Reading Tariq Ramadan: Political Liberalism, Islam, and “Overlapping Consensus”

| November 2007
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The interest of Western intellectuals in Islamic political and ethical traditions (predominantly its traditions of warfare, but also of governance, social order, and gender relations) is now almost matched by our fascination with “Islam in the West.” This interest quite naturally manifests itself in a focus on certain key public figures in European Islam, the single most prominent of which by far is Tariq Ramadan.

The fascination with Ramadan is understandable. He is, on the one hand, a scion of political Islam—the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (the wellspring of many of Islamism’s twentieth-century tendencies); and the son of Sa’id Ramadan, one of the most prominent mid-century figures in the “Islamist International,” comprised of exiles from Muslim countries, local grassroots movements (from the Brotherhood to more radical “Salafi” groups), and the conservative oil monarchies. On the other hand, he is an outspoken advocate of the notion that European Muslims can be both European and Muslim in equal measure. He calls on Muslims to be active and engaged citizens of European countries, faithful to their constitutional systems, yet insists that this can be done without adopting a diluted, “liberal Islam” in matters of social and personal morality. On top of this, Ramadan is telegenic, articulate, multilingual, and charismatic. For a Western audience he is a unique Muslim media figure: neither a radical bogeyman à la bin Laden or Khomeini (or one of their myriad imitators, such as Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri or even, significantly, Ramadan’s own brother, Hani), nor an outright secular liberal (ex-)Muslim à la Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, or Salman Rushdie.

Given the current historical and political moment, Ramadan is an exciting and controversial figure; and it was perhaps inevitable that there should emerge a small journalistic and political industry dedicated to speculation on his ultimate views or intentions1. Underlying the scrutiny of Ramadan’s career and views is not just a concern with whether this particular public intellectual is trustworthy, but a larger concern with whether and how Islam might be rendered “compatible” in the long-term with European conceptions of liberalism, modernity, and social order.

Ramadan is indeed an appropriate object of scrutiny for those interested in the place of Islam in the West. He has written about the possibility of an Islamic affirmation of membership in European societies in perhaps the most self-conscious manner of any European Muslim thinker. While situating himself as much as possible in a conservative Islamic legal and theological tradition (his book To Be a European Muslim is tellingly subtitled “A Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context”), his treatment of the core matters of forging political community in the conditions of religious and moral diversity reveals a familiarity with the language and long-term concerns of political liberalism. It is less clear, however, of what precise interest Ramadan’s writings ought to be and what should be expected from them. An early journalistic cliché pegged Ramadan as the “Muslim Martin Luther.” This awkward attempt to express a desire for an Islamic theology that would allow Muslims to endorse certain aspects of Western-style modernity nonetheless got it exactly wrong. Indeed, the last thing Western liberals ought to wish for is more “Muslim Martin Luthers” on top of the countless self-appointed, iconoclastic, back-to-the-text, literal-minded zealots who have appeared in the footsteps of Ramadan’s own grandfather. What was meant, of course, was that Ramadan might be a potential “Muslim John Locke”—that is, a thinker who would use religious and scriptural arguments to formulate a doctrine of religious tolerance and secular government.

If this is why political liberals ought to be interested in reading Tariq Ramadan, does he fit the bill? What exactly is the place of (possibly illiberal) religion in a liberal society, what constitutes a loyal affirmation of citizenship, and what positions cross the boundaries of reasonableness? Further, given that we prefer a single secular public language for deliberation, why should we concern ourselves at all with Islamic theological or juridical polemics?

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Category: Essay, Issue 21.4

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