A radical idea: How Muslims can be European, too
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"There is no other way but rereading, reunderstanding, being self-critical," he insists. Such a departure from dogmatic interpretation doesn't, however, mean questioning the central tenet of Islam – that the Koran is the word of God, as revealed to Mohammad.Skip to next paragraph
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But it does mean looking at the Koran as "an eternal message meeting a historical reality," he says. "A dogmatic approach to the text has nothing to do with the text, but with the mind of the reader," he adds.
At a more practical level, Ramadan urges European Muslims not to shun the societies in which they live but to embrace them and play as full a role as possible in their development. "Islamic ethics should nurture a commitment to society," he says.
Few Muslim-majority countries offer their citizens a chance to play much of a role, he points out: Most of them are dictatorships. In Europe, on the other hand, "we have rights; the democratic process helps us, through freedom of speech, both to participate in politics and break new ground in thinking about Islam."
If he could, Ramadan would democratize the whole process of deciding what acceptable Islamic behavior in today's world should look like.
"We cannot just rely on the scholars of the text," he says. "They give us the norms, but now we are dealing with a specific context [modern-day Europe] and the norms are simple but reality is complex."
In that vein, Ramadan demands a new way of looking at sharia, Islamic law derived from the Koran and prophetic tradition, which is often seen as being at odds with the modern world.
"Sharia is a set of values and principles, a path with objectives," he argues. "Seeing it as a closed structure is a betrayal of its origins: When Muslims were confident, they took things from outside, but it is when you have no confidence that you define Islam in opposition to the West."
This all sounds like dangerous heresy to many Muslim ears. Indeed, Ramadan is banned not only from the US, where the Department of Homeland Security prevented him from taking a teaching post at Notre Dame University, but from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria as well.
"In the Muslim world he is attacked by fundamentalists," says Dounia Bouzar, a French former social worker who has written extensively on Islam and French society. "He is a subversive in the preachers' world and a revolutionary compared to most scholars."
Ramadan has found refuge, however, at Oxford University in Britain, where he is a visiting fellow and from whence he ventures forth on lecture tours, sometimes funded by the British government as it struggles to integrate the sort of young men behind the London bombings last year.
Some observers wonder, however, whether that sort of young man listens much to the fairly high-flown philosophizing in which Ramadan indulges.
In Britain, says Navid Akhtar, a film-maker of Kashmiri origin, most young Muslims are "more concerned with how to survive in hard economic conditions and settling their ethnic identity," Mr. Akhtar adds. "Navel-gazing about what if the Koran meant this or that does not play out in their lives."
Nor is Ramadan's name widely known among the sort of young men in the Parisian suburbs who vented their anger at society in outbursts of fiery violence last November. But his cassettes circulate widely among students and young people of Muslim background in France.
"Everybody listens to him," says Ms. Bouzar. "Any kid seeking himself is liberated by this possibility to be French and Muslim: Ramadan's proposals carry weight because they make sense."
Ms. Bouzar worries, though, that Ramadan's approach to modernizing Islam is based "on a vision that Islam has invented everything, that all human values are already in Islam," which she says could prevent listeners from recognizing that rights must be won through avenues such as education and democracy.
Though Ramadan has focused on making Islam relevant to European-born Muslims, he says he has also found receptive audiences in Muslim countries such as Morocco, Jordan, and Niger.
"We in the West are at the forefront of new challenges, so we find new answers," he says. "And Western Muslims are having an impact on Muslim-majority countries by the answers they come up with, their involvement in Western society, the way they speak about the rule of law and democracy and loyalty. We are creating a debate and opening doors."
It is an uphill battle, he acknowledges. "My struggle is not one with short-term results," he says. "It will take time changing mentalities."