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Living together: an interview with Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan is one Europe's leading progressive Muslim scholars. He talked to Oscar Reyes about integration, multiculturalism and the role of the global justice movement after the London bombings.

September 1, 2005
8 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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The British government says the London terror attacks have nothing to do with its foreign policy, the press chastises talk of the alienation among young Muslims, and Muslim leaders say the attacks have nothing to do with Islam. What steps need to be taken to move beyond these reactions?

It’s normal to have this kind of ‘defensive’ reaction at first. When Tony Blair says that there is no relation between the attacks in London and those in Iraq, he is correct on ethical grounds – you cannot justify what was done in London by what is happening in Iraq. But on political grounds there is a connection, of course. So one aspect is to stand up and say what is right and what is wrong. Another is to offer an understanding without justification of what is going on.

Beyond this, we need a second step, which involves people from all sides. As Muslims we need to stop being defensive and face up to our responsibilities for Islamic education and understanding. But the government and wider society also have a responsibility to look at the kind of education that we are providing in this society, and whether it helps Muslims to understand that they are accepted as fellow citizens. This needs a comprehensive approach from the government and not only a focus on security, which is the typical response. We face the same problem throughout Europe now – in Holland after the murder of Theo Van Gogh; in France, where they are expelling and banning imams – and it will be the same in the UK. These actions do not respect European human rights legislation, with people being sent back to Algeria or Pakistan, where we do not know what will happen to them. But more than that, they are purely symbolic actions, which do not solve the real problems.

A separation is typically made between ‘moderate’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims. How would you move beyond this simplification, while at the same time isolating those who use Islam to justify terror?

It is really important not to accept this simplistic division, where the Muslims who are saying what we want them to say are the moderates and all the others are the fundamentalists. The Muslim community is as complex as, say, the Christian community and we have different voices. The very moment that you accept and recognise that the ‘other’ is as complex as you, it means that you are respecting him or her.

It is also important for Muslims from all schools of thought to take a clear stance on the idea that Islam means ‘against the West’. We have people, ideologists, using Islam in that way and they are playing exactly the game of the neo-cons on the other side, with their perception that there is one civilisation against the other. Both extremes are nurturing this new ideology of fear. And it’s up to us all, Muslims but also others in the West, to understand that we are fighting two extremisms that are nurturing each other.

Young Muslims are often presented as a ‘problem’, but you’ve spoken much more positively about a ‘silent revolution’ among young European Muslims. What do you mean by this phrase?

In the last 15 to 20 years, second and third generation Muslims have developed a better understanding of what Islam is all about. This means being able to distinguish between cultures of origin – perceived as a richness, of course – and Islamic principles. Many people say, ‘You have to integrate in our culture’. But this does not mean giving up on Islamic principles. My point is that our universal values are helping us to integrate what is good from European cultures.

In the face of the current reaction in Britain, you can feel that the second and third generations are asserting their identities, being British and Muslims at the same time. They are asking for their rights and not remaining on the margins of society. This shows an acceptance of their citizenship, that this society is their home, that they are no longer in dar al-harb (abode of war). Women are more present, more assertive, and more aware of their rights against discrimination too.

If we are looking for signals in different countries, then I think that what happened in Britain with the anti-war coalition is really important. We have seen more Muslims getting involved in the European Social Forum too. And in France we had the group ‘École pour tous’ – which brought together non-Muslims and Muslims and, even within feminist groups, saw them working together in the name of common values. These are evidence of new trends, a new movement that is coming out of our presence. And this is what I call the ‘silent revolution’.

Often, talk of integration can end up meaning assimilation – tacitly requiring Muslims to stop professing their faith to gain recognition in the public sphere.

Integration is a concept used with different meanings in different countries. In France, integration is much closer to assimilation. You are integrated the very moment you think like us, dress like us, and are invisible. It is not exactly the same in the UK, where you can integrate and stay who you are. But you can stay who you are amongst people who are like you. Although multiculturalism as we speak about it in the UK is good, it is not good if we mean by it a patchwork of communities not living together but living next to each other. And this is the problem. We have an ideal of multiculturalism but very often British ‘indigenous’ citizens don’t mix with Muslim and culturally Pakistani-British citizens, or those of Bengali or Indian cultures of origin.

Integration should mean stay who you are, live with your multiple identities and live with the other. It’s about how we tackle the visibility of differences and the psychology of knowing that we live with people who are not like us in the name of our common society, within the same legislation and with mutual respect.

This is not easy. There is no mutual or reciprocal integration without knowledge, education, and taking the time to know more about the ‘other’. You cannot have integration or a multicultural society built on mutual ignorance.

Integration can also be seen as a test of loyalty. How do you promote ways of living together that allow western Muslims the space to question the cultural predominance of consumerism and individualism in the west at present?

This is very important, because once again we’re asking the Muslims to show loyalty and a sense of belonging. It’s as if they have to follow blindly the dominant culture. The real integration within western societies is to mix, to be selective, and to promote the critical mind.

Our loyalty is often questioned when we speak about the morality of consumerism or individualism. But here we need a critical loyalty. It’s important for Muslims to understand that they should not be so scared as to present a blind loyalty, because of the psychological pressure that they are facing today.

And we have people like that. During colonisation, there were some people who were totally absorbed and invisible within the perceived dominant culture. As western Muslims, it’s really important to say that we integrate from western culture everything that is good, but that we’re going to be self-critical and critical towards anything that is wrong according to our values and principles. And this is the true loyalty, one based on a critical assessment of what we’re doing and on consistency. It’s very easy to say we are promoting democracy, promoting freedom. But the key question for each civilisation is how to achieve consistency between the values it proclaims and the policies it implements. This is what we have to ask for, and what Muslims should also ask for when they have to deal with the Islamic majority countries.

Are the new global justice movements reaching out effectively to Muslims, or are they also repeating a kind of cultural imperialism?

Both. Some within these movements understand that they have to study, to know more, to decentre themselves from the culturally dominant ideology. But others are totally misled by their perception that they are politically progressive, and fail to understand that they are culturally still very conservative and even backward sometimes, very imbibed with the ideology of colonisation, that ‘we know best’. It’s very difficult to deal with such people.

Within the movement we have a mix of people, but the majority are still quite ignorant of the potential from other cultures or other religions. It’s as if we are using old concepts, old understandings, and reorganising them and trying to find new strategies. But we don’t only need new strategies. We need a movement built on new perceptions and even new members. We need people who understand that they have to be serious about diversity. We deal with people in the name of our common resistance but we come from specific realities, values and histories.

Out of this realisation can come a more transparent movement. Because it’s as if the old guard still know how things work, and those coming into the process are a bit lost. You cannot hope that another world is possible if we are duplicating the same old and non-transparent strategies to take over or to keep power.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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