The Real Tariq Ramadan

A Catholic theologian’s portrait of the controversial Islamic thinker.

In November 2003, an extraordinary exchange was broadcast on French television. Nicolas Sarkozy, who would soon become president, was debating Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Swiss-born Muslim theologian. At one point Sarkozy attempted to throw Ramadan off balance by challenging him on his position on the “monstrous” view—held by Ramadan’s brother, among others—that Muslim law requires the stoning of adulterous women. Ramadan responded with the following: “to me, it [stoning] is not applicable and I have called for—because I know my position is a minority one within the Muslim world today—a moratorium so that there can be a real debate between Muslims.” When pressed by an incredulous Sarkozy, Ramadan explained that “my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities … You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things.”

Many have criticized Ramadan for what he said there, arguing that he failed to speak with clarity in opposition to violence against women to the show’s 6 million French viewers, many of whom were surely Muslim immigrants. They were wrong to do so, however. To see why, it helps to read Gregory Baum’s latest book, The Theology of Tariq Ramadan: A Catholic Perspective.

Few people have done as much as Baum to promote dialogue between religions. A Roman Catholic theologian, Baum was born in Germany in 1923 to a Christian father and a Jewish mother, and he came to Canada, via England, in 1940. He has taught at the University of Toronto and McGill, was a theological advisor to the liberalizing church council Vatican II (which advocated, among other things, that the church should cease efforts to convert Jews), edited important theology reviews and wrote numerous seminal books, including one based on the CBC Massey Lectures that he delivered in 1987. Throughout, he has defended social justice and religious pluralism with great passion as well as sensitivity.

These qualities are especially propitious here. One reason why Ramadan is so controversial is that he has been accused of “double-speak,” of saying one thing when speaking directly to Muslims and another thing to others. Worse, Ramadan is said to do this in order to disguise dangerous, even fundamentalist positions. To Baum, however, only those who have never engaged with Ramadan’s theological thought could make such accusations. Baum thus recommends his book to us because he has been able to bring to it both an intimate knowledge of the Catholic church’s own difficult struggles to reconcile with modernity as well as a shared faith. Because, to Baum, “Catholics and Muslims worship the same God.”

Ramadan would, I think, agree with this claim, and it says a great deal about how the two of them conceive of religion and religious pluralism. As Baum shows, Ramadan believes that all people have a natural inclination toward God and that we are all destined to become brothers and sisters in a single unified human family. This leads him to assert that there is a sense in which we are all Muslims, even if we do not know it. Baum’s own position is similar: whenever people act justly and so do God’s will they can be said to “belong to the family of Jesus,” which among other things means that salvation is possible “outside the visible boundaries of the Church.”

It is hard to imagine visions more inclusive than these. Indeed, as I shall argue, they are too inclusive. But first we need to appreciate what is so commendable about them. Essentially, they are Ramadan and Baum’s ways of asserting that we all share a common good. This is key if there is to be dialogue—or at least dialogue at its best, what I will call “conversation.” In a conversation people do not negotiate their differences, making concessions in order to arrive at an accommodation; rather, they strive for shared understanding, for genuinely reconciling and so realizing their common good. That is why they must see themselves as sharing this common good from the start, even if they happen to disagree about it. Otherwise they would be but separate, and so “clashing,” parties, hence capable, at best, of negotiating instead of conversing. At worst—well, we all know where talk of a “clash of civilizations” tends to lead.

We can thus see why Baum spends so much of his book identifying the affinities between Ramadan’s approach and that of Catholics like himself. Hence his book’s first six chapters—all models of clarity, all fascinating—which open with a description of the Catholic church’s own response to modernity, followed by a sketch of where Ramadan situates himself on the spectrum of Islamic approaches. We then get an account of Ramadan’s positions on how he thinks Muslims can be good, patriotic citizens in the West and of his responses to the criticisms of his renewal movement (al-Nahda) advanced by liberal Muslim thinkers. Throughout, the basic message seems to be twofold: first, that “while Islam and Christianity are quite different religions, the internal debates within the two communities have a certain similarity”; and, second, that the best way both Ramadan and Baum think that each should proceed is with dialogue.

Alas, Baum does not go much further than this. It is, for the most part, only within the tantalizingly few pages of his book’s final chapter that he begins to engage critically with Ramadan’s theology and so to travel along that two-way street that is essential to conversation. Essentially, the chapter makes five points. First, Baum explains how engaging with Ramadan and other Muslim thinkers, in particular, with their constant recall of the glory of God, has led him to hear the similar idea in the Eucharistic liturgy in a new way. Second, he wonders about the absence in Ramadan’s theology of anguish over the omnipresence of evil in the world, that which Christians refer to as original sin. Third, he points out that while Ramadan shares a hopeful dynamism with his Sunni brethren, Baum himself, given the failure of Jesus’ earthly mission, feels greater kinship with the sense of tragedy felt by Shiites. Fourth, he refers to the significant differences between Islamic and Christian understandings of law, with the latter expressing hope for a life lived under grace instead. And fifth, he explains how engaging with Ramadan on modernity has helped him to see that the time has come for religious thinkers to enter into dialogue not only with each other but also with those who reject religion—atheists such as Christopher Hitchens excepted, I presume.

Why do I presume this? Because, as should be evident to all, they are simply not listening. Which is to say that, while debate with them may be fruitful, in its way, or at least entertaining, debate is not conversation. On the contrary.

The difference here is crucial. Conversation is an extremely fragile mode of dialogue. If one party is not listening, or even just speaking in ways that discourage others from doing so, then the conversation will surely break down. Conversation is nevertheless the best means of getting people to change their minds as well as to stick with their new positions, since they will really believe them to be true. Forcing or otherwise manipulating them there tends to be but a recipe for commitments that are ephemeral at best.

Of course, given that conversation is a two-way street, we can expect our interlocutors to be open-minded only if we are so ourselves. The good news is that “open” contrasts with “narrow,” by which I mean that a position arrived at with an open mind will tend to draw support from a variety of considerations and so will be the stronger for it. Indeed, as Isaiah Berlin, quoting Joseph Schumpeter, once put it: “to realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.” All of which is to say that Ramadan was right to reject Sarkozy’s call to condemn the stoning of women for the monstrosity that it is.

Ramadan is not, however, always consistent in his concern for dialogue. If challenged to condemn anti-Semitism among Muslims, for example, he will do so without hesitation and with nary a mention of the need for a moratorium (as a Jew, I am not quite sure how to feel about this). And regarding homosexuality, the problem is not so much with his view of it as behaviour “reprehensible under the rules of morality”—for, and Baum would agree, he is entitled to this error—but with the way he affirms this position since it seems expressly designed to discourage discussion: “It would be senseless to wish to deny the facts, to contradict the textual sources and to force believers to perform intellectual contortions so that they can prove they are in tune with the times.” Finally, we might note how, while Ramadan calls for rereading the Quran, he says that this should be carried out only by the ulema, those scholars who are trained in the interpretive principles recognized by the Islamic sciences; everyone else, it seems, must simply keep quiet and follow along.

How, then, to account for these inconsistencies? The blame, it seems to me, should be placed squarely on what we might call Ramadan’s monism. As Baum explains, for Ramadan, the Oneness of God (tahwid) is something mirrored in the whole created order. It is this belief, that the world is a unity, which accounts for Ramadan’s universalism as well as for his rejections of sectarianism and the opposition between reason and faith, not to mention for his claim that violence is in no sense intrinsic to religion. Because, to Ramadan, the path to God is always pursued through dialogue.

One problem with monism (at least for Ramadan, although he does not recognize it), however, is that it is more Catholic than Islamic. After all, was it not the Pope, in his (in)famous 2006 Regensburg lecture, who criticized Muslims for failing to recognize that faith is reason and reason is one? This “failure” makes sense since their God, having never been incarnate, is more transcendent and thus inscrutable. And if the One is up there, then this means that we must be facing a many down here. The world, in other words, is not unified. Ramadan, and Baum following him, seem to skirt this issue, however, as when they give an account of the various “trends,” “movements,” “tendencies” or “currents” in Islam. What is their status? In particular, what of those Muslims who, unlike Ramadan, see Islam as superseding older religions, in the sense of negating their reason for existing? It seems to me that this would be the position of those for whom the Quran, in Baum’s own words, “confirms and corrects all previous divine revelations.” And just like Hitchens and the other New Atheists vis-à-vis all religion, those Muslims who affirm this position cannot converse with those whom they believe they have superseded, nor do they wish to. But if Ramadan is not willing simply to excommunicate them then this means that he must accept that there are “cracks” in the Islamic world.

And this means that we cannot even say that all Muslims worship quite the same God, much less that all Muslims and Catholics do so. Moreover, it follows that the suggestion that everyone is Muslim or Christian just makes no sense. Better to “let all the peoples walk each one in the name of its god” (Micah 4:5) instead—to realize that while genuine conversation is often possible between faiths, they ultimately travel along different paths.

Ironically enough, Ramadan’s monism is not only inaccurate; it also actually interferes with conversation. One benefit of recognizing cracks in the common good is that it helps to keep us from being too quick to blame failed reconciliations on such things as that one of the parties was too angry, lazy or stupid to listen, for we will see that, sometimes, people’s differences are just inherently irreconcilable. Recognizing this is important because otherwise we will be too easily tempted to try and influence them with rhetoric—to persuade rather than to convince, as Rousseau once put it. And when we do that, it will not be long before we become overly concerned with how we appear to others as well as with our place in the community. This seems to me to explain why, among his justifications to Sarkozy, Ramadan asserted that “you can’t decide all by yourself to be a progressive apart from the community.” Baum seems to agree with Ramadan since, if I read him correctly, he accepts what he calls Ramadan’s “pastoral reasons” for awarding authority to the ulema scholars. He also excuses Ramadan’s opposition to homosexuality on the grounds that “since Ramadan promotes so many new attitudes within Islam, it would be foolish of him to challenge the traditional sexual teaching and, in doing so, hinder the spread of the renewal movement.”

There is a danger with this way of thinking, however, for it risks making it easy to sacrifice truth for expediency. One way of warding the danger off is to recognize that there often exists an unbridgeable gap—yet again a “crack”—between the two. What is needed, in other words, is an appreciation of the inherent tension between (a certain conception of) the role of the theologian on the one hand and that of the pastor on the other.

But Ramadan’s monism has prevented him from attaining such an appreciation, since, at least if his recent lecture at my university is any indication, he believes he can master both roles. The lecture had two parts: one academic, citing figures from Baudelaire to Léo Ferré in support of critical thinking and democratic engagement, and the other hortatory, including praise of modest dress in the face of western consumerism and sexual licence. Alas, the two were anything but seamless. La Presse columnist Nathalie Petrowski captures the disconnect in her description of the lecture’s turning point, when, “raising the volume of his voice and adopting a feverish tone, Tariq Ramadan transformed himself into a preacher before my eyes.”

Perhaps the gap here explains why so many have come to suspect that Ramadan is trying to manipulate them in some way and so accuse him of double-speak. The lesson should be clear: if we fail to recognize the limits of reason, we will increase them.