Interview with Tariq Ramadan

Ahmed Nassef

Posted Sep 9, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Interview with Tariq Ramadan

By Ahmed Nassef

In this exclusive interview with MWU! Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Nassef, Tariq Ramadan, the respected Swiss Muslim academic whose visa was revoked by the US State Department shortly before he was to begin a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame this month, talks about his mysterious visa problem, his reformist ideas, and the need for an “accepted diversity” among Western Muslims.

MWU!: What is the latest on your visa case?

Tariq Ramadan: There is nothing. I received an email on Friday, July 29, so I called them on Monday, August 2nd. I was told the visa was revoked, but that I could reapply. This is the only thing we know, and we have no information about how and why. They were saying to some people that it has to do with the Patriot Act, but we don’t even know who took the decision. We hear Homeland Security advised the State Department to revoke the visa and the State Department took the final decision, but the State Department says Homeland Security required them to do so.

Now, everything is in the States. My flat is totally empty, so our living here is difficult.

Psychologically, it is especially difficult for my four kids. Now, they have had to go back to their schools here, not knowing what will happen and whether they will be leaving or not.

MWU!: Will you be re-applying for the visa?

Tariq Ramadan: If I reapply, then it means I accept their first decision. But I cant do that without knowing the reasons.

MWU!: In an article for the Globe and Mail yesterday, you criticized those who always mention your pedigree as the grandson of Shaykh Hasan El Banna. But doesnҒt that go both ways? Aren’t many Muslims more inclined to support you because of that pedigree?

Tariq Ramadan: Yes, people who respect him are supportive. The issue for me is not to be supported because of that or criticized because of that. I say to people, I want to be judged on what I am doing. That is more important for me.

MWU!: People have a hard time placing you on the intellectual spectrum. If you had to pick a label for your ideas, what would it be?

Tariq Ramadan: I am just following the reformist tradition within Islam, the school of maqasid. I am trying to be faithful to the objective, not the literal reading, what I call the “double understanding” of the text and the context. It is not a Westernized way of dealing with Islam. We have had this from the very beginning. Even the Prophet practiced this.

MWU!: What are the differences, if any, that you have perceived between the North American Muslim experience and the European Muslim experience?

Tariq Ramadan: The type of population is quite different. We have to be careful about this. Muslims in Europe are mostly there for economic exile. Their situation is a very modest one. They are trying to cope with social problems. In the US, the closest to the European situation are African American Muslims who are dealing with issues of marginalization, cultural problems, and religious belonging. The one similarity between Muslims in Europe and the US is the lack of intra-community dialogue, between cultures of originNorth Africans not speaking to West Africans, etc.

There is a great deal of racism within the communityחalthough Muslims are brother, sometimes some are more “brothers” than others. We need to really rethink our presence in the West. I am speak about “Western Muslims,” not Muslims in the West.

MWU!: Explain the differences in how the hijab controversy is viewed in Europe as opposed to the US. In France, it seems that most liberal and progressive non-Muslims very much support the law and see it as a protection of secularism.

Tariq Ramadan: Actually, this is an especially French phenomenon, because of the country’s very specific history. When you look at the 1905 Reference Law, you find that there is no problem for Muslims to live as Muslims in France. We say that France should just implement this law and enforce it strictly and equally. But this new law is a step backward. In 1989, the State Council said there is nothing in the scarf which is against secularism. We have to be careful about those using secularism as an ideology, confusing secularism with no religion at all. The atmosphere in France is very passionate, as if we are touching the sense of French identity. Because there are more than 5 million Muslims in France, their presence raises questions about the future identity of the country. But if you go to other European countries, the scarf is less of an obsession.

MWU!: Some Muslims are very religious, while others are not. How should the community define itselfcan religious and cultural identifications of being a Muslim co-exist?

Tariq Ramdan: We have to start with a principleחwhoever, woman or man, says, I am a Muslim, and feels that he or she is a Muslim is a Muslim and should be considered as such. We have to stop judging each other.

Now we have different levels of practice. Take someone who says, “Oh, I am not a practicing Muslim.” When someone tries to stop lying, that is an ethical practice. The very moment that you stop lying, then you have an awareness, you are a practicing Muslim. You are already in a process. It is a state of mind.

We have to understand that we are not at the same levels and we are not following the same paths or schools of thought. We have to accept a diversity as to the level of our practice and to the schools of thought. We have to start with this mindset. There are some things that are clear in Islam, like the shahada, or the five pillars. Whether or not somene practices or not—-99% of Muslims will acknowledge them.

This is for me the beginning.

Within the Islamic community, there is also a cultural diversity. The language of the Qur’an is Arabic, but the culture of Islam is not Arabic culture. Islam is not a culture; it is a set of principles accepting other cultures as long as it does not contradict the principles. I can remain an indigenous American, be a Muslim, and integrate everything in my culture that does not contradict those principles.

Be who you are! And be confident with your culture. It is important to promote this.

We have to avoid simplistic categories to judge others. We need American Muslims to understand that this common culture should help them to reach out to other peoplelet us start something new together and accept diversity. For example, I don’t follow literalist interpretations, but I accept that some Muslims don’t listen to music. At the same time, don’t tell me that it is more Islamic not to listen to music than to listen to music. We have different opinions. The idea of accepted diversityחdifferent readings, cultures, and levels of practiceis critical.

MWU!: Unlike many academics, you are also very visible in the European Muslim community and quite popular, especially among young people. Why do you think this is the case?

Tariq Ramadan: From the beginning I decided that I am not going to cut myself off from this community. Sometimes when you are an academic, the people around you make you understand that if you want to be a professor, then you have to forget about being with your community. I think that is the wrong attitude. Very often, academics cut themselves from the grassroots. This is not the way to be connected. We are speaking about life and people, and we should have different ways of conveying the message.

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reprinted in TAM with permission of Ahmed Nassef