Tariq Ramadan vs Sherman Jackson: A Traditionalist Perspective on American Muslim Leadership
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
The real issue in American Muslim engagement with the American “public square” was finally “outed” by Tariq Ramadan after forty years of either incomprehension, silence, or rejection by most of the formal American Muslim leadership. On August 10th, 2014, he announced that he was raising the issue by absenting himself from the original and by far the largest public Muslim organization in America, The Islamic Society of North America, which traces its origins to the Muslim Brotherhood half a century ago. In an interview with Amina Chaudary of The Islamic Monthly the next day he explained his rationale in perhaps the best wisdom he has ever given to both his followers and detractors, entitled “My Absence Would Certainly Be the Most Powerful Speech I Have Ever Given at ISNA”.
The next day, one of his handful of peers in the world, Sherman Abdul Hakim Jackson, issued an equally powerful plea that Tariq reconsider his action. Professor Jackson, however, did not address Professor Ramadan’s main point, which was that Muslims can lead in the American “public square” only by appealing to the wisdom of traditionalist America, namely America’s Founders, almost all of whom understood but rejected the contract theorists, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, who postulated that man not God was the origin of truth. At the ontological level concerning basic principles of ultimate reality almost all of these founding fathers and mothers were quintessentially Islamic, though at the epistemological level of translating these into action their silence on the issues of enslaving African Americans and committing genocide against Native Americans required many decades before it was even seriously addressed.
The basic issue involved holistic education, as best expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s statement, “No nation can remain free unless its citizens are properly educated. Proper education consists in teaching and learning virtue. And no nation can remain virtuous unless both the personal and public lives of the individual are infused with awareness and love of Divine Providence”, which was a theist term (as contrasted with deism) back then for God as Muslims understand it.
Unfortunately, even the best philosophers have a streak of hypocrisy. This was glaringly evident in Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the American Declaration of Independence, in which he declared that the worst abomination known to man is human slavery, even though he never freed his own slaves. Unfortunately, this hypocrisy is one reason why Professor Jackson and the vast majority of Muslims in America do not share nor even understand Professor Ramadan’s basic point that American Muslims can productively exercise leadership in America only if they address the unresolved issues of justice in America and around the world by invoking the ontological principles of the Great American Experiment in self-government, epistemologically combined through holistic education and culminating in the universal normative jurisprudence best enshrined in the heuristic development of the maqasid al shari’ah.
Now on a simpler level of ikhtilaf, associated with the current Ramadan imbroglio, both Tariq and Abdul Hakim agree with Stephen Crane’s summary statement:
“Philosophy should always know that indifference is a militant thing. It batters down the walls of cities and murders the women and children amid the flames and the purloining of altar vessels. When it goes away it leaves smoking ruins, where lie citizens bayonetted through the throat. It is not a children’s pastime like mere highway robbery”.
In August of 2014, Prof. Tariq Ramadan published an article Why I will not attend the ISNA (August 2014) and RIS (December 2014) conferences. His article provoked an almost immediate social media storm. Other well known scholars and activists in the North American Muslim community have also jumped into this discussion: Dr. Sherman Jackson wrote a letter to Tariq Ramadan asking him to reconsider. Imam Suhaib Webb wrote Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Sherman Jackson and Two Illnesses that Plague Our Organizations and Institutions. and he posted a Letter to Tariq Ramadan on Facebook.
On 8/12/2014, ISNA published a statement ISNA President’s Letter to the American Muslim Community in response to this controversy.
And, on 8/14/2014, The Islamic Monthly published an interview with Tariq Ramadan on this controversy titled My Absence Would Certainly Be The Most Powerful Speech I Have Ever Given At ISNA