On Sunday, August 10th, 2014, renowned and notable scholar and professor Dr. Tariq Ramadan posted on his webpage a piece titled Why I Will Not Attend The ISNA And RIS Conferences. The post stirred much heated debate over social media, with notable scholars also responding and urging him to reconsider his position in light of points they raised. The President of ISNA also issued a formal statement.
Dr. Ramadan agreed to be interviewed, stating for now this will be his one response to his post.
The following is an edited conversation between Dr. Tariq Ramadan and Amina Chaudary of The Islamic Monthly (TIM) on August 11, 2014.
TIM: In your essay, you argue that Muslims should speak out against certain U.S. policies by basing their arguments in American values, not Islamic ones. Why did you choose this frame of reference?
Ramadan: As Western Muslims and American Muslims, we need to understand that the values and principles we promote are not only Muslim values. American Muslims live in a country where justice, dignity, freedom and equality are essential values. The Muslim contribution to the future of America is to not only speak out as Muslims, but to also speak out as citizens in the name of our common values. Our main contribution is to reconcile the American society with its own values, those that are not in contradiction to Islam. We have a duty of consistency.
TIM: There is scant evidence that moral outrage or moral clarity have any impact on American foreign policy. In politics, morality is the handmaiden of special interests. America has stood by idly during genocides (like Rwanda), but then invokes genocide as a rationale for intervention (like ISIS) when intervention serves a strategic political or economic goal. At the same time, there is ample evidence that well-organized, well-funded political machinery can not only influence, but also actually dictate American foreign policy. How do you expect your words, or any words, to change what America does? Or is that not the goal of what you espouse?
Ramadan: It is important to understand that we are dealing with politics, and politics is mainly about interests. As Muslim citizens, we understand these interests but we should put principles and dignity beyond everything. As Muslims, our interests are our values. In any society, be it in Western or Muslim-majority countries, our duty is that of critical loyalty: Staying loyal to our countries by always being critically engaged in the name of the principles of justice, equality and human brotherhood. We should be the ethical and moral voice wherever we are by saying that, even though we understand economic and geo-strategic interests, we cannot accept a violation of these principles by any society. In the West or anywhere else, the treatment of people in an undignified way (structural and institutionalized racism against Latinos or African American citizens) as well as a dangerous dehumanization of some people (in Palestine, Iraq, Africa or Asia) are simply unacceptable. As Muslims, we must have an active presence based on ethical and moral consistency. We need to be very vocal, to inform people, to demonstrate when necessary. We need to write so that the people understand that what they are getting from the media and politicians is biased and not accurate. And this is true especially when it comes to some communities within the U.S. or with respect to the Middle East and Africa. This is what I am expecting from a new generation of leaders: Meet these expectations of moral consistency.
TIM: Can Muslims be within the system?
Ramadan: American Muslims are already within the system. We should stop isolating ourselves by thinking we are powerless. The youngest generations of Americans have a better opinion of Islam because they interact with Muslims. Half of young American citizens now are supporting the Palestinians rather than the Israelis. Things are moving. If you do your work, if you are committed at the grassroots level, if you have a vision for the long run (not only short-sighted interest), you can change public opinion. You are within the system. But if you are only concerned with international issues and/or the power of some lobbies that are influencing American policy, then you are isolating yourselves. You are powerless in your mind when you don’t understand the meaning and quality of your own real power. This is the problem we have with many Muslim leaders: They claim to differentiate between domestic and foreign issues and they are obsessed with being accepted, at sitting at the table of power in order to talk (or rather to listen) and to be tolerated. This is the starting point of our weakness. It is in our minds because we do not realize we are part of the system.
TIM: The American political system is structured such that certain policies can essentially be bought and sold through the establishment of political, economic and media infrastructure. If American Muslims had the requisite resources, should they establish the institutions necessary to the policies that better align with our values? What if the process to achieve those policies compromises the very moral clarity you espouse in your essay? In other words, what if actual political change requires moral compromise? Or is any political change that requires moral compromise not worth pursuing?
Ramadan: There are many ways and many strategies. We need to be clear on the source, means and goals. For Muslims, the source of everything we do is based in the belief that there is one God, and this one God is revealing to us there is one humanity with equal dignity for each, beyond faith, color and social status. Whatever your status, color, background or religion, you have the same dignity. Remember the verse from the Quran: “We gave dignity to human beings.” This is the source of our understanding. The means now are the legal framework, our nationality, our passports and social and political commitments as citizens. We are all equals, we abide by the laws and we understand that we have to be active citizens wherever we are. Our goals are first to live by our principles, to remind people of these values, to reconcile our respective societies with these shared universal values and to try our best to push for a spiritual agenda with more ethics in society, in politics, in economics, and in culture. Now, of course, we find people who are working for their own interest, who are lobbying, who are completely under the authority of the state and are surrendering to economic or geo-strategic interests. We understand the rules of the game, yet our understanding should be that our power is in this ethical counter power. We need to have many strategies, and some institutions can do the work, but we all have to be proactive. The singularity of Islam is its universality. As American citizens and as Muslims, you need to show there is something specific, namely our moral singularity. We believe there is one God and this one God is pushing us to reach universal values by liberating ourselves from our ego and by serving humanity. We must be involved in this by all means necessary, in a nonviolent way, through the legal, media, economic and cultural systems. We cannot achieve this if there is no courage, if we are not ready to sacrifice. What we get from all religions especially from the Prophet’s life, peace be upon him, is that there is no way to reach peace if we are not ready to sacrifice, not ready to strive, not courageous enough to face the powers here and the dictators who don’t care about humanity or human life. There must be a very clear understanding that you cannot work for peace if you are not ready to struggle. And this is the very meaning of jihad: to manage your intention to get your inner peace when it comes to the spiritual journey. In our society, that means face injustice and hypocrisy, face the dictators, the exploiters, the oppressors if you want to free the oppressed, if you want peace based on justice. The link between domestic policy and international affairs is essential: We cannot say we care about domestic issues and we leave international politics, and the opposite is wrong as well. Both are connected and should be addressed together.
TIM: ISNA wears many hats for Muslims in America, and its annual convention provides a venue for everything from family reunions to panel sessions on halal certifications to addressing many of the political issues you identified in your essay. Is it fair to place the burden on this one institution to articulate a position on all American policies both foreign and domestic? Are you asking specific individuals within ISNA’s leadership to articulate their position vis-a-vis these issues? Does this boycott extend to other groups guilty of the same silence, or is it specific to ISNA as the largest of them all?
Ramadan: As I wrote in the beginning of my post, I have a great deal of respect for the people who have been working and serving the community in America and Canada, and, among them, the two institutions I mentioned. I am not attacking the institution. Some have misunderstood my point or not read my paper carefully and they are saying “Tariq Ramadan is calling for a boycott and is creating divisions.” What I was trying to do is exactly the opposite. The divisions are already there and it is not by hiding the tensions that we are solving the problems. My position is clearly about the leadership. I can understand and respect the fact that you want to keep the channel open with American authority. But at the same time, you need to know your goals to serve your fellow citizens and the Muslim community in the name of your principles. Some people are responding by saying, “You are not an American, you do not understand. The priorities in Europe are not the same as in the U.S. or in Canada. You are obsessed with international issues!” Is that even a response? So why do they invite me in the first place if I do not understand the respective situations in the U.S. and in Canada? Am I suitable only when I am not critical? I have been visiting and studying the North American continent for almost 30 years and I am sad to hear such arguments. I do not deal with “international affairs” only; half of my work has been on Western Muslims. My point is straightforward: anyone who tries to separate or divorce domestic politics from international politics does not get it, and that m