A CZ friend and I attended last night's public talk in Vancouver by the well-known Muslim public intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, on "The Scope and Limits of Reforming Islam". Our friend went in, after having read what the likes of Caroline Fourest and Jihad Watch have to say about Ramadan, in a bit of a rage. I counseled the usefulness of having a calm listen. Our friend was not outraged by the talk like he thought he would be, but I came out unimpressed by the "intellectual" game being played. I was not immediately inspired to blog about it because I did not feel Ramadan dwelled on any of his points long enough to open up any kind of serious discussion of his ideas and the contradictions they would run into if pursued. And having never read his books, I can only offer some general impressions. The Vancouver Sun's terminally-liberal religion reporter, Douglas Todd, had a pre-talk interview and seems to have been happy to take the easy way out of reporting on this controversial figure: accenting Ramadan's communion in the popular hate-George-Bush cult (the Sun website is presently down and I don't have the link).
For those wanting a little more on Ramadan's game, first have a look at Robert Jago's report (with video) An evening with Tariq Ramadan « A dime a dozen political blog and also his backgrounder. As I commented at Robert's blog:
while charming and ingratiating, I didn’t think [Ramadan] said much with a lot of intellectual honesty that one can readily grapple with in the way of a serious discussion. He jumped around quickly trying to touch on a lot of themes in ways that would be appealing to an audience with Muslim and liberal sympathies but he did not develop his points to the extent of revealing how he would tackle difficult contradictions and roadblocks that any argument will face when seriously pursued; he was not honest about the various practical and political problems and conflicts his ideas will face if ever taken up. It’s fine to say, for example, that Islamic scholars must accept the guidance of all the other sciences and sit on the same level with them in developing ethics. But, in practise, how can all sciences always be given the same respect and sit as equals when it comes to developing the ethics of a free society? What does the Koran have to say about a global corporation’s human resources strategies? How can that be balanced equally with all the other sources of knowledge? I have no idea.Reflecting a little more, what Ramadan represents but does not seriously discuss is the assumption that Islam has a large role to play in the development of ethics in a modern society. Implying that we all recognize that Western modernity owes a lot, even in its secular trappings, to the Christian tradition (which of course it does), he asks that Islam be given equal respect as a tradition "as complex as Christianity", as we develop in future the ethics of our modern society.
As for the question on apostasy - the “right answer” was like everything else he said a very politically-finessed answer: it is wrong to kill the apostate. But as you note, there is much more he might have said. He said nothing about how you should treat the apostate: is he still a member of the family, can he inherit wealth, can he speak to mother, is he now a non-person in the life of the community, dead in anything but a physical sense?
Ramadan’s game is a tentative one, a bit of a tease. Does that make him the trojan horse for Islamization of the West that some of his more fierce critics fear? I have no idea and suspect we can’t really know how this sort of conversation will play out. Conservative Muslims will likely see him as a possible trojan horse too. The conservative-looking Pakistani man sitting next to me listened and watched with a face of intense puzzlement, surprise, even a little shock.
Now I have no doubt that Islam will evolve to continue playing a key role in disciplining Muslims to live their lives in the modern world. One of the facts of modern civil society is that participation is not necessarily hampered, but quite possibly strengthened, by private investments in group cultures that owe much to traditional, old-world ritualism, sometimes some of it even rather violent in nature: the Hells Angels, for better or worse, are a successful adaption to modernity, as are complex religious-ritual movements like those of the Mormons. But, of course, we don't look to such organizations to take a lead in defining a shared conversation that goes on across civil society as a whole. I don't mean to score low blows here. I am not comparing the lives most Muslims live to those of Hells Angels, or Mormons. But if Ramadan wants to argue that the radical violent Jihadists he deplores for constituting a scared and intellectually impoverished reaction to modernity, for being people who are lost and alienated in the modern world, he might take on the task of seriously arguing that the more violent or ritually strict responses to modernity are not in fact the more likely to lead the way to some kind of successful adaptation to modernity (no less if in eternal opposition to it). Modernity, with all its difficult demands on the individual, does require successful individuals to have demanding disciplines. In this light, what to make of Ramadan's vague promises of a new, reformed, intellectually sophisticated Islam capable of taking a lead in modernity's ethical discourse across disciplines? Liberalism, in the Christian world, has not proved to lead to many successful churches over the long run. Why should a liberal Islam succeed?
Here now below are some of my notes paraphrasing Ramadan's talk, which Simon Fraser University President, Michael Stevenson, kicked off with introductory remarks proclaiming that no issue is more important to discuss today than the role of Islam in the West.
Prof. Derryl Maclean then characterized Ramadan as Europe's most influential Islamic reformer, concerned with a foundational Islamic hermeneutics that can participate in the West while remaining faithful to Islam, moving discussion of Islam beyond that of a closed system necessarily in opposition to the West.
Ramadan then began his cagey remarks by mentioning his was not an easy topic, things are very sensitive when talking about Islamic Reform and its Limits.
He called on Muslims for reconciliation with their own tradition, while he called on Westerners to respect Islam as a tradition as complex as Christianity. Whatever that could possibly mean, he did not seriously discuss. This pointing but not seriously discussing was the general nature of the talk.
He said he is representing a Reformist trend but Reform is Islamic so don't be, he addressed Muslims, "doubly alienated" by thinking you have to address your alienation within modernity by then standing outside of Islam in order to reform it.
He represented himself as a scholar of Islamic legal systems and said he is interested in reinterpreting the fundamental sources of the legal system to allow a dialectical process to evolve between texts and (modern) context. He noted that the law is not the primary agent of a creative process, but its end result. So reform must be interested in more than law.
He made some comments on the importance of better translating key Islamic terms. "Islam" he assured us does not mean to the Muslim or Arabic mind quite what the term "submission" evokes in the psychology of the English speaker.
He declared he is not going to change the Islamic texts, only the interpretations. His goal is to reform the minds of Muslims. The Muslim mind that is not evolving is not being faithful to Islam he declared. The problem is not the book but the readers.
However there are limits to "reform". Some Koranic verses are universal and immutable: for example, one can't question the "oneness of God", the ritual for performing the prayers, or for fasting.
But certain verses dealing with social ethics are changeable in light of changing contexts.
However, the Koran has to be read by the knowledgeable. Everyone can read but must be guided by those who truly understand it.
Reform means transforming the world for the better. Jihad, "holy war" really means effort and resistance, a struggle to overcome our violent desires for worldly power and wealth. Jihad is about transforming oneself to love the other. This requires knowledge of the principle of Islam and knowledge of oneself.
Why has reform failed for centuries? We want to transform without knowledge of self and world. And today we have a problem with the human and natural sciences because they have become too huge. No one individual can integrate a knowledge of the sciences with a knowledge of Islam. Nonetheless, we must put Islamic sciences on the same level as all the other science when developing our ethics.
Islamic communities are passive and blame scholars for their inabilities in coming to terms with modernity. But then Muslims are only asking their scholars superficial questions and thus, not surprisingly, getting superficial answers.
There needs to be a shift in the centre of gravity of authority in Islam towards a shared authority of Islamic textual science with all the other sciences. We must recognize that Islamic scholars don't have answers to many questions of modern life.
Ramadan then made the dangerous (to my mind) suggestion that the laws, the Sharia, must be re-read in light of the properly understood ends of Islam (e.g. in bringing peace to the world). Again, the texts must be integrated with the modern context. We have to protect all life. We have to protect peace. At this point, he even made a nod to Michel Serres' call on us to reinterpret our inter-personal struggles by recognizing a third party in our disputes: nature.
We may need a fatwa saying some questions don't need fatwas.
Discrimination against women is not intrinsic to Islam. There has been too much literal reading of the texts with no respect for changing contexts. And there has been a confusion of retrograde cultural contexts where women are brutalized with the religion itself.
Islam can only be protected by confidence. We are scared; creativity is part of our religion.
Halal really calls on us to respect the dignity of animals.
Take wisdom from wherever you find it. If an atheist economist is wise, take wisdom from him.
That's the extent of my not-entirely-complete notes; we then came to the question period which Robert Jago aptly summarized.
Ramadan ended the evening, noting that the audience was about half Muslim, half non-Muslim, with a call on Canadians to recognize the rich potential that Muslims bring and to recognize a new "we", to overcome the old confrontations of "us" and "them". I think this kind of vague appeal to a popular Utopianism typified the evening. First, while most Canadians are willing to recognize that Muslims, as individuals, have a lot to offer, this says nothing about fears many hold that Islam does more to hinder than to advance that contribution. Second, the idea that we can somehow transcend the need to think and politic in terms of "us" and "them" is a dangerous lie. Not only is it a lie in the sense that the Koran is profoundly a book that divides the world into "us" and "them", but there is no book that can ever be written that does not rely on binary oppositions. The fundamental model of all culture is the original scene of human culture, one that must have made an internal opposition between a sacred centre of attention and an alienated periphery. And as soon as the first human scene gave way to another, there developed a necessary opposition between one sacred centre of attention and another.
Binary oppositions are part and parcel of the human condition and no amount of postmodern deconstruction and Utopianism can do away with them. Responsible people will thus recognize this political fact and not call on us to share in a dangerous desire to overcome othering, but to engage in a responsible conversation of how we find the least violent ways to mediate our inevitable and necessary human conflicts. Ramadan offered no serious explanation of how Islam is compatible with modernity. He made clear he does not think Islam should become a private religion occupying one plot of land in civil society. He implied it should be a central part of a conversation going on across a modern civil society. But he did not really explain how what has traditionally been a closed ritual circle, a "total way of life" can become open-ended in the modern liberal spirit. He merely insisted that it must happen. Now maybe my criticism is too much to ask: the future is inherently unpredictable and unknowable. Ramadan's talk was full of wishful thinking, that Islam and the West must come together in an open-minded and respectful spirit. What we will really do with the inevitable conflicts that we now face and will develop in future, ones that force real choices on us having to do with, say, competing calls for individual rights and group claims, no one yet knows. Is Ramadan encouraging us in something that can only end badly? Or is he a positive force, an alternative to the more dogmatic pronouncements on what Islam is and must be? Time will tell, but my very first impression is that Ramadan has yet to show that his ideas will be of more than passing interest. I look for further articulation to better judge their plausibility.