Islam the West and the Challenges of Modernity

Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society Topics: Islam, Modernity Values: Manners, Morality, Virtue Views: 4841

European campaigns to ban burqas, the Swiss vote to bar new construction of minarets and attempted terrorist acts in the U.S. have renewed questions and concerns about the compatibility of Islam with Western society. Swiss-born scholar and philosopher of Islam Tariq Ramadan has written and spoken on the subject, generating widespread debate and reaction. The U.S. State Department recently overturned his six-year ban from the country, allowing him to visit and speak in the U.S. How have his experiences influenced his views on the reform of radical Islam and the bridging of cultural differences? What can Western Muslims do to balance faith and modernity? And what lies ahead for the future of Islam in Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world?

Ramadan addressed these and related topics at a press luncheon hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on April 27, 2010.

Speaker: Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies, St Antony's College, Oxford University, president of a Brussels-based think tank, European Muslim Network, and author of more than 20 books.

Moderator: Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In the following edited excerpt, ellipses have been eliminated to facilitate reading. Find the complete transcript at

TARIQ RAMADAN: [T]he title for today's discussion, "Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity," is in fact the title of a book, where I'm trying to deal with Islamic issues and principles and objectives in Muslim-majority countries. I have a series of books on this, so it's really about what is going on in the Middle East, in Asia, about the contemporary challenges for Muslim-majority countries.

The other series of books is really about Western Muslims. I started by writing a book at the beginning of the '90s about Muslims in secular societies and then, To be a European Muslim and then, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.

Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation is a book from within the Islamic tradition. It's to go from what I think are the limits of dealing with fiqh issues, which is Islamic law and jurisprudence, to the fundamentals. And this is across the board. It's for Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, as well as Muslims living in the West. These are common challenges, and what I am trying to propose here is a radical reform in the way we deal with the scriptures -- rethinking the classical way of reading the scriptural sources and also addressing the contemporary challenges of promoting and applying Islamic ethics for our time.

We need to go from adaptational reform to transformational reform, which is not to adapt ourselves to the way things are, but to propose applied ethics to change them for the better. So it's with the contribution of Muslim scholars in Muslim-majority countries as well as with the contributions of scholars in the West that we can come to a better understanding of the very meaning of reform.

Having said that, what is also important is to promote a shift in the center of gravity of authority in Islam. And this is what I am trying to advocate in the book, that we cannot rely on scholars of the text. We need to bring on board scholars of the context if we want to be serious about contemporary challenges. This is quite important, but it has to do with a shift in the center of gravity of authority. Why? Because what we are used to is the Islamic answer only coming from scholars of the text.

[I am treating] seven practical areas in the second half of the book, case studies, where I am saying, Muslims are doing good in medicine, but they are not doing so good in anything that has to do with social sciences, with education, with women, with economy, with philosophy and politics. I'm trying to come up with a new framework for Islamic applied ethics. I am saying from within that there is only one Islam, but there are many interpretations and many Islamic cultures, and what we are dealing with today in the West will have and already has had tremendous impact in what is going on in Muslim-majority countries.

With my position at Oxford, I'm trying to establish a double network of scholars in the West and in Muslim-majority countries talking to each other at different levels to promote this applied ethics. It's a kind of practical translation of the main statements of that book.

My main concern is to go for [an] Islamic applied ethics for contemporary challenges and connecting the Muslim-majority countries with the West, knowing that what we are coming [up] with as responses to our challenges is read and listened to in Muslim-majority countries. This is what I am experiencing when I go to Morocco, to Jordan -- in the countries where I can go that are Muslim-majority countries. [I]t's really clear that our contribution coming from the West is heard even in Malaysia, for example; recently I was there. The Singaporeans' experience when they speak about the Singaporean Muslim identity is exactly what we are saying about us being European and Muslims at the same time or American and Muslims at the same time.

So this is what I'm trying to do and what I'm trying to promote from within. There is this critical discussion from within with Muslim scholars, Muslim intellectuals and this critical dialogue, and an open dialogue with the surrounding society in the West, but also in Muslim-majority countries.

JULIA DUIN, The Washington Times: Mr. Ramadan, you  spoke of providing ethics to make things better. Does that mean some form of sharia law in the West?

RAMADAN: No. This is why it's quite important to read what I am trying to say because I'm quite critical [of] the way we are translating sharia law. For me, the sharia is translated in the book I wrote, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, as the way towards faithfulness, as in which way we are respectful towards some of our objectives and purposes and aims.

For example, when I am in the United States of America or European countries, where I have the laws saying that we are equal before law, this is my sharia. I don't need anything else. It's not two closed systems. This is why I am challenging some of the Islamic trends from within by saying this closed or narrow understanding of what is sharia is something which is wrong.

You can get the sense of what I was trying to say in the discussion we had in the U.K. For example, when the Archbishop of Canterbury was asking for sharia to be accepted, what he was saying is that within the latitude given by the common law in Britain, Muslims can find their way within the law. This is what the Christians are doing, the Jews are doing, the Muslims are doing.

I tried to explain that he was not rightly understood. Muslims don't need a parallel system. They just abide by the common law, and within the latitude of this law and the flexibility of the Islamic legal tradition, we can find our way. [L]ook at the great majority of Western Muslims in the States, in Canada, in Australia or in European countries that just abide by the law and don't have a problem. They are not asking for specific laws. I would say that as to the objectives, we are closer to some of the Islamic ideal in Western countries than in the great majority of the Muslim-majority countries.

KIM LAWTON, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: You spoke, Professor Ramadan, about dealing sometimes with tensions between Western issues and Muslim-majority countries. One practical way where this has played out has been at the international level on the lines between free speech and defamation of religion. [F]or you, where [are] those lines between freedom of speech and when it's inappropriate, insulting or defaming someone else's religion. And are those lines universal or do they vary from region to region?

RAMADAN: I think that we have to be fair to our history and to understand from where all these stories are coming. When it comes to the legal framework, I am saying to the Muslims, we don't need new laws against blasphemy or things like this. I think that what we have now, it's enough. We don't want to limit freedom of expression.

I was in Denmark at [the] very moment when the issue about a cartoon satirising the Prophet Muhammad. Then here [and] now is this new story about cartoons. Just take an intellectual critical distance: This is legal. To ridicule religions is something that is part of the Western culture. It has to do with the history. So we don't want to go for something which is, oh, we need laws to prevent people from doing this. I think that the Muslims should understand where they live, and I would like this also to be understood in Muslim-majority countries, that we don't have to go against this. I think that we just have to stick to the laws and say, this is legal.

We also know that there are things that are illegal because they are connected to racism and statements that are not acceptable. [W]hen it comes to insulting people, racist statements, we need laws to prevent this from happening. But we all agree on this.

Now, there is something which is much more psychological. Our culture and the way we read law has to do also with our memory. And when we had, for example, Muslim groups in Europe saying the way to show that there is no equality in the way religions are treated and no freedom of speech is to insult the Jews, I told them this is the wrong way forward. Why? Because you have to deal with sensitivity and you have to deal with collective psychology. Yes, it's legal to insult the Jews and to laugh at their suffering. But it's wrong ethically and because of the collective psychology.

This is why I am saying to Muslims, take a critical distance but let the people around you understand that even if it's legal, you don't like it. React by saying, I don't like this. It's not part of me.

I'm saying exactly the same to the French today on another issue. I say, you are responding to the burqa and the niqab with law restricting freedom, and I think that's not going to work. It's not the way forward. Speak more about education, psychology. Changing mentality takes time.

I would prefer them to understand that from within we can do the job as Muslims by saying, the niqab or the burqa are not Islamic prescriptions. This is what I believe the mainstream believes as well. So I would say we have to be very cautious not to translate every sensitive issue into a legal issue.

LUIS LUGO: Ross? Speaking of "South Park."

ROSS DOUTHAT, The New York Times: Speaking of "South Park," Professor Ramadan, just sort of as a follow-up to Julia's question, I wonder if you could talk a bit more about what you do think Islam has to offer to the West. I think it's a very interesting and subtle idea, the idea that reform is something that moves in both directions.

RAMADAN: I'm not speaking about the Islamic economy. I'm not speaking about Islamic finance, Islamic medicine. I'm speaking about Islamic ethics in medicine, Islamic ethics in finance.

Meaning what? That we have a common ground, a common area, where the Christian ethics, the Jewish ethics, the Muslim ethics, the humanist ethics could provide something in that field to reform this for the better. This is where we have to come together. It's for me to break this perception that we have our sciences -- Islamic sciences, Islamic finance -- and we have an alternative -- which is not true. We don't have an alternative.

We have some principles and some objectives. But when I deal with Christians, when I deal with some humanists on the ground, I can see that they have the same objectives. So this is, for example, to say, you have to be involved in education in the West not by creating Islamic schools, which are mainly schools for Muslims. It's to come to the principles about knowledge. So it's for us when we understand Islam the right way to ask ourselves what our Islamic tradition is giving us to think about spirituality in a consumerist society, for example. It's always to think about the ends: Why are we doing this?

In economy, for example, just to say we have an alternative Islamic economy by thinking with no riba, no interest, no usury -- this is a dream; it's not working. In fact, we are changing the words, but we are doing exactly the same, seeing the same results with other names. And I think that this is hypocritical.

The way we deal with justice, the way we deal with no discrimination in the job market, the way we deal in your country with some people who are saying there is a second-class citizenship in this country when you are black American or you are Latino -- there is something that you have to question here. And I think that this has to do with our ethics, applied ethics. [N]ot something which is specifically Islamic, but something that Islam could be involved in when it comes to a discussion of the ends. Ninety-nine percent of my lectures to the white American or European or Western audiences are always about, oh, you as a problem. I want to change that. It's me as a contribution.

DOUTHAT: Do you think there is a religious or spiritual crisis in Europe that Islam could be part of the answer to?

RAMADAN: No, I think that we are all facing a crisis from within. I have been dealing for 25 years with the Muslim communities in the West and even in the States. I can tell you something: we are facing a crisis from within -- an identity crisis: Who are we, what do we want, how are we going to have a blossoming personality and to be coherent with all our universes of reference? This is something which is common to all of us.

So the people who are now saying, Islam is the solution -- I think that this is wrong. It's not because the number is increasing at an exponential rate. I'm not at all happy with the quality that we are having from within. So I would say that this is where the Muslims should be self-critical.

ALAN COOPERMAN, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: How central or primary do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the challenges that the Obama administration faces all around the world?

RAMADAN: Look, it's quite clear to me that I have been banned from this country exactly for my positions on that: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the Iraq war because when I went to the American Embassy in Switzerland, 80%, 85% of the questions were around my position and why I was critical of the unilateral support of the United States of America towards successive Israeli governments. I said, you have to be more balanced; it's not going to work like this. And then, your war in Iraq is illegal, and I think that this is not the way forward.

I think the Palestinian resistance is legitimate, the means are not -- killing innocent people, I've said it for years. This is something which is quite important for me -- to be clear on that.

Now, yes, I really think that it's central. It's central psychologically speaking, politically speaking and in the way that you feel at home in this country. Because at the end of the day, you can get social integration, intellectual integration, but miss psychological integration because something is missing, which is the sense of belonging.

The sense of belonging is what I call critical loyalty. I'm loyal to my government when I am able to say, I abide by the law, I love this country, but I don't like your policies, and not see my citizenship or my belonging questioned because I'm critical. I think that this is where we have to be together -- you and me. This is what I call the "new we," where we are citizens and we are critical.

While I think that what should come now from the new administration is really to deliver on that, it's quite difficult. I said this from the very beginning. First term, what we got as the first speech one year ago from President Barack Obama was a very good speech -- very good. I commented on this by saying, this is the first time we see someone speaking in that way: very cautious with the wording, very cautious also by not only addressing this to Muslims in Muslim-majority countries but also to Americans by telling them Islam is an American religion and Muslims are contributing to the future of this country. He was talking about a "we" as the American nation, and this is very important. Then, to speak about the suffering of the Palestinians and about the fact that we have to look at this issue seriously.

Now, I think that what we got during the last weeks and months is really tension between the Israeli government, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Obama administration. Still, now, these are words and things are going on there. I would say that within this term, it's going to be difficult. Next term, I think it's quite important to see things moving in support of Palestinian rights.

What I am saying to the Muslims is, just don't assess the Obama administration or any American administration only on that because this obsession with this foreign policy is not helping us to be citizens and to be involved in all the discussions. So I would say, at the same time as we are expecting something from the Obama administration, we also have to say to the American Muslims, you have to be involved in all the discussions.

When it comes to health, for example, what happened in this country is just tremendously important for all the American citizens. You have to be involved in this; you have to be involved in education. You have to acknowledge the fact that there are constructive steps when it comes, for example, to meeting with entrepreneurs and Muslims and trying not to be obsessed only with the idea that Islam means we talk about terrorism.

But I would like, yes, the American administration to be more balanced on Palestinian rights. And it remains central even though I think Muslims should be much more involved in everything which has to do with global politics, beyond only this issue.

MICHELE KELEMEN, NPR: I wonder how you assess the Obama administration's outreach to Muslim communities?

RAMADAN: I would say that it's quite clear that the Obama administration is much more well-perceived by Muslims around the world in Muslim-majority countries. It's not so difficult after what we got for eight years. But I would say that yes, something is changing, and there is lots of hope coming from Muslims in Muslim-majority countries.

But still, they are suspicious about the room for maneuver he has to change his policy and the way he is dealing with some lobbies here -- pro-Israeli lobbies -- and is he able to change anything as to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to go beyond words?

DUIN: Tomorrow there's going to be a big report coming out on religious freedom around the world. And as you know, one of the West's biggest values is freedom of religion and the right to change your religion. I think that all four schools of Islamic thought say that if a Muslim changes his religion, it's punishable by death. In your dialogues with other Muslims, is this something you're bringing up? And if so, have you been able to get anywhere in terms of talking about religious freedom and the right to, if you're Muslim, leave your religion?

RAMADAN: Yes, this is why it's good to read what I'm trying to say and not to Google my name. In a book I wrote in the beginning of the '90s, and then in another book in '97, and then in another book recently, and even on The Washington Post and Newsweek's "On Faith," we were asked a few years ago about our position on women and on religious freedom.

My position is clear, and I have said it many times: from the very beginning, scholars during the 8th century, including one of the main scholars, Sufyan al-Thawri, have said that it's possible, according to Islam, to change your religion. This understanding of the Islamic traditions [making it punishable by death is] a very narrow understanding and out of context because it has to do with people changing their religion in time of war, coming to the Muslim community and taking information and being, well, betrayers [of] the community. But nowhere do we have in the Islamic tradition, and even in the Prophet's life, anything saying that he killed someone because he changed his religion, or she changed her religion. If you look at my book on the Prophet's life, you can see that I mention three main cases where they changed their religion and were not killed, and he knew about this.

Read the full transcript at

Related posts from similar topics:

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use any copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

  2 Comments   Comment

  1. zahir salar from United States

    Why isn't the likes of Professor Tariq mainstream media. CNN and Fox will never have these Islamic intellectual heavy weight on the air to let the American viewers know about the real Islam. They would prefer to keep the average people in the dark and to give them red meat to wet their appetitite with prejudice and hatred, by having people such as entertainers (e.g the lesbian from Canada), who have a axe to grind with Islam and muslims. Professor Tariq explanation of the sharia on ex-muslims should be given more attention in both Islamic and western media outlet.

  2. Siddeeque from India

    This is an informative article.Thank you very much.