Tariq Ramadan's Call for a Moratorium

Storm in a Teacup
Tariq Ramadan debates Nicolas Sarkozy, the French minister of the interior
After September 11, the question of what Islam is really about became the subject of many fiery debates. With photos of Bin Laden chasing Westerners everywhere, Tariq Ramadan, with his trimmed mustache and neatly pressed suit, presented a different face of Islam.

Ramadan was thrust into the limelight in 2004, after the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revoked his visa. Ramadan, a prominent Islamic intellectual and the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was supposed to teach religion, conflict, and peace-building at the University of Notre Dame. According to Russ Knocke, a DHS spokesman, the decision was justified on the basis of "public safety and national security interests," (Pipes, 2004). The incident raised many questions about Tariq Ramadan in particular and Muslims in Europe in general.

Some people argue that the young philosophy lecturer is attempting to bridge the gap between European and Islamic values. In his own words, Ramadan believes that "We need to separate Islamic principles form their cultures of origin and anchor them in the cultural reality of Western Europe" (Trying to…, 2004). Ramadan, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche, "[enjoys]the support of thinkers and intellectuals of the caliber of the late Edward Said, Naom Chomsky, Francois Bugart, Edgar Morin and Norman Finkelstein," (Sid-Ahmed, 2004). Lecturing in the United States, France, Switzerland, and Belgium, Ramadan has been attempting to create "a coherent European Muslim personality," urging Muslims in Europe to stop isolating themselves from the rest of society, and to get rid of the "unhealthy schizophrenia" and "inferiority complex" they live with (Bechler, 2004). Ramadan "has authored and co-authored over 20 books and over 700 articles," and his "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam," was considered one of the best non-fiction books of 2004 by the Christian Science Monitor (Ramadan calls…, 2005).

But Ramadan has also been harshly attacked by the Western media. "The campaign against him has acquired dangerous proportions reminiscent of the Inquisition," with the French media calling him an anti-Semitic, reactionary Islamist (Sid-Ahmed, 2004). American writers, such as Daniel Pipes and Lee Smith, accuse him of being "a cold-blooded Islamist" and the "Trojan horse of jihad in Europe" (Pipes, 2004).

In terms of the Muslim world, Tariq Ramadan has long been "absent from our public discourse" (Sid-Ahmed, 2004). Nevertheless, as a result of his recent call for a moratorium on corporal punishment in the Muslim world, Ramadan now find himself in the eye of a religious and political storm.

At a time when already little is Islamic about the Muslim world, the last thing Muslims expected was a call for a suspension of the remaining vestiges of Shari`ah in the legal systems of Muslim countries. However, on March 30, 2005, Ramadan issued his call for a moratorium on corporal punishment. According to Ramadan, "these penalties are applied almost exclusively to women and the poor, the doubly victimized, never to the wealthy, the powerful, or the oppressors." He argues that, regarding hudud, or Islam's prescribed penalties, "positions remain vague and even nebulous, and consensus among Muslims is lacking…" Muslims today, according to Ramadan, seek to apply Islamic penalties or hudud merely for the idea of application itself rather than the aim or maqsid of such an application, which gives them a sense of fidelity to Islamic teachings.

Ramadan's call is based on the argument that "political systems and the state of the majority Muslim societies do not guarantee a just and equal treatment of individuals before the law," and that by maintaining a superficial relationship with scriptural sources, "we betray the message of justice of Islam."

Ramadan find himself in the eye of a religious and political storm.

A notable feature of Ramadan's call is the absence of any juristic opinions to support his views. Ramadan refers to "the majority of the `ulamaa's [religious scholars]" without specifying names or citing juristic proofs. At the same time, the `ulamaa's responses to his call were negative. "When this call comes from a respectable scholar like Dr. Tariq Ramadan, it may encourage others to disrespect the laws of Allah," Muzammil H. Siddiqi, President of the Fiqh Council of North America and former President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), told IOL.

Sano Koutoub Mustapha, an Islamic scholar of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), also disagreed with Ramadan, saying: "If we call today for an international moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty, then tomorrow I am so worried that they may ask Muslims to suspend their Friday prayer." And Tariq al-Bishri, the former head of Egypt's State Council and a prominent Islamic thinker, described the moratorium initiative as "juristically baseless."

Interestingly, Ramadan addresses several questions to Islamic religious authorities around the world at the end of his proposal. Judging by the overwhelmingly negative feedback to the proposal itself, it would seem to have been prudent for Ramadan to have discussed the issue with the `ulamaa' before, not after, issuing such a controversial call.

Ramadan's proposal surprised many people; the issue of implementing or suspending hudud, applied as they are in a very limited number of countries and in limited circumstances, is peripheral at best. Hence, the call, coming from a European Muslim, is largely irrelevant to many Muslims. Commenting on the proposal, Ahmed al-Rawi, chairman of the Islamic Organization in Europe, wondered "where on earth such hudud are applicable? They are not implemented in all Muslim countries and there are some reservations on the application of these hudud in Saudi Arabia."

In point of fact, the current situation in the Muslim world is the selective application of Shari`ah, in which hudud do not play a significant role in the first place. The part of Shari`ah that is applied in most Muslim countries is largely related to family, or civil law. It's also important to note that, in Islam, one of the main functions of hudud is deterrence.

Parallels can be drawn between this controversial proposal and the heated debate over the death penalty that occurred before the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001. "For most Americans the execution of Timothy McVeigh... [was] an act of justice, the desired retribution for the greatest act of domestic terrorism in America's history." Responding to the argument that the implementation of the death penalty is biased, many people "opposed a moratorium, arguing that it would make more sense to remove the bias from the system rather than to suspend the implementation of a theoretically just penalty" (Ahmad, 2001). Many Muslims used the same line of reasoning in responding to Tariq Ramadan.

Problems in the application of a law cannot be solved by freezing it. By Ramadan's logic, any unjust application of a law, Islamic or otherwise, should be solved by suspending the law altogether. "Dr. Ramadan should have called for better and more comprehensive application of the Shari`ah. He should have criticized more openly and clearly the misapplication of the hudud in some Muslim countries," said Siddiqi.

Commenting on Ramadan's call, Dr. Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, said: "Such a call can be understood in the light of two contexts: a general one and a particular one. Concerning the general context, the calls for reviving Islamic thought and discourse regarding many issues, including education, youth, and women, have turned into a phenomenon." He argues that such calls are manifested from time to time in the form of intellectual debates that attempt to prove that Islam is compatible with Western values. In this context, we have heard many intellectuals set out to prove that Islam is "democratic," in the sense that it is compatible with Western democratic values, and have also recently seen a Friday prayer lead by a woman in the United States.

Moving to the particular context, Dr. Shahin added that while Ramadan's initiative could be understood in light of the general circumstances, "Ramadan's environment as a European has a great influence on his call," as he is effectively proposing a "European Islam." Shahin believes that Ramadan is trying to find a place for European Muslims inside Europe; he wants Muslims in Europe to live in harmony with Western values, which would give them the chance to live peacefully without being discriminated against.

The call highlighted the thorny relationship between political and religious authorities in Islam.

But the initiative, according to Dr. Shahin, comes as part of what he considers a "dismantling of Islam." By being selective while dealing with Shari`ah, "we are tearing Islam apart from within," he explains. While agreeing with Ramadan that Shari`ah cannot be reduced only to hudud, Shahin maintains that hudud are an integral and essential part of Shari`ah, and cannot be ignored simply because they represent only one aspect of it. "The marginalization of certain aspects of Shari`ah can have grave consequences in the future," Shahin adds, raising the rhetorical question: "Should Shari`ah be twisted to suit societal behavior or should it be the guide for it?"

Dr. Shahin describes the initiative as the latest manifestation of an apologetic attitude adopted by Muslims, whether in the West or in the Muslim world. He attributes the Western fear of Tariq Ramadan to the fact that "he is very appealing to Europeans, taking into consideration the growing Islamic influence in Europe."

The proposal by Ramadan, who was ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, brought many controversial issues to light. It highlighted the dilemma facing Muslim intellectuals; they are either accused by the West of being "terrorists" or "extremists," or accused by the Muslim masses of being "too moderate" or "westernized." Ironically, in some cases, including Ramadan's, they face accusations from both sides. This situation has left many scholars bewildered, resulting in either extremely aggressive or extremely apologetic attitudes. It also brought up the historically thorny issue of the relationship between political and religious authorities in Islam.

Tariq Ramadan captured Europeans' attention with his televised debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister and future presidential hopeful. During the debate, Sarkozy surprised Ramadan by a question about Islamic penalties, such as stoning and amputations. Surprisingly, Ramadan's response had to do with ijtihad, or personal reasoning, and its role in "[coming] forward with alternatives to such practices" (Sid-Ahmed, 2004). Considering Ramadan's proposal in light of this incident raises many questions and concerns.

Thus, it is important to examine Tariq Ramadan's initiative in its proper context. Despite Ramadan's denial that the proposal had anything to do with the West, the initiative seems to be part of Muslims' efforts to find a place for themselves in an increasingly hostile world. However, where such efforts impinge on the fundamentals of Islam, such efforts should be based on clear-cut juristic evidence and extensive prior consultation with the community of `ulamaa'.

While it is likely that Ramadan's call will be welcomed and manipulated by the West, in the Muslim world it is expected to generate little more than vociferous verbal assaults on Ramadan, and a heated, ultimately fruitless debate.

  • For more of IslamOnline.net's coverage of the controversial proposal, click here for the Shari`ah and Humanity page.

Works Cited:

Dina Abdel-Mageed is staff writer for the Muslim Affairs section of IslamOnline.net. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, she holds a BA in political science with a specialization in Public and International Law.  

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