Tarid Ramadan at the 2010 ISNA convention. Photo courtesy of Umar Nazir/Flikr
On Sunday, August 10th, 2014, renowned and notable scholar and professor Dr. Tariq Ramadan posted on his webpage a piece titled Why I Will Not Attend The ISNA And RIS Conferences. The post stirred much heated debate over social media, with notable scholars also responding and urging him to reconsider his position in light of points they raised. The President of ISNA also issued a formal statement.
Dr. Ramadan agreed to be interviewed, stating for now this will be his one response to his post.
The following is an edited conversation between Dr. Tariq Ramadan and Amina Chaudary of The Islamic Monthly (TIM) on August 11, 2014.
TIM: In your essay, you argue that Muslims should speak out against certain U.S. policies by basing their arguments in American values, not Islamic ones. Why did you choose this frame of reference?
Ramadan: As Western Muslims and American Muslims, we need to understand that the values and principles we promote are not only Muslim values. American Muslims live in a country where justice, dignity, freedom and equality are essential values. The Muslim contribution to the future of America is to not only speak out as Muslims, but to also speak out as citizens in the name of our common values. Our main contribution is to reconcile the American society with its own values, those that are not in contradiction to Islam. We have a duty of consistency.
TIM: There is scant evidence that moral outrage or moral clarity have any impact on American foreign policy. In politics, morality is the handmaiden of special interests. America has stood by idly during genocides (like Rwanda), but then invokes genocide as a rationale for intervention (like ISIS) when intervention serves a strategic political or economic goal. At the same time, there is ample evidence that well-organized, well-funded political machinery can not only influence, but also actually dictate American foreign policy. How do you expect your words, or any words, to change what America does? Or is that not the goal of what you espouse?
Ramadan: It is important to understand that we are dealing with politics, and politics is mainly about interests. As Muslim citizens, we understand these interests but we should put principles and dignity beyond everything. As Muslims, our interests are our values. In any society, be it in Western or Muslim-majority countries, our duty is that of critical loyalty: Staying loyal to our countries by always being critically engaged in the name of the principles of justice, equality and human brotherhood. We should be the ethical and moral voice wherever we are by saying that, even though we understand economic and geo-strategic interests, we cannot accept a violation of these principles by any society. In the West or anywhere else, the treatment of people in an undignified way (structural and institutionalized racism against Latinos or African American citizens) as well as a dangerous dehumanization of some people (in Palestine, Iraq, Africa or Asia) are simply unacceptable. As Muslims, we must have an active presence based on ethical and moral consistency. We need to be very vocal, to inform people, to demonstrate when necessary. We need to write so that the people understand that what they are getting from the media and politicians is biased and not accurate. And this is true especially when it comes to some communities within the U.S. or with respect to the Middle East and Africa. This is what I am expecting from a new generation of leaders: Meet these expectations of moral consistency.
TIM: Can Muslims be within the system?
Ramadan: American Muslims are already within the system. We should stop isolating ourselves by thinking we are powerless. The youngest generations of Americans have a better opinion of Islam because they interact with Muslims. Half of young American citizens now are supporting the Palestinians rather than the Israelis. Things are moving. If you do your work, if you are committed at the grassroots level, if you have a vision for the long run (not only short-sighted interest), you can change public opinion. You are within the system. But if you are only concerned with international issues and/or the power of some lobbies that are influencing American policy, then you are isolating yourselves. You are powerless in your mind when you don’t understand the meaning and quality of your own real power. This is the problem we have with many Muslim leaders: They claim to differentiate between domestic and foreign issues and they are obsessed with being accepted, at sitting at the table of power in order to talk (or rather to listen) and to be tolerated. This is the starting point of our weakness. It is in our minds because we do not realize we are part of the system.
TIM: The American political system is structured such that certain policies can essentially be bought and sold through the establishment of political, economic and media infrastructure. If American Muslims had the requisite resources, should they establish the institutions necessary to the policies that better align with our values? What if the process to achieve those policies compromises the very moral clarity you espouse in your essay? In other words, what if actual political change requires moral compromise? Or is any political change that requires moral compromise not worth pursuing?
Ramadan: There are many ways and many strategies. We need to be clear on the source, means and goals. For Muslims, the source of everything we do is based in the belief that there is one God, and this one God is revealing to us there is one humanity with equal dignity for each, beyond faith, color and social status. Whatever your status, color, background or religion, you have the same dignity. Remember the verse from the Quran: “We gave dignity to human beings.” This is the source of our understanding. The means now are the legal framework, our nationality, our passports and social and political commitments as citizens. We are all equals, we abide by the laws and we understand that we have to be active citizens wherever we are. Our goals are first to live by our principles, to remind people of these values, to reconcile our respective societies with these shared universal values and to try our best to push for a spiritual agenda with more ethics in society, in politics, in economics, and in culture. Now, of course, we find people who are working for their own interest, who are lobbying, who are completely under the authority of the state and are surrendering to economic or geo-strategic interests. We understand the rules of the game, yet our understanding should be that our power is in this ethical counter power. We need to have many strategies, and some institutions can do the work, but we all have to be proactive. The singularity of Islam is its universality. As American citizens and as Muslims, you need to show there is something specific, namely our moral singularity. We believe there is one God and this one God is pushing us to reach universal values by liberating ourselves from our ego and by serving humanity. We must be involved in this by all means necessary, in a nonviolent way, through the legal, media, economic and cultural systems. We cannot achieve this if there is no courage, if we are not ready to sacrifice. What we get from all religions especially from the Prophet’s life, peace be upon him, is that there is no way to reach peace if we are not ready to sacrifice, not ready to strive, not courageous enough to face the powers here and the dictators who don’t care about humanity or human life. There must be a very clear understanding that you cannot work for peace if you are not ready to struggle. And this is the very meaning of jihad: to manage your intention to get your inner peace when it comes to the spiritual journey. In our society, that means face injustice and hypocrisy, face the dictators, the exploiters, the oppressors if you want to free the oppressed, if you want peace based on justice. The link between domestic policy and international affairs is essential: We cannot say we care about domestic issues and we leave international politics, and the opposite is wrong as well. Both are connected and should be addressed together.
TIM: ISNA wears many hats for Muslims in America, and its annual convention provides a venue for everything from family reunions to panel sessions on halal certifications to addressing many of the political issues you identified in your essay. Is it fair to place the burden on this one institution to articulate a position on all American policies both foreign and domestic? Are you asking specific individuals within ISNA’s leadership to articulate their position vis-a-vis these issues? Does this boycott extend to other groups guilty of the same silence, or is it specific to ISNA as the largest of them all?
Ramadan: As I wrote in the beginning of my post, I have a great deal of respect for the people who have been working and serving the community in America and Canada, and, among them, the two institutions I mentioned. I am not attacking the institution. Some have misunderstood my point or not read my paper carefully and they are saying “Tariq Ramadan is calling for a boycott and is creating divisions.” What I was trying to do is exactly the opposite. The divisions are already there and it is not by hiding the tensions that we are solving the problems. My position is clearly about the leadership. I can understand and respect the fact that you want to keep the channel open with American authority. But at the same time, you need to know your goals to serve your fellow citizens and the Muslim community in the name of your principles. Some people are responding by saying, “You are not an American, you do not understand. The priorities in Europe are not the same as in the U.S. or in Canada. You are obsessed with international issues!” Is that even a response? So why do they invite me in the first place if I do not understand the respective situations in the U.S. and in Canada? Am I suitable only when I am not critical? I have been visiting and studying the North American continent for almost 30 years and I am sad to hear such arguments. I do not deal with “international affairs” only; half of my work has been on Western Muslims. My point is straightforward: anyone who tries to separate or divorce domestic politics from international politics does not get it, and that might be dangerous for the future of Western Muslims. Shouldn’t the American leadership be addressing what is happening in America, with its domestic policies on racism, discrimination, illegal monitoring, solitary confinement, torture, Guantanamo Bay and any other social and political issues related to the American society not directly connected to Islam? American Muslims must speak out and be involved as well in international policies and, through their institutions, they should raise their voice. This is the way you serve the community. I understand the need to serve the community by talking about marriage or halal food. But you should also lead with vision, wisdom and courage. Islam is a religion of justice and dignity, and we are taught to never keep silent when facing injustice, discrimination and double standards. This is our contribution. I am expecting institutions to be able to open up and break the silence. They should write with assertiveness about some of the critical issues. But this is not what is done now. I have great respect for the way they serve, but question their silence on critical issues.
TIM: Some scholars have asked you to reconsider your attendance of ISNA, not necessarily because they disagree with your critique, but because they fear your absence could irrevocably diminish an institution they consider an important cornerstone of Muslim America. How do you respond to them? Assuming this analysis is true and your actions would diminish the organization in an irretrievable way, would you still not attend ISNA?
Ramadan: It is not a question of boycotting. I am not calling for a boycott. I am sending a message and asking a question in a respectful, critical and constructive way. I received many e-mails from people saying, “Professor, please come, don’t do that.” Just ten minutes ago, I received a very moving e-mail from somebody telling me, “Sheikh, in the name of your knowledge, your contribution and what you have been teaching us, don’t boycott.” Once again, I am not calling for a boycott. My absence would certainly be the most powerful speech I have ever given at ISNA. And for the attendees, it is important to note that my intention was not to create division, but exactly the opposite. They must ask their institutions, what are your priorities? How are you going to deal with this? I have given talks to many people for years, at ISNA or RIS. And now what I am trying to say is that although I am not going, the people who will attend should make their voices heard in a constructive way.
TIM: You used some strong language in your essay, calling at least some of the leadership of ISNA “silent, fearful sycophants.” This raises the issue as to whether silence can only be interpreted as sycophancy, or if silence could also be part of a larger and longer-term strategy, on developing a base of power to influence policy. Those who interact with the U.S. government might argue they are following a formula that has indeed changed U.S. policy in the long run. How would you respond? If ISNA can play a role in a process to change policy over time by remaining silent now, is it reasonable for it to remain so?
Ramadan: I am not naive and I know that you should never react emotionally or too quickly. We should be reasonable. I respond to this at the end of my paper when I say that sometimes people confuse silence as wisdom when in fact it is compromise.
A long-run strategy is good, but what if at the end, the goal is not clear? Is it to be acknowledged as a respectable institution, to sit with the President and to be invited to The White House? I do not get the institution’s long-run comprehensive vision through its actions, activities or statements. The politicians must also understand that the institution is, in a way, representing Muslim citizens and that it has a constituency. If you are silent about racism and psychological torture in the U.S., or when people are being massacred in Gaza, what type of strategy is that? Until when? What type of leadership? Is this wisdom? I agree that we need to have a long-term vision and if there is a vision, let us hear about it and discuss it. I have been coming to the states for more than 20 years, and was banned from the country for six years. I understand that there is a desire to be acknowledged as a respectable institution. That’s fine. I am not targeting individuals. I am questioning the institutional positioning and the vision. Once again, we should always be connected to the community.
TIM: Your criticism of RIS was from a different perspective. Whereas your criticism of ISNA leadership was seemingly more institutional in nature, your criticism of RIS was directed toward specific participants, scholars and speakers who tacitly or openly support Arab dictatorships. Could you reflect on this more?
Ramadan: I have been invited to RIS for the last five years, I think. There is a Sufi trend, a madhabi Sufi trend, and I don’t have any problem with this. What is not acceptable is that, first, some scholars are trying to show to the audience that they are open to other trends. However, when it comes to the retreat or the panels, they don’t want to be with some of us because they are scared of being exposed. Second, the problem here is to act or promote a vision in the West, which is exactly the opposite of what we need. If someone is silent living in some Gulf state or in Egypt because he or she will end up in jail, I can understand that. But we are in the West and we have numerous rights and great responsibilities. These scholars are not teaching citizens that they are in free societies where they have to talk (otherwise they are indirectly supporting the dictators). Some scholars are silencing Western Muslim citizens by not addressing the issues and teaching them not to be involved. Some ulama are supporting the dictators. I don’t understand their vision and I cannot accept this positioning. This type of silence for me is deeply dangerous and especially coming from thinkers and scholars who are living in the West or are converts. I think we need to do exactly the opposite. As I said, on domestic and international issues we have to be committed, and a wrong understanding of Sufism cannot be an excuse. By attending, I cannot accept being used as the “other voice” to legitimate, in a way, those ulama of power who are supporting dictators.
TIM: As a follow up to this, if a Sufi scholar is patronized by the same petro dollars that support Arab dictatorships, what is the principled stance this scholar should take if they live there?
Ramadan: First, there is indeed a question of principle. Muslims, scholars or not, are on the side of the oppressed and never on the side of the oppressors. Some scholars claim they don’t do politics but if you listen to their statements in the Middle East or in other conferences, they support corrupt regimes and despots, such as as-Sissi.
I will ask these scholars and leaders three things: first, to clarify their position as to their support of the dictators. Second, to reconnect the spiritual message of Islam with the very meaning of struggling for dignity and justice in our societies. Third, to propose a vision to Western Muslims that is based on wisdom and courage, not so-called wisdom at the price of courage, which is just emptiness or an illusion of plenitude.
TIM: You identified the tradition of Sufi scholarship as rooted in the colonial resistance movements, presumably in places like Libya, Chechnya and Algeria. Is that tradition alive anywhere? Does anyone you know still carry that banner?
Ramadan: Everywhere. We have a very old legacy of people resisting in Africa, in Russia, in Asia. The very essence of the Sufi spiritual tradition requires you to purify your heart, to liberate yourself from your ego and to be courageous in facing any corrupt power, injustice and oppression. Unfortunately, colonial powers pushed an agenda by using Sufism against resistance, and some ulama played that game in the past and in the present. Yet true Sufism is resistance: spiritual, intellectual, social, cultural, political and economic resistance. It cannot be, for sure, supporting dictators. To those who say “Sufism is apolitical” or “no politics,” I respond: “No politics is politics.” Look at the very old African Sufi tradition, the Asian Sufi tradition, or the North African Sufi tradition. Then you get it and understand what Sufism is all about wisdom, courage and resistance.
TIM: You suggested in your essay that the first premise of your dream is coming true. Would you care to elaborate on or identify where you see this hope? Are there examples of fearless leadership and moral courage that you can share with us?
Ramadan: I talk to the young generation and advise them to be both fully Muslim and fully Western citizens, to be free, to speak out, to express themselves. We have new generations of Muslims who were born in the West, coming from within, and they are well educated and they understand. Some sisters and brothers are ready, yes, even though I can see young sisters and brothers who are also obsessed with their social status, their titles, their salary and are scared to not be tolerated. I can see both trends among the youths: people who are ready for a constructive, critical and active presence, and others who are ready to become invisible Muslims and to compromise to be accepted. I put my hope in the former and pray for the latter.
TIM: Assuming you proceed with your position of not attending this year, under what conditions would you attend next year, if at all?
Ramadan: I don’t have any conditions. I want the channels of dialogue to be open. On my own I cannot do anything. I am told I don’t know the American context and I am obsessed with international issues and, thus, there is no real debate. I want the American Muslims to tell the leaders what they are telling me all the time. I want this internal debate to happen and the Muslims cannot just criticize the leadership without being involved. At the end of the day, you have the leadership you deserve. My role is to constructively open a debate, question the vision and the strategy, and help to reconcile views. What happened after my post is what I hoped. I knew I was going to be criticized. Some are saying to me: “You should have said it within closed doors.” I did, and I repeated my concerns many times over the last few years and it is high time to have a true open debate. This is also my role. To those who say, “You do not understand the U.S. or Canada,” or “Europe is different from North America,” I tell them, “Come, let us talk about it and show me where I am wrong.” I am ready to listen and to learn, but to keep repeating such arguments without addressing the substance of my critique won’t help. I smile because the leadership in some European countries are using the same arguments to avoid listening to my concerns. When I am silent, they all invite me but when I am critical (even though in a positive way), I am reminded that I am not a British, French, German, Belgian, Canadian or American citizen. It seems in times of critical thinking, I am only suitable for Geneva. Actually, these are arguments and maneuvers of diversion to avoid the true debate.
This post was a wake-up call. There is no final decision on my side for the future and the true issue is not my presence at the conventions. I will not attend this year, but the only final reality and fact is my death. As long as I am still alive, I am ready to talk, exchange, reconsider and move on insha-ar-Rahman.