Tariq Ramadan is no stranger to controversy. The Swiss born and based academic has been on the receiving end of strong criticism from within and ouwith Islam for a number of years. His appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was an opportunity to discuss his most recent book, What I Believe, a response to some of those comments.
Ramadan has produced some twenty seven books already, but What I Believe is his attempt to define what it means to him to be both Muslim and European. He described Islam as a ‘controversial topic’ – yet it’s difficult to understand why this should still be so. There has, after all, been a Muslim presence in Europe for thirteen hundred years; long enough, one might think, for novelty and suspicion to have worn off. Chair Stuart Kelly asked if the undeniably remaining suspicion was due to ignorance or to malice. Ramadan responded that Islam continued to be seen as ‘other’, and one has to admit that there’s still more than a hint of superiority in the attitudes of the pale majority to the quaint beliefs of the brown people.
For Ramadan, the struggle is largely one to rediscover the meaning of the words we use – real dialogue is only possible once we understand what each of us means. Kelly pointed out that Europe has been in long retreat from exposure to the reality of religious experience.
The ‘Orientalism’ of the late Edward Said exposes ways in which ‘the other’ has been constructed, especially in European and secularist terms. Ramadan emphasised the need for genuine respect between peoples as opposed to toleration, which demands no change on the part of those who tolerate, whereas respect requires us to consider our own position and our attitudes to others.
Questions from the audience were as thoughtful as Ramadan’s arguments – the multiplicity of Muslim practices while holding fast to the tents of Islam cause puzzlement, but ought to be seen in relation to the differing strands of Christianity and Judaism.
The issue of representation of the Prophet was raised (in the context of cartoons published some time ago in Denmark and of material satirising Christian belief). Ramadan pointed out that the issue was in reality diplomatic rather than religious; it was the Danish government’s refusal to accept representations from Middle Eastern states which were inflated, leading to street protests.
The separation of media and government in the West is still poorly understood in parts of the Muslim world. Ramadan saw such differentiation as imperative for the health of our common future.
A final question raised the issue of Qu’ranic textual criticism, still highly controversial despite some 30 years of practice. Ramadan could only stress its importance within his own Reformist tradition. Dialogue in numerous areas continues, and it can only be hoped that it will continue in an atmosphere of respect.
"The Future of Islam For Muslims In The West" was held on Saturday 28 August as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival