Tariq Ramadan: The state of Islamic reform in the West

Hear me out

In a world of perfect homogeneity, where there is no migration, no immigration, no refugees, no cross-border terror, and no transnational media, non-Muslims would mind their own business about Islam and Muslims would mind their own business about post-modernism, and the never the twain would meet. However, the world is plural, and with each breath, increasingly interconnected. There are irritating Islamists studying at American Universities; there are rich European businessmen running the male sex trade in Tunisia. America is leveling bombs on Iraq; Jihadists are leveling their bodies at American interests. The multifarious is normative.

In this morass, the Muslim reformer must speak to her community (Muslims) and patiently, slowly, meticulously, extol them to shake their errors (violence, inability to integrate converts, utopian dreams of a perfect Islamic State, unfair family laws), all the while communicating with the larger world community (mostly non-Muslim) which is not interested in the nuances of how Muslim reform, just that we do it, and soon. There is a tension here: Muslims communities, like all communities, react slowly to change; non-Muslims want results now.

Tariq Ramadan and Khaled Abu el Fadl were the first reformers who ran into this tension. I am not sure they were able to deal with it effectively.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, entitled “Tariq Ramadan Has An Identity Issue” Ian Buruma inquired why Dr. Ramadan is so often accused of having “two faces.” During the course of the article Ian Buruma argued Ramadan often seemed to say one thing to a non-Muslim audience and another to a Muslim audience.

A perfect example of it is the discussion of Islamic Capital Punishments. A couple of years ago Dr. Ramadan suggested that Muslim countries put a “moratorium” on Islamic Capital Punishments until better procedural safeguards could be afforded to the accused. This caused a huge uproar in the world’s Muslim population who thought that Ramadan was selling Islam out to Western human rights norms. Yet — and this is the most intriguing part — Ramadan took an immense amount of criticism in European Press for arguing for a mere moratorium, and not a total elimination of Islamic Capital Punishments!

European media inquired if Ramadan really was a reformist then he would try to shut down the Capital Punishments in toto; the more cynical took Ramadan’s failure to go all the way as a means to accuse him of being a “stealth Islamist.” This skepticism of Ramadan’s efforts by mainstream media impacted Muslims who might have warmed up to Ramadan’s ideas. They looked to Ramadan and thought that if someone with a degree in Western Philosophy, a thesis on Nietzsche, and heavily engaged in Muslim reform was going to be met with accusations of “Islamism” then what was the point in jumping on Ramadan’s bandwagon? Better not do anything at all.

Khaled Abu el Fadl has also suffered under this tension. In his book “Search for Beauty in Islam” he discusses a hadith about the status of women in which a married woman is extolled to eat her husband’s pus if she is told to. He argues that the hadith flies in the face of the spirit of equality engendered by the Qur’an. However, instead of concluding that, therefore, the hadith is invalid, he says that he is going to turn agnostic on the hadith, and file a mental complaint against it. To a non-Muslim, this looks like “stealth Islamism” or being “two faced.” A non-Muslim thinks that el Fadl’s failure to completely excise the hadith from the legal corpus is a sign that he is not really serious about reform. Meanwhile, Muslims who were ready to warm up to el Fadl’s ideas wondered, if a man with a degree from Yale Law School and an almost rabid anti-Saudi ideology is a stealth Islamist, then what is the point in jumping on his bandwagon? Better not do anything at all.

Not only that, but despite the enormous sacrifices made by both men, it was rare for them to be accepted by mainstream media. They were certainly welcome at all specialists conferences on faith, but not in CNN studios.

After 9/11, a new breed of Muslim reformers recognized the tension faced by Ramadan and el Fadl, and concluded that rather than try to work slowly and convince the Muslim communities bit by bit, they were just going to go all out and demand in one fell swoop all the changes they had on their mind. This way no one would call them stealth Islamists. (Also, some of these reformers were driven by 9/11 guilt. Not that they were responsible for 9/11, but that they needed to do something immediately to fight against the conditions that created 9/11). Either way, they became obsessed with making laundry lists of what was wrong with Muslims and gave up on being patient.

It is here that we got the early Asra Nomani, the early Irshad Manji, PMUNA and the Muslim WakeUp group. This go-all-out plan was a considerable failure because the impulsiveness of this new breed reformer made the average Muslim distrust them as revolutionaries and anarchists. However, this new breed reformer was successful where Ramadan and el Fadl had failed: getting positive media attention. Mainstream media, from Slate to New York Times, rapidly embraced these individuals (far more rapidly than they had ever embraced Ramadan or el Fadl). Is it not surprising that despite all his work, Ramadan appeared in a New York Times in sigifnicant details far later than Irshad Manji?

Consider, then, the irony: reformers which did not alienate the Muslim community were alienated by the media; reformers which did alienate the Muslim community were embraced by the media.

Muslim WakeUp! and Progressive Muslims did not know how to gulf this gap, and became irrelevant.

However, I believe that both Irshad Manji and Asra Nomani realized that there was a gap and worked to bridge it. It was easier for them to do so because they were individuals and not institutions. Certainly, I do not necessarily agree with their vision, or even their methods, or even their affiliations. However, I am heartened by the fact that there are Muslims who are embraced by the media while also trying their hardest to speak to Muslim communities without alienating them.

Evidence of their desire not to alienate was scant when they first started out. However, it is more available now. Irshad Manji, over the objections of her non-Muslim editors, changed the title of her book from “The Trouble with Islam” to “The Trouble With Islam, Today.” She has further gone on record to state that the religion of Islam is beautiful and that problems are caused by criminals and extremists in the faith. Not only that, but her recent documentary contains a very positive homage to the Prophet Muhammad, which even negative Muslim reviews of the film have acknowledged as being “moving.” Manji has in fact made plans to meet with traditional ‘ulama in Egypt and take leadership training from them; the same training that many al-Azhar graduates receive. Most “conservative” North American Muslim leaders do not go this far.

Similarly Asra Nomani opened herself up to criticism from the traditionalist Muslim magazine Q-News willingly, having Haroon Moghul � with a Salafi bent � review her book. She then went to live with a Muslim community in India and reported positive news about them; which in turn casts Islam in a positive light while simultaneously addressing the problems we Muslims face. Not only that, but she got the South Asian Journalists Association to recognize that working for the improvement of the lives of Muslims was beneficial. In reality, both women have recently taken a page out of the Ramadan and el Fadl book: to be effective reformists you have to be inside the community.

While both women have easy access to media, which Ramadan and el Fadl did not have, they lack one thing that Ramadan and el Fadl possessed: freedom from scandal. No matter how much anyone disagreed with Ramadan or el Fadl, there wasn’t an ounce of dirt available against their character. The “worst” thing Ramadan ever did was look too handsome; while el Fadl kept a couple of dogs. Manji, meanwhile, disclosed the fact that she was lesbian, and Nomani disclosed the fact that she had an illegitimate child. Further, both men benefitted from the fact that they were distinguished Muslim men talking to Muslim men. Manji and Nomani are both younger Muslim women talking to first generation immigrants.

The current situation leaves Western Muslim reformers in a difficult bind. Does she lean towards Ramadan and el Fadl, sacrificing exposure to the non-Muslim world while doing the hard work of reform in relative isolation? Or does she lean towards Manji and Nomani, sacrifice influence in the Muslim community but make a positive impression about Islam to the non-Muslim world?

It is time for the media savvy reformists to work with the community savvy ones. There was a moment in Toronto in the winter of 2006 when Manji and Ramadan were both in the same place, and almost met. I’m afraid almost is not good enough.

Ali Eteraz is a free-lance writer and essayist. He is also the founder of eteraz.org: States of Islam.


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