I had the opportunity to sit for a conversation with the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan at the end of the 2009 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal. Ramadan is a public intellectual who has been a figure of both much praise and much condemnation, occasioned by controversial statements and positions that have cast him alternately as courageous and dangerous. As an activist, Ramadan continues to call for European Muslims to resist the encumbrances of minority status and to strive to play a central role in European public life as engaged and active citizens. Through his writings and lectures, he speaks both with and on behalf of Muslims in the West, as well as for Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active in the academy and in various grassroots engagements, lecturing extensively on social justice and the necessity of inter-cultural dialogue. Ramadan describes his work as at once protecting “Muslim identity and religious practice” and encouraging the European Muslim “to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”
Professor Ramadan’s most recent publication is entitled What I Believe (Oxford University Press, 2009). His other books include Western Muslims and the Future of Islam; Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation; The Messenger: the Meanings of the Life of Muhammad; To Be a European Muslim: a Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context; and Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity. He is currently Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University (Oriental Institute, St Antony’s College). He also teaches at the Faculty of Theology at Oxford and is a Senior Research Fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.
In July 2004, Professor Ramadan, under contract to teach at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, had his work visa revoked by the U.S. Department of State, under a provision of the Patriot Act. The ACLU and various academic organizations contested the government’s refusal to issue Ramadan a visa. In January 2010, the Obama State Department reversed the earlier decision, issuing an order allowing Ramadan to enter the country.
Professor Ramadan grew up as a practicing Muslim in Geneva, Switzerland, in a family with a widely known and — for many — controversial history of Egyptian religious and political leadership. Before we began the formal part of our conversation, Ramadan indicated that in nearly a dozen interviews during his visit to Montreal, he had repeatedly been asked to respond to various controversies surrounding statements he had made in regard to the Middle East and about his grandfather’s role as a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather than recapitulate these issues, forcing Ramadan to reiterate a series of refutations that he was clearly tired of making, I began by asking about his immediate family and his relationship with his parents. I wanted to know whether and how his parents had cultivated his identity as a Muslim. In a somewhat surprising turn, Ramadan told me of a childhood marked less by an insistence on becoming and being Muslim than by the instilling of the fundamental value of love. We begin the conversation below with a discussion of Ramadan’s education and his ongoing work as an advocate for Islam in the West. — David Kyuman Kim
DKK: I’m fascinated by your attraction to Nietzsche as a student. You wrote your dissertation on him, and I can certainly understand the appeal of his engagement with suffering, as well as the eventual affirmation that you find in his work. But what attraction was there for you in Nietzsche’s wrestling with nihilism and his characterization of the implosion of Christianity?
TR: You know, many people misunderstand this, because they think that I was coming to Nietzsche because he was very critical towards Christianity, and that, as a Muslim, I was very happy when he said, “God is dead.” It’s exactly the opposite, in fact. I read Nietzsche for other reasons. I read everything that was published. I had to do this. I wanted to add to the concept of suffering in Nietzsche’s philosophy, which was Nietzsche as a historian of philosophy. Because he was, as Heidegger said, the last metaphysician. And he took a very strong and critical look at everything which was coming out of the Western tradition. But he was distorting Socrates, Hegel, and even Schopenhauer and other scholars.
TR: But this was very important. I wanted to read what they said, and to read what he said about what they said, and how he was interpreting them. And then there was a point that was quite critical for me, which was that Nietzsche, when he was young, was a believer; and then at one point, he asked the question: “Does your faith help you to avoid the very essence of who you are? Is it, at the end of the day, a question of a power struggle with others?”
So, from where do you get your power? From where do you get your confidence? And, more importantly, from where do you get your answers? Is it, per se, an answer that you are getting out of your own quest? Or is it a power struggle and a relationship with the Other? He was asking a very critical question for me that was. . .
DKK: Deeply existential!
TR: Exactly! This was an existential question. But, in the end, it’s really saying, “Tell me what you are doing with your suffering, and I will tell you who you are.” So, are you using the suffering to transform it into a sense of guilt? Or are you using the suffering to be a better human being? And this was the very question, because he said that we are innocent — so use your suffering to be an artist, and not to be someone who is deeply obsessed with the sense of guilt.
TR: Exactly: le ressentiment and le mépris, and this power struggle. So I would say that this is essential,because in the name of religious love, in the name of this connection with God, we can translate this questfor meaning into a power relationship, and I don’t like that. But I think that he was asking the criticalquestion, and the central one as well, which was about innocence. What is innocence in our lives? And this is a very deep question for the Christian tradition.
DKK: Yes, of course.
TR: What is innocence? And in the Muslim tradition, the classical Islamic tradition, we say, “the starting point is all about innocence and permission,” but it’s very often distorted by people of power, by people of rules, and I think that Nietzsche is philosophically asking the right question to people dealing with the legal dimensions of religions.
DKK: You see the kind of agonistic struggle that Nietzsche was advocating, in the Islamic context, as a challenge to the literalists. But Nietzsche was contrasting strong notions of good and evil, inflexible conceptions, and the ways in which those over-determine the self and over-determine possibility.
DKK: So that, on the one hand, there’s the romantic Nietzsche, who, as you just said, would proclaim, “I am free to make myself who I am and who I want to be!” But then, on the other hand, there’s a grounded Nietzchean reading that says, “I only read myself over and against these traditions that I have to resist,” which is to say that the death of God moment is a temporary moment, that the nihilistic moment is a temporary moment of freedom, and that there has to be a kind of strenuousness to one’s resistance and one’s criticism.
TR: Yes, but I think that this is disputable, because Nietzsche had many stages. And I think that this power of will and the will to power — everything that he was connecting to art and to this dimension of. . .
TR: Yes, music, being something which is beyond human being and beyond morality. And even beyond this are the jails and prisons of human conscience and consciousness. I think that this is not only a matter of resisting, or of indicating a tension within Christianity. Nietzsche was really asking, “What is the essence of a human being?” It’s ultimately about who we are.
You know, when he came back to the Greek tradition, he was looking for innocence beyond anything else. If the Olympian gods are acting or behaving like this, it means that we are innocents. We do what they do, and they cannot blame us for doing what they are doing. So, this innocence is something you find at the end of the nineteenth century, for example, in the French poet Rimbaud. It was exactly the same for him. He was looking at coming back to Greece — the classical Greek and Hellenistic traditions — to avoid nurturing a sense of guilt. But I would say that it’s not only against tradition. It’s really the deep question of who we are in this being and how do we deal with life, since life means suffering.
DKK: I agree with that. And I think that Nietzsche was himself turning away from Schopenhauer’s dark pessimism.
TR: Yes, that’s true.
DKK: And Nietzsche says: “Against that dark pessimism, I have to choose life. I have to choose affirmation, and thus engage in constant struggle.” The question is how you can choose an affirming life. On another note, we talked before the interview started about the incessant assaults you have experienced from critics who continue to caricature you and your positions, and how dealing with this stream of criticism requires you to expend an enormous amount of energy. . .
TR: To explain. . .
DKK: Yes, an enormous amount of energy trying to explain, and also to say, “I’m not this, I’m not that,” and so on. So, in a manner of speaking, you’re engaging in a Nietzschean refusal of negation, right? A refusal similar to Nietzsche’s response to Schopenhauer, that life may be suffering, but, even so, it need not entail pessimism.
TR: Yes, while I agree with this, the only thing which is quite different here is, I think, that even Nietzsche had an attitude which would say, “The fact that you don’t understand means that I’m right.” This was Nietzsche: “You don’t understand? Then I’m right. I know why you don’t understand, because it’s not understandable for you. What I’m saying is for other people, the people who are coming after you.”
Now, I’m saying exactly the opposite. I’m in a situation where there are oppositions and resistances, but what I’m trying to do is explain, by saying, “I’m sure that you can, if you go beyond your perception.” So, in fact, Nietzsche was saying, “Because you are full of rationality, you can’t understand my artistic vision.” And I’m saying, “Because you are completely obsessed with perceptions, you cannot come back to rationality.” So, I’m covering that in-between, which is a difference!
But the point he was making — and, in this sense, he was right in what he was saying about “beyond good and evil” — was to ask, “What’s real about projections?” And I think that, on this point, if there is a philosophical lesson that we can draw out of the whole thing, it’s that human beings are not changing!
TR: Human beings are driven by perceptions, and it’s very difficult to come to a reasonable rationality, or to an artistic take on things that is beyond judgment, or the judgmental attitude.
DKK: Is that how you got to what I would call an ethic of critical empathy? You quote Charles Taylor at one point in your memoir, affirming his characterization of you, that you are “trying to establish a coherent discourse between two universes of references, of civilizations and cultures.”
TR: Yes, yes.
DKK: So help fill that out — namely, this relationship between empathy and residing between those two universes.
TR: You know, I think that what I call “intellectual empathy” is really being able — when I’m dealing with Muslims in the Muslim majority countries, as well as with the Muslim communities in Europe — to understand from within what is happening. So, they take texts seriously, and you have to understand that. You have to understand that there are principles. And you have to have a sense of priority: immutable things over things that are changeable. This universe of reference has its own logic, and you have to work from within.
At the same time, knowing how it works internally, you must be able to go towards this intellectual empathy by understanding how the West is looking at these countries and communities. Because, for example, when I was calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, or with stoning even, the critics said, “Oh, stoning should be condemned!” I said, “Okay, look: you are basing your argument on the pure rationality that says, ‘It’s wrong, it’s wrong!’ But people are taking texts seriously. It’s something which has to do with tradition! It’s not post-modern rationality, where everything is for you to judge.”
So, when you deal with this sort of situation, intellectual empathy means being able to speak to the Muslims and to take texts seriously. It’s in the name of what we — all of us together — believe that we have to stop.
And to the Western mindset, the Western psyche, I say: “Okay, look, try to understand the rationale. Try to understand the steps. Try to understand the principles — the postulates — that you find in the other tradition.” And this is the most difficult thing to do, right? Because you need to know your own logic, and you need to understand how it’s perceived in contrast to another logic. Then you need to translate your logic into the other one, and at the same time to respect the other one by using concepts that are understandable. And then you understand. This is why I think it’s difficult. But, with time, I have been able to reach a point where I think it’s less difficult than we had thought it would be that is, if we work and we repeat and we go with people who can be mediators.
And here there are other concepts that we should note. This is why I’m always speaking about respect. But also, here I’m speaking about loving the people.
TR: Because with “intellectual empathy” there is a notion of emotion and heart. It’s not only rationality.
DKK: To have pathos with others.
TR: Exactly, exactly.
DKK: You know, as you describe it, it seems to be as much a problem of anthropology as it is of politics or philosophy. Which is to ask: Do we have thick understandings and engagements with others? Do we have thick understandings and engagements with ourselves? In other words, can we inhabit a mode in which we don’t presume a transparent self-understanding, so that deep critical reflection becomes quite important?
TR: Yes, I think it’s the starting point! And because of my life, because of my experience, because of my journey, I had to do that. I was unable to define — or to try to define — some dimensions of who I was and am without this demanding process.
TR: And this, I think, helped me a lot — to be between the two worlds, and to try to make them communicate, to try to go beyond the prejudices, or the perceptions. In this regard, there was a misreading of Huntington and others as saying, “The clash of civilizations is the clash of perceptions.” This is why we have to come to understand that how you deal with your own perceptions is the knowledge of the self, that it’s as important as the knowledge of the other, and that the best way to go towards the other is really to go through this demanding process of knowing yourself.
DKK: Was the process of your public self-identification — not just as an intellectual, but as a Muslim — born out of this kind of engagement with others, that is, this coming to know oneself through thick engagement with others who are misunderstanding or misperceiving you?
TR: No. I think that, in fact, at the end of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s I was not feeling a problem in my daily life with people. I was even respected, and even respected because of who I was. I was playing football and other things, and I felt that others were respecting me: “He doesn’t drink alcohol. No pork.” Something like, “Okay, he has principles, so we’ll respect that.”
And then, looking around, I started to see controversy: Salman Rushdie, Iran, and other issues around Islam. The two worlds were not communicating; or they were communicating in a very superficial and conflicting way.
TR: And I put myself in between them, and said: “Okay, am I going to be invisible? Or am I going to use this confidence that I have to deal.” Or . . . not even confidence — at that time, it was the fact that I did not feel a problem. There was no problem for me, and yet I now saw a problem in this new way of dealing with Islam, with Muslims, with regard to principles — freedom of speech and things like that.
When it started, I said, “I have to use my own roots, my own experience, the fact that I feel okay with the whole thing, to become part of the process.” So it was much more the controversies and the tensions from outside that pushed me to come back to the inside and to say, “Okay, I don’t have these problems; I don’t have these tensions — not at the same level as others do — so I may have to translate this, just to respond to the tensions outside.”
DKK: As you describe that process, one might think of it as a coming into a sense of mission, or calling, or vocation, right? Which is to say, coming towards a response to the conditions in the world. For example, yesterday, in a public dialogue at the AAR, the liberation theologian James Cone responded to Cornel West‘s question, “Why is it that you became a theologian of liberation?” by saying, “I had to.” This is a fascinating response. Cone said: “I had to answer this question, ‘What does the world demand of me? And what does the world demand of us?'” Your description of your experience seems to resonate with Cone’s question. You felt comfortable with yourself, and yet, in a manner of speaking, the world was demanding something more of you.
TR: I agree! I would say exactly that. At one point, you are living your life, and then you look at the world around you and say, “How can I be useful?”
TR: And what does this world expect from you? In which way can you have a vocation or a mission? Once again, it was not to preach or to convert; it was to solve, to reconcile.
TR: It’s a mission of reconciliation. And at the end of the day, I can tell you something — as I said yesterday [during a plenary session of the AAR], when we had an intra-community discussion about some of the issues of authority: Even in the Islamic tradition, I’m trying to reconcile with others. It’s all about reconciliation. I would say that it is the keyword of my work.
DKK: And “keywords” is a nice transition to some of the other things I wanted to ask you.
DKK: There are many keywords in the constellation around Tariq Ramadan, and some key phrases as well. For example, over the weekend, I heard you use the phrase “Muslim universal principles,” or some variation on that, a number of times. In engaging a non-Muslim audience as a Western Muslim, as you have sometimes described yourself, how would you articulate what those principles are? And how would you articulate it in such a way that it still has integrity and resonance among people within Islam?
TR: Hm. If I used it in this way, that was wrong. What I’m trying to say — in the last book, for instance — is that we have shared universal principles. Universal principles, by definition, are shared. So I would say that when we have “Western” universal principles, we have a problem, because “Western” by definition is not universal. And “Islamic,” by definition — of course, for Muslims it’s universal, but to put it that way would be wrong. So I would prefer to speak about shared universal values.
And, you know, in the book I use the image — the metaphor — of the mountain. We have different roots, but at the top of the mountain, where we are going, we have the universal values that are shared. No one has ownership of the top.
TR: But we sometimes think that we have ownership of the top. So, while we often speak about “Islamic universal values,” and say, “This is us,” or we speak about Western values, and say, “This is us,” and “the others may have some, but it’s not universal,” I would say that universal values are shared by all of us. For example, consider the concept of the dignity of the human being. Dignity is central for me, as are justice and freedom.
So there are universal values that we share. And I would say that the problem is, then, how we understand them in the constellation of all the other values. Because we cannot just take one value and say, “Okay, I have it.” But, responsibility and the way you deal with all duties — these are quite important dimensions as well. So, I would say that when you look at the ends of things, very often you can help the people to reconcile themselves, and to understand the shared values that they have.
TR: So it may be that by going to the ends, you are more able to respect the different truths, because you know the ends. But if you start by talking only about the differences between the texts or the traditions, it will be difficult to generate something that gets you to the top of the mountain together, precisely because we are losing our way in the process of discussing details. So, for me, these values are a reality, and I think they are very much a part of the Islamic tradition. But I also find them elsewhere. You know, when I was with liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez in South America, the way he was dealing with justice was different — sometimes using Marxist rhetoric — but, in the end, the point was the same: dignity, justice, equality, the poor as equals of the rich. All of these things are, I think, shared values.
DKK: So, in that conception, does that make the traditions of Islam secondary? I am trying to figure out the relationship between universal principles and values and the principles and values specific to Islam. You have said a number of times that there are challenges to being faithful — challenges, that is, of determining the authenticity of Islam. I think at one point in What I Believe, you say something to the effect of, “Well, there is a fundamental religion called Islam, but it’s always deeply contextualized and there are all these variations, of course.” But, as you know, this is a struggle that many, if not all, religions have.
TR: Yes, exactly.
DKK: If you have a universal set of principles against which you are interpreting and representing your tradition, then how do you determine what the core of your tradition is? What are the animating values of particular traditions? How do you adjudicate which values to keep and which ones to set aside?
TR: I think that this is the whole process of interpreting. Yesterday, in the intra-community dialogue, someone was saying, “There are traditions; there is not only one tradition.” In response, I say, “It’s not by putting an ‘s’ on the end of the word that you are able to explain the complexity of tradition.” Traditions are complex by definition. So you add an ‘s’ and say that traditions are multiple . . . so what?
The point is that among these trends within the same tradition — the classical Islamic tradition throughout history — there is a struggle to say what the main principles are. And, in the end, you have schools coming from different views — some saying, “The main point is the oneness of God, and everything else is not so important,” and others saying, “if you look at anything to do with social affairs, there are six principles.” In my book Radical Reform, I say: “These six principles were enough in the Middle Ages. They are not enough today.” Why? Because we are dealing with so many different dimensions and the complexity of knowledge today means that we need to specify the objectives — meaning the applied ethics — in every single field. For example, the inner life: When we speak about stability and about well-being, the right response to the capitalist system’s assertions about well-being as GDP is to speak about well-being as something which reflects the inner dimension, your spiritual well-being. We have to come with this. This is what I mean by ethics.
So, I would say that the core of a tradition is never fully determined or finally decided. Even if you have, once again, a set of principles, priorities change depending on what you are talking about, and I think that this is something that is quite important for any tradition.
Now, where does faithfulness lie? This is why you have some principles — for example, in Islam I would identify the oneness of God, loving Him and being loved by Him, and then serving Him. And then there are principles that are the principles of worship; these are, in fact, the pillars. Now, we ask which principles allow us to deal with human societies, and which values are going to promote well-being. There are things that are immutable, constant, and permanent — when it comes to dignity, for example. We need this: the dignity of the human being, the dignity of man and woman, and the equal dignity of men and women. All these things are very important. As I said, depending on where you are, the dynamic between men and women could change, and we have to accept this. And the priorities could change, the level of urgency sometimes could change, depending on whether you are under a dictatorship and things like this. But I still think that tradition is complex. Faithfulness is not always easy to define, but we still have a set of principles that we can rely on to know where we are heading.
DKK: You know better than most about the beleaguered conditions under which the constituents of various traditions live — particularly Muslims in the West. But you could certainly name other minority groups, racial groups, and so on who are living under beleaguered conditions, and identify the development of a certain kind of defensiveness. It’s almost as if there is an impulse to draw very clear, thick lines around the tradition in question. And among the challenges of living under such conditions are those concerning the pliability and the historical specificity, as well as the responsiveness, of the tradition. In other words, what happens when you’re under assault? What happens when your tradition is being dehumanized, such that the choices made are often reactive, rather than affirming? That is, not choices made from the deep, inner, moral sense of dignity and applied ethics that you have identified, but rather a condition in which you find yourself saying: “Well, someone is denying my humanity. Someone is denying my tradition. What ought I to do?”
TR: What you are talking about now is really what’s happening, for example, in the western Muslim community, where we have at least two main trends. By the way, it’s not only in the West! In Muslim majority countries it’s exactly the same situation, in which they are perceiving Western domination and saying, “We are dominated, so we must react.” This is exactly the point in my book Radical Reform, where I call for transformational reform and adaptive reform. I would say that some people, when they are on the defensive, believe that they are protecting the essence of their tradition, and what I am saying is that this is not true. In fact, they are protecting themselves from a struggle dictated by the dominant, or those perceived to be dominant. So the dominant decides what now is to be held essential.
TR: I would say that to de-center yourself from this struggle, to come to the essence of who you are, and to have a projection, a vision for the future — all this could help you to decide for yourself what the true principles are. This is where and why you go towards transformation and adaptation.
DKK: Yes, I can understand that. In my own work, I have these deep commitments to the work of the imagination in this regard. As you’ve described this capacity for transformation and adaptation, as well as the need for a vision for the future, it sounds almost heroic, and almost Nietzschean, right?
DKK: In other words, this Nietzschean capacity to say, “I can imagine a future me,” or, “I can imagine a future for our tradition that will be different, that will hopefully be better, and that will free us from the onerous, beleaguered conditions under which we are now living.” But there are, of course, all sorts of forms of duress and suffering, to use a word we used earlier.
DKK: Where and when it is difficult for people to imagine a better future, when it’s difficult for people to have hope, it is precisely because the material and structural conditions of their lives are such that the productive work of the imagination is something that they don’t have access to.
TR: Yes, I agree with this. But then it comes to the essence of your belief — because, for me, to believe is to hope.
TR: So I want to translate this: not to “hope and be passive,” but to “hope and be active.”
TR: And this was, in the Christian tradition, the critical dispute between the liberation theologians and the classical hierarchy. The classical hierarchy says, “Okay, you are poor, but the last will be the first.” And the liberation theologians say, “No, the last wouldn’t be the first given the hierarchy you insist upon.” It’s about justice. It’s about dignity. And this is why I want to come to challenge the West. I’m not in the West to adapt myself. I want a vision. My next book will be about a narrative of a new West. It’s about us, that is, what kind of meta-narrative we have for the West. It will also ask, “What is our West, the West that we want?” I think that this is very important. This is to put faith into action.
DKK: So you are suggesting that we have to tell new meta-narratives, which is surely right. This raises interesting questions of whether it is possible to tell new myths about, for example, the West. I don’t mean myth in a pejorative sense. By myth I mean the stories told that attempt to establish certain connections to a sense of truth and certain connections to a sense of possibility.
TR: I’m not sure that it’s about “a sense of truth” or something like this. I would say, instead, that it’s about what we were talking about earlier: universally shared values. It’s not more than that. For me, of course, it’s connected to truth. But let us come back to what we were talking about: that there are values. And these values are shared universal values. Now, what are you going to achieve? What is the future of this West, or this Europe, that we are talking about? And then, in the name of this West, the task is not just to tackle different fields, but also to identify how these values should be put into action when it comes, for example, to social justice, when it comes to ethics — especially ethics in politics, in the economy, in immigration.
TR: I think that these are deep questions, because all the Western countries are facing exactly the same problem. It’s as if we were ready to criminalize — to dehumanize — people who are coming into our countries, in the name of common citizenship, in the name of the nation, or in the name of survival. So we are creating a kind of globalization in which there’s money going around, rich people traveling, and there is migration and all this. Globalization seems to be for the rich. It doesn’t seem to be for all human beings.
TR: So there is, as you know, the claim that the nation-state is over. It’s not true! It is clear that the nation-state is there for all the people that we want to keep from colonizing us. We also have the nation-state that is centered on politics and poverty, and globalization for anything that has to do with economics and wealth. And I think this is something about which we should ask: “Is this what we want? Is this the West of tomorrow?” So, it’s not about myth and truth; it’s about principles and translation.
DKK: You have said that we are living in a “post-integration” moment. I’m not sure how to reconcile this concept of post-integration with what we described earlier as the persistent dehumanization of minorities, migrants, and exiles. There is an easy dehumanizing of the other for the sake of reifying and objectifying the criteria of domestic citizenship, such as in the headscarf disputes in France, for example.
TR: Yes, exactly. This is essential. We had this discussion also yesterday, when someone was saying, “You know, this concept of citizenship is a very tricky concept, because we are defining us and then dehumanizing the others.” It’s a very important question, because when I say “post-integration,” it’s really intended for those people who are speaking about “us.” In response to them, I say, “Okay, ‘us,’ but as citizens.” Now, you have to understand that these citizens whom we are talking about are coming from different backgrounds — different memories, different roots, different backgrounds. So, for me, to shape a sense of citizenship that is nurtured by many dimensions — by many memories, by many roots, especially for those who are coming from the South into our societies — it is best to be able to nurture and produce a critical discourse about these people, that is, those whom we are not able to see as human beings.
Why? Because I’m quite sure that this is what I see. That, for example, the people who are coming and are now becoming part of the West — becoming Europeans, or becoming Americans, or becoming Canadians — are coming from North Africa, or Africa, or Asia. They are not going to cut themselves off from these origins, and I don’t want them to cut themselves off. So that is why I’m always saying that I’m Egyptian by memory. I am coming from somewhere, and this coming from somewhere is to integrate into my citizenship the fact that those people who are now coming from other countries, the countries from which many of us also came, should be treated in the right way. It’s to integrate into our discussion about human beings, as citizens, the way we portray others. This is the best way to do it.
So, to all these people who tell me, “Oh, don’t be obsessed with citizenship, because that creates a subcategory of non-citizens,” I say, “Yes, that’s true, but there are histories here.” Whatever the situation, you cannot deny this — it is the truth. The nation-state is working! Borders are working! So how are we going to challenge this discourse? By creating pluralism within the framework of citizenship.
DKK: But the deep and thick pluralism that you’re pushing for, of course, meets with deep resistance — for example, structural resistance either in the form of an insistence on the priority of secular discourse and secular institutions, or with other forms of insistent dogmatic secularism, such as laïcité. Given this, there is a major challenge to try to speak to Muslims in the West, on one side, whom you want to fortify by saying, “I understand the challenges that you have in regard to structural secularism,” and then, on the other side, to the structural secularists or the ideological secularists whom you are challenging by saying: “You need to de-construct yourselves. You need to de-stabilize if you are really going to have a robust citizenry, if you are really going to have a robust sense of nation.” Because, as you know, there are all sorts of xenophobic forces that want to push back and that deploy secularism as a way of reinforcing those xenophobic tendencies.
TR: Yes, I agree! This is what’s happening now! But there are two things that are important in the process. The first is to acknowledge that it’s happening. The point is that this is our history. So, when you look at facts and figures, and not perceptions, the second, third, and fourth generations are now citizens of this country. They are abiding by the law, and their presence is not a problem. So we are now witnessing the final resistance of people who are nurturing this sense of an alien presence because they are scared.
We have to respect that they are scared. We have to respect these fears, and then respond. My concern now is not about this. It’s instead about old immigrants who are becoming Europeans, or who are becoming Americans, and are nurturing the same discriminatory mindset toward new immigrants.
DKK: That’s fascinating and distressing.
TR: This is what I call le petit bourgeoisie.
TR: They want to get money, salaries, incomes. So, I want to use religious principles, to use universal values, to challenge this mindset, by saying: “Never forget where you come from. Never forget the dignity of your parents. And do not forget the dignity of the new immigrants.”
DKK: You know, as an immigrant myself, I know this story. There is, of course, this desire to have economic security and to live — if not in name, at least in practice — some version of assimilation, even if you’re trying to resist it because you’re trying to maintain integrity in regard to your culture, toward your heritage, and so on. But there is also the countervailing attitude that you — rightly, I believe — impute to those third- or fourth-generation immigrants as petit bourgeois. I think this is quite apt, because. . .
TR: There’s a danger, at least. . .
DKK: Yes, there is a danger, especially of domestication.
DKK: There’s domestication and a kind of naturalization, right? It is a challenge to get third- or fourth-generation immigrants to become politicized about their religion. For example, there is a way to read what you’re telling us about Islam as saying, “Well, there is a politicization of Islam, but it does not necessarily mean becoming radicalized.” Nonetheless, there’s a politicization even within Islam that has to happen. It’s a tricky situation. After all, how do you speak to people who are very comfortable with their situation? This is the petit bourgeoisie that you’re talking about — you know, folks who are very, very comfortable with their situation, and who are captive to a colonized mindset of deep assimilation.
TR: Yes, but on that ground, you can be not completely culturally and religiously integrated, but completely assimilated economically and socially — and completely invisible, because through assimilation you become exactly the same.
TR: This is what is happening, in part, with the communities of immigrants in the States, for example.
DKK: Yes, that’s right.
TR: A few years ago, someone said to me, “The State Department saw the danger of you being in the States, not in what you are saying outside, but because of the fact that you are connecting to communities.” The African-American community — I feel very close to them. Also, with the immigrant communities, I was very critical, saying: “Okay, you came with money. You came as a medical doctor, and you’re happy. What you want is to stay on the outskirts of the city. You have your nice mosques. And the black people in the inner cities are not people you respect.” Why? Because of racism and because of their social status. How do you reconcile this contradiction? How do you challenge it? It’s a very deep, very difficult discussion.
What I’m trying to do is to say to the younger generation: “Understand the emancipation process, or the liberation process. Understand the struggle for justice, and then apply ethics. Whatever your situation, ethics is a key word. This is the way you have to resist.” So, it’s a discourse and it’s an action. I’m always connected to young people, which is why I’m very happy.
You know, on Friday I was giving a lecture here in Montreal. Two thousand people came — young people. These are the people I’m talking to. I said to them: “Be students. Be successful. But never forget the social dimensions of life. Never forget your roots and why you are here. And never forget the South. If you are becoming Western people who will nurture the assimilationist logic, then it’s over. You are our hope, because you come from somewhere. You are people who are considered less human than those who were ‘already here.'” I think it’s very important to say this.
Is it going to be successful? Are we going to succeed? I’m not sure. And immigration is not going to stop, so highlighting these connections and these tensions is quite important. And I see young Muslims and non-Muslims of the same social status understanding this — that this is what I want to keep alive in the name of ethics. Because I really don’t think that Marx was wrong when he said that the people who are on the margins — or the people who are perceived as such, even though they are not socially marginzalized, but are marginalized in the psyche, the collective psyche — these people could do something, these people are the agents of change.
DKK: So what you’re talking about is not a crisis of identity, but multiple crises of identity.
DKK: And that, in a manner of speaking, what you’re speaking to, particularly among young people, is a call to anticipate these crises of identity that they will suffer — crises generated by the sheer fact that they’re young and will at some point say to themselves: “Well, who am I, as someone who comes from the South? Who am I, as the daughter or son of an immigrant? Who am I, as an other?” In other words, even for those who receive an education, even as they become comfortable and integrated, the identity crisis may not prove sufficient to induce an existential choice. Even as you describe your own story, you almost have to anticipate and bank on the generalizability of that possibility in order to find sympathy with multiple immigrant generations and people of different heritages.
TR: I don’t know if I would put it like that, but you might not be wrong. It may be translated like that, and it may be something pre-emptive, an attitude towards potential identity crises.
TR: But what I’m trying to say is something else: that when, for example, you have multiple identities, and one of these is your nationality, or the fact that you are a man or a woman, each is part of your identity, one of your multiple identities, or one dimension of this identity that you have to bear quite confidently. You have to be able to say, “I am multiple identities, and they are changing.” But one central dimension of these identities is your memory. Where do you come from? Never accept anyone in the West telling you to forget where you come from. Never let anyone tell you to forget your countries of origin, or your languages. They are you. And this part of you — the memory — is something that could shape a sense of responsibility towards people coming from the Southern countries.
TR: So, it’s much more about being confident with multiple dimensions of the self. And part of this — all of these principles that I am talking about — is connecting us in a way that moves beyond the very closed “us,” the middle class or the white “us.” It goes beyond this.
Now it’s the memory of North Africa, of Africa, of Asia, or of South America. These people are my fellow human beings. And my parents, or my grandparents, came from there. It’s to keep this memory alive in the constant, permanent shaping of your identity, or your multiple identities.
So I wouldn’t say that it’s pre-emptive. I wouldn’t present it in this way. I can understand what you are saying, but I would say that it’s the other way around. I would say that to have a confident identity requires that you have one dimension that says: “Never forget. Be open to the past.”
DKK: The centrality of memory in regard to identity. . . . Another way to frame the dynamic you’re describing is to refer to the affirmation of being of “a people,” that is, the moment of the affirmation of being in which you acknowledge that you are part of a common heritage, or a common tradition. So it’s not just multiple identities, but the endless disputes and refutations about the meaning and authenticity of claims that all say: “This is my people.” “This is what it is to be Algerian.” “This is what it is to be Somalian.” “This is what it is to be French,” and so on. So, again, there is constant instability on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there is this sense in which there is something to name, whether it’s memory, whether it’s my people, or what have you.
And, of course, there are also the demands of language, as well as the demands of culture. These are demands put upon the young and old alike. One way to characterize the petit bourgeoisie that you describe is to say that they are quite forgetful.
TR: Yes, that’s true. Yes, I accept that! That is the reality. I wouldn’t say it’s the centrality of memory — I think it’s not central, but it’s part of a process in which we need to work. I think that it is very important for us in Western countries, as well as for those in Southern countries, to really work on a sense of history. You know, there is less dignity when there is less memory. I think it’s really true. If we don’t get this — where we come from, and what happened in history — we risk losing our dignity, or our sense of dignity without the sense of history.
So, I would say that here it’s really important, with our young and not-so-young new citizens, to say: “Look: your sense of memory should be considered as an added richness to the country, not a problem. They are projecting onto you that it is a problem, because you are not really French, or you are not really Canadian. No, it’s a richness. You are adding something. You are an added gift, an added dimension.”
And how do you translate this? By saying: “Your added contribution will also be to struggle for more justice for human beings. You must struggle against those people who criminalize the immigrants, because that is just unacceptable.” So, it is a critical loyalty to your principles and your history — critical, that is, of a very narrow understanding of “us” and of citizenship. So it’s a process of asking, “How do you keep alive a political conscience?”
And this is why I do not confuse religion and politics. But I think that religious awareness — religious ethics — could give you a sense of how you can keep ethics alive in politics. This is exactly what I want. This is why I talk about the ethics of citizenship.
DKK: I understand that, and I can certainly understand what you are saying as resonant within the tradition of political liberalism and such. You use that marvelous phrase “critical loyalty,” which is an important qualifier to the discourse of liberalism.
You know, I am struck by this idea of engaging young people. You consistently agree to speak to young people, and you find that they are asking questions about Islam. What happens when someone says, “Well how does Islam say ‘democracy’? How does Islam talk about democracy?” Particularly for an audience that may not be of a Muslim tradition and may not fully understand it, I would imagine that a major challenge would be to help them to understand that there may be democratic possibilities for Muslim traditions. How do you talk to them about that?
TR: First, all my work, as I told you, is a work of reconciliation. But before reconciliation, there is something else, which is quite important — it is the work of deconstruction. And deconstruction says, “Be careful.”
You will have some Muslim scholars telling you that democracy comes from the Greek tradition, that it is not Islamic. And that’s the wrong answer, because it’s a superficial understanding of the concept. Behind the concept of democracy, there are principles. Let us try to understand what these principles are. It’s about the rule of law and equality. I’m always translating democracy into five or six principles: the rule of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage, accountability, the separation of powers, and so on. Some add some version of secularism, though the secular models are quite different. . .
DKK: Of course.
TR: . . . even though the secularization process is the same. So, five principles, mainly, and then something that we can add and discuss. So, if you look at the principles that you can extract from the Islamic tradition, you can find rule of law — we don’t have a problem with this. Equal citizenship, also. And I’m just coming with religious references to tell them that we don’t have a problem with these principles.
Now, there is something else: these principles are transhistorical and, I would say, shared universal principles. But the models are historical, and that means that they are going to change, and this is why we have so many different models in the West. I explain this to these audiences, because I want them not only to understand democracy as acceptable, but to understand democratic principles as theirs, ours, part of us. Which is not to colonize democracy, but to say: “The principles are more important than anything else. Let us avoid conflict over words, but instead maybe join forces and principles.”
DKK: But the idea that you can constitute democracy itself from a thick engagement from within traditions, rather than assuming a value-neutral liberalism, is key. It is to say that democracy considers it important to ask: “Where are you now? Who are you? Where do you come from? What matters to you?” And that democratic commitments and principles, as I hear you describe the process, become one with Islamic principles and practices. Democracy and Islam become mutually constitutive. They’re helping to constitute each other. Right? And I could understand that that is convincing to many people. On the other hand, it is one thing to be engaged with a charismatic figure like you, but when they’re talking to their peers, or when they’re talking to their parents — given all those struggles, the question of what a tradition means for us today isn’t always readily available. The critical apparatus is partial.
TR: Yes, I agree. But, once again, this is the very meaning of our struggle today.
TR: It is really to spread around this understanding and to be able to explain that our tradition is not at variance with democracy. It’s a very difficult situation. But still, if you look now — and it is, once again, beyond the perceptions that it’s difficult — at what is happening on the ground, the reality, or the substance of reality, is stronger than our perceptions; things are changing and people are integrating. It’s a very powerful process when you deal with reality, when you are engaged in this. The young and the not-so-young Muslims are asking questions. They are challenging even the set of responses that they got from Islamic scholars. So I would say that there is a historical process here that is helping this change along.
Once again, it’s always dangerous, because we don’t know where we are heading with this, which is why it’s quite important for the Muslim scholars, or the intellectuals, to come with a very strong vision, or at least a framework from within which we can just start a discussion about democracy. Because, for me, it’s not only to accept the democratic models; it’s also to improve upon them: more transparency, more ethics, more true representation. It’s really to question the models in the name of our common principles, and not to blindly support any given model when we see that there is corruption, a lack of transparency, or no real representation.
So it’s a critical, ongoing discussion based on principles challenging the models. This is something that we have to do with new generations and new citizens in the dialectical process that takes place between what you are experiencing in the political field and the principles you stand for and that you think are lacking in the political field. At the same time, it requires using your tradition as a model, as something that nurtures your engagement in politics.
DKK: Yes, I hear all that. You render this dialectical relationship as one between scripture and history, between scripture and context. Right?
TR: Yes, exactly.
DKK: I tend to be fairly generous on this score. I think people naturally have a certain skepticism toward received opinion, but they often fall into certain kinds and conditions of orthodoxy because they have anxieties about authority. Anxieties such as, “Am I reading the text correctly?”
TR: Yes, exactly.
DKK: “Am I experiencing the tradition appropriately?”
DKK: And with all of this, the sense of propriety becomes as onerous as other forms of authority.
DKK: And so the challenge of how to sustain interpretive openness is crucial. How do you cultivate that critical intelligence — an ethic of critical, intelligent interpretation — so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes a process that doesn’t have to have closure?
TR: Yes, exactly. But this is why I’m saying that beyond leaders, or beyond the authority crisis that we are experiencing — because we are experiencing an authority crisis throughout the Muslim world, with conflicts between the Sunni and the Shia — I really think that, for example, for us in the West, it’s our time to go towards institutionalizing the process. It’s to have institutions. It’s to have places and platforms. And this is where we have to put money. Not only in building mosques and schools. If we leave it at that, that means that there is a lack of vision. We really have to work on this, because at the end of the day it’s an ongoing process — the critical thinking, critical intelligence, and analytical approaches — for which you need spaces, you need platforms, you need able people. You can’t just rely on some perceived charismatic leaders, or people who are perceived to be doing their jobs, or hope that there are people pushing them to do their jobs. We forget that the human resources within the community are huge, especially among women.
DKK: On the questions of establishing spaces for Muslim communities and drawing on the resources of women in Muslim communities, what are some examples that you would cite?
TR: I think that, for example, what we have now in the U.K., what we have in the States even, and what we have here in Canada, is people who are trying to open spaces for students in academia, in between traditional ways of teaching and very American, British, or European ways of teaching. And these are young people in their forties or their fifties. They know how it works here in the West and they come with a better understanding. The problem is that they don’t have money. It’s still informal. But it’s starting, for example, with the Muslim College in Cambridge, where someone like Tim Winter, who is British, is doing important work. This is very good. They are training the imams in Europe, in the States, and in Canada.
These are endeavors that we have to promote. It’s still too informal, and there is a lack of money. What I’m saying to the Western governments is: Never try to control these processes. It’s not going to work. But you can facilitate. And for the sake of our peaceful future, for the sake of having Muslim citizens who understand and are going through these critical processes, don’t push some intellectuals over against others as models for what you want them to be, as role models. Rather, facilitate the process by supporting institutions. In the long run, it’s a much more intelligent and clever strategy. But for the time being, they are not doing that.
DKK: While you’re building institutions, you’re also building communities — that is, you’re also building alternative traditions. Right?
TR: It could be, yes — or, at least, criticism from within.
DKK: That’s right, that’s right.
Let me ask you this one last question. It’s a simple question, but it perhaps requires a complicated answer. It’s a question of legacy. How do you want to be remembered?
TR: I tried my best. That’s it (LAUGHS) — just someone who tried his best. I tried to do two things. First, to build a road towards the self, so that we can see a kind of coming back to the self. This is why I’m always thinking about the spiritual dimension in addition to the rational dimension, which is to say, the reconciliation of all these dimensions in the self. And second, to build bridges between the self and the other. There’s one sentence that you will find in everything I write, which is: “And remember that the knowledge of God is between you and your heart.” Coming back to the self — this is where I find the transcendence dimension, or the transcendental dimension. And with the other, it’s really a bridge. I’m not sure even that it’s a bridge. I would say a road, a channel, a mirror — it’s all of these. So this is what I try to do. It’s really about understanding the mountain.
DKK: Yes, and metaphors!
DKK: And it’s a mighty big mountain!
DKK: You speak so beautifully and eloquently about all of this, especially this idea that those bridges are as much about the striving to belong as they are about anything else, and that the search for self is as much about the desire to be at home in the world as it is about self-discovery.
TR: Exactly. Yes, that’s it. But, you know, I don’t go for anything which has to do with this global citizenship. I think that this whole concept is wrong. But to feel at home in the world, beyond everything else, is a right. I don’t know what all this talk of global citizenship amounts to, because these legal concepts are to be used in very specific ways, and to try to apply them everywhere is not helpful. But a sense of belonging in the world, on this Earth — this is who are. This is us. And then add whatever qualifications you want. But the very meaning is the sense of belonging to the world. I would say yes to that.
DKK: That’s powerful and beautiful. It’s a wonderful way to end — so thank you very much.
TR: No, thank you. It’s always good to have time for dialogue.
The SSRC would like to thank Jack Fitzmier, Executive Director of the American Academy of Religion, for his help and support with this interview.
David Kyuman Kim is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College, Senior Advisor for the Social Science Research Council, and Editor-at-Large of The Immanent Frame. This interview was first published by The Immanent Frame; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.