Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan defends his views

Swiss-born scholar Tariq Ramadan says he is interested in reform and liberation. In the West his quest is for post-integration discourse that helps Muslims contribute to their societies. In Muslim countries, he is concerned with the issues of emancipation, rule of law and accountability.
(Salvatore di Nolfi / EPA)

Liberal Muslim or closet fundamentalist? Peaceful intellectual or militant in sheep’s clothing?

Tariq Ramadan has been called all these things -- and more -- by his friends and foes. Whatever the truth, the Swiss-born Oxford University professor ranks among the most influential thinkers in the Muslim world.

The grandson of the man who founded the radical Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan drew attention in the United States in 2004 when he was denied a visa to take up a post at the University of Notre Dame because he had given money to a Swiss-based charity that the U.S. later alleged had linked to the militant group Hamas. (In July, a federal appeals court ordered that Ramadan’s case be revisited.)


Another controversy erupted last month when Ramadan was fired as an integration advisor to the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which said that his hosting of a show on an Iranian state television network could be seen as an endorsement of the Tehran government. Ramadan calls his dismissal a politically motivated decision to appease Rotterdam’s anti-Muslim populist party.

Ramadan, 47, recently gave an interview in London, where he lives with his wife and their four children. His comments have been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Doesn’t it bother you to work for and appear on a television station run by the Iranian government, which many see as a propaganda tool of a repressive regime?

I took three months to decide to be involved in this, three months where I talked to people who are not all supportive of the government. Quite the opposite: people who were jailed in Iran, people who are against [the government]. They told me, “Look, if they are giving you this window for you to come with your ideas, to spread around your interpretations, do it” . . .

I’m not at all someone . . . who is through this program supporting the regime. I am a free intellectual and free mind. What I want people to see and to assess is the program itself, to watch the program. You will see with the program I am inviting . . . rabbis, priests, women with head scarf, without head scarf, and having an open discussion.

Can you and have you criticized the Iranian government on this program?


It’s not a political program. The program is a philosophical, religious program on [Koranic] interpretations and contemporary issues dealing with religion and philosophy.

You’ve been called a liberal Muslim reformist and an Islamist in sheep’s clothing, with ties to extremist and militant thinkers and groups. How do you describe yourself?

I am a reformist Muslim; I am a reformist scholar. . . . I take the Koran seriously. For me, these are texts that are Islamic reference.

But I’m also facing the contemporary world, so it’s a dialectical process between being faithful to universal principles and to take history and context into account.

Critics say that you have made equivocal statements on women’s rights, failed to condemn stoning as a punishment, described homosexuality as deviant and referred to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Madrid attacks as an “intervention.” How do you respond?

My position on homosexuality is quite clear. . . . Islam, as Christianity, as Judaism, as even the Dalai Lama . . . [are] not accepting of homosexuality, saying that this is forbidden according to the principles of our religion. . . . My position, with homosexuals, is to say, “We don’t agree with what you are doing, but we respect who you are,” which I think is the only true liberal position that you can have. . . .


My position on the death penalty, stoning and corporal punishment is once again quite clear. There are texts in the Koran and in the prophetic tradition referring to this. But I have three questions to ask Muslim scholars around the world: What do the texts say, what are the conditions to implement [the punishment], and in which context? As long as you don’t come with a clear answer to this, it’s un-implementable, because what we are doing now is betraying Islam by targeting poor people and women. . . .

You have been accused of saying one thing for Western, liberal, non-Muslim audiences and another thing -- more dogmatic, conservative and possibly extremist -- for Muslim ears. Is your message the same to both communities?

If this was the case, would I be banned on both sides, in the United States but also Saudi Arabia?

So what is your message?

My message [has] different levels and different dimensions. . . .

In the West, I am talking about “post-integration discourse.” Integration is over. We are American, we are Canadian, we are European. And we are Muslims. The point for us now is not to integrate; it’s to contribute. What we want for our fellow citizens is to integrate us in their minds, to integrate the fact that Muslims are their fellow equal citizens, which is not [yet] the case. We are still “the others.”. . .

In Muslim-majority countries, [my message] is really to promote . . . emancipation and liberation [from] anything that has to do with dictatorship, and to promote the five main principles that for me are indisputable: rule of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage, accountability and separation of powers. . . .


How would you see a Muslim democratic state as different from a Western secular democratic state? What would it look like?

I don’t know, because I don’t have a model. For me, talking about an Islamic state in the [abstract] doesn’t mean anything. What I want for every single society is to respect these five principles. . . . I am sure that the Egyptian model will be different from the Iraqi model, and the Iraqi model will be different from the Saudi model.

Do you feel there is more mistrust of the West by Muslim-majority countries, or more mistrust of Muslims by Western countries?

I think it’s exactly the same. . . .

[For] Western Muslims, as well as Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, the perception is that the West has an agenda, which is to dominate us. There is nurturing, sometimes, [of] a victim mentality. On the other side, we have also a victim mentality in the West: “Look at these people. Silent colonization. They come; they are taking our homes, our jobs.” . . .

We live in a world of globalized victimization. I’m saying to the Muslims, “Stop with the victim mentality. Yes, you are facing discrimination, but stop with the victim mentality, [which] is nurturing this sense of alienation.” And to the West, it’s also saying, “Look, to come to a better understanding, it’s a question of mutual education and mutual respect.”