Volume 19 Number 4
Time to Leave Our Intellectual Ghettos
01 August 2006

We all need to step out of our respective intellectual ghettos and say, ‘I am open-minded’, according to Professor Tariq Ramadan.

We all oppose the clash of civilisations. But if you listen to people on the ground here in Europe, in the States, and in the Islamic-majority countries, there is a definite feeling of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We deny the reality of this theory intellectually but emotionally there is something in the atmosphere.

The first way to find a remedy to a problem, or to a sickness, is to face it. The great majority of people are scared about the future of their society. ‘Old’ Europeans ask: what will Europe be like in 50 years, will it still be a European continent? If you speak to Muslims it’s the same. They’re scared of losing their identity, their principles. How, they ask, in a secular society, will I transmit my values to my children?

There are fears on both sides. You may not be paralysed by these questions but you cannot deny that people are asking them. Nor can you say to someone, ‘You are wrong to be scared.’

State of deafness
We are losing reasonable approaches because we are colonised by emotions. Emotions are good at the right time, but when you are dealing with social problems you have to be reasonable to be wise. For example, after the crisis over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by a Danish newspaper what we needed was reason, but we were overwhelmed by emotions and strong statements.

When we are overcome by an emotion such as fear we neither listen nor trust. Once passion is involved, the problem is not that we are not talking, but that we are not listening. There’s a state of deafness. Sometimes people say to Muslims, ‘What you are saying is so beautiful, maybe it’s double-talk’. My answer is, ‘Maybe you have double hearing’.

The reality now is that we have Western Muslims and that they are part of the solution, as are Western Jews, Christians, Buddhists and atheists. There are differences between us but also similarities and common values. So we should all be against what happened in Denmark, for example, because we know that some of those involved were just provoking the Muslims.

Multiple identity
There are new generations of young Muslims, born in countries like France and Britain, for whom Europe is home. They think in terms of ‘our citizenship’, ‘our common belonging’. They are Muslim by religion, French or British by culture and therefore have a multiple identity. You have to listen if you want to hear these people because they are not as noisy as the suicide bombers.

Loyalty to a country doesn’t mean blind support of its policies. Loyalty can also involve being able to say, ‘I think what you are doing is wrong.’

Millions of people demonstrated against the war in Iraq, not only Muslims. It was not a Muslim issue but a citizenship issue. What we got was, ‘It’s understandable for a white British man or woman to attack the war but for a Muslim to do so is questionable.’ We need true loyalty to principles, not blind loyalty to everything that is done in the name of a country. That would be hypocrisy. To be critical of my country when what it is doing is unjust is the best example of citizenship you can get. In this way, Muslims ought to speak out about issues like restrictions on Christians in Islamic-majority countries like Sudan and Malaysia.

We all need to step out of our respective intellectual ghettos. In our specific spheres we talk to people who are exactly the same as us and we say, ‘I am open-minded’. That’s just words. In the last week, how many people from a different cultural or religious background have you met? We live in a multicultural society but very often the reality is that we have a patchwork of communities.

Critical dialogue
Living together takes effort. Non-Muslims need to meet Muslims, read about Islam, ask questions. And Muslims should know about Britain: the constitution, the legacy, the memory. We all need to know more. There is no pluralistic society without knowledge.

Not only that, we need critical dialogue. Strong and difficult questions from both sides are essential to building trust. Asking questions out of trust will build a strong society, avoiding questions out of fear will not.

My hope for Britain is to see a national movement of local initiatives. It will not be at the government level but the local level. People building spaces of trust, working against the common enemies: ignorance, marginalisation, injustice, and a narrow understanding of religion which says, ‘I am who I am because I am against you’.

If things are to change we need to work together for a reformed society. Unfortunately, it’s easier to be together ‘against’ than together ‘for’.

Professor Tariq Ramadan is Visiting Professor at St Anthony’s College, Oxford University. This article is based on his recent talk to a Greencoat Forum at the IofC centre in London.