Reading about Tariq Ramadan, one finds a hugely polarizing figure: In 2004, Time called the Swiss-born Islamic-studies scholar of Egyptian descent one of the world’s most influential people; a critic, meanwhile, deems his rhetoric a “Trojan horse” smuggling Islam into the West. But talking with Ramadan by phone, one encounters a thoughtful, somewhat beleaguered-sounding Oxford professor. In advance of his latest book, Islam and the Arab Awakening (Oxford University Press, $27.95), the 50-year-old Londoner speaks at the Harold Washington Library on September 12.
In Islam and the Arab Awakening, you refer to the “oft-repeated idea” of “the need to separate the political and religious spheres, as if this were the crucial question in Arab society.” Is that not crucial in any society?
In the Islamic tradition, they are separated. Yes, there are two different authorities, the religious authority and the state authority. To distinguish between authorities is critical; to divorce the ethical reference from political activities, I think, is wrong.
Are ethics necessarily religious?
No, it’s one of the dimensions. We have people who are Christians and Jews and not religious at all. They have an ethics. But to say the only way to get a democratic society is to avoid any religious reference is unrealistic in a Muslim-majority society.
You argue that, whereas in the West the separation of church and state enabled tolerance and pluralism, in Muslim societies secularism meant colonialism and repression.
Exactly. Secularization in the West helped diversity, tolerance. In Muslim-majority countries, secularism was the slogan coming from people who were in fact dictators. So the historical experience gave the impression to Muslims that secularism was not our democracy but mainly against Islam.
You say the West has been motivated by its own interests in the Middle East rather than its professed concern for democracy. Do you think that stance was behind the U.S. State Department’s revocation of your visa in 2004?
It was clearly this. I was banned from the country not for my terrorist activity—this was dismissed afterward. [In 2010,] Hillary Clinton took a political decision by saying nothing is preventing Tariq Ramadan from entering the country. But when I was interviewed in the American embassy in Switzerland, 80 percent of the questions were about my stance on Iraq and Palestine. And also I have been clear: If you are serious about democracy, let us start with Saudi Arabia. It’s not going to happen. Why? Because we don’t care about women’s rights in the petro-monarchies. We care about the rights of minorities when we want to put the government in a difficult situation. We can’t today celebrate democracy in Egypt, democracy in Tunisia, when we have been silent for 40 years supporting dictators who are torturing and killing.
The New York Times wrote of you, “In American terms, he is a Noam Chomsky on foreign policy and a Jerry Falwell on social affairs.” Are you that socially reactionary?
No. If you want to wear the head scarf, you wear the head scarf. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s freedom of worship. I am criticized by many conservative Muslims as too much Westernized. I’m very much a reformist.
You point out equality and universal suffrage are in conformity with Islam. So why does the West think Islam is more restrictive toward women? Is that a fallacy or is there truth to it?
No, there is truth to this. No one can deny the fact that if you look at the Muslim-majority countries, women are discriminated [against]. Islam has no problem with women, but Muslims have. Muslims have, yes, and mainly the Arabs.
Of the seven countries that impose the death penalty for homosexuality, all are Muslim.
There is room within Islam for more open interpretation. I’m banned from Saudi Arabia, from six countries, and why? Because I’m saying the way the death penalty is implemented is unacceptable.
There’s room within Islam for gay people?
In Islam, it’s prohibited, like in Christianity, in Judaism. We cannot agree with what they’re doing, but we cannot condemn people.
There’s a common criticism of you that you present a moderate side to Westerners and a more radical side to Arabs. Why do you think that perception of you persists?
Because people don’t find in what I’m saying arguments to criticize me, so in order to dismiss my point when I’m very critical of the people who are supportive of Israel—I’m quite critical of Israel. If I have double-talk, how come I have been banned in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt? I’m saying exactly the same in Muslim-majority countries as I’m saying in the West, and I’m paying the price on both sides.
As a father of four, how do you react to growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the West?
This is what I’m telling them: The best answer to people who are telling you you’re a stranger is to be an added value as a citizen.
What it’s like being the kids of Tariq Ramadan?
They see I have people criticizing me, so it’s not always easy. But they are quite intellectually strong. They might not always be in agreement with me.
Any heated debates in the Ramadan home?
Not heated, but we have debates, yes. We are a calm family, don’t worry. [Laughs]
Ramadan speaks at the Harold Washington Library September 12 at 6pm.