Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lunch with Tariq Ramadan

Coming a little dazed off the plane from Singapore, I attended a lunchtime talk at Oxfam's headquarters with Tariq Ramadan. (Oxfam is increasingly working with Muslim NGOs of the kind described here by Ehsan Masood).

Ramadan said true respect meant being ready to pay attention to the full complexity of "the other" - and specifically the complexity of different Muslim interpretations and experiences as they are now playing out in Europe. This needed to be acknowledged by all of us alongside other European experiences, be they Christian, Jewish or indeed Buddhist.

He said there was a danger of a rising idiology of fear. He warned against the dangers of a victim mentality. He called for more education across European societies of the different memories and traditions of more recently established communities. And he stressed the importance of a critical mind.

He said much more that was all well and good, and -
given the perilous times we live in - worth repeating however platitudinous much of it may seem. (For something a little more challenging, see John Vinocur on The US model for Europe: Immigrant work ethic, NYT 5 Dec.)

But in my view Ramadan said at least one thing that was not all well and good. For Ramadan "Islam is not a culture"; it is a fundamental which is mediated through various cultural forms.

I put it to him that for people who define themselves as secular, Islam - like other religions - is, precisely, a product of historical contigency and culture. Where, I asked, would he put in his mental model the experience of those from a Muslim background who self-define as secular - as do, for example, some Brits of Pakistani ancestry that I know?

Ramadan's answer bore no relation to my question. (He talked of the importance of distinguishing cultural practices in some Muslim communities that are against women's rights from the true Islam).

My interim hunch is that Ramadan avoided the question because even to acknowledge it opens a crack in the foundation of his world view. He calls for universal recognition of the complexity of the experience of the other but - from the evidence of this encounter at least - dodges the most important developments in Europe over the last five hundred years or so from Copernicus through Voltaire, Kant and beyond: the move beyond reliance on revelation from spirits, gods and magical thinking to the exercise of reason (notwithstanding the catastrophes that result when reason is abused).

I'd be glad of further discussion.

And I wish Tariq Ramadan well and am open to honest and respectful encounters.

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