Escaping the ‘minority reflex’

The Guardian - 03 December 2009

When Tariq Ramadan addressed the London School of Economics this autumn he attracted a larger crowd than the Queen, who was visiting around the same time. Her Majesty was inaugurating the unimaginatively named New Academic Building, but had very little to say.

Ramadan, by contrast, talked non-stop about being a Muslim in 21st-century western societies, even asking his audience to stop clapping because “I have lots to get through and, like you, very little time.” The latest book by Tony Blair’s favourite Islamic scholar is especially designed for people with only a few moments to spare. “What I Believe” is billed as a short “work of clarification, a deliberately accessible presentation of the basic ideas I have been defending for more than 20 years.” Anybody attempting to reconcile the teachings of Islam with life in a liberal, increasingly secular democracy like Britain would certainly do well to spend some time reading the book.

Ramadan, the Oxford University theology professor and radical reformist, points to a growing negativity in perceptions of ordinary Muslims since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. Other “crises” causing resentment have ranged from the Danish cartoons affair – when artists were threatened with death for insulting the prophet – to the headscarf controversy still raging in France as part of a divisive “national identity” debate. Ramadan singles out remarks by Pope Benedict XVI who, in hisRegensburg address of 2006 about the founding of European civilisation, all but excluded the Islamic contribution. “The list is getting longer and longer,” writes Ramadan, pointing to Muslims feeling “stigmatisation and constant pressure”.

The key to coping with such problems (ones which Ramadan, predictably but fairly, blames the media for magnifying into “juicy” scare stories) is “to resist the temptation to reduce one’s identity to a single dimension”. This means that western Muslims should not emphasise their religion as their unique defining characteristic. Instead, he writes, “our identities are multiple and constantly on the move”. He urges members of marginalised communities to be “creative” in every field of life, to “fully participate in citizenship” and to escape the “minority reflex”.

Ramadan – whose academic background extends to a distinctly non-Islamic PhD on Nietzsche – sees societies achieving, as in his own studies, “a true philosophy of pluralism”. This would mix a loyalty to classical religious texts with the imperatives of life in modern, multicultural, western societies. Such confident advice is particularly clear as it relates to Muslim women, with Ramadan attacking “literalists” who propagate horrors including female circumcision, forced marriages, honour killings and domestic violence. He says “Women must be present in the religious community’s decision circles, in organisations, in mosque managing bodies, and other places.”

“Things should be shaken up so that women can recover their proper place, but women themselves must also get organised.” Such an emphasis on rights and responsibilities runs throughout “What I Believe”, with Ramadan arguing that religious and cultural ghettoes benefit nobody. That said, he dislikes the word “integration” because, by definition, it “highlights differences, it defines caricatured entities, and maintains the idea that after several generations certain citizens remain guests, who are too different, who perpetually need to ‘adapt’.”

Ramadan says that, on the contrary, being a Muslim should be about striving to feel “comfortable and at home” in whichever society one finds oneself. Filling in the gaps left by the pope at Regensburg, he mentions the Islamic thinkers “who deeply contributed to both Europe and the west at large, nurturing and enriching them with their critical reflections.”

Ramadan wants to resume this tradition, emphasising this shared past in everything from school curricula to official histories. He is only too well aware of the discrimination faced by western Muslims in their day-to-day lives, calling for a “genuine jihad” battling for mutual understanding and trust between communities.

It is a high ideal, but the book is not a naive one. Ramadan understands the modern world, and his religion’s place within it: this book makes this abundantly clear.

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