Here We Go Again: A Response to Yet Another Polemic Against Tariq Ramadan
Posted Nov 29, 2009

Here We Go Again: A Response to Yet Another Polemic Against Tariq Ramadan

by Sophia Rose Shafi

“To be a Western Muslim is to question ideologies.” - Tariq Ramadan

Allan Nadler’s November 20, 2009 op-ed detailing Tariq Ramadan’s appearance at the 2009 AAR National Conference relies on the rather familiar collection of charges made against Ramadan that involve his relatives (whether dead or alive), his “double-talk,” and of course his (purported) fundamentalist, extremist tendencies. 

However, before I begin picking apart Dr. Nadler’s editorial, I have a disclaimer.  I am a “progressive” Shi’a Muslim, I read Ramadan’s work for one of my comprehensive exams (I passed), and I was present at every one of Dr. Ramadan’s talks at the conference.  I am also weary of criticisms launched at reformers like Ramadan consisting of personal attacks, rather than intelligent, informed and serious critiques of the scholar’s work.  It is even more tiring when someone like Dr. Nadler, who should know better, writes a piece that exhibits a pedestrian, or completely misinformed, understanding of Islam and Islamic reform.  Even a lowly doctoral student such as myself immediately recognized the lack of knowledge about these subjects in Dr. Nadler’s editorial.

Let us begin with the charge that Ramadan urges the need for reform “while in fact articulating a fundamentalist acceptance of the divinity of the Quran and the Hadiths (narratives about the prophet).”  The problem here is apparent, which is that Muslims do not have to reject the divinity of the Qur’an and hadith in order to achieve reform.  Dr. Ramadan made this explicitly clear, when he said Muslims suffer from a “double alienation” – ignorance of both the self and of Islam – which must be addressed.  The fact that Dr. Nadler ignores this fact and goes on to state, “Such double-talk, combined with ultraconservative theological views, would be laughed out of the room were they offered by any of his liberal Christian colleagues.”  This presupposes that the room was full of lefty Christian theologians, which I did not personally see any evidence of.

Dr. Nadler goes to complain “Ramadan repeatedly rejected the application of universally accepted tools of modern biblical scholarship to Islam’s sacred texts.”  I was not aware that everyone had to accept the Western models of critique and reject their own methods of criticism.  Good to know.  Dr. Ramadan is also criticized for arguing that, “violence is not an issue for the vast majority in the Muslim world.”  Dr. Nadler seems incredulous that Ramadan would say such a thing, as if the majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims were engaged in a militant jihad. 

Then we have ’The Sarkozy debacle,’ which was “eerily repeated in Montreal.”  Dr. Nadler is referring here to a debate between Sarkozy and Ramadan, in which Dr. Ramadan called for a moratorium on stoning adulterous women.  According to Nadler, Ramadan repeated this moment when he suggested that Muslims look at how the Prophet treated his wives.  It was with kindness, and Ramadan’s suggestion is an unveiled criticism of how some Muslim women are regarded by the men in their lives.

Dr. Nadler then argues that Islamic “reform” (his quotation marks, as if reform in Islam is some kind of joke) has “nothing in common” with either the reform seen in Christianity or Judaism, completely discounting the work of theologians, philosophers, sociologists, and other scholars including Muhammad Abdu, Ali Shari’ati, Laleh Bakhtiar, Ayatollah Montazeri, Amina Wadud, Abdolkarim Soroush, and yes, Tariq Ramadan.  This is an abbreviated list, and Islamic reform is certainly no joke.

He ends with one of the several inaccuracies about Islam that populate his article, in this case taqiyya, which he defines as “the medieval Islamic tactic of dissimulation.”  In fact, Dr. Nadler might be curious to know that while Dr. Ramadan is a Sunni, taqiyya is a concept rooted in the Shi’a tradition, and is not meant to be used to deceive or mislead at will, but to protect oneself against harm.

I would also suggest that blaming Dr. Ramadan’s grandfather, father (both of whom have passed on and cannot defend themselves) and brother for the host of problems seen in Muslim-majority countries is rather problematic.  It is difficult to see how three individuals could be responsible for the poverty, oppression, militancy, lack of education, and warfare seen in some (not all) Muslim communities.

Dr. Nadler’s piece is built upon his “question” (which was really an attack) at the AAR, when he accused Dr. Ramadan of “double-speak” and anti-Semitism.  Granted, some of Ramadan’s writings are rather thick, and they require a good dose of time and attention, but he is clear on where he stands, to the point that he outlines policies for reform in his books with numbered outlines. 

As for the charges of anti-Semitism, they are premised upon the idea that one cannot criticize Israel or defend the Palestinians without being anti-Semitic.  When Ramadan stated that he has “always condemned anti-Semitism as anti-Islamic” he was being theologically sincere, exactly the thing Dr. Nadler charged him with, when he wrote “for Ramadan, moral and ethical judgments can be made only through the prism of Islamic values.”  What about the Islamic value of religious pluralism, then? 

I will close with a suggestion for those who will continue to attack Ramadan and other reformers.  Islamic reform does not have to follow a Western model, Muslims do not have to all agree with each other (in fact, we often don’t), and we really shouldn’t have to spend our time defending our relatives, defending ourselves against charges that we hate Jews, and defending each other.  Instead of attacking, how about supporting us instead?