Read the full transcript of Head to Head – Has political Islam failed? below:
Mehdi Hasan (VO): The Arab Spring shook the foundation of the Middle East. Across the region millions went on to elect not secular but Islamic leaders. In Egypt, however, the Muslim Brotherhood were confronted by mass protests and ousted by the army. So can political Islam or Islamism work in a democracy?
I’m Mehdi Hasan and I’ve come here to the Oxford Union to go Head to Head with Professor Tariq Ramadan, whose grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people on earth, his call for reform in the Islamic world has triggered both widespread support and outrage from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
To debate these issues I will also be joined by Anas Altikriti, a political activist and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood; journalist Yasmin Libiab-Brown, founder of British Muslims for Secular democracy; and professor Alan Johnson, from the Pro-Israeli lobby group BICOM.
Mehdi Hasan: Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Professor Tariq Ramadan.
Muslim by religion, European by culture, he says he wants to bridge the gap between East and West. Tariq, how political is the religion of Islam in your view? Is it possible to take politics out of Islam?
Tariq Ramadan: I would say we should never ever distinguish or separate, or divorce, politics from ethics. And ethics has to do with religion. The point for me is never to come with religion as a dogmatic understanding, a dogmatic system, and imposing onto politics religion.
Mehdi Hasan: How do you define the word Islamism? And how do you distinguish it from the religion of Islam?
Tariq Ramadan: This was in fact a concept that came from within the Muslim Brotherhood in the ’50s in jail, where a group of people were, was saying, the only true Muslims are us, and Nasser is no longer a Muslim.
The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood movements said no, we are “Islamiyun”, and we are all Muslims. “Muslimun”. Meaning that the Islamists have a social project, a political project as different from Muslims who are practicing Muslims and believers. So there is something here which has to do a political vision about the state, but also a vision about the society.
Mehdi Hasan: But given it’s a word that’s applied to the Turkish government, and to the Taliban, to the Tunisian government and to al-Qaeda, is it a useful term?
Tariq Ramadan: That, that’s the very good point. I think that we need a qualification, today, when we speak about Islamist, we don’t know what we are talking about because this is what is coming sometimes from the West, and sometimes from secularists in Muslim-majority countries saying you know what at the end they are all the same. They all want what Bin Laden wanted.
Mehdi Hasan: So when people in the West, in particular, but not just in the West, in the Muslim majority countries as well, talk about the threat of Islamism to democracy, to human rights, is that something that you disagree with? Do you think that’s excessive criticism, and unfair criticism?
Tariq Ramadan: That, that’s based on nothing but projection and, and nonsense. They have a selective approach towards democracy. If it suits them, that’s fine. So the point for me is to put all the Islamists who are saying that they are against democracy, it’s completely wrong. In fact, if you look at what is happening in Turkey, 10 years ago, when people were talking about Erdogan, they were saying, he’s going to apply Sharia implement Sharia and there will be no democracy. At the end, he’s much more democratic and he’s much more a democrat than the military, and even some secularist who are ready to use the army against the democratic process.
Mehdi Hasan: If you look at what’s going on in Turkey at the moment, which is embroiled in, has been embroiled in, violent protests, accusations of corruption, in-fighting. You look at Hamas in Gaza, There are some who would say that Islamist groups are very good at being an opposition, not so good at governing, not so good at taking charge. Wherever they come to power, there seems to be problems, chaos, human rights violations.
Tariq Ramadan: There are lots of things to do still in Turkey to get a free society, respecting minorities, that’s for sure. But if you look at all the other countries, Turkey is much better than many.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, just on the Arab Spring more generally, am I right in saying that you have refused to call it a Spring, or even a revolution? And if so, what would you call it? What we see in the Arab world?
Tariq Ramadan: I think that from the very beginning I never bought the idea that these were revolutions. if you try to tell me that all what happened on the ground was not known by the West, I don’t buyhis. This is nonsense. And I said from the very beginning, we are too much focusing on the political equation of what is happening, while the big big question is the economic side of the equation. This has to do with economy and new actors in the region.
Mehdi Hasan: In your book, The Arab Awakening, which you wrote on this you also talk about the role of America, you talk about the role of Israel, you talk about the role of multinational corporations. Many people would say you sound like a conspiracy theorist.
Tariq Ramadan: Completely.
Tariq Ramadan: Who decided not to talk about the coup d’état in order to support the army that’s, the, the…
Mehdi Hasan: Was the revolution itself against Mubarak run from the White House?
Tariq Ramadan: No, no, please don’t translate what I’m saying…
Mehdi Hasan: I’m asking a question.
Tariq Ramadan: What, no. What I’m saying in the book that even Mubarak knew about this mobilisation of cyber-dissidents, and this was known. What I am saying in the book that the only country in which I think it was not expected, paradoxically, was Syria. Because it took eight months, for the US administration to find the people with whom it can work.
Mehdi Hasan: Some Egyptians I speak to say, he’s patronising us because he basically is implying that we’re pawns, we’re dupes, of a Western plot. You talk about Google in your book. You say Google has exactly the same agenda as NATO.
Tariq Ramadan: Tell me why Google organised the first meeting in Budapest of cyber-dissidents coming from the Middle East two years before…?
Mehdi Hasan: You tell me why.
Tariq Ramadan: I am telling you that this is coming from a support. I don’t buy this idea that everything that happened in the Middle East was coming out of nothing. So this is what I’m saying. Now to tell me that I’m patronising the people, no. I think that the people were sincere, and the people were strong. And this is what I still call it, an awakening.
Mehdi Hasan: The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, won elections, parliamentary and presidential. Just before we go any further, you mentioned and I want to talk about your grandfather in a moment, that your grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Tariq Ramadan: I am not.
Mehdi Hasan: Have you ever been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Tariq Ramadan: No. No. Never
Mehdi Hasan: But would it be fair to say that when the Muslim Brotherhood won those elections, you weren’t as worried, perhaps, as some people in the West, as some people in Egypt were, about the scary Brothers are going to come and take over the world and you thought actually, this could work?
Tariq Ramadan: No. I was worried. But not for the same reasons. I was not worried because I [thought] that this is a terrorist group who are going to act against, you know, freedom and, and
Mehdi Hasan: Against democracy and human rights.
Tariq Ramadan: Yes. This was not my worry. My worry was that I said it, and I wrote it, it is in the book. Don’t run for presidency, it’s a trap.
Mehdi Hasan: Surely Morsi’s presidency was a disaster when it came to issues like transparency, dealing with sectarianism, protecting minorities, protecting human rights, redressing the security forces abuses, it was an absolute disaster. Both for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Egypt.
Tariq Ramadan: One point which is essential for me, anything that they were saying about the economy, for me, was wrong. And anything that they were saying about, you know, Egypt for the Egyptian was wrong.
Mehdi Hasan: In July, in June last year, 20 leading Egyptian human rights groups wrote a letter to President Morsi, in which the accused him of trying to establish, quote, “a new authoritarian regime, in place of the Mubarak regime, of entrenching both religious and political despotism of paving the way for,” quote, “a theocracy similar to the Iranian model”. Pretty damming criticism.
Tariq Ramadan: I don’t think it’s fair with what he was trying to do. We know now how much the deep state in Egypt was working, and the army behind the whole thing…
Mehdi Hasan: He was working with the army though. President Morsi didn’t do anything about the army. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to coop the army, and use them in its own …..
Tariq Ramadan: That’s the point, No, no, no, no, no. He was not. He was not working with the army. The army was playing with him. This is another story. So the point here is the army was playing with Morsi. And he was very naive. And the Muslim Brothers were naive in the way they were in charge.
Mehdi Hasan: Yes, but this naive word you use. Sorry. This naive word you use, when you’re inciting mob violence, when you’re inciting violence against Christians, or threats against minorities…
Tariq Ramadan: I don’t, I don’t buy that.
Mehdi Hasan: … when you’re telling your supporters to go and lay siege to a constitutional court, that’s not naive.
Tariq Ramadan: No, no, no, no, no. No, I think that you are not right on fact.
Mehdi Hasan: That’s what the human rights groups are saying on the ground.
Tariq Ramadan: No, no, no, not, the human rights are. I want to know who said that, because this is also coming
Mehdi Hasan: I’ll give you an example, 20 Egyptian human rights groups said that, Amnesty International said that, Human Rights Watch said that, are they all part of a conspiracy?
Tariq Ramadan: No, let me tell you, let me tell you something. No. No. Not a conspiracy.
Mehdi Hasan: When President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, within months of becoming president, basically gave himself near dictatorial powers in November 2012, Mohammed El Baradei, one of the opposition leaders, I know you’re not a fan of his, called him Egypt’s new pharaoh. That wasn’t naive That wasn’t a mistake. That was a power grab.
Tariq Ramadan: Yeah. That was wrong. That was wrong. But I am telling you after all what happened in Egypt, in one year, to try to change the country, without taking into account the role of the other players, the seculars, that’s, that’s the only thing…
Mahdi Hasan: That’s a very valid point, That’s a very valid point. But let’s deal with the actual toppling of him, and the coup, and the millions of people who took to the street, you called them, you say, “they were unwitting participants in a media military operation of the highest order.”
Tariq Ramadan: What I’m saying is that the army was very powerful in playing the media
Mehdi Hasan: I agree. And don’t dispute that, but having said that, there were millions of Egyptians on the street, who welcomed the army, what do you say to them?
Tariq Ramadan: Completely. I’m saying that they were used by the army, even though… I’m saying…
Mehdi Hasan: Millions of people are all used. They didn’t come out there independent views, independent thoughts, they didn’t have agency of their own. They were all pawns?
Tariq Ramadan: No, no, no. They have no electricity. Every two hours no electricity. So, the people were pushed. Now if you think that the American were just observing what happened, and not supporting the army, it means that you don’t know the story of Al-Sisi.
Mehdi Hasan: Given that they were up against a deep state. Given they were up against the IMF. Given that they were up again the White House. Why then did the Muslim Brotherhood perform so badly? And how big a hit have Islamist parties taken from what happened in Egypt? It wasn’t a very good ad for Islamists being in power was it? The year Morsi was in power.
Tariq Ramadan: I think you’re right on that what is coming, or came over the last 15 years from the Islamists is very poor. The people that we have to blame, it’s coming from scholars, intellectuals, who are now falling into a trap, which is this polarisation between secularists and Islamists. Not dealing with the five main problems that we have. Corruption. The nature of the state. What does it mean, a civil state with Islamic reference? Second is the role of the army. The third is the economic system. And social justice, the role of woman. And culture and arts.
Mehdi Hasan: Yasmin Alibhai Brown is a columnist and author. He’s a founder member of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Yasmin, you’re a self described secular Muslim, liberal Muslim, were you cheering when the Muslim Brotherhood were removed from office in Egypt?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: No I don’t, I think, you know, I think the way the army acted was wrong. But I think I don’t get from you, Tariq, any sense at all, you do say, of course they made mistakes, I want more than that. I want a really clear sense from you that the Muslim Brotherhood, itself, knowingly failed and betrayed the people of Egypt.
Tariq Ramadan: They failed. And I think that I said this. Now if you want me just for the sake of pleasing you, saying everything has to be on them and to blame them. I’m sorry. I am not going to say this. Why? Because there are other factors and actors that pushed them to fail.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, you made that point. Let me bring in…
Tariq Ramadan: Just, Do you acknowledge this? Do you acknowledge the fact that the deep state didn’t let democracy work in Egypt? Say yes or no?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: No. It was both of them. Both sides
Mehdi Hasan: Okay Let’s bring in Anas Altikriti who is the chief executive of the British Muslim Group, the Cordova Foundation. His father is one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood Party in Iraq I believe. Anas do you share Tariq’s – Tariq said he has criticised the Muslim Brotherhood mistakes, human rights abuses – you would accept that Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did a pretty bad job in that 12 months, on their own. Put aside all the army abused. Put aside the deep state stuff. We acknowledge that. we can agree on that.
Anas Altikriti: Considering all the constraints and all the limitations and the timeframe that they were offered, I think that they actually did quite well. The question that I’m quite surprised you’re not asking, is now we’ve had the Muslim Brotherhood, basically imprisoned and banned, and proscribed for eight, nine months. Egypt is a hundred times more worse situation, worse situation than it was a year ago. It’s officially bankrupt. It’s on the verge of civil war, there are abuses like we never saw during the time of Mubarak.
Mehdi Hasan: 20 Egyptian human rights groups who were involved in the revolution, wrote a public letter in June last year saying what is happening now is as bad as under Mubarak, under the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s pretty shameful. The Muslim Brotherhood guys were in prison under Mubarak. They take power. And then they start carrying out human rights abuses, how does that work?
Anas Altikriti: Amnesty themselves acknowledge the fact that during the time of the issuing of that report, there was not one single political prisoner. At this moment of time we have 13,000 political prisoners. Amnesty international itself, acknowledge the fact, that during the time of Morsi, in terms of, you talked about sectarianism, there were precisely two churches that were burnt. And precisely 12 Christians that were killed. No one knows by whom…
Mehdi Hasan: There are other reports of far more attacks on Christians. On the Muslim Brotherhood Facebook were there, or were there not all sorts of incitement and threats made against Coptic Christians?
Anas Altikriti: I honestly Mehdi have never ever looked up the Facebook page for the Muslim Brotherhood. (laugh) Seriously. No, I’ll, I’ll…
Mehdi Hasan: That’s what is out there.
Anas Altikriti: But Mehdi, but Mehdi, I’ll tell you this. No. No. I’ll tell you this. At no stage in modern time Egypt, were the Christians given as many seats, like the time of Morsi.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s bring in Professor Alan Johnson, who is a writer and an author. He’s a senior fellow at BICOM, the Britain Israel Communication and Research Centre. Do you want to respond uh to what you’ve been hearing from Anas?
Alan Johnson: I think what we’re hearing tonight is people who are in denial about the scale of the defeat that Islamism suffered in 2013. It took communism 70 years to show it was an exhausted political project. It took Islamism one. Let’s register for ourselves how far they fell…
Mehdi Hasan: But do you deny the point Tariq has made, that there were also outside forces involved. That the United States government was neutral in this. That the deep state that Tariq identifies wasn’t neutral in this. The Muslim Brotherhood weren’t operating on their own were they? Surely?
Alan Johnson: I’m sure that the Egyptian army, from the moment Morsi was elected, were planning how they could regain power. That’s what that Egyptian army do. We certainly agree on that. But let’s, as we’re talking…
Tariq Ramadan: This point…
Alan Johnson: As we’re talking….
Mehdi Hasan: Isn’t that quite a crucial point if you’re evaluating…
Tariq Ramadan: That’s the main point
Alan Johnson: It’s certainly part of the picture. If we’re talking about Islamists. Remember how high the hopes were at the beginning of the year. This was going to be some sort of equivalent to Christian democracy’s role to modernise, to democratise, it was going to be a whole new historical phase in which Islamist forces, Muslim Brotherhood-led, or influenced, were going to take the region into a new world. We are so far from that now. It will never be glad morning ever again for Islamism
Mehdi Hasan: You often get very upset when people raise the issue that you’re the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Do you think that’s unfairly raised?
Tariq Ramadan: I’m proud of who he was and what he did. I don’t have a problem with this. Very often when the people are labelling me, as the grandson, they haven’t read about him. They don’t know about him. And they have this very simplistic picture, he was an Islamist, a back word against the West. I say I’m sorry, before telling me as an insult that I am the grandson of Hassan al-Banna you better read a bit about him.
Mehdi Hasan: People who have read about Hassan al-Banna say that, in addition to all the things you say about him, he also took inspiration from European fascist movements, from Hitler, from Mussolini…
Tariq Ramadan: That’s nonsense. Rubbish. He said exactly the opposite.
Mehdi Hasan: He praised the quote, “German working man Hitler”, for quote, “immense impact on world politics”. He praised the German Reich for protecting German blood in their veins…And said Muslims should do the same.
Tariq Ramadan: That’s not true. That’s not true.
Mehdi Hasan: He didn’t write that?
Tariq Ramadan: No, no, he didn’t…
Mehdi Hasan: False.
Tariq Ramadan: No, no, that’s completely the opposite.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m not pretending to be an expert on Hassan al-Banna, you are. Jessica Stern of Harvard University, who has written a great deal, several books on Islamism and extremism, she says that Al Banna was quote, “strongly influenced by revolutionary totalitarian movements, and a fascination with violence. The Brotherhood established links with Nazi Germany, had a paramilitary wing which took on fascist like slogans and practices”. Is she wrong? She’s totally wrong?
Tariq Ramadan: That, that’s completely wrong.
Mehdi Hasan: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Tariq Ramadan: This is where you have something which is propaganda. So this is clear.
Mehdi Hasan: So when he wrote in 1935, in Our Message, a pamphlet that Islam has ordained quote, “the conquest of countries…” and has, quote, “sent out conquerors to carry out the most gracious and blessed of conquests…” what was he referring to?
Tariq Ramadan: No he was talking about, you know, the expansion of Islam. So, so this is something…
Mehdi Hasan: From military conquest.
Tariq Ramadan: No. No. Not military conquest. but he was saying, we will resist the Zionist project in Israel, if you want me to tell you about the organisation and why I disagree is the way this was translated in political terms within the organisation. And this is why I think, even the Muslim Brotherhood today, haven’t evolved enough from this position.
Mehdi Hasan: Well on the Muslim Brotherhood today, just going back to our panel very briefly. Anas you mentioned the locking up of the Muslim Brotherhood. The prescription declaring them a terrorist group – Is the Muslim Brotherhood now finished in Egypt?
Anas Altikriti: Actually it’s funny you should ask that, because the only winner that comes out of this is the Muslim Brotherhood. And I’ll tell you why. Just before Morsi was toppled by a military coup, a survey showed that his popularity had fallen to below 20 percent. The military coup and the subsequent crackdown on the Egyptian people have actually pumped up the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Morsi. The military coup in a very ironic and funny way, has come and salvaged the Muslim Brotherhood, actually Morsi is quite popular.
Mehdi Hasan: Well let me bring in Alan Johnson. Tariq Ramadan says the people who bring up the Muslim Brotherhood’s past and accuse it of being extremist, of undemocratic, are engaging in propaganda. it’s always propaganda though. It’s, you can never…
Tariq Ramadan: This is not exactly what I said, right, though.
Alan Johnson: … you can never nail Tariq down. It’s always I didn’t say that. they’re propagandists don’t believe them. Look. It’s, there’s book upon book upon book about the links between Islamism and the inter-war period and European fascism.
Mehdi Hasan: And it’s a very important point this, do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood today is a fascist organisation?
Alan Johnson: No. No. But I think there’s a problem with democracy. In 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Leader said this about democracy. “it’s like a pair of slippers, you put them on when you go to the bathroom, when you get there you take them off.” This, this is not…
Mehdi Hasan: Yasmin you’re nodding. You’re nodding there, is that…?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I think that’s true, and I think what’s happened to the Muslim Brotherhood, as we know, in most Islamic countries, politics and democracy stops when somebody comes in to power.
Anas Altikriti: Which countries are ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Yasmin?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: No, no, no, I’m just saying…
Anas Altikriti: Prosecuted every single Muslim country…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: So I do agree with you that we could have waited for that.
Mehdi Hasan: Hamas is regarded as an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood…
Anas Altikriti: And Hamas is a very important point. Listen. Since 1991 when Islamic parties were allowed to be part of the democratic process, they took part fair and square. And on every single occasion they won fair and square. And on every single occasion they were then stifled, and driven to the extremes. Such as the case in Hamas. The world did wrong by Gaza when Hamas won fair and square, and then they isolated Gaza what they did, they proved to every single one who belied, who did not believe in democracy, that actually, al-Qaeda was right. That al-Qaeda are right.
Mehdi Hasan: But that didn’t just justify the Hamas mis-management of Gaza, or the human rights abuses in Gaza, did it?
Anas Altikriti: What, what human rights?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Oh come on.
Mehdi Hasan: There no human rights abuses in Gaza under Hamas?
Anas Altikriti: Hang on. hang on.
Mehdi Hasan: Has Hamas committed human rights abuses in Gaza? Yes or no.
Anas Altikriti: I’m pretty sure they have, similar to every single surrounding country to Gaza.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Well that’s an answer.
Anas Altikriti: No different.
Tariq Ramadan: I have a problem with the way you are asking questions because…
Mehdi Hasan: I’m sure you do. [LAUGHTER]
Tariq Ramadan: I do.
Mehdi Hasan: Yeah.
Tariq Ramadan: I do because, what was done to Hamas and the people of Gaza, after the election, it’s as if you chose the wrong people, now you’re going to be punished.
Mehdi Hasan: You and I can agree that what was done to Hamas was wrong. You and I can agree what was done to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by the military was wrong. But where you and I seem to differ is you don’t seem to think that Hamas in Gaza, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, did that much wrong
Tariq Ramadan: I said there were not only mistakes but there are things that were completely wrong in the way they managed the country…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Unacceptable. Unacceptable. They were unacceptable.
Tariq Ramadan: It depends what you are talking about. It depends what you are talking about.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay.
Tariq Ramadan: Anyway. Anything which has to do with human rights, if this is there, it’s unacceptable and I agree.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Thank you.
Tariq Ramadan: Coming from whoever. There is no discussion about that.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Thank you. That’s all I wanted.
Tariq Ramadan: The point is that the way you ask the question is as if because they are things that were done wrong… it means that we are taking them accountable and you forget the whole picture.
Mehdi Hasan: This is my problem with the word mistakes. Shouldn’t you hold these groups to higher standards, if they claim to be following God, and Islam and the word of God, etc etc? Shouldn’t they be held to higher standards?
Tariq Ramadan: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: And do you think they’ve met those standards?
Tariq Ramadan: No.
Mehdi Hasan: No. So isn’t that a real problem?
Tariq Ramadan: Are they clear answers?
Mehdi Hasan: They are clear answers. Because it’s the first time you’ve said no without saying, but about the deep state, what about Israel, what about this.
Tariq Ramadan: No. I’m just…
Mehdi Hasan: This is my point, just judge them on their own actions is what I’m asking. If there were no external actors, if there was no America intervening, if there was no IMF demanding austerity in return for loans. If there was no Israeli occupation of Gaza and…
Tariq Ramadan: So there is lots of if here, yeah…
Mehdi Hasan: Yes. It’s important. It’s important on a conceptual level.
Tariq Ramadan: Okay
Mehdi Hasan: You’re an academic. On a conceptual level, here is the question. Do you think then that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Hamas in Gaza, or any of these other Islamist groups in power would have done a good job? They would have been fine? Had it not been for, had these factors not been there, that you constantly say.
Tariq Ramadan: I, I think they would have done better. But I can’t judge the people after one year the way it was in Egypt.
Mehdi Hasan: On that specific note, we have to take a break. In part two, we’ll be talking to Professor Tariq Ramadan, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on Islam and the West, on whether there is a clash between Islam and the West. We’ll also be hearing from our very patient audience here in the Oxford Union. Join us after the break.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Head to Head on Al Jazeera, we’re talking about Islam, Islamism, political Islam, with Professor Tariq Ramadan, one of the world’s leading Muslim thinkers, a professor here at Oxford University.
Tariq is the region of Islam in need of a reformation in the same way that European Christians underwent a few hundred years ago?
Tariq Ramadan: No. I think that this is a wrong comparison. In historical terms, in theological terms, I would say what I’m advocating is not to reform Islam. Islam doesn’t need a reform. What I’m advocating is to reform the Muslim minds. Meaning that the problem is not in the texts, the problem is not the Quran, the Quran for the Muslims is the eternal revelation. It’s done in prophetic traditions. The problem that we have is with the readers. Is the way we interpret the text sometimes, and we are not able to understand things into the historical context, and in our specific environment. So reforming the Muslim minds, yes. Reforming Islam, no way.
Mehdi Hasan: How big a problem do you think it is in 2014, for practicing believing pious Muslims, whatever you want to call them, to integrate into modern European societies. Into the European mainstream, in the UK, in France, in Germany?
Tariq Ramadan: I don’t think that the word integration is the right word. You know, I was born and raised in Switzerland. I’m a European by culture. And people keep on repeating, when are you going to be integrated? I say, I’m sorry the problem is that your mind is not integrating me, I’m already here, at home. So we are at home. The success of integration is to stop talking about integration. So we are in the past integration process, and we are dealing with people who don’t want in fact to acknowledge the fact that Britain, that Germany, that France, that the States are pluralistic societies where Muslim citizens are part of the future of the country.
Mehdi Hasan: Is there no clash at all between so-called liberal secular enlightenment values of Europe, and on the other hand Islamic values, Islamic principles, core Islamic beliefs. There’s no tension?
Tariq Ramadan: No there is no tension. There are tensions between dogmatic minds. So you have dogmatic secularists, they look at secularism as a new religion, they are transforming the legal system in need to a new religion. And they are telling you this is the only way to be free is to be free the way we are.
Mehdi Hasan: There are genuine clashes going on, on the ground between people who are not far right wing xenophobes…
Tariq Ramadan: Such as what?
Mehdi Hasan: So for example many, quote unquote, ‘liberals,’ who are not racists, are not anti-Muslim, but did have a problem over some Muslims reactions to the Danish cartoons, to the movie about the prophet. There were lots of protests about that. that was a issue of free speech.
Tariq Ramadan: That’s right. Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: There was a question about ‘can Muslims handle the kind of free speech we see in Europe nowadays?’
Tariq Ramadan: This is why I was saying there are clashes between dogmatic minds. Meaning secular, dogmatic secularists, but also literalists, and sometimes dogmatic Muslims, not understanding the environment.
Mehdi Hasan: Where do you stand on that issue?
Tariq Ramadan: I stand in the middle.
Mehdi Hasan: So…
Tariq Ramadan: In the middle…
Mehdi Hasan: So what does that mean in practical terms? Would you [have suggested a ban] on the Danish cartoons?
Tariq Ramadan: In practical terms, I was exactly at the time the cartoon crisis started in Denmark. And I was saying to the Muslims look, don’t react to this. Take an intellectual critical distance. Tell them we don’t like it, and leave it. you don’t have to apologise for being Muslims. Now you have to understand two things. First you live in a country and it’s not only important to be a citizen. You need to get two things that are important. You are talking about the standards. Ethics of citizenship. Knowing that you don’t only have rights, you have duties. And the duties is your contribution. And the second thing is the sense of belonging. And the sense of belonging is the three Ls that I’m talking. Know abide the by the LAW of the country, know the LANGUAGE of the country and be LOYAL to the country.
Mehdi Hasan: But you can abide by the law and also call for it to be changed. Gender segregation in the form of separate seating for male and female students at public events, in particular Islamic society, become very controversial in this country. Where do you stand on that?
Tariq Ramadan: My position on this, from an Islamic perspective, is that nothing is imposing into the Muslims to separate in public venue, when this is what I said 20 years ago, 25 years ago, 30 years ago I was saying this to the Muslims. Go ahead, there is no problem. I think that this is not the business of the government.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s talk Sharia law. big subject in the West. Sitting in that very seat not very long ago, your fellow Oxford academic, atheist in chief, Professor Richard Dawkins told me that Sharia law was a threat to human rights, because among other things, one of the things he cited, was that under Islamic Sharia law, if you try and convert away from Islam to convert to Christianity or Judaism or atheism, the punishment is death.
Tariq Ramadan: Yes, the problem with Dawkins is he has to learn much more about religions in Islam. He is as knowledgeable in science that he’s ignorant in religions. All that what he’s saying about Sharia is coming from media articles. It’s not coming from an in-depth study.
Mehdi Hasan: They’re all Muslim majority countries that have the death penalty of Apostasy on their statute books are there not?
Tariq Ramadan: Yes. But this is what, once again, if you take one interpretation and you can do whatever with Christianity, Judaism and any, even Buddhism, you can just have very dogmatic views. You have to take the whole picture and to study. For me, Sharia is not a set of law, Sharia is a way. It’s the way towards faithfulness and principles and it has to do with dignity and justice and freedom. But I understand that in our societies, in the West, the word is used in a way, and sometimes, you know literalists, are using it in a very…
Mehdi Hasan: Muslims.
Tariq Ramadan: … Yes. Exactly. And this is where we need to have an internal debate.
Mehdi Hasan: And another capital punishment under quote unquote Sharia law, is often the punishment for adultery, that if people cheat on their partners in some Islamic countries, the penalty is stoning. And you got into a very heated argument, back in, I think 2003 when Nicholas Sarkozy, who later went on to become president of France, in which he demanded you condemn it and say it was wrong. And you would only say that you support a moratorium to stoning of women, in particular, in the Muslim majority world. A lot of people said that was a cop out by you, why didn’t you come out and say no it’s wrong, in the same that you said apostasy, death penalty is wrong, it’s also wrong for adultery?
Tariq Ramadan: There are texts in the Quran talking about corporal punishment and death penalty. And there are texts in the prophetic traditions talking about stoning. My position on this: What do the texts say? What are the conditions in which social and political context? And we need to have an internal debate.
Mehdi Hasan: While you’re having the debate, why not state your position, which is?
Tariq Ramadan: I am against this.
Mehdi Hasan: Because it, why? Because it’s wrong? Or because it’s outdated? Or because…? What’s the actual reason?
Tariq Ramadan: Because all the conditions and the understanding, the very essence of the texts and the objectives is not respected if we implement this. I’m not saying this to please Sarkozy or to please a Western audience, I’m saying it in the name of Islam.
Mehdi Hasan: Alan Johnson is a journalist. You wrote an article recently, in which you accused Tariq Ramadan of being a coward for only calling for a moratorium on this issue. He says he’s trying to win a debate within the Muslim community, you’re saying he’s a coward
Alan Johnson: Yes. I mean I…
Tariq Ramadan: Thank you by the way. That’s, that’s great. [LAUGHS]
Alan Johnson: Yeah, I think it was cowardly. I don’t think when women are being stoned, I think it’s up to democrats to take a firm position and take a stand, and stand up for those women who are being stoned. Muslims are integrating, there’s a silent revolution going on you’re not offering those people who are trying to make that silent revolution, anything useful.
Tariq Ramadan: My position on this is from within the universe of reference as Muslims to move on and it’s not going to please you but you need to understand that Muslims will get to the point where they understand the the position…
Alan Johnson: Why don’t you lead it. why don’t you lead and make the case?
Tariq Ramadan: Let me, let me, let me. I’m not…
Alan Johnson: You’ve got a lot of moral authority, you could lead the debate.
Tariq Ramadan: It’s not for you to tell me if I lead or not, I’m just trying to share views with my fellow Muslims. When in the States, in 2000, look at this. I said if I was an American I would be against death penalty in this society. I got Muslim leaders coming to me saying how can you say this because this is Islamic. You know what the Fiqh Council now is saying, we are for a technical moratorium on death penalty in the States. Why don’t you criticise Amnesty International, saying in the States we are for moratorium on death penalty? Why? Are they cowards?
Mehdi Hasan: Okay let him answer briefly, and then let Alan come back in. Very briefly Alan.
Alan Johnson: So you say it’s not an issue in the UK of stoning. Absolutely right. But many things that are issues, let’s take for instance, you write a forward to a book of Fatwas by Qaradawi, Qaradawi stands for, ‘it’s ok to beat your wife, as long as you don’t leave a wound’.
Tariq Ramadan: On many issues, I take, I took position against Qaradawi, position. this is written, and I said it, and I said it to him, and him publicly he was against my position. Now, let me tell you something. That for anyone who is living in the West, use of Qaradawi, with his contribution made this Muslims in the West understand better their religion, and their relationship to the West. I’m not supporting all his views, but I would never let anybody say that all what he did after 50 years working in the Islamic field, that he’s the one who is a dogmatic mind.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Yasmin Alibhai Brown, journalist, author, founder member of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Yasmin, a lot of people, Muslim and non Muslim say Tariq is part of the solution, Tariq is helping Muslims modernise, reform etc…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: And he is.
Mehdi Hasan: and others like Alan say he’s part of the problem…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: No.
Mehdi Hasan: … he’s not part of the… Where do you stand?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I admire a lot of what Tariq has done. And some of what you said was persuasive. But I do want to hear from you that there is no moratorium on, on stoning. It is wrong. And it should never happen. I want to hear a direct sentence like that.
Mehdi Hasan: Go on then answer the question. Can you give her that sentence?
Tariq Ramadan: No I’m not going to give this sentence… What is wrong is the dogmatic way you are, you put the questions. It’s this dogmatic way. No debates. Just condemn.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Do you. Stoning anybody is wrong
Tariq Ramadan: Let me tell you something. Between you and me, as if there is nobody here. (LAUGHS). Even stoning is problematic, relying on the scriptural sources. if you think by saying I condemn and that’s it, without coming to the scriptural sources, starting a discussion about the reasons, the context, history, this is the way you change mindsets.
Mehdi Hasan: Anas Altikriti you work in British Muslim communities, you’ve worked across the Middle Eeast. you would accept that there is a real tension, surely, is there not over issues like corporal punishment, over issues like free speech, and the rest, women’s rights?
Anas Altikriti: Within the Muslim community, not only through throughout society, but in the Muslim community, of course there is. There’s that kind of intellectual debate that we need to have. And we need to open the doors for. But what I find extremely unhelpful is the demand of Muslims to condemn their scripture, their religion. We don’t go around demanding of Christians to condemn the bible. We don’t go around demanding of Jews to condemn the Torah simply because there is something there, if taken out of context, it doesn’t fit with my tastes and preferences in 2014.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: It is simple to me. Killing a person and stoning a person is wrong.
Anas Altikriti: Well is there a scale whereby we say that injecting someone in Texas and leaving them to writhe…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: ..It’s wrong.
Anas Altikriti: … Well are you demanding of the American government to say that it’s wrong…
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Yes I have joined lots of protests…
Anas Altikriti: Do you have that kind of, do you have that kind of debate?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Of course we do. Of course we do. That’s silly.
Anas Altikriti: … I think what Tariq Ramadan, and I think that that is something we should take stock of. There is an internal debate. If we shut down the public debate, that internal debate will stop. Simply because, what’ll happen is the people will start pointing to Tariq Ramadan and accusing him of being a sellout. We can’t have that. There are certain issues with British society which is my society, my kid’s society…By the way, which I totally disagree with. But I allow there to be a debate a social debate over time, so that we come to a particular point whereby smoking is not allowed in public places, whereby alcohol is not sold after a particular hour. And so on and so forth. We need time. We need to allow for that debate to take place. We need to give it oxygen. We mustn’t be hypocritical about this. We must understand more. We must know what we’re talking about.
Mehdi Hasan: You’ve all been very patient, you’ve listened to us discuss Islamism, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islam in Europe, Sharia law, stoning etc… free speech. Let’s go to the lady in the third row with glasses on your head to my left.
Audience participant 1: Hi, you discuses in your writing the necessity of shifting authority within the Islamic world today. Where do you think the authority should lie? And what are the necessary qualifications of authority?
Tariq Ramadan: If we look at what is happening in the West, today, we have sciences, but there is a lack of ethics. And you can’t just ask the Muslim scholars to come with the Quran and the Sunnah and to give us the final word in sciences. They have to rely on other scholars, and this is why I don’t call them specialists. I call them “Ulemah Al waqi wal siagh” meaning these are people who know about science, medicine. And in medicine, Muslims did very well. They are sitting together and they are coming with legal opinion, they rely on the knowledge of the medical doctors. I want us to do the same when it comes to when it comes to food, when it comes to everything which has to do with experimental sciences, and also human sciences. And I think that there is a problem of authority. There is an authority crisis within the Muslim majority countries, and the Muslim world.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s take one more question, gentleman there in the tie,
Audience participant 2: Actually I have a unique question about what’s the dealing, and do you think that the West are dealing with the Egyptian incident different with what happened in Ukraine And what’s the reason for this?
Tariq Ramadan: I think it’s quite obvious that the West is dealing with or have been dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood and what happened in Egypt in a way which was not fair for the people, the civilians who were killed. Islamists are perceived as a danger, a threat, the question is not to know if Muslims are ready for democracy, it, the true question is is the West ready for Muslims to experience democracy?
Mehdi Hasan: Gentleman here.
Audience participant 3: Yeah I’ve just arrived from Egypt and one question I’d like to ask you, which I know many Egyptians would like to know is how do you compare the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in your grandfather’s time, with the leadership today? Do you think that the supreme guide, now in prison, does he have, does he have the same kind of management and leadership uh style, as your grandfather? Or, or did the Muslim Brotherhood somehow lose the plot, or or deviate from your grandfather’s thinking at some point?
Tariq Ramadan: He was clearly a charismatic leader, was full of religious knowledge, and he was a religious reference. He had a vision, and he was very pragmatic. So this is one thing. Now he had lots of power within the organisation, very old people were running the Muslim Brotherhood, the counsel was made of people that we can question the competence when it comes to the political understanding and the political decisions. So I would say that some of the young people within the Muslim Brotherhood were challenging this authority, by saying you are out of touch.
Mehdi Hasan: You said at the start, you don’t believe they’re a terrorist group, or a violent organisation, Some of them, do you think that’s become a self fulfilling prophecy?
Tariq Ramadan: No, I think that they are pushed to become regularised, which by the way, it’s exactly what Nasser did in the ’50s. That today, more than thirty thousand people are in jail, there is torture, people are killed, and this is just unacceptable. Anyone in the West who is supporting democracy, should be clear that this has to be condemned and we cannot support anything which has to do with Al-Sisi a dictator, and is as bad as Mubarak. That’s full point. No discussion.
Mehdi Hasan: And yet he has amazing high approval ratings from Egyptians. That’s a problem.
Tariq Ramadan: Oh he will get 99 percent, or 98 percent, because they love him. It’s a democratic election. You buy that?
Mehdi Hasan: No, I don’t, I’m not talking about free for elections, I’m talking about the fact that he is a clearly a popular figure in Egypt. You wouldn’t deny that?
Tariq Ramadan: No I think that’s the problem, that’s true.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Let’s go to the audience here, gentleman there with his hand up.
Audience participant 4: A lot of the criticisms you have of the Brotherhood appear to be tactical, appear to be strategic, appear to be organisational, appear to be structural, intergenerational, what do you disagree with them in terms of objectives and goals? Where do you lie with, ok their board vision and goal? And what are your specific clear cut disagreements with them in that regard?
Tariq Ramadan: The vision of the state, and the discussion about the state, what is the civil state with Islamic reference? I have a problem with this. The economy choice, which type of economy, I think that the problem that I have is that what I understood, from the very beginning, of what was the vision of political Islam, was something which was close to liberation theology, is not there. At all..
The second, the third thing has to do with the social issues, and the way we are dealing with women and education. I’m not talking about religious education. I’m talking about state education for all. Where is this? I don’t get that.
Mehdi Hasan: We’ve had lots of questions from Muslims. Are there non-Muslims who want to ask a question. Gentlemen…
Audience participant 5: A Sudanese legal scholar, and human rights expert here once said that the safest place for a religious person, and he included Muslims in that, is a secular state. Do you agree with that claim?
Tariq Ramadan: It depends, the type of secular state you have. Why? Why? Because China and Russia were secular states where being a religious man or woman was for you to face discrimination. So don’t idealize a secular state. If I had some of the French people in charge, as secularists, I would go and get out of France. Because the way they deal with secularists is just a new dogmatic religion.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, ok,
Tariq Ramadan: So if by this you mean, a secular state where all the religions are treated equally and they treated by law, what I am expecting from Britain, what I’m expecting from France, is to apply the secular system, one hundred percent equal rights for all. If this is what you mean. Yes.
Mahdi Hasan: Okay …. Lady there with the scarf.
Audience participant 6: Considering we’re yet to have an example of secularism and democracy working in the MENA region, and more examples of actually Islam and democracy working, such as Tunisia, which is often forgotten. We’ve got one of the first democratic constitutions in MENA. Is the premise of this whole show completely kind of invalid considering it’s actually the secularists that are yet to prove themselves in our region?
Tariq Ramadan: Secularists in the Middle East has nothing to do with secularists in the West. While we are talking here about a democratic process, all the secularists in the Middle Eeast, were dictators, and even in Turkey, the people who are acknowledging and promoting secularism, were people who were supporting the army and the army was against democracy.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay let’s take a question from the back of the hall, the lady there with the glasses.
Audience participant 7: Hi, you mentioned that there was a crisis of authority and I think that you continually argue for contextualisation, but don’t you think an argument for a contextualisation and then mentioning that there’s a crisis of authority, will lead us to descend into volatilise and how will you then address a crisis of authority if you’re being so relativistic?
Tariq Ramadan: Uh that’s, that’s a very good question. And this is where we need this internal debate. Because I’m not going to say because I live in Britain, that’s fine to drink alcohol and to go to pubs just to be within the culture. No. This is not going to happen in my discourse. Now, what I’m saying is that we live in societies where you need to get a better understanding of the history, collective psychology, and the culture. Even in, in Islamic terms, the term that you have to deal with the environment is in “Al-Maaroof” known by the people as being good, let us go for that.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me finish by asking you this question. You’re someone who has written a lot about bridging the so called gap between Muslims and the West. You’re saying there is no gap, Muslims are here. Take us seriously. Is there one thing you would say that Islam has to offer to Europe, that Europe doesn’t have on its own, that Islam can give to Europe?
Tariq Ramadan: Three things.
Mehdi Hasan: Oh three ok.
Professor Tariq Ramadan: Yeah. The first one is in fact by our very presence, to help the West to reconcile itself with it’s very values. And I’m always saying this to Muslims, help your country to reconcile itself with the values of pluralism, equality, and to act against racist, and this patronising perception that, yes, you are British but not yet as us. So we are going to change that. and this is our first contribution.
The second one is the spiritual side, very meaning of life, the way they see us practicing, questioning, giving some meaning to our life. This is a good contribution. Life is not about being economically or socially successful. It is to get this meaning. So the spiritual dimension.
And the third one, is to bring ethics into the discussion, that you can say there are things that you cannot do to nature, to your neighbour, and I want this to bring this, it doesn’t mean that we have the monopoly. But our presence is a good reminder. So, I am done with any discourse about integration. I’m opening the door for contribution, and these are three things that are important.
Mehdi Hasan: Well on that positive note. Professor Tariq Ramadan, thank you very much for joining us tonight on Head to Head.
Tariq Ramadan: Thank you, thank you for inviting me.
Mehdi Hasan: Thank you very much to our panel, for their contribution. Thank you very much to the audience here in the Oxford Union, and to the audience at home for watching. Head to Head will be back on Al Jazeera next week. Good night.