The controversy surrounding Tariq Ramadan is based on hype spurned by the usual detractors for whom every significant Muslim voice is a foreign fifth column, feigning moderation, and secretly plotting to destroy Western civilization.
For anyone who has actually read any of his books or heard his speeches, Ramadan’s thoughts and positions are unmistakably pro-peace. Outside the narrow circle of detractors, he is universally celebrated as the world’s foremost scholarly authority on Western Islam. In Chicago, this past Saturday, we found out why.
Ramadan was back in the United States this past week after an almost six-year visa ban imposed on him by the Bush administration.
The claim then was that the world-renowned Islamic studies professor and prolific author on Islam and Muslim-West relations was a supporter of terrorism. The reasoning was a $1000 donation he had given to a charity later alleged to have links to Hamas.
For Ramadan and many neutral observers, the ban was little more than punishment for his outspoken opposition to Bush foreign policies including the war in Iraq. This was especially so given Ramadan’s long-standing intellectual Jihad against extremism of all stripes and his ongoing for moderation and informed dialogue.
That is the same message he brought to Chicago this past Saturday in his first address to the American Muslim community since the ban. The occasion was the 6th annual banquet of CAIR-Chicago, a civil rights organization where I currently serve as executive director and whose mission is to “defend civil rights, fight bigotry, and promote tolerance.”
I first met Ramadan in Scotland where we shared a panel on Islam and the media at a conference in Glasgow sponsored by the Scottish Islamic Foundation; and again at the Council for a Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia where we were both presenting and where I invited him to speak in Chicago.
CAIR-Chicago’s annual events tend to draw large audiences whose age, ethnic, and geographic diversity tends to be broad; this year it was upwards of 1500. Ramadan encouraged us to embrace the “New We,” the notion that as American citizens, we Muslims are part of the collective American “We,” not the “Them;” and that Muslims must embrace all fellow Americans as part of our collective “We,” not “Them.”
He implored us to pray as Muslims but to vote as Americans, explaining that the political and civic issues that concern us at the polls ought to be not only issues that benefit Muslims but that benefit America as a whole.
He argued that an activism without a spiritual component – a sense of higher beauty and a clear vision – is an agitated man or an agitated woman; that the most important question for an activist to ask is “why?” Why do I do what I do?
He asked us to contribute to the creative arts, because to do so is to nurture our sense of belonging to this society. He stated that confidence and humility is the only way to be responsible to the commitment of our religion. That commitment is to serve Him by serving people, and loving Him by loving people. In doing so, He becomes our destiny.
He refused to accept the conventional translation of “Islam” as “submission,” saying that it was “wrong.” He argued that the proper translation of “Islam” is “to enter into God’s peace,” pointing out the verse in the Quran that reads, “O ye who believe, enter ye all whole into God’s peace.” (2:208)
He warned against the victim mentality arguing that “the quality of the leaders is the quality of the followers. If you blame them, blame yourselves,” and telling us, that in the face of unfair demonization by those who hate us, “rather than settle for being the victims, be the subject of your own history.”