Essay Tariq Ramadan

The Contradictions of the Islamic World

Tariq Ramadan, controversial Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Fribourg, argues that instead of blaming only the West, Muslims need to start to criticise themselves in order to strengthen their position

For almost a century the Arab world seems immobilised, rooted in its failures as much as in its divisions. No other region in the world has remained so rooted, nailed to its social, political and economic deficiencies to the point of suffocation. It is practically impossible, from Morocco to Iraq or in Saudi Arabia (and in the wider Muslim world) to find spaces where a truly free political opinion can be expressed, where economic well-being exists for the majority of men and women, where literacy is the rule rather than the exception.

And there is no upturn on the horizon; dictatorships are perpetuating themselves and taking on the appearance of dynasties (whether royal or republican) while the economic situation continues to deteriorate for the majority of people. A sad reality, a sad lot.

Those who see themselves as victims will remain victims

The temptation is high, in the heart of this reality, to blame the collapse on the Other, the exploiter, the rich, the West and no bones are ever made about, throughout the Arab and Islamic world, eliciting all the arguments available to "explain" the situation this way. From old political colonisation to the modern forms of economic control, from the divisions maintained to the cultural imperialism imposed, from governments to multinationals who dictate their will to dominate from their Western base, the causes are clear and the situation understood: Muslims are suffering from a multi-faceted form of oppression.

While the policies imposed by the industrialised countries, the (de)regulation dictated by international institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) or indeed the murderous voracity of the Multinationals of the North should indeed be methodically criticised and denounced, to remain constantly routed in this argument of non-responsibility and victimisation which has become the norm in the Muslim world, is just not good enough.

It is as if the constant incantatory and demonizing reference to the "Other", to "this West that oppresses and hates us", has become the only emotional and intellectual outlet that enables people to accept and justify their condition. Without much doubt, the key to the inaction and regression within the Muslim World might be found in the analysis of this attitude.

No new strategies in the Muslim world

The colonial era naturally saw the birth of numerous resistance movements who opposed the illegitimate foreign presence: some proclaimed exclusively nationalist ideals, others added or preferred a link with internationalism, socialism or communism while others were driven by Islam. The daily and tangible character of the domination meant the terms and objectives of any resistance became explicit: in one-way or another, in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt or in Syria, political freedom was sought.

During the last 50 years the situation has changed considerably and it must be admitted that the opposition movements as much as the general population have barely updated their analysis or renewed their strategy for the struggle against dictatorships and economic decline.

The repression is certainly terrible and the run-down state of the economy very pronounced, but that cannot justify the passiveness, resignation and the lack of valid alternatives proposed: an alternative to the choice between violent opposition (the radical Islamist groups) or compromising resignation to the rules of the game imposed by the North, its financial institutions and its multinationals (a very watered-down take on "social democracy") seems inconceivable.

Political class and intellectuals refrain from uniting their efforts

Yet what is more serious are the divisions between the various opposition movements that the powerful are happy to exploit. The opposition movements, whether struggling in the name of socialism, communism or Islam have to this day been incapable of seeing their struggle in terms common fundamental values; demands for rights and citizenship, even in the terms of the cultural identity that they all share.

The absence of dialogue between the leaders of the resistance movements and the repetition of old ideological arguments to the point of overdose is preventing the evolution and renewal of critical thought in the Arab and Muslim world.

Political projects are sadly lacking, strategies for resistance are muddled, critical debates are pathetically old and superficial. To which one has to add, a patent lack of communication and explanations that really take into account the reality of the Western world, its own questions and fears. As a result, the Arab world appears divided and in particular isolated in relation to its difficulties as much as to its hopes, and the blame lies first and foremost with its political classes as much as with its intellectuals.

The Palestinian question is often used as an alibi

If one listens in on the dominant views of Arab society, one thing becomes immediately clear: the cause of all woes is "Israel". Nothing works, it is thought, since the creation of the Zionist state: war, division, people suffering and dying, like the Palestinians. The unconditional support of the US to Israel as well as the absence of political courage from the EU confirms in the eyes of the majority the relationship that the West maintains with the Arabs and the Muslims. That is, a relationship founded on domination, manipulation, rejection, even hatred.

While it must be stressed that if the Palestinian question is a central issue (for the Middle East as well as in the consciousness of all Muslims), it cannot serve as an alibi. The oppression of the Palestinian people, without land or state, and the arrogance of successive Israeli governments, who have adopted a rampant policy of occupation by its colonisers and well equipped forces, are more and more revealing of the dysfunction of the Arab world than the causes of that dysfunction.

Arab Leaders are often indifferent to Palestinian suffering

The spectacle that we are offered by the leaders of the Arab world, for the most part autocratic, divided to the point of sheer madness, loving of their own power alone, valets for the financial manna of the industrialised countries, pawns in their game, deaf to the cries of their own peoples and, deep down, indifferent and opportunistic toward the Palestinian cause, is pathetic.

The people themselves have fallen into this trap that is the overbearing influence of the Palestinian question: for every serious crisis, the day after new massacres, a wave of emotion mobilises them for a time and permits them to express their frustrations but one sees absolutely no structured thought about change.

Too much emotion, too little political vision

The powers that be are happy to simply control the street and its passions: no overall vision of reform, no regional political project, no popular national or trans-national movement to break up their cosy political base. From Sabra to Chatila to Jenine, a lot of emotion yet so little political vision: for how long?

The Palestinian question should be seen as a part of the problem. It translates into a desire for national liberation, demanding a legitimate political independence and seems to remain the model for engagement and the demands of the majority of resistance movements in the Arab world. Yet one hardly hears anything about the nature of the economic stakes, the logic of neo-liberal globalisation, the ways of forming a multidimensional and trans-national form of resistance.

Politically nourished from within national realities, cultural resistance ends up being only a demand to be different. In the face of a globalisation that wipes it out, the Arab-Muslim world seems only motivated by a hope for a political and cultural liberation which would supposedly protect its local particularities (Islam, cultures, languages etc): the expression of this hope in itself reveals the level of the lack of understanding of contemporary issues.

Islam has no universalistic perspective

The absence of a world vision for change is at the same time the cause and the consequence of a very restricted understanding of what is resistance and of a view of Islam void of its universalism. The paradox is deep and the circle has become vicious: in fact, in Muslim conscience, Islam should be lived as a universal reference point that, because it is not presented as being exclusive, invites and forces the individual to recognise and build with and from diversity.

However, the feeling of being dominated and isolated that prevails today leads the majority of Muslims to construct themselves by affirming their "otherness". They are incapable of relating to the universal dimension of their principles that would enable them to build bridges with the Other (with another civilisation, culture, religion or philosophy) and to bring to the fore, out of respect for what is different, common fundamental values.

Islam must take a closer look at the West

The latter are numerous and even if their source (revelation or reason) or expression is different (expressed out of the primacy of responsibility or on the contrary of right), that should not legitimate an absence of dialogue and partnership. Besides it is this absence that reinforces the tendency to define oneself in opposition to the "other" and leads to the impasse that betrays this universal (Islamic) outlook by hiding behind domination and closing oneself off.

The immediate consequence of adopting this posture is the elaboration of a caricaturist view of the other. It is never repeated enough how often the view of the West is superficial, confused and largely mistaken. The difference between governments, peoples and institutions is rarely made; the legitimacy of the values of the West are denied by way of a denunciation of their deficient and hypocritical application and in the end its culture is rejected as a result of a partial, overly simplified criticism of its domination.

Simultaneous rejection and attraction to the West

What is troubling is that this theoretical rejection is itself contradicted in practice on a daily basis by attraction to the Western way of life. This contradiction is said to be illustrative of the nature of the crisis of conscience that faces the contemporary Muslim world; incapable of defining itself other than in the negative image of a caricaturised West, one ends up feeling that they have betrayed themselves every time they find themselves living the values of the other. These are explicit symptoms of a profound alienation.

We can better understand the difficulties that the Muslim world faces today when we try to explain ourselves and communicate better. To tell one's values, one's demands, one's hopes, has become a challenge. Either we insist on the essence of our common values and we give the impression to most people of betraying ourselves, or we insist on difference and we reinforce the sense of differentiation and of inevitable conflicts.

To remain oneself, communicate with the other and to have the confidence to take on the idea of "us" is an experience Muslims often don't have the means to live today. The problem is profound and its origins can be found firstly in the disappearance of a cultural dialogue between Muslims themselves.

Self-criticism is generally seen as treachery

The law schools, streams of thought, ulemas and intellectuals have practically ceased debating and we hardly progress beyond a discussion about the Islamic legitimacy of ideas. An often nervous, blighted intellectual discussion ends up forbidding itself the right to self-criticise because to do so would be seen as treachery. The logic stays the same: to recognise the validity of the other's criticism is to be or to become unfaithful to oneself. Muslims will not find the energy to renew and reform if they cannot seek to escape from this harmful logic.

Self criticism, for example, by denouncing the behaviour of some so-called Islamic states, to distinguish oneself from the acts of certain radical or obtuse Muslim groups, to recognise the weaknesses of contemporary Muslim thought as well as its unacceptable discrimination (towards poverty, women, certain minorities etc) is a vital first step.

Many reformists have lost credibility

At this point it has to be said that a certain number of Muslims whom one would have hoped to push forward reforms have, on the contrary, slowed down, even prevented their realisation. At the heart of the contemporary crisis, we find Muslim intellectuals who are torn from their Islamic ideals or who live with such a need for acceptance by the West that they end up, in the name of a self criticism gone astray, simplifying the debate and comforting the West in its dominant certainties, whether about its caricatures or its ancient and indeed contemporary suspicions.

Far from creating a bridge between two worlds, they implicitly deny the legitimacy of one of the partners to speak about its universal principles. Acknowledged and envied in Western intellectual circles, they have often lost all legitimacy amongst Muslims but what is more serious is that certain amongst them have become objective allies of the most obtuse Islamaphobes. Yet another paradox of this period of crisis which forces us to identify the nature of criticism: who is talking and from where? In the name of what? And, fundamentally, why?

Signs of significant change

The outlook is not all bad: studies and work on the ground carried out in recent years in the Arab world, Africa and Asia as well as within Muslim groups in Europe and North America, have shown signs of significant change.

The younger generations from Dakar to Djakarta are beginning to "connect" to the world. The new means of communication are beneficial in that they enable more and more exchanges of information and experiences. In virtual contact with international resistance movements, and more and more in alignment with the dynamics of the West, Muslims of the world are seeing their horizons broaden and the possibility for partnerships.

New authentic business initiatives

Alternatives have been experimented with in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and in numerous Muslim countries in Africa; such as the creation of small to medium-sized businesses or development co-operatives, practically unheard of in the West.

Enough is not said about the importance of the participation of Western-based Muslims in the "alter globalisation" movement; by remaining true to themselves, to the universal dimension of their message and its principles, while building ties with the fundamental dynamics of Muslim countries, establishing diversified partnerships, they open the way to a new perception of the self and will in time be able to go beyond the old divisions.

Those who are engaged in the struggle know full well that the road will be a long one, that labels and suspicions remain the norm. But it is up to them to face up to their responsibilities at this time when new partnerships are being forged. It is up to them, allied to the forces of the South, to develop a global vision of reform; it is up to them to take up the universality of Muslims values and to set the terms for an equitable dialogue with the West; it is up to them to finally engage in a demanding and fruitful internal debate where constructive self-criticism is permitted.

Their responsibilities are immense and we are only at the beginning of the journey: for the Muslim conscience it means that the political liberation of Jerusalem, occupied by another, cannot make us forget the need for an ideological, economic, and political liberation of Mecca by our own wanderings alienated and betrayed.

Tariq Ramadan

© Tariq Ramadan 2004

Tariq Ramadan was born in 1962 in Geneva. He teaches at Collège de Saussure in Geneva and has given lectures on Islamology at Fribourg University. He has been branded an anti-Semite, but has publicly condemned anti-Semitic acts in the past.

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