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Thought Leader: Tariq Ramadan

February 13, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Tariq Ramadan. Named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential innovators of the 20th century, Tariq Ramadan is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at the Oriental Institute, St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

DEVIN STEWART: When you look at the world today what do you see? What's unique today compared to previous times in history and particularly from an ethical perspective?

TARIQ RAMADAN: From an ethical perspective, I think that it's the development of the means to communicate, while I'm not sure that we have more communication. We have so many means to communicateit could be the Internet, it could be old and new technology, it could be mobile. What is very, very problematic is when you have too many means and less interpersonal relationships, you have ethical questions.

First of all, in this new universe, there is an anonymous presence on the Internet in the communication field. Right now, you can say much more without being known and without being present, without being engaged. There is more communication or more means, but there is superficial communication and less responsibility. With all of this, you have ethical questions that are important when it comes to our responsibility and the way we communicate and what we say.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there other implications of this problem?

TARIQ RAMADAN: There are lots of implications. We are confusing being connected with communicating. This is something that is problematic because we are connected and we have means to be connected. It doesn't mean that we are communicating. This is one. So there is something that is superficial. There are links that are made in the formal way while the substance is missing. Add to this that, as I said, in ethical terms now you can be connected without being known and you can express views without being identified.

We call it a global village. But as I said in one of my books, the quest for meaning is a village where an anonymous presence is much more the rule than the exception.

DEVIN STEWART: And you're worried about anonymous in terms of superficiality but in other ways, as well?

TARIQ RAMADAN: No, not only. Superficiality could be the way we are connecting on the Internet or the social networks. Very often we are being connected without always communicating and then add to this the anonymous factor. The anonymous factor is one thing and the superficial connection that we might have is something else.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say things are getting better or worse today?

TARIQ RAMADAN: It depends on what. In terms of getting information and being knowledgeable about what is happening, it's much better. Understanding what is happening, I'm not sure it's better. We know more but it doesn't mean that we know better and this is the problem. And to know better means to understand what we know.

So there is knowledge and there is understanding of what we know because it might be that you get a lot of knowledge and by not understanding what you know you misuse what you know or you can make decisions that are based on the impression of what you know and not the understanding of what you know.

I think that on this, it's very dangerous times that we're living in because we have the power of the means that we have to know. What is missing for us is to master this, to control, to understand, to have a vision, to have a structural understanding. It doesn't mean that we have more rational knowledge, that we are more reasonable. And this is once again the ethical question.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is to look at the notion of a global ethic and also to explore shared values across cultures and societies. Does a global ethic mean anything to you and, if so, what?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Of course it means something. I think that this is where we have to start, all of us, when we talk about global ethics. We need to be, at the same time, assertive and humble. Why do we have to be humble? Because global ethics is not an ethic that we'll decide and we'll just impose on people.

I think that we should talk about global ethics the same way as we talked about universal values. And as I'm saying, once again in this bookI have a chapter on universality and I say the only true universal values are the shared universal values. They are shared how? It's like a mountain with a summit and you have many routes and many paths. Every tradition, every religion, every culture or civilization might have a specific path and we join and we meet at the summit. Global ethics is what we get at the summit, but we have to accept that there are different routes and we are all coming from a specific route and we will find ourselves sharing so many values with others.

There are two things that are important here. One is to always look at the mountain from the valley. We should have this sense of humility that global ethics and shared universal values are bigger than us. We cannot say, for example, that Islamic universal values are Western universal values. It's a contradiction in terms because you can't say this. So we look at the mountain from the valley.

The second point is to always avoid looking at the mountain from the top, as if we were God looking at the mountain from on high and saying this is the way it has to be important to the world. Any mind that is looking at the mountain from the top and talking about global ethics as if it's coming from her or his tradition or revelation will end up being a dogmatic mind. So we should distinguish and we should be clear that global ethics is where civilizations and religions and philosophies find shared values and not where the dogmatic mind is imposing a set of so-called global values in global ethics.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you identify some of the values you see shared across cultures?

TARIQ RAMADAN: I think that the first one that is essential here is human dignity. This is something that we find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all of the religions and this is something that should be asserted in a way that is not disputable. I would say freedom is important. I would say also equality is important.

The starting point of everything is whoever you are, poor or rich, black, white, man, woman, we should go forth with equal status of being and this shouldn't be disputed and cannot be disputable. Which, by the way, is something where in the name of the shared universal value you might have to challenge some understanding when, for example, you have castes. In the Hindu tradition, you have a specific understanding. In the Islamic Muslim traditions some have an understanding that a man might have a different status from a woman.

That is also where the shared values should challenge these understandings by saying that this is problematic. It's not because we are talking about global ethics. The global ethics are what we don't challenge. I would say that this would be wrong. In the name of global ethics we have certain challenges at the same time.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. So how do you go about challenging the values in a peaceful way?

TARIQ RAMADAN: By having true communication. It's not enough to be connected the way we might be by social networks.

We have talked very often about intricacies of dialogue or alliance of civilizations and dialogue between civilizations. Unfortunately civilizations and religions and traditions and philosophies are often communicating and entering a dialogue at the periphery of what they are. So we come with all we have, these overall values that we share. We should stop that. This is not going to help us at all. We need now to promote the dialogue of the centers, the dialogue of the heart of the traditions.

This is where you try to understand a system of values or a culture or religion from within, from the center, not at the periphery of what this tradition has to tell you, but at the center of what this tradition is saying to the people who belong to this tradition. Pluralism and mutual respect is much more demanding than what we are talking about.

It's not because we are talking at the periphery that we understand each other at the center of our respective traditions. For example, when I was in India dealing with Hindu and trying to understand it, I was shocked by the way that some people were dealing with castes, for example. They're untouchable and all this.

I wouldn't agree completely withand I said this in my bookwith Gandhi when he thought it's enough to change the name to change the status. No, changing the name could be good for us but not for the people because the status remains. We need to change the status. We need to challenge this. We need to challenge by saying, “I'm sorry. My way of dealing with human dignity is that there is nobody who is and must remain untouchable in this world.”

So I'm challenging the center of a tradition and I will find that many from within this tradition are also challenging this and trying to find a way to re-interpret some of the text and some of principles. And I think that this is where we are helping traditions to be self-critical because at the end of the day we might think that our religion is truth. But our way of reading truth should be challenged and it might be that we have been wrong for centuries.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds Socratic, as well.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Of course it is. It's Socratic and at the same time it is a two-way process because in the dialectical dialogue of Socrates there was this understanding that he knew through his question. I'm not sure that I know, but I know that I have questions. The only thing that I know is that I have questions on some of the traditions that are presented as immutable and where I might challenge this understanding when it comes to how I understand justice, how I understand equal status, equality, or equity. This is why we need this kind of dialogue.

I would say that after you walk on your path to get to the summit, the top of the mountain, it's very important not to forget to get down again.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this what you would like see in the next few decades? We're looking ahead at the next 100 years since we're celebrating our Centennial. Is this something that you'd aspire to for the world?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes. We need something that is very important. There will be no dialogue without a self-critical approach. But there would be no self-critical approach without the sense that we need to reconcile ourselves with our own values. Very often we find that in Muslim-majority countries or in India are or in the West, people are claiming to be so nice, so great, and have such powerful values. But the point is not to claim; the point is to measure the gap between what we do and our own values.

And to avoid this, we need to do two things. The first when it comes to dialogue optimization, we very often compare our own values with the practices of the others. So we have democracy, human rights. These are our Western values and we compare this with the state of affairs in Africa, in the Middle East, or in Asia. And in Asia or in Africa or in the Middle East, they do the same. They look at the values of Islam and compare it with what is happening in Western society.

This is, once again, a dialogue that is avoiding comparing ourselves with our own values. So we look at the other to avoid the mirror of our own contradictions.

The second point, which is also happening now, is within a civilization. When it comes, for example, to look at all of the discussion about integration in the West, we compare the countries. So America might be better than Europe, and France worse than Britain and Britain may be better thanand that's not the point. Every country has its own liabilities and assets.

The point is to compare the country with its own values and to be moving to something that is important. Venture into a dialogue with double reconciliation. The first is to listen to what the other traditions, the other civilizations have to tell you in order for you to reassess what you are doing with your own values. This is the first reconciliation. This is the first self-critical approach. This is so important today in communication. There is no true communication between civilizations without humility, which is the first ethical characteristic that we have to promote.

Intellectual humility means, "I don't get it all." It might be that I believe in the truth but I'm not the truth and truth doesn't belong to me. I belong to the truth but the truth doesn't belong to me. So I have to be intellectually humble and understand that I can learn from others. This intellectual humility is the starting point of this self-critical approach towards reconciliation.

Then beyond this you can once again try to reconcile your own understanding with other understandings. This is where we can talk about critical, constructive dialogue and positive communication between people coming from different cultures and religions. But as you can see it takes effort. It take commitment. We like nice words, but we want them without effort.

And ethics is all about effort. I, myself, am talking not about citizenship; I'm talking about ethics of citizenship. It's how we understand that with citizenship you have duties and rights, and not only rights. Citizenship is not only about getting rights, it's understanding your obligation towards good society and good community. This is something that is essential.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you Professor. How would you describe leadership? Is it what you've described already or does a leader have unique characteristics?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Oh yes, they need many, many characteristics. Of course, as I said, this first characteristic of intellectual humility is important.

When I'm talking about a Muslim scholar or a priest or a rabbi or a philosopher, the first is the leader should understand that she or he is serving the followers and not using the followers. He is serving them and not being served by them. It is very interesting and important to understand that a leader is driven by the message, by the vision, and should not be followed for who she or he is.

There is a Chinese proverb on this that is very important: "When the wise man is pointing to the moon, the fool is looking at the finger." A wrong leader is showing to the people that the moon is the finger, that he is the moon. But the right leadership is, let us go towards the moon, which means the message to humanity, a message of serving, a message of dignity, a message of freedom. A leader understands that she or he is but a means, never a purpose, never an aim.

He or she should always understand something that is important: Never idolize the people that you follow. Never idolize the leader. You can be impressed, you can respect, you can serve sometimes, but never idolize. At the end of the day, something that is important in leadership is to never idolize human beings and never blindly trust the leader. You should be doubtful about the leader in a constructive way the same way that you are doubtful about your own being. And anyone who knows herself or himself knows that he is not 100 percent trustworthy. We all have our dark sides. So never idolize the leader and never let a leader make the people idolize him.

DEVIN STEWART: We're also examining the idea of world peace because Andrew Carnegie was a huge advocate of work peace. Do you think it's possible?

TARIQ RAMADAN: I don't care about the fact of whether it's possible or not. I'm not driven by results. I'm driven by ideals and I think that this should remain something that is our ideal.

For years, for example, I have been saying the main message of Islam is justice. And I changed when I wrote a book on the message by saying it was wrong. The main, essential message of Islam is salaam, it's peace, intimate peace; peace with the universe with nature, and peace with human beings. So it should remain our ideal.

Now as an ideal what we should do is to understand that peace has conditions. And as we said, global ethics is based on values that are all conditions for peace. What you say about dignity is a condition for peace. Freedom is a condition for peace. Education is a condition for peace. Justice is not an objective for, say, the highest objective. It's an objective but as a means to something that is beyond that because if you end up worshipping justice you might in the name of justice have someone who can be very tough with all unjust rulers.

So I think that we need to go beyond peace, beyond justice. Forgiveness and compassion are much more important. 

I don't care about people saying you are a dreamer and it's not going to happen. I think that if it happens in one heart, if it happens in one family, if it happens in one society for a while it means that it's possible. We have to work for that and not to give up on our ideals.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you. For the final question, the duties and responsibilities for the various issues you've talked about today, who is accountable for all of these things?

TARIQ RAMADAN: When you talk with economists they tell you about the very difficult complex economic order and no one is responsible. When you speak with politicians they are saying we are doing our best but we have economic pressure. When you talk with journalists, no one is very much responsible because you have the owners. It's a very complex world. And within complexity, responsibility is lost.

And this is where our reconciliation with education is to make it clear that we are educating responsible human beings and responsible citizens instead of being lost in this complex universe where no one remains responsible for anything. I think we need to avoid thinking about the big picture where there is no responsibility. Instead we should look at the very, very tiny details of our daily lives and say, "You might not be responsible for changing the world, but you can change your life, you can change your family, you can change your society, you can change your neighborhood."

In the global world we should promote a local sense of responsibility. I think that this is where we are now. What we have today at the local level is a sense of we have to protect our rights and we are lost in the global world as to our responsibility.

I would change this by saying we need to have a local sense of responsibility. The previous pope said something that is important and I think that this is central: "If you change one life you are changing the world. And if you change one heart you are changing the world." We should get rid of this quantitative mindset to come to the qualitative mindset. This is the very meaning of spirituality. Spirituality doesn't look at numbers. It looks at essence.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much Professor, that was fantastic.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Okay, thank you so much.