Conference with Jürgen Habermas and Tariq Ramadan

No Europe without Muslims

The integration of Europe's Muslims has long since passed from a project to reality, says Tariq Ramadan. At a recent conference, the controversial Islamic theologian met up with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. What shape will the future relationship between modern Europe and Islam take? Arno Widmann reports

23 June 2008 saw a memorable meeting of minds. Tariq Ramadan, one of the most controversial proponents of the European Muslims, shook hands with Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory. The two men did not, however, proceed to engage in argument or dialogue – there was no room for that on the agenda of the star-studded conference "Muslims and Jews in Christian Europe".

Ramadan held a twenty-minute speech and Habermas asked him a couple of questions afterwards. As Habermas pointed out, their roles were not exactly balanced. Nevertheless, the result was a very impressive event.

Tariq Ramadan opened his talk by quoting surveys showing that 80 percent of European immigrants from Islamic countries are not practicing Muslims. Most religious issues, so often presented as integration problems, are thus irrelevant for them. Yet they are still eyed with mistrust and exposed to a climate of suspicion.

Paying taxes, health insurance and social security, fulfilling their obligation as citizens and obeying the law is not enough. Anyone with a different skin colour, an unfamiliar name, perhaps even difficulties with the language, is compelled to provide proof of their loyalty at every turn.

Same rights for all citizens

There is a discussion going on in the Netherlands over the fact that no one knows what immigrant children are being told at home, and in what language. Tariq Ramadan gives a sardonic smile: "Where is the division between private and public? Where is the protection of the private sphere?" He points out that the liberal public sphere ought to be protecting these fundamental elements of civil society. All citizens, he says, are entitled to the same rights.

photo: AP
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​​In reality, the situation is very different: immigrants are second-class citizens. The rules for the natives don't apply for them. That is not, comments Ramadan with one eyebrow raised, what the Europeans call a European value. Europe needs its immigrants; it cannot maintain its accustomed lifestyle without them. So it will have to live with them. Europe has to understand that the integration of its Muslims is no longer a project but reality. The European identity, Ramadan states, has changed radically over the past decades. Muslims and Islam are now part and parcel of that identity.

It is curious that the possibility of adopting Turkey into the European Union has prompted a debate on whether Europe can take in an Islamic country – and a secular state at that – while millions of Muslims have long since become good Europeans. They are better, more tolerant, more open Europeans at least than the Europeans themselves were for the most part of their history: "They want us to be better Europeans than the Europeans themselves."

Europe distrusts even itself

Europe has to build a new self-image. Anyone talking about "us" and "them" in Europe has to realise that "they" have long since become a part of "us". A Europe without Muslims has become impossible.

Turkish girl on rollerblades (photo: dpa)
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​​Jürgen Habermas showed himself visibly impressed. One has to understand, he responded, that Europe finds the Muslims difficult. The Christian-secular majority culture – especially in Germany – knows how long the road to the European values is, how many setbacks there have been. How very reliant it has always been on pressure from outside to learn tolerance.

The distrust in the new arrivals is rooted in Europe's distrust of itself, says Habermas. And it also derives from the experience Europe has had with itself. Then Jürgen Habermas asks Tariq Ramadan the question: "What do you think of the Archbishop of Canterbury's idea of allowing British Muslims to be judged under Sharia law rather than by a British court on certain issues?"

"We don't need our own courts"

Ramadan's answer: "The archbishop didn't call for a parallel jurisdiction. He isn't in favour of the idea that British Muslims should be judged according to Muslim law and the others according to the common law. Instead it's a question of whether specific courts should be set up for specific groups within the common law. This is already in place in Britain for certain issues. For example for Jewish communities. All the archbishop wrote was that that should also be possible for Muslims. I think he's right about that. It is legal, that's my answer. But I think it's superfluous. We don't need our own courts. Aside from that, I can imagine I wouldn't generally agree with the legal judgements passed by such Muslim scholars."

The Dutch writer Ian Buruma was also in the audience, and asked Tariq Ramadan why he had come out in favour of a moratorium on stonings in Muslim countries rather than condemning them outright.

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​​"I am against stonings. And I'm also against the death penalty and torture and corporal punishment. I've said that clearly on many occasions. But no state in the world is going to abolish them just because I, or we, call for them to do so. So I at least called for a moratorium so that no one else comes to any harm. The Mufti of Egypt announced that that was a sensible idea, and other important Islamic figures have joined him. I consider stoning, the death penalty and corporal punishment un-Islamic. There are a number of prominent Muslims who see that the same way. If you look at the debate on the death penalty in the USA, you'll notice that moratoria have always played an important role there."

Tariq Ramadan is clearly agitated, raising his voice. What few people know is that this subject touches on a private conflict.

His brother Hani Ramadan publicly defended the stoning of adulteresses, and had to leave the public service in the Swiss canton of Geneva as a result, at the beginning of this year. Tariq Ramadan's grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, a founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most important Islamic reform movements of the first half of the twentieth century. He was murdered by the Egyptian authorities in 1949. Tariq's father Said Ramadan fled to Europe in 1954, gaining his PhD in Cologne and becoming one of the best-known Islamic propagandists in Europe.

Muslims – the first real Europeans?

The Ramadans have been working on the relationship between modern Europe and Islam for three generations. In a new European history to be written on the basis of today's Europe, rather than the idea of a lost Christian continent, the family would play a key role.

It took many long years for the Germans to realise that it was the German Jews who were the very first Germans. Most Germans considered themselves Hessians, Frankfurters, Bavarians or Palatinates before they saw themselves as Germans. The Jews had no chance to regard themselves as Bavarians; they wanted to be Germans. Perhaps Europe is in a similar situation today.

The Irish are first and foremost Irish, the Danish Danish, the Germans German, the Belgians either Flemish or Walloons; the immigrants who are not given the chance of becoming Irish, Danish or German, but who we expect to be more European than the Europeans have ever been themselves, have little choice but to become Europeans. They will be the first real Europeans. Without Muslims, there can be no Europe.

Arno Widmann

© Frankfurter Rundschau / Qantara.de 2008

This article was first published in the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau on 24 June 2008.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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