Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Welcoming Dr. Tariq Ramadan to Rutgers University


The following remarks that I delivered were intended to welcome Dr. Tariq Ramadan and contextualize a lecture that he gave at Rutgers University on April 19, 2011.

It is my great pleasure to add my welcome to Dr. Tariq Ramadan who we are very fortunate to have lecture to us tonight on the topic of “Religion, Radicalism and the Quest for Pluralism.”

In his recently published, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, Dr. Ramadan begins his study by pointing to a world lacking in self confidence, a feeling that he rightfully argues is closely associated with fear.

While I am not a student of religion but rather of politics, much of what Dr Ramadan argues in The Quest for Meaning and his other writings resonates with my own research on the Middle East, especially the problems of youth, sectarian identities and democratization . Thus I would like to share some thoughts as a political scientist on the topic of the evening, namely how do we arrive at a more pluralist and tolerant world.

Among the many important questions that Dr. Ramadan raises in The Quest for Meaning, one for me as a political scientist is particularly telling In his chapter on freedom, he asks: What can thinking about freedom and society mean, if society does not guarantee me the preconditions for my humanity?

This question took me back to my days at the University of Chicago when I conducted a study for my MA thesis on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I had begun my study as a comparative analysis - comparing religio-politcial movements in the United States with those in the Middle East. However, the Brotherhood quickly captured my attention.

As I focused on the Brotherhood, to my surprise, I discovered that the large sample of its members that I was able to develop through my research included few clerics or ‘ulama. Instead, I learned that most Brothers were well educated and from secular backgrounds, mostly from the teaching and other professions. What was characteristic of all the members of my sample was that they were both horizontally and vertically mobile. In other words, they were migrants from rural areas to Cairo and to other large Egyptian cities who aspired to upward mobility.

Unable to achieve this mobility once they arrived in urban areas because they lacked the requisite wasta or influence that would have allowed them to turn their education onto success, the Muslim Brothers often turned to radical politics and even violence. The name the Brothers used for the cells they organized was al-usra or family - an indicator of the alienation from society that they felt.

What I had discovered in my study of the MB was the beginning of what we refer to today as globalization. While authors such as Thomas Friedman and others extol the benefits of globalization, my own research in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East has pointed to its dark under side.

What we see taking place throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century is the destruction of the agricultural sector of the economy and a massive rural to urban migration. With limited job creation in urban areas, the economies of Egypt and many other Middle Eastern and non-Western countries cannot absorb the migrants or their booming population growth . Egypt alone needs to create 250,000 jobs each year just to keep abreast of population growth.

The irony of globalization is that, on the one hand, we live in a world that is economically integrated . However, at the same time, we lack the political and social institutions as well as cultural knowledge that would allow us to interact as a global community based on values of pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect and social justice- all themes that are central to The Quest for Meaning.

Just as the members of the Muslim Brotherhood were angry that they could not realize their aspirations and dreams earlier in the 20th century, so too do many people in advanced capitalist countries and non-Western countries find their dreams thwarted as well. The so-called Tea Party with its xenophobic rhetoric, including anti-Muslim attitudes, indicates that the question of pluralism is global in nature and not a problem of the non-Western world alone.

In the Middle East, the problem of being able to look forward to a rewarding future is especially difficult for the large population of youth - what sociologists refer to as the “youth bulge” - where 70% of the population is under the age of 30. As economic inequality increases, employment opportunities shrink, education becomes more difficult to obtain, and health care is increasingly the realm of the privileged, many of those adversely affected by these processes of globalization are retreating from totalizing cross-cultural discourses, namely secularism liberalism and various forms of socialist thought.

Exactly at a time when the world is becoming more economically interdependent, the angry and the alienated withdraw into narrowly conceived forms of political discourses. These new forms of political discourse construct build rigid boundaries between “Us” ands “Them, between those who are “Authentic” such as the Tea Partyiers who claim to be the true and authentic patriots, and the vilified “Other” who becomes the scapegoats for all of a group or nation’s problems. These disaffected groups substitute hostility and sometime even violence for rational discourse based in shared values and negotiation. In this process, as Dr. Ramadan points out, pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect are the casualties.
While the process I have just described is often thought by Westerners to characterize the non-Western world, it permeates the West as well. All too often in the West, Islam is accused of standing against pluralism and reform, and of being supportive of intolerance, the suppression of women and authoritarian political practices. Certainly, such thinking reflects the undertone of the recent Congressional hearings on so-called radicalization of Islam in the United States that were held by Representative Peter King of New York.
It also explains why television evangelist Pat Robertson and Fox News Talk show host Glenn Beck recently supported the deposed president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo. Despite his having decisively lost the November 2010 presidential elections, and having refused to leave office and the fact that he was a repressive and corrupt ruler, Mssrs. Robertson and Beck still supported him. They argued that, despite losing the presidential elections, the West could not allow Gbagbo to be pushed from office because the rightly elected president of the Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, was a Muslim, and his taking office would mean yet another African nation-state falling under the control of Islam. This view of Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion that is hostile to the West is the antithesis of the pluralism that Dr. Ramadan advocates in The Quest for Meaning.
What my comments about the Muslim Brotherhood and Westerners are intended to suggest is that those who are hostile to Islam (or any other religion) do not understand the meaning of religion. The religion of those who are characterized by fear and anger is really politics pretending to be religion - what in Arabic is referred to as al-din al-musayyas or politicized religion. In this instance, basic tenets of religion are distorted to produce desired political outcomes, almost always at the expense of other groups in society.

One of the most notorious examples of politicized religion in the United States is the Ku Klux Klan that invoked Christianity to lynch innocent African-Americans in an effort to intimidate them and exclude them from political and economic life. The irony is that those who promote politicized religion rarely know the fundamentals of the religion of which they purport to believe.

This evening we, the members of the audience - whether Muslim or non-Muslim - are not here to address an “problem of Islam, ” but rather to ask what role can religion - in the true meaning of the term- play in promoting our ability to live together as a global community. We are all God’s children. The famous section in Voltaire’s Candide where the two armies, one comprised of Christian Bulgarians and the other of the Muslim Turks pray to God to vanquish their respective enemy highlights the absurdity of thinking that God loves one social group more than another.

In his interpretation of Islam in many scholarly texts Dr Ramadan argues that religion needs to constantly be subject to examination as to how it applies to contemporary life. This calls attention to the dispute between Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib when the Khawarij condemned him for negotiating with his enemy, the Ummayids. When accused of substituting human reason for God’s word, Imam Ali laid a Qur’an on the table and asked it to speak. To this the Khawarij responded that the Qur’an is not human and therefore cannot speak. Imam Ali replied by saying that this is precisely the case since it is human beings who must interpret God’s word and hopefully apply it in the proper manner in their daily lives. This rejection of fanaticism and more humble approach to religion is precisely what is required if pluralism is truly to become a widely accepted value.

My recent research with Iraqi youth between the ages of 14 and 30 provides reason for hope, as does the mass movement of youth throughout the Middle East who are calling for freedom of expression and thought and the right to decide their own destiny. The Iraqi youth in my focus groups - both Arab and Kurd - are anti-sectarian and look to a future Iraq where employment is right of all citizens, where building a family is not beyond their reach, and where political leaders serve their constituencies rather than their wallets.

On the other hand, many of these youth know little about the history of their country or about religion. Clearly, education - another central theme in Dr. Ramadan’s writings, precisely what is happening here tonight, must capture more of our resources and attention if we care to transcend insecurity and fear of the Other.

In The Quest for Meaning, Dr. Tariq Ramadan argues that “Analytic reason does not recognize any dogma” (30) His writings seek to provide us with ways of transcending our fear of the world by coming together under a “big tent” in which all well intentioned people can enjoy the benefits of pluralism, grow as human beings and live together in peace and social justice. Working together, even in small ways, we can make his vision of the world a reality.

Thank you.

1 comment:

John Adam said...


Very informative and well written post! Quite interesting and nice topic chosen for the post.

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