When our book club decided to read this little treatise written by Tariq Ramadan, I cringed. Listening to him at various fora over the years, I’d often get overwhelmed with the multiple threads in his arguments and manage to leave with only a fraction of the message. I doubted I’d be able to get through one of his books.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
What I believe is a sophisticated exploration of the thoughts and ideas that Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, and one of the world’s top global thinkers according to Foreign Policy Magazine, has been nurturing and expounding for years. It’s an articulate sum-up of just where he stands, and the reader is delighted to join him in thumbing his nose at his myriad detractors who create controversy around him in order to cloud his consistent message of co-existence and shared citizenship for Muslims living in the West.
“[I]t is no longer a question of ‘settlement’ or ‘integration” but rather of ‘participation’ and ‘contribution’,” writes Ramadan. “My point is that we have now moved, and we must move, to the age of ‘post-integration’ discourse: we must henceforth determine the profound, accepted meaning of belonging. This is the new ‘We’ that I have been calling for, and that is already a reality in some local experiences.”
The book marks the trajectory of the fusion of his social, political, spiritual and academic activities. Beginning in the early 1980s, we’re immediately aware that Ramadan has been thinking deeply about the role of Muslims in the West for decades. He’s well positioned to do so as he’s made peace with all that he is: “Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, Muslim by religion, European by culture, universalistic by principle, Moroccan and Mauritian by adoption.” Whew. Don’t settle for one identity, he advises us. We are far more complicated than that and there are those that stand to benefit from painting Muslims as one-dimensional caricatures.
Ramadan took on the role of “mediator” between distinct universes, even as a young dean of a Geneva high school. To him, successfully contributing to his environment in Switzerland meant he had to marry his Muslim faith with the Western culture, searching for common ground on which to stand with his fellow citizens. He acknowledges that this invites suspicion and that he has too often been suspected of “double loyalty”; “‘a bit too Western’ for some Muslims and a ‘bit too Muslim’ for some Westerners”, but he makes no apologies.
“We are witnessing the birth of a Western Islamic culture within which Muslims remain faithful to fundamental religious principles while owning up to their Western cultures. They are both fully Muslim as to religion and fully Western as to culture, and that is no problem at all,” he writes.
What remains the problem across Western countries, played out almost daily over controversies surrounding such issues as niqab, or special accommodations, is that Muslims can get trapped into a mindset of victimhood where they make only narrow claims that politicians are only too happy to exploit come election time. Ramadan warns against this, arguing that Muslims must shed their limited perspectives and instead embrace wide-ranging social goals and reform, joining hands with people of all background and persuasion. He calls this a post-integration approach and he acknowledges that it makes many people nervous, particularly those who were happy when Muslims were invisible, insular and isolated. Ironically, it is the visibility of second and third generations that has led politicians and media to perceive the Muslim presence more acutely than before, and in a more negative light (often conflating problems associated with immigration or failed social and foreign policies with a concocted notion of Islamic incompatibility).
The recent furor over the Ground Zero Mosque in the United States is a case-in-point. As soon as the story captured headlines, too many people wanted the mosque to disappear because of the perceived and onerous link between Islam and 9/11. The planners, though, refused to do so, highlighting their own inter-faith work and long-time presence in the city which lent them valuable credibility.
Ramadan is precise on pinpointing the challenges facing Muslims then, and he tackles their own internal struggles as well. He reminds Muslims to become “better-organized” and “more efficient” in educating and transmitting information to new immigrants and young people who may hold contradictory and potentially harmful viewpoints that threaten to undermine co-existence. And he calls on women to “recover their proper place” in society.
Finally, Ramadan articulates what he calls his Seven C’s for Muslim communities living in the West. He advises Muslims to: act with Confidence, remain Consistent, Contribute, Communicate effectively, Contest injustice, and show Compassion. “Demand justice and give love,” he concludes; it’s a message he capably imparts.