Tariq Ramadan emerged after September 11 as an apologist for a liberal, peaceful interpretation of Islam, earning him plaudits from the Western media, including the title of the “Muslim Martin Luther” in a 2004 Washington Post op-ed. In his new book, Islam and the Arab Awakening, he is at pains to stay on script. More than anything, he means to show that the Arab Spring is not a catalyst for the rise of Islamist regimes, but instead could be the initial step in throwing off the yoke of European colonialism and American imperialism in favor of new political arrangements that embody both democratic pluralism and a reinvigorated sense of Islamic identity and culture.
For Ramadan, there is no inherent contradiction between a society rooted in Islamic ideals on the one hand, and the democratic principles of equality, liberty, and pluralism, on the other. Indeed, Ramadan has made a career out of interpreting his religion in progressive, sometimes innovative ways, always insisting that Islam is apolitical and humanistic: that it should be a force for equality (especially for women), public education, consensual government, social justice, and the general elevation of the human condition.
And perhaps it should be—or could be. But Ramadan believes that it is and always has been. Attempting to show that democracy is the natural political state of Muslim-majority societies, he articulates a reformist theological history of Islam that should give careful readers pause (my emphasis):
From the outset, Muslim scholars in their work of interpretation distinguished between divine authority on the one hand . . . and human authority on the other hand, which, in social affairs (mu‘âmalât) must manage the primary sphere of the permitted through consultation (shûrâ) and a majority decision-making process.
That is, human or political authority extends only to “the permitted,” which is presumably whatever Shari’a has not forbidden or preempted. But to say that the majority decision-making process extends only to that which religious law has permitted is hardly a valid basis for separating religious and political authority, or protecting them from each other. Ramadan contradicts himself. Before analyzing the emergence of democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring, he makes the point again, more explicitly, this time as it concerns Islam’s founder.
The Qur’an, as well as the life (sîra) and traditions (ahâdîth) of the Prophet of Islam teach us that he himself distinguished between the divine and the human; he admitted that he was subject to errors in worldly affairs and was protected from them only when receiving and transmitting the divine message.
He fails to acknowledge the inherent paradox in the Prophet’s life. Although Muhammad made a distinction between divine and human spheres of authority, it did not stop him from leading armies, conquering cities, and otherwise becoming a military leader intent on spreading Islam—by force, if necessary (as it often was). Any distinction between divine and human rule in early Islam was purely formal; Muhammad’s actions did not, in fact, exhibit that distinction, nor did those of his immediate successors. But Ramadan, failing to mention this, writes as though his position is perfectly orthodox.
The push for democracy presents, in Ramadan’s view, an opportunity for the “Islamic reference” to become “an inspiration and a rallying point.” Since the authority of the state and the authority of religion are presumably distinct, “the role of the Islamic reference is that of ethical orientation.”
Ramadan says that this reference can only take on its full meaning in the context of what is essentially a secular society—“equal rights for all citizens, acceptance of religious pluralism (beyond the monotheism of the ‘People of the Book’), and full participation for atheist or agnostic philosophical currents and political forces.”
Yet how can this be reconciled with the “collective consciousness” called for by Ramadan, which he claims can exist only with a “sense of belonging to a common, legitimate, and consistent universe of reference”—in this case, a distinctly Islamic universe of reference? Isn’t a pluralistic, democratic, civil society one in which there are multiple references, each of them legitimate insofar as they belong to the individual citizen? And isn’t the state obligated to safeguard the rights and liberty of the individual, rather than the “consciousness” of the collective? Ramadan will not simply declare these things, and his readers are left to wonder whether he himself has any clear idea of how to incorporate Islamic principles and ethics into the kind of pluralistic, democratic government he wants to see emerge.
There is no such uncertainty among the various Salafists and conservative factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, some of which see democracy itself as an affront to Islam because it supplants God’s will with man’s. But to Ramadan these are all “empty controversies that put secularists and Islamists against one another on grounds that are as artificial as they are ideologically and politically motivated.” He derides the “corrupt secularist” who insists on complete separation between the religious and political spheres, and treats the question “as if this were the crucial question in Arab societies.”
But right now it is the crucial question. The corrupt secularist dictators in Egypt and Tunisia might have been ousted, but the grounds for division between Islamists and secularists are indeed ideological and political, and they are by no means artificial; they are real, with very real consequences for women, homosexuals, atheists, and secular and religious minorities. In some cases, those grounds for division mean the difference between life and death.
The kinds of governments that emerge from the Arab Spring have everything to do with answering the crucial question: Can a Muslim-majority country, freed from the strictures of dictatorship, bring forth and preserve a democracy that grants equal rights to minorities and women, protects free speech and political dissent, and does not insist on the imposition of Islamic law? Ramadan’s unwillingness to engage this question, in a book purportedly about the social and political future of the post-Arab Spring Middle East, denies a fundamental tension at the heart of Islam.
Ramadan’s refusal to wrestle with this question seriously and soberly not only makes him increasingly irrelevant, but it also bodes ill for Muslims everywhere, especially for those in the countries of the Arab Spring. They desperately need a “Muslim Martin Luther,” now more than ever. But it will not be Tariq Ramadan.
John Daniel Davidson’s writing has appeared in n+1, The Morning News, The Claremont Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.