BRUSSELS, March 30, 2006 -- Speaking at a two-day conference on the future of Islam in Europe, Tariq Ramadan argued that Europe is in trouble unless it learns to accept and treat its Muslims as equal citizens.
The highlight of the Brussels conference was a debate between Ramadan and the leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Speaking to journalists before the debate, Ramadan said he believes the watershed event for Europe’s Muslims is the recent row over the cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad -- and not the rise of Islamic terrorism.
"[In] the long run if you don’t know how to deal with something like that it could have more damaging consequences than the 11 September [2001 attacks]," he said. "Why? Because with what we had in the [United] States we had something that was something clear. These are extremists; we are dealing with people who are not accepted by the great majority of the Muslims, they are on the margin of the margin -- [Osama] bin Laden and the others. Even the people who did what happened on July 7  in Britain, they were on the margin of even the community. They were not meeting in mosques. They were meeting in gyms and places like that, outside the reality of the Muslim community."
Ramadan says the publication of the cartoons points to a fundamental problem with values that all European citizens should share.
He insists that Europe’s estimated 15 million to 20 million Muslims are not, as he puts it, "Muslims in Europe" but "European Muslims." They are European citizens first and Muslims second -- and must be understood as such by other Europeans.
Ramadan’s thesis is that by identifying Muslims primarily by their faith, European countries risk a "clash within civilization." He says extremists within the Muslim community and the European far right are using the cartoons controversy to "polarize" the communities.
Ramadan particularly singles out the political right, saying it is building a "Europe of fear" by portraying all Muslims as a threat.
'Common Civic Sense'
Using the cartoons as an example, Ramadan says Europe is denying its Muslim citizens something it affords to its traditional minorities -- such as the Jews. He calls this "common civic sense."
"We have something when we live together which is clear," Ramadan said. "It’s a common civic sense. You are not going -- and it would be wrong -- in our continent, to start laughing at the suffering of the Jews. You don’t do it. You don’t have to do it. It’s not illegal, [but] it’s stupid. It’s not -- it’s not dignified. And I think we have to understand from where is it coming? From laws? No. It’s coming from [a] common civic sense. Don’t do it, because we’re living together."
Ramadan says the sensitivities of Europe’s Muslims require similar respect. He argues that there’s a clear distinction between such respect and censorship -- the latter is the removal of a right, while the former asking for it to be used wisely.
No Longer An Immigrant Community
Ramadan also says a line must be drawn between Muslims and immigration. Immigration is an increasingly keenly perceived as a threat by many Europeans, and many immigrants are Muslims. But, he says, immigrants no longer make up the bulk of Europe’s Muslim citizenry.
Ramadan’s views met with some opposition, notably during his two-hour debate with Cohn-Bendit. Cohn-Bendit’s political roots are in the far left, and he said he rejects the ambition of any religion to influence public life in Europe.
Offering mostly anecdotal evidence, Cohn-Bendit denounced the constraints Islam often imposes on its adherents’ choices in life -- especially as regards marriage.
Is It Possible To Reform Islam?
Cohn-Bendit also expressed frustration at the tendency of fundamentalist Islam to thwart attempts at reform in the Muslim world outside Europe.
He particularly pointed to Turkey, the only Muslim democracy and an EU candidate country, which he said nevertheless failed to follow through with change.
"We’re only saying to Turkey ‘Go the whole way!’ Freedom for all religions! Not just for Islam in the face of an authoritarian or totalitarian ideology such as Kemalism," Cohn-Bendt said. "So, let’s take the idea to its conclusion - no matter if it’s a democratic Turkey and an Islam open to democracy of [current prime minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, or [the secular Turkey of the Kemalists] -- secular or not, face finally the genocide of the Armenians! Be open to history, that’s how you are going to regain your democratic liberty and your capacity to create a democratic and open Turkey."
Returning to European domestic issues, Ramadan said the full integration of Europe’s Muslims will take longer than the two or three generation time span that has passed since they began arriving in force.
Advice For The Future
Ramadan said Europe and Europe’s Muslims could either "win together or lose together." He said the "ideology of fear" being spread by the European political right could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ramadan said non-Muslim Europeans must overcome their preconceptions.
"[My advice is] to do exactly the contrary to what is natural," Ramadan said. "When you are under media pressure, pressure of perception, pressure of fear, the first attitude is to withdraw into yourself. Do exactly the opposite. Go out, speak out, build partnerships, be on the ground, show that you’re a citizen -- and refuse to be put in the corner of [the] minority. You know why? Because there is no minority citizenship in Europe."
Ramadan said non-Muslim Europeans could play a key role in the debate currently raging within Europe’s Muslim community on its future.
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
READCONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
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LISTENListen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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