You want my reaction? You get my silence.

A conversation with Tariq Ramadan about freedom of speech, the legacy of the Arab Spring, and Western misconceptions about Islam. Interview by Lars Mensel and Clemens Lukitsch.

The European: The recent movie depicting the prophet Muhammed caused a diplomatic crisis, as Muslims in many countries took to the streets in protest. Do you consider these protests to be damaging the progress of the Arab awakening?
Ramadan: I don’t think we should take the emotional reactions of a few people as more representative than those of the millions of people who took to the street in a non-violent way against dictators.

The European: Is the Western media blowing up these events, maybe to fulfill a demand for pictures like this? If there were only a few people on the streets, the coverage seems out of proportion.
Ramadan: True, the media is putting a lot of emphasis on the few people that are destroying, while it won’t report on the silent majority of people who are constructing, building and trying to find their way. I think what we are seeing is a vicious circle: by covering the controversies and the conflicting realities, it creates a much distorted perception of Islam and Muslims. When a minority is being taken as a majority, it creates a wrong image.

The European: What’s the view on that from the Muslim perspective.
Ramadan: It is important that the Muslim leaders, scholars, and intellectuals are much more vocal and explain what Islam is. I wrote a call to the contemporary Muslim conscience, saying to the ordinary people that we might not like the video or the cartoons, but that violence certainly isn’t the right answer. I don’t think laws are going to solve the problem.

The European: Instead, the debate on free speech regularly arises. How much should religion be able to bear?
Ramadan: The right to speak out and to say what you want to say must be protected. This is why I am saying we don’t need more laws. 51% of the French people – who are not very religious – were thinking that what “Charlie Hebdo” did was unwise. They aren’t asking for a law to prevent Charlie Hebdo from publishing caricatures, but they are calling on its editors to be a bit more sensible. This is such an obvious way of approaching the issue. Once again and especially when I am talking to people from Germany, we should know that there are certain things and certain histories that are very important for people. If you look at all the Muslims living in the West, they didn’t react in a violent way. They don’t like what they saw but they are citizens like you and me and they look at it and say: “This is a silly video but we are not going to react.”

The European: Does that approach work in Muslim countries?
Ramadan: I am saying the same to Muslims in the global South, telling them: “Just ignore what is done.” However, in the Southern countries they are not living in a comfortable society like you and me. They deal with unemployment, corruption, and surviving. For the majority of them, their religion is helping them survive. When they see people ridiculing what they believe in, we can understand – without justifying it – that they can be very emotional. That is why we have to tell them “Don’t be emotional and just take a critical distance.” Just take Germany and the suffering of Jews during and after the Second World War. It would be legal to ridicule and to laugh at this suffering, but since it was such a trauma on the European conscience, no one is going to do it. It is an open scar, an open wound, an open reality. The collective psychology is something very close to being sacred – we can do it but we don’t do it. We should understand that the Holocaust in the European conscience is reaching a point which is very close to what is sacred for people in the Southern countries, whether they are Muslims or not. Because of that we need to try to have intellectual empathy.

The European: But is ignoring a good way of solving problems?
Ramadan: I keep on repeating something told to me by an American psychologist: “When you are making a joke about someone and you are the only one to laugh, it is not a joke. It is a joke only for yourself.“ If people are making a joke they have the right to laugh at me but I will ignore them. Ignoring doesn’t mean that you don’t understand. You understand it so much that you don’t want to react. You understand that the people doing this want to provoke your reaction. Ignoring means doing what you want. You want my reaction? You get my silence.

The European: Perhaps the Muhammed-video is a bad example because everyone agrees on its amateurish and inflammatory nature. Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” were on a much higher intellectual level of criticism…
Ramadan: I am talking about anything that is a provocation – ignore it. When something falls under freedom of expression, you can read it and take a critical distance. I opposed the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I read the book and took a critical distance. I did not think The Satanic Verses is a blasphemous book. I did not consider the book as being a great read, but as an intellectual I read, I assess, and I respond. I make a difference between true freedom of expression to which we owe a response and provocation, which we ignore.

The European: The lines are very much blurred between those two.
Ramadan: Life is not black and white when it comes to perception.

The European: In your newest book, you talk about the different forces competing in the Arab countries. Who are the most dominant forces struggling for power?
Ramadan: We have to be very cautious not to accept the scam of polarization we see in the media. It is not in fact between secularists and Islamists, it is a battle within the Islamic reference.

The European: In Egypt, some young people were disappointed by the dictator being replaced with a fundamentalist.
Ramadan: Egypt, as much as Tunisia, is very scattered. The young people who mobilized against the dictator succeeded in getting all people behind them for the main task of opposing Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Gaddafi. One thing is to gather the people against the dictator and one thing is to come up with a vision for the future. Since this vision is not yet there, I don’t speak about revolutions but about uprisings. It is very important for us not to think that the secularists are the only representatives or the Islamists the only representatives. It is very divided, very scattered, and you can’t say that the youth were a majority because they managed to get all these people against the dictator. There is a clear consensus within all these societies that they were against the dictators. What they want for the future remains to be seen.

The European: The West struggled to come to terms with the new political situation in these countries: the successes of Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood at the ballots were somewhat frowned upon.
Ramadan: We need to realize that all the people in the streets were cherishing the same values that you and I have. They were for justice, against the dictators, against corruption. Now you have political trends and some have credentials because they had been oppressed and tortured for years, among them the Islamists. No one can deny that some Islamist groups have credential and popularity. But that does not mean they are a majority. If we are serious about democracy we cannot blame the people for choosing what they want. We must promote the kinds of procedures and processes that are helping the people move ahead. From what I can tell, the situation in Tunisia is going to stabilize. Egypt, however, is very unsettled. If you are serious about democracy, you and me should not decide the leaders of those countries, but protect the structural system helping the people to choose who they want.

The European: There has been much concern about the treatment of Christians in post-Mubarak Egypt. How should Islam deal with Christianity and with the secularism?
Ramadan: For me, equal citizenship for Muslims, Christians, Jews, Atheists and Agnostics is an indisputable principle. Whoever you are, you should get the same rights with no discussion and no compromise. Christian were discriminated against before the revolution and they still are in some areas when it comes to the job market. This has to be reformed. But it has nothing to do with the uprisings. It has to do with something which is very deep in history and the history of Egypt.

The European: Was the West too naïve? During the uprisings, we sensed a collective relief: finally, Western democracy would come and make all wrongs right.
Ramadan: I wouldn’t call it naïve but silly. History does not work like this. If you look at the dynamics of Eastern Europe or even Germany post reunification, you realize that change takes time. No one can deny the fact that we are still not there – I am advocating something which has to go from uprisings to revolutions. It is not coming straight away that it is not going to come but what we have to advocate is that the democratization process is always better than state dictatorship. Now we should say to the West: “You have been supporting dictators for too many years. Don’t expect the people to introduce democracy over night. It is going to take time.” It took time with the French revolution, it took time with the Eastern European revolutions. And it is going to take time there.

The European: Which means waiting it out.
Ramadan: What you need to do is protect the structures and dynamics that are helping the people choose. The only thing that we can do is to respect the will of the people when it comes to majority processes. It is not for us to impose a model, it is not for us to impose answers to some critical questions. So the West hasn’t been naïve, it has been patronizing the South by imposing its own views on what should be done – ironically after having been so close and so supportive of dictators who were not respecting the people.

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