So, I was feeling kind of lazy. You know that feeling when there's just so much you feel like you should be doing, you freeze up and don't do anything at all for a bit? Yeah, that was me earlier this week. Not even reading was working for me- I seriously resorted to watching back episodes of Gilmore Girls and smirking at Top Chef, people. It was getting dire. Then I remembered I had this little tiny book by Tariq Ramadan to read- entitled, blessedly simply, What I Believe
, and that it was due to the library by the end of the week. I positively leaped onto it as my way back to the world of the active and properly enraged against the dying of the light. I'd been meaning to read one of Ramadan's works for awhile- he keeps being referenced in other works I read.
For those not familiar, Ramadan is a Swiss citizen who just so happens to be the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (trigger!), who spent a good part of his early life as a teacher (his dissertation was on Neitzsche) and a school dean, working on solidarity movements in the Third World as well as Europe. When Islamic terrorism became the world's new Big Bad, Ramadan decided that this was the next big challenge of the world and took 20 months off and moved his family to Egypt to complete an intensive (like 5 am-11 pm intensive) course in Islamic studies so that he could be qualified to be involved in the conversation. He has since tried to, in his words: "stand up for my religion, explain it, and above all, show that we have so much in common with Judaism and Christianity but also with the values advocated by countless humanists, atheists and agnostics."
He's been banned from both conservative Muslim countries and the US (Bush administration revoked his visa in 2004, nine days before he was due to move to Indiana to take up a professorship at Notre Dame, we just allowed him to come back to the country this year). He continually gets called "controversial" by people who says he employs "doublespeak" (ie, saying one thing to Muslim audiences and another to Western audiences), neither fully Western nor "only" a Muslim. He says he is Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, European by culture, universalist by principle and Moroccan and Mauritanian by adoption.
In other words- he's exactly the sort of guy I can root for. Which was going to make it even easier to get into this book. And
he was going to make it super easy for me as a reviewer. His simple title gave way to a similarly straightforward introduction that told me exactly what he wanted this book to be.: "This book is a work of clarification, a deliberately accessible presentation of the basic ideas I have been defending for more than twenty years. It is intended for those who have little time to spare: ordinary citizens, politicians, journalists... Rather than entering my name in a web search (and coming up with the million links that mainly report what others have written about me) or being content with the so-called free virtual encyclopedias that are in fact so biased (like Wikipedia, where the factual errors and partisan readings are astounding), I give readers this opportunity to read me in the original and simply get direct access to my thought... Being an introductory work, it may not suffice to convey the complexity of a thought (which may moreover have evolved and gained in density in the course of time) but it will at least, I hope, help start an open, thorough, critical debate. This is greatly needed."
Fair enough, dude. No arguments here. Seems reasonable enough, definitely not "controversial." The sort of platitude that I think everyone has to at least pretend to agree with even if they don't like you personally. Just trying to ease people into what can be, as you say yourself, a very emotional, irrational topic that scares everyone on all sides. Fools rush in, and all that.
Here's my problem with this book: The entire thing is a platitude that everyone can agree with. It's the Little Platitude that Could- unrelenting, endless, monotononous and boring. Honestly, the book could just have easily been titled: "Why I Am Not A Terrorist Nor A Subversive Secret Imperial Agent Come For Your Souls! (... but I will take your abuse for the cause!)" (Okay, maybe it wouldn't have been just as easy to title it that.)
Look, I get it. Ramadan has been under pretty ridiculous attack for a good long time, from many very different people. I'm sure that gets wearing- so much so that you write a whole book just to get people to leave you alone. But Good Lord- for someone who has a lot of attention paid to him, you sure say some pretty useless things. Ramadan takes on pretty much the whole gamut of "Islamic" related issues that people care about in Western public discourse and clarifies what he thinks about all of them- communalism, multiculturalism, identity crisis (and multiple identities), different types of Muslims, dialogue between faiths, women's rights and the veil, extremism. I'd go through it all, but every single issue says the same thing in the end.:
Islam has a lot in common with other religions. Islam has different interpretations- we're not all terrorists. Western Muslims can be citizens of democracies and Muslims at the same time- there's nothing contradictory in that. Muslims are people too- and we're not just Muslims. Sometimes people make different choices than you and you have to respect that. The West is having its own identity crisis and projects ridiculous things on Muslim populations out of fear. Let's all communicate better, understand each other better, and let's make sure there's some room for communities to come together just as people rather than as "Muslim" or "Christian" or "immigrant' or "native" dialogue. Then let's build a campfire and sing kumbaya!
... yeah. He pretty much just repeats that for 120 pages.I fell asleep like four times reading this. I can only listen to the man piously repeat the same crap about us all loving each other for who we are and seeing beyond our differences to how much we have in common and coming together as a community beyond our divisions (but still celebrating diversity!) without any practical suggestions for so long. Who doesn't know this already? And when it comes with his very high opinion of himself, casting himself in the right in every situation, and some pretty dodgy writing to boot, my interest continues to decline. And he doesn't even really engage with the criticisms of his work that much- mostly just to say, here's the criticism (presented in a way as to make it seem bad), and here's two sentences about how I really feel- moving on. I found it deeply frustrating.
One caveat on this verdict: I did like one section very much. There's a part in the book where he talks about policies of "integration" directed towards "immigrant populations". He points out the very true fact that many of these "immigrants" are now fifth generation citizens of their countries and have never been to their "country of origin", have nothing much to do with it, and yet are still being demanded to "integrate." One of my favorite parts expressed something along the lines of: This is "Western now". These people live here. They are part of the story- they are not "foreign". This is French now, German now, etc. You have to make room for this. "Integration" is an ignorant, irrelevant, and offensive word. I really liked the idea of "post integration"- ie, that it is time to move on and solve other problems. "Islamizing" social issues is a cop out that will do nothing. Just because the majority of the population who is affected by an issue is Islamic does not mean that it is a Muslim problem- it probably means that it is a poor immigrant problem. Class issues are still around, guys. That part was a good rant.
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