Tariq Ramadan has a prezzy for us

Ah the indispensable wisdom of Tariq Ramadan. He’s full of it.

We are equal citizens, but with different cultural and religious backgrounds. So, how can we, instead of being obsessed with potential “conflicts of identity” within communities, change that viewpoint to define and promote a common ethical framework, nurtured by the richness of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds?

I have no idea. I don’t in fact think we can do that – for the boringly simple reason that it combines two incompatible items: the (welcome) claim that we are equal citizens, and the claim that ‘diverse religious and cultural backgrounds’ are (in and of themselves, with no qualification) rich and nurturing. The drearily obvious problem there is that many ‘religious and cultural backgrounds’ are strongly and coercively anti-egalitarian. Many cultural and religious backgrounds consider women inherently and profoundly inferior. Many consider gays abhorrent; many group people into clean and unclean, touchable and untouchable; many consider slavery acceptable. Just saying ‘hoo-ray diversity’ ignores all that, or, worse, hides it. I suspect Ramadan of doing the latter – because he’s nowhere near stupid enough or sheltered enough to be unaware of it.

[A]n ethics of citizenship should itself reflect the diversity of the citizenship. For while we agree that no one has the right to impose their beliefs on another, we also understand that our common life should be defined in such a way that it includes the contributions of all the religious and philosophical traditions within it. Further, the way to bring about such inclusion is through critical debate.

Who’s we? I understand no such thing. And the claim that such ‘inclusion’ relies on critical debate introduces another incompatibility. Religious traditions are not about genuine critical debate. Traditions as such are not about genuine critical debate – the two are fundamentally opposed. Once genuine critical debate gets going, traditions become vulnerable. That’s not to say that no traditions can survive critical scrutiny, since plenty of them are harmless or beneficial, but it is to say that they’re not automatically partners or allies of critical debate, because they’re not rooted in it in the first place.

Islam is perceived as a “problem”, never as a gift in our quest for a rich and stimulating diversity. And that’s a mistake. Islam has much to offer…Islamic literature is full of injunctions about the centrality of an education based on ethics and proper ends. Individual responsibility, when it comes to communicating, learning and teaching is central to the Islamic message.

And so on and so on. That’s nice, but what about it is specific to Islam and cannot be found in other, secular systems of thought? Nothing. So what does Islam have to offer that no other sets of ideas have to offer? Nothing. Ramadan just bangs on about various ok ideas that can be found in Islam as well as other places (though he omits the last five words) and lets it go at that.

More broadly, the Muslim presence should be perceived as positive, too. It is not undermining the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian ethical and cultural roots of Europe. Neither is it introducing dogmatism into the debate, as if spiritual and religious traditions automatically draw on authoritarian sources. They can operate within both the limits of the law and in the open public sphere. On the contrary, the Muslim presence can play a critical role in thinking about our future and shaping a new common narrative. It can help recall and revive some of the fundamental principles upon which the cultures of Europe are based.

Here he’s shifted his ground, in a shifty way – he started out talking about what Islam has to offer, not ‘the Muslim presence.’ But translating ‘the Muslim presence’ back into Islam, what he says is pure assertion, and some of it is pretty damn bald, too. Yes Islam is inserting (though not introducing) dogmatism into the debate – as witness this very piece, for a start. ‘Spiritual and religious traditions’ do draw on authoritarian sources – not automatically, perhaps, but historically and as a matter of fact, yes. Tariq Ramadan is an interesting example of that very thing, dressed up in convincing modernish academicky garb.

(I was careful not to look at any of the comments before writing this because I knew if I looked at them I would decide ‘no need to bother’ and I wanted to say what I thought even if a couple of hundred people had already said it. I’ve looked at some now, and sure enough. The Graun is weird – insisting on this endless relentless Islamophilia while something like 90% of its readership tries to remind it of the secular heritage of the left and the not altogether progressive quality of life under sharia.)

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