The issue of Islam’s relationship to democracy will be one of the principal themes of an important debate this week at Oxford University. Two of western Islam’s leading thinkers – Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan – will debate two of the basic questions being asked ever more insistently about Islam:
The first is whether Muslims can prosper and live harmoniously in the west. This is a question not of Islamic reform but of how robust democratic processes of inclusion are. The second is whether Islamic values are compatible with the Enlightenment idea of universal reason being beyond culture, religion or history [and whether] a liberal Islam compatible with secular democracy is possible….
Tariq Ramadan has emerged as a controversial interlocutor in these debates. Some observers characterize him as an advocate of pluralism and the reconcilability of Islam and Western values. Others suggest he harbors latent authoritarian views and sympathies for radical Islamism.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Carlin Romano, has a balanced assessment of the debate here, citing Ramadan’s defenders and detractors.
“Ramadan, conscious that any criticism of the classical tradition risks undermining his credibility and reformist agenda among large sectors of Muslims, … tries to walk down the middle,” writes Georgetown University’s John Esposito. He argues that Ramadan “finds ‘space’ for reform by maintaining that the Koran permits everything except what is explicitly forbidden by a revealed text or the consensus of religious experts.”
But a recently-published critique of Ramadan accuses him of double-speak, support for the anti-Semitic and radical Islamist Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and of ambivalence towards such practices as suicide bombing and the stoning of adulteresses.
“Ramadan’s chief idea is to construct an Islamic counterculture within the West—a counterculture that, instead of withdrawing behind ghetto walls, will take its place within the larger, modern, non-Muslim society,” writes Paul Berman. “He wants a share of the public space. … Or more than wants: he demands a share of the public space.”
As one reviewer notes, one of the most powerful sections of Berman’s book is his “roll call of those dissidents—both Islamic and non—who have been threatened with death and may have to live with 24/7 security for the rest of their lives because of these threats.”