Let’s Talk about Pluralism, Social Mixing is Important: Tariq Ramadan

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TARIQ RAMADAN, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, is teaching in two Faculties of Oriental Studies and Theology & Religion. He was elected by Time magazine in 2000 as one of the seven religious innovators of the 21st century and in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and by Foreign Policy readers in (2005, 2006, 2008-2010, 2012-2015) as one of the top 100 most influential thinkers in the world and Global Thinkers. Ramadan is also Director of the Research Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) (Doha, Qatar) and President of the think-tank European Muslim Network (EMN) in Brussels. In an exclusive interview with MOHAMMAD NAUSHAD KHAN he said you have to have a vision to effect a change in the world.

First of all, we would like to know your purpose of visit to India and what is your personal experience here in India, as you have travelled a lot? 

At the beginning, I got a lot of invitations from India by many organisations in Kerala and from other parts of India, including universities here in Delhi. I was unable to come for the last four years and to tell you the truth my wife was willing to come back. The last time she came in 90s; I came afterward. This is the fifth visit. So we decided with tourism we can also be in touch with all those who had invited us in the past. In the last 12 days, I have delivered at least 12 lectures in various parts of India.

My impression is that I knew what was happening and the situation. And politically speaking, the trend of populism, and far right extreme position of the fascist groups that you have here. Knowing the situation of Muslims here is difficult in many ways: One is political, with the pressure and pushing them on to be defensive with their identity. And on the other side was also reality in what way they were dealing with the new situation. I heard this many times that there is difficulty within the Muslim community to get a vision as to what are the priorities when it comes to being an Indian and a Muslim at the same time. And this for me is not very new because I have been dealing with these issues in the West or in Europe. I have discovered that so many young Indian Muslims are following my work and they know exactly what I have been trying to do because they see similarities.


We all know that Islamophobia is an age-old issue, but how badly it has harmed the Muslims and the world at large? 

Yes, Islamophobia is a reality and we cannot deny that. There is now a new type of racism around the world. Earlier in the West when we were talking of the migrants, immigrants were talking about Pakistanis, Indians and North Africans or whatever names you can call. Now we are talking about Muslims, as if migration has to do with only Islam. And even here, in the past, to be a Muslim and an Indian was never a problem. With the rise of this identity politics, we see that some extremist or those obsessed with such an ideology say India is only for Hindus and they are in majority. We are falling into this identity politics and emotional politics. Nurturing a new type of racism, questioning the very identity of Indian Muslims that is by being Muslims one may not be really an Indian which is exactly the same in British or in French society when it comes to Muslims. And this due to the fact that the old ideologies are now lost.

We are all now dealing with populism and targeting the others with emotional politics dealing with threats and fear, rejection and binary vision. This is what we have now. And this new type of racism is Islamophobia and it has an impact on Muslims. And the first impact is, in fact, to fall into the same trap that you define yourself against the other. Instead of coming with confidence about who I am, and I am confident with all my values, I try to be accepted to react to the attacks or perceive the attacks some time and this is very problematic. Because it does not have the Muslims to have a deep understanding or to be confident of their values which they stand for and by which way they can contribute. Always trying to justify and to be accepted within the methodarity in the society, I think, is really problematic.

We need to be clear about the fact that we cannot accept racism, any type of racism. So racism against black people, Asian people, white people, Muslims, Jews and anybody, we cannot accept that. But while we say this we should not end up always being reactive or defensive, we need to have a vision as to what we want and in fact one of the most important contributions the Muslims could have in India is to propose and carry on the project of the pluralistic society when people are from different religions living together and respecting each other.


So do you think the discourse of the debate should be changed from nationalism to pluralism?

I think there is no other way, what you are saying is the only way forward.  In the name of nationalism we are reducing the nation to one identity and there will be clashes. But if you understand that our nation, our narrative as Indians is to be Buddhists, to be Hindus, or Muslims, or the Sikhs, to be even atheists and to be whatever else – all these traditions that you have and you have many – you have to acknowledge this. So by using the concept of pluralism, as you are doing, I myself put a clear rejection of what we have in the West when we speak about two different models. There is a French Model which is the unity of the Republic and the individuals facing the state or you have multiculturalism wherein they have many cultures within a society and sometimes there are segregations or there is dynamics of self-segregation. Now I am not opposing these two models. All our society is a pluralistic society. So let us talk about pluralism by saying try to find your ways by living together; social mixing is important. We should take the best from every tradition to build the future together. So don’t deny who you are in order to be who you are not or who are others. So try to exploit the positive dimension of yourself to build bridges with the others.

Nationalism is a narrow-minded posture where you think that you are only going to be at peace with yourself when you deny identities to all others around you. I am myself because I know that I am not you and this is negative definition.  This is negative identity and it is not a positive one. So pluralism is not only outside; it is within. All this is also found in the Qur’ān, for example, Ibrahim Alaihis Salam, peace be to him, is presented as being an Ummah in himself. He was an Ummah, so we have pluralism within and pluralism outside. So let us face this instead of thinking that I am going to be at peace with me and know who I am and not tolerating the others.


How would you like to respond to the present development in Israel and UN with respect to Jerusalem and how it is going to impact the region and international relations? 

Unfortunately, this move from Trump was perceived as a provocation. But let us be clear that for the last 40 years if you go on the ground what is happening. Jerusalem is not only over the years one part which was colonised but the second is also slowly colonised and it is a fact. Let it be clear, Jerusalem now is on the authority of Israel that the state, not only the state, the great mentality of the countries around the world, the Western countries, I mean not the Southern countries, are just keeping quiet. There is a silent process of colonisation and as I wrote, Jerusalem is on the authority of Israel and there are no rights for the Palestinians.

All the Arab countries are quiet and silent. We need to be clear on the fact that the Big question is how do we agree that the Palestinians should have a state. Do we agree that we have to work towards that direction and if it is yes, then we should come back to the big picture and we don’t play with the move to provoke. But the real question is that we need justice for the Palestinians and we are not going to keep quiet on this. And it means what I had been saying for years.

I said the future in Palestine is not the two states; it could be the first step. It should be bi-national and I know that the Israelis don’t want this if you look at the situations. We are questioning the Jewish characteristics how it should be only for the Jews while you have Christians, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims and so it is for everybody. So let us come to the reality of the pluralistic society. So why it is that you are calling the world to pluralism and when it comes to you when you say no there should be democracy only for the Jews in the Middle East; that is not acceptable.

So we should focus on these questions and not simply say that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. It is already done, they are controlling everything and Gaza is an open Jail. So let us stop playing with these words and come to the real questions and the political questions about Palestine. We are not going to keep quiet. We are going to ask for their rights, for their justice, and for the state that they have right to have in the region. And then I am sorry nowhere in the world I will accept that one state is only for one religion. Why the Palestinians living in Israel have no right. This is unacceptable and we are going to fight and we are fighting, we have to fight by words and we are supporting the global non-violent movement supporting the Palestinians and we need to let them decide which resistance they want. But us, you in India, me in the West have to come together for a global non-violent movement supporting the Palestinians.


In your last talk, you said Muslims have failed to manage their diversity and that has allowed others to intrude and divide them further. Do you think this could be one of the reasons why the Muslim world has been reduced to numerical strength only?   

Yes, but at many levels what you are saying is true. We have the first level of internal divisions; it is spiritual and religious like Sunni and Shiite. And in fact, if we knew our history we could understand that it happened from the beginning. In fact, the first divisions between Muslims were political divisions and not a theoretical one and it was about who should be the leader. After the Prophet, peace be to him, it is upon us, it was us and I am from his blood, or he is from his blood; this is what the others claimed. But many argued it is a question of merit and spirituality and competence. So what was political became religious. But today within our religious traditions we also have these, for example, we are confusing at what happened in Iraq and Syria.

What happened in Syria and I wrote this in one of my books, The Arab Awakening, that one of the main challenges of the future will be these divisions between Muslims and in fact in Syria there are people who are saying Bashar al-Assad should be supported because he is perceived as a threat because he is facing Israel, mainly the Shiite. Who are the people supporting the opponent, mainly the Sunnis? So a political analysis ends as being a religious division and state and Israel are playing with this by creating this divide in the Middle East in Sunni versus the Shiite. And they were saying this in Bahrain: the people who are opposing the government were not good Muslims. You know why; because they were Shiites and then the Saudis are going to bombard Yemen because, you know why, the Houthis are not the real Muslims.

And we play with this. So also we have here religious problems among the Sunnis, we have the Sufis, the Baralevis, Ahle Sunnat and that is the reality of it and we don’t know how to manage it and that is the problem. And we have also Salafis who are saying that we are going to unite on our own authority. So everybody wants to be the leader. I think what we need today in these organisations, young generation being able to talk within. We don’t only need an interfaith dialogue within; we need intra-face dialogue which is also very important.

At the same time, we have another problem which is political. All that is happening in between Qatar, Emirates and Saudia. If you look at this, how come these small countries are now coming against one another and who is playing behind the scene? When you look not at the political reasons which are very odd and very superficial, you try to analyse it with the economic thing. Who now is selling weapons to both, 500 million and 100 million on both sides? So they send to Qatar, Saudis and are making money by dividing the countries.

But who is responsible and who are playing these games. Of course, the leaders are ready to play these games. There are corrupt leaders to follow all these; so we have political as well religious divisions. We cannot simply sit here and say our leaders are bad and, by the way they are, no doubt about it. But we as citizens have to do our part to be involved in the discourse for calling for pluralism accepted diversity and to be open-minded with our brothers and sisters and not falling into the trap to the emotional reactivity as we often do. By doing so we are rejecting the world and our brothers and sisters within Islam and this is shame.


So as an Islamic scholar, when you look at the Muslim world today closely, what troubles you the most?   

I would say which is at the same time simple and complex. I think we do not have a vision. In my last talk, I recalled what I wrote in Radical Reforms, the difference between adaptational reforms and transformational reforms. What I understood from my religion and from my relationship with Allah is, change yourself and change the world. But to change yourself and to change the world you have to have a vision, for what you want to achieve. I am sorry (to say) I am meeting a lot of leaders, a lot of organisations; I don’t see a clear vision. I see people very active, very sincere but with no vision. You can be sincere in moving but you don’t know where to go. And we are following what was done. We found our fathers doing things; so we are following. So that is the first resistance to religion. Our fathers were doing these and we are doing exactly the same. We are very sincere and we think I should be face-full with the ideas of Maulana Maudoodi or Hassan-al Banna or whoever scholars it is ok but face-fullness to them is to move, to make your mind, to think about the challenges of the day and to create a vision.

How we are going to resist. People who are saying to the British you are not going to let you do. Now we are apparently politically decolonised but intellectually and economically we are still colonised.  So we have two colonisations at work now before us, economic and intellectual. So have a vision, come with ideas. If we have a vision, we do not have sincerity. And when we are very sincere, we do not have the vision to work upon. The United States of America, the Transnational Corporations have a vision and they are not sincere. We are very sincere but we do not have a vision.


So do you think in the coming decade there is a country in the Muslim world which would lead others by example? Many believe that Turkey is leading by example; do you agree? Is Turkey really going to play an important role in the Muslim world? 

Yes, Turkey is going to play an important role and it is already playing an important role and we have to be very cautious. There are many positive things that came in the last 15 years and many things that we have to worry about. OK, we want to come back to our traditions and we went through the elections and the democratic process is all good. Now the problem is the real vision. Ahmet Davutoğlu as prime minister had a vision of no conflict at our borders. In less than five years what is happening in the Middle East is that it has destroyed this vision. In Syria and Iraq, there is no peace at the borders. Kurds, migrants and everything now are scattered and that is the real problem. So here too we need to have a vision beyond this. And so what is the role of Turkey here.

One thing which is to be acknowledged is the fact that there was a democratic process and Erdogan won the elections. Now, what is very specific about Turkey today? Are they providing you with an ethical alternative model? No. They are very successful because, economically speaking, they became the seventeenth in the world economically and becoming an economic power is what you are happy about. I am not. Because my parameter for success is not that you are making money. I know that we need money to be successful in the society. But the big question is: how you are going to translate your economic success into political, cultural alternative. I have been there for many times, I don’t see any sign which is more ethical, dynamic within the society. I don’t like this emotional support of this model. When the people were telling us during the Arab awakening that you have to decide in between Iran and Turkey; of course, Turkey is much better than Iran when it comes to freedom and economic success although the Iranian people are quite smart.

But here I would say we have a problem that it is a capitalist system. And still, the Turkey government is trading with Israel; that’s the reality. You shout at Israel and you make money with them because you have no choice. Are they creating a front of countries that are saying to Israel, no way we are not going to let you do this? When it comes to land, when it comes to economic stability in the region, they are not doing this.

Last thing Erdogan said something which was very true. He said to Mubarak when he was in charge, when people were taking to the streets. In a very philosophical and spiritual way he said one day you have to leave, you know that you cannot stay; and it is time now for you to leave; Mubarak, leave and let the people decide for themselves. And now I say exactly the same to Erdogan, one day you have to leave. Because of the fact that he was the prime minister and then the second time and then he became the president and changed the constitution to remain the president and now he is running again next time. Now how you and I can say that Putin was wrong and Erdogan is right only because he is a Muslim. Only, because we are happy that some emotional stand he is taking on Palestine or the Rohingyas. OK fine, he is courageous; he is doing that. But at the same time, he lost the former president Abdullah Gill and Davutoğlu in the same process. Many people are saying he has an autocratic move. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. My take on this is I would like to see him in a way which he is and what the political vision is and what after Erdogan.


In my earlier face to face with a chief advisor to Erdogan, Ilnur Cevik, he said that veto power should be abolished because instead of using for the sake of justice it is being misused to promote injustice. Do you agree? 

Yes, of course, it should be abolished. United Nations’ order today is the order of the dominant. So you can have 150 countries against a motion or resolution and the United States could just stop it. And that’s nonsense. It is the democratic process of the powerful. We have exactly the same in IMF. In IMF too, all the countries could decide but the United States of America has 17 per cent and with only 17 per cent America can block any decision. This is not democracy, this is a joke. And that is why Netanyahu could say: you keep on talking and I am not going to follow or respect. Seventy-two United Nations Resolutions against Israel but none was respected. The vote against Jerusalem is also nothing and nothing would change. The voting was a silly drama that is put before us.


On the refugee crisis, why do you think the international community has become so insensitive towards the plight of refugees and to the pains and suffering of the people in many parts of the world?

It is not that they have become insensitive now; they were always. The problem is when the people were suffering in their countries, they were insensitive. These days we are exploiting the country, the wealth, exploiting the land, exploiting the dictators even and then these people want to leave their country. What we are doing is we are criminalising them and criminalising their dignity and we are celebrating in an undignified way our dealing with social justice, political order and economic order. Now we are realising that insensitiveness but it has been always there.

Another thing: a global racism is now the reality of the global order. A global structural racism which means when our people in the West are dying we cry and shout but when all these people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea we don’t care. They are treated like animals. Even on terrorist attacks, they don’t have the same values at all places. The starting point of genocide is the fact that you start to dehumanise others and this is what is happening to these migrants and refugees everywhere as if we are not dealing with human beings.

Look at what is happening in Myanmar. The Buddhists are saying they are animals and exactly what was said about the Palestinians – rats. We should face this by re-humanising humanity by saying they have the same value. Look at me, I am Swiss, look at my passport, but my face is coming from there and I have the same value as you. We will recall and remind you of our rights and the rights of the people. Some Muslims in Europe and elsewhere, in order to be accepted, take exactly the same dominant narrative by saying that we don’t want them to come. Who are you to say this; your parents came here out of the economic asylum. So we have Muslims buying the American and European dream being more racist than the Europeans themselves. They have no principles and that is very dangerous.

Finally, how would you like to respond to the fragile equation between Muslim Brotherhood and the Western world? 

There is something which is very important the way I translate the notion of Ummah as spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood based on principles. Now having said that to be involved in this based on principles. If you are a Muslim and coming in a country straightway, I find myself in a way which I share a spiritual dimension with my brothers and sisters in Islam. But these will never be at the price of my sisterhood or brotherhood in humanity. When we are Muslims we know that we have an added duty which is to contribute to the wellbeing of all. We are chosen not to be arrogant but to serve. We are chosen to serve humanity for the better. To our understanding, to belong to a Muslim community means to belong to a deeper human community.(Published in Radiance Viewsweekly)

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