Sunday, January 3, 2010

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

Tariq Ramadan has emerged in this millenium as the foremost Muslim intellectual in the Western world, if not the World. The impact of his thought is evidenced by the number of prominent Western journalists and public intellectuals who have written about him, both in praise and in condemnation of what they perceive is his message. What exactly that is, however, has been itself a matter of some controversy - Carouline Fourest, a nationalistic French feminist, wrote an entire book on the subject, accusing Ramadan of an insidious "doublespeak", a message that was deviously designed to mean one thing to a Western audience, and another to a Muslim one.

Aside from Ramadan's own writings in such broadsheets as Le Monde, feature articles about him have been published in the American newspaper The New York Times, and the The New Republic magazine; French politicians up to then-Interior Minister (now President) Nicholas Sarkozy have debated him on French national television, an encounter which has followed him in almost every appearance he has made on French TV since.

To his detractors, Ramadan represents the Trojan horse of radical Islam, a smooth-talking representative of the jihadist conspiracy for world domination, making yet another play for the soul of Western Civilization. To his partisans, Ramadan represents a new Muslim consciousness and the possibility of a wider Muslim Renaissance. Ramadan's most recent work, Mon Intime Conviction, deals with the accusations of doublespeak that have been accruing against him.

But what do his writings actually say?

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam is Ramadan's 2004 book devoted to drawing, as he says in the introduction

the shape of European and American Islam: faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in Western societies.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Ramadan lays out what he considers to be the spiritual components of the Muslim personality. He points out that the current ways in which most Muslims view the world are outmoded, and were actually formulated by men, and not God, in response to the geopolitical realities that Muslims found themselves in following the dramatic spread of Islam and Muslim economic and military influence throughout the old world. Ramadan isn't particularly interested in answering anti-Islam calumnies in this section - what he wants to do is to convince the reader that the traditional wordviews held by Muslims are neither universally held by Muslims, nor are they a necessary consequence of the primary sources.

This section contains some interesting ideas. Firstly, Ramadan, as a Swiss-born Muslim, wants to establish that Islam is a Western religion. It is a point that seems relatively obvious, given the number of Muslims are now born and raised in Western cultures, but it is nevertheless one that appears to have escaped the majority of first-generation North American and European Muslims, who continue to see the countries in which they live and raise their children as host countries in which they are immersed in alien cultures that they strive to separate themselves from. Given that Islam is now a Western religion, argues Ramadan, it is high time that Muslims began to define for themselves what the parameters of "Western Islam" are; that is, what elements of Western culture should Muslims not only tolerate, but become active participants in, and what elements must they argue against.

In order to do this, Ramadan then defines those principles of Islam that he feels lie at the heart of the Islamic character, and that are, in his opinion, non-negotiable.

Ramadan also highlights the sad state of Muslim scholarship in Islamic theology, effectively confirming that the intellectual leaders of the Muslim world really haven't come to terms with "modernity," primarily because the societies in which they live do not fulfill Western criteria for being "modern" - a separation of church and state, capitalism, and political agency are much less pervasive in the Muslim world. Because of this, Ramadan argues, the rulings issued in the Muslim world in response to questions from Muslims in the West are logically invalid, because the response emanates from a place where the social, political, and economic conditions are sufficiently incomparable. What results, according to Ramadan, is a patchwork of compromises and accommodations of the Western reality, and not a comprehensively Western Islamic worldview.

In a highly interconnected world, argues Ramadan the old categories of "dar-al-Islam," "dar-al-Harb," and"dar-al-Ahd" (the Abode of Islam, the Abode of War, and the Abode of Treaty) are irrelevant, even potentially dangerous. Instead, he develops a new way of looking at the pluralist societies that Western Muslims live within today: "Dar-al-Shahada" - the Abode of Testimony.

Ramadan does not here mean here for Muslims to view themselves as missionaries out to convert the heathen. As he says in a later chapter:
In other words, "to invite" is first to "bear witness," as much as by one's behaviour as by the content and form of what one says, what the message of Islam is. It is not a matter of wanting to convert, because people's hearts are God's domain and secret. It is a matter of bearing witness, which is a invitation to remember and meditate. This meaning is also captured in another verse: "And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before mankind."
In the second part of the book, Ramadan lays out his vision as to how communities of Western Muslims should behave. For a Muslim who has lived in Canada for a long time now, most of this is unremarkable. Ramadan speaks against "Islamic schools" as a form of self-imposed ghettoization, and exhorts the believers to bring their faith into political action just on behalf of the ummah abroad - which is what often preoccupies new Muslim communities in Canada and the United States - but more importantly into social and political activism on behalf of social and economic justice, a core Islamic value. Ramadan encourages Muslims to make common cause with members of other faiths, people of various political persuasions, and even those with stridently atheist views in order to realize their shared goals of a more just society.

If there is anything controversial in the book, it must be the chapter on "Economic Resistance." Ramadan in this case assumes the position of the majority of Islamic scholars in his condemnation of all forms of interest as being "riba" (unlawful usury), but goes a step further in condemning speculation and price-fixing as also being immoral and un-Islamic. Here Ramadan is, however, forced to acknowledge the pervasiveness of these things in Western society, and effectively says, in so many pages, that while Muslims must forever strive to eliminate these things from the Earth, they have no hope of achieving this goal if they don't at least participate in the global neo-liberal economy in some limited way, necessitating at least the use of interest-bearing financial instruments.

And this epitomizes my major criticism of Ramadan's entire argument in the book. "Fine," I say, "I agree 100% with all of this. How exactly do we get there?" (I really don't agree with 100% of it, but close enough.) Ramadan is strong on justifying the ends, but weak on describing the means. Just as he seems unable to lay out practical means of avoiding the receipt and payment of interest, and just as he does not describe how to construct an economy that does not permit speculation, he also does not describe how exactly to bring about his vision of a Western Islam.

The best we have is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy - that because Tariq Ramadan, the superstar of Islamic scholarship, has said that it should be so, then ultimately enough people will work to make it so.

I am probably being too demanding - after all, I have no idea how to bring about Tariq Ramadan's world either, but I do agree that it should be brought about, which is a rare thing for me, especially given the abject stupidity that often passes for Islamic scholarship globally today.

The book, however, did also satisfy one burning question that I had about Tariq Ramadan prior to reading it: Is Ramadan a fork-tongued religious zealot, intent upon subverting Western culture into something unrecognizable under the cover of a devious doublespeak, or is his representation of himself honest and straightforward?

The answer is very clearly the latter.

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