sense of guilt, inadequacy and alienation. "Young people are told: everything you do is wrong - you don't pray, you drink, you aren't modest, you don't behave. They are told that the only way to be a good Muslim is to live in an Islamic society. Since they can't do that, this magnifies their sense of inadequacy and creates an identity crisis. Such young people are easy prey for someone who comes along and says, 'there is a way to purify yourself'. Some of these figures even keep the young people drinking to increase their sense of guilt and make them easier to manipulate."

The alternative is to teach them to develop a critical mind. "On the arts, literature, the way we eat, our sense of humour, the second generation feel close to the non-Muslims they went to school with. That's right. That's the Islamic way. The universality of Islam is shown by the way you can integrate into the local culture. Our young people need to be told, you can dress in European clothes - so long as you respect the principle of modesty. Democracy and pluralism aren't against your Islamic principles. Anything in Western culture that does not contradict the message of Islam can be accepted and integrated."

To promote this it is essential to break what Tariq Ramadan calls "this binary vision of reality - the Us versus Them, the idea that everything Western is decadent and unIslamic."

It is also necessary for the young generation to jettison the approach of their parents, which was to try to make themselves invisible to the rest of society. "Now it's time to speak out - both against those who are doing these things in the name of our religion and against those who say that being a loyal British citizen means blindly accepting all the decisions of the British Government. Ours must be a constructive and critically participative loyalty."

The third change required is far greater inter-religious dialogue. "If you go back to the source of our religions you find common values. It's important to read the scriptures of the other faiths and see how the others interpret these common values. It's high time for Muslims to say that anti-Semitism is not acceptable. We have to ask questions of our own tradition and be self-critical about what is sectarian and racist. Only then can our society build a common future."

If all of this sounds uncontroversial to most Western secularists it has got Tariq Ramadan into hot water with fellow Muslims - most particularly for speaking out against Islamic punishments such as the cutting off of hands for theft, stoning for adultery and the use of the religion to oppress women.

His arguments for this are all Islamic. These penalties are Koranic but, he argues - in a way designed to persuade Muslims who fear they will appear to betray the Islamic scriptural sources - the original social conditions under which they were set are nearly impossible to re-establish. The penalties, therefore, are "almost never applicable". He cites historical Islamic precedents for the suspension of such punishments.

"Islam is being used to degrade and subjugate women and men in certain Muslim societies," he says. And the collusion of Muslims around the world in this "literal and non-contextualised application" of sharia law is a betrayal of the teachings of Islam.

Muslim critics have attacked Professor Ramadan for this, accusing him of being a sell-out, or of promoting Islam-lite. The Swiss academic is sanguine about this. "The more literal will say I am Westernising. But I am not losing the universal principles. I'm just not confusing them with the culture of the countries that Muslims have traditionally come from. There's no consensus among scholars that the conditions are in place for these penalties to be enforced. And if there's a doubt it should be in favour of the poor. Islam is centrally about justice. This is not just."

Not that this lessens the attacks that come from the opposite direction, most particularly from neocon Americans who dislike him offering criticisms of Israel such as: "It's easy to see why many Muslims think that the policies of Western governments are killing people there." His opponents have plastered the internet with spurious allegations which were last year enough to provoke a hyper-sensitive US administration to withdraw a work permit granted for him to take up a post at an American university.

"I'm condemned from the Western point of view because I stand up for Muslim values. The West feels that the good Muslim is the less observant Muslim; that the practising Muslim is a potential terrorist. We have to be aware that there is an ideological struggle here."

The lecture he gave yesterday in London was entitled The Middle Path. It is a path he is treading with some difficulty.

"It is a path between text and context, which insists that in a changing world our interpretation of faith must also evolve, that there is no faithfulness without change. We need a deep faith, but a critical mind. Being British by culture and Muslim by religion is no contradiction. We need to get out of our intellectual and social ghettos, and be freed from our narrow understanding. To do that is not easy. The easy way is to become an extremist."

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