The Islamic Optimist (Books review by Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books)

In producing a new biography aimed at Western readers, Tariq Ramadan enters a field already crowded with excellent books. The best is still Mohammed (1961; English translation 1971) by the French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson. He presents a convincing portrait of the religious revolutionary who transformed world history, using the cultural materials available to him. Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam (1991) sketches a sympathetic portrait of an inspired visionary whose religious experience she finds to be authentic, while taking full account of a historical setting that made it necessary for him to assume political power, with all its controversial consequences. Barnaby Rogerson in The Prophet Muhammmad: A Biography (2003) captures the epic quality of the era in an elegant, fast-paced narrative…. Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss-born academic and a prolific writer on Islam who has achieved fame—and notoriety—on both sides of the Atlantic for his engagement with the issues that concern the millions of Muslims now living in Western countries. In France, especially, he has been depicted as an Islamist wolf in sheep’s clothing. Strip off the wool, say his critics, and you will find a hard-line fundamentalist hostile to the values of freedom and democracy he claims to espouse….As an academic his special strength has been in the exposition of texts, and it is here that his contribution has been most valuable. Two of his earlier books, To Be a European Muslim and Western Muslims and the Future of Islamnt in helping to integrate some fifteen million Muslims into European societies….In his two books on the "West," Ramadan engages in a comprehensive reappraisal of the sources of Islam with the explicit aim of helping Muslims to integrate themselves in European societies. His approach is systematic and uncompromising. Adopting the classical methodology created by the religious scholars during the formative era of Islam, he makes a fundamental distinction between the religious duties of Muslims and their social and political obligations. While the former (including prayers, fasting during Ramadan, payment of charity, and the once-in-a-lifetime performance of pilgrimage) are nonnegotiable, all other duties derived from the Koran and the corpus of Islamic law are contingent on the wider sociopolitical environment. Ramadan is critical of imams and community activists who encourage their followers to preserve a ghetto mentality, for example by adopting dress codes that set them apart from the mainstream. Young Muslims, especially, should be confident enough in their own culture to join the society around them and work for the common good. This is an important message for Muslims of the second or third generations who have felt marginalized, have suffered from racial and ethnic discrimination, and have become increasingly subject to religious hostility—"Islamophobia"—since the Islamist attacks on America in September 2001 and London in July 2005….While endorsing democracy and citizenship for Muslims living in the West, Ramadan turns his sights on the negative impact that Western institutions and culture are having on lands with Muslim majorities. Western-style secularism has failed to take root in Islamic lands because the links there between religious, political, and cultural experience are different. The Western-style constitutions that were imposed on Muslim lands by the colonial powers have resulted in authoritarian systems of government where "dictatorship and cronyism" cause havoc. Western powers talk of the need for democracy, but in cynically protecting their interests, they support dictatorial regimes: "Democracy, here, supports dictatorial terror there." The impact of his reasoning is not less trenchant for being broad and unspecific, and there is much in his analysis with which most students of Middle Eastern politics would find themselves in agreement… The absence of virtually any reference in Ramadan’s work to the Sunni–Shia divide is highly significant and has a direct bearing on his flawed analysis of secularization. The process of secularization in Western Europe was a complex phenomenon, and included important strands of the anticlerical tendencies to which he alludes. But he overlooks the most critical ingredient in the mixture of intellectual and historical forces that engendered the Enlightenment: the privatization of religion in the West and its progressive and necessary removal from the political realm. He ignores both the Reformation and the wars of religion that devastated Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is a strange omission for a Swiss student of Nietzsche educated in the city of Rousseau and Voltaire… The Islamic Optimist (Books review by Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books)


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