“The Muslim World Meets Obama”

Courtesy Tariq Ramadan

In a recent article I discussed the critical role the European Union must play now that Barack Obama has assumed power in the United States. In order to make international politics truly multilateral, I argued, the European countries must exert an influence to match their fundamental responsibilities. In the predominantly Muslim countries of the Arab world and of Asia, we witness the same euphoria, a contagious “Obamania” in which the new “American Messiah” will act rapidly to solve their problems. Beyond the naivety of such expectations (American policy, after all, is quite distinct from the symbolic value of one man and of his skin color), it is imperative for us to re-examine our prospects, to distinguish our responsibilities from our hopes.

During a recent symposium on relations between the United States and the “Muslim World” held in Qatar, some one hundred delegates debated the complexities, the advantages and the ambiguous nature of these relations. Madeleine Albright, Barham Salih (Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister), General David Petraeu s (former commander of US forces in Iraq) and Anwar Ibrahim (former Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in Malaysia) participated in one of the meeting’s key panel discussions. Mr. Ibrahim was adamant: the glorification of Barack Obama, and expectations that accompany it, must end; predominantly Muslim societies must first put their houses in order. Ibrahim’s declaration was a welcome one: we must insist, loudly and clearly, that predominantly Muslim societies—in their domestic policy and local conflicts (from Palestine to Iraq and Afghanistan, including threats against Iran)—bear primary responsibility for their fate; for governments as well as peoples, the time has come to throw off the cloak of victimhood. Palestinians, Afghanis and Iraqis are victims of their aggressors, of course. But they are also the direct or “collateral” victims of the cowardice and hypocrisy of the States and governments that rule over predominantly Muslim societies.

Looking beyond the economic crisis now raging, these societies appear politically, intellectually and culturally paralyzed. Dictatorships, an absence of open debate, a creative deficit in the artistic and cultural fields (with the exception of two or three countries) are the rule. A powerful movement of genuine, far-reaching democratization must be set in motion if we truly seek to change the existing order, and bring about a reawakening in the “Muslim World”. Such a movement must be based on a wide-ranging struggle against the corruption that cuts across predominantly Muslim societies, from east to west. There can be no hope; nothing can be attained without basic transparency, without bringing an end to the privileges of a powerful elite, to cronyism, to bribery, to influence peddling, to the non-respect of institutions. But today’s Muslim World is fraught above all with the most stubborn form of corruption: the constant invocation of Islam and of Islamic ethics alongside the most hypocritical practices.

Civil society in the Muslim world must be shaken from its slumber. Peoples, and intellectuals, can no longer remain passive; they can no longer continue to abdicate their responsibilities to dictatorial regimes. That such regimes exist, and that they victimize their own people is an established fact. But this fact can no longer justify perpetuating an attitude of victimhood that is used in turn to justify inaction. The establishment of grassroots study circles, alongside concerted action by citizens and their organizations, is one way of exerting positive pressure. In many instances, non-violent resistance movements emerging from civil society can, by virtue of their mass character, weaken even the most firmly established dictatorships. Yet we see none of these things today. Across the globe, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, the yoke of dictatorship is being cast off—with the notorious exception of the Arab countries, where leaders have been, for decades now, “democratically” elected for life.

Demand for the rule of law and free and fair elections are the third and fourth conditions for the renewal of these societies. The political system selected will be determined by the history, culture and the collective psychology of each society, but the underlying principles must be inalienable. Only through universal suffrage and the rule of law can these societies extract themselves from their political impasse. Let me repeat: these principles are in no way opposed to the principles of Islam: those who make such claims manipulate religion to justify, in one form or another, their monopoly on power—or their opposition to it. Criticism of these postures, which seem antithetical but are objectively allied, must be radical.

When we speak of the rule of law, of universal suffrage and civil society two other conditions (the fifth and the sixth) must follow: the equality of all citizens irrespective of their beliefs, and full and complete participation of women in the process of democratization. Muslim societies, politicians and intellectuals of both genders must, on an urgent basis, make it clear where they stand on these issues, clearly define “minority” rights and promote the emancipation of women as key to the liberation of Muslim societies. Contrary to what the opponents of this process claim, the problem is not one of “Westernization” but of the imperative reconciliation of Muslim thought with its own principles, with the equality and inalienable rights of women to full participation in social life. In opposition to the most conservative and dogmatic elements, it is in the name of, and not against the guiding principles of Islam that we must work toward far-reaching reform in the status of women in predominantly Muslim societies.

Seventh, and finally, we must call to account the elected representatives of the people, from members of parliament to prime ministers, to presidents and kings. Their administrations must be submitted to the kind of independent, transparent evaluation that alone can guarantee the smooth functioning of institutions and good governance. How far we are from that goal today! Whether or not Barack Obama is president of the United States will change nothing. The “Muslim World” will undoubtedly soon accuse him of being “too American”, of adopting policies that favor the “predatory” interests of his country. It will then be impossible not to accuse the predominantly Muslim countries, and above all the Arab countries, of being nothing but caricatures of themselves, s they present us with the sorry spectacle of dictatorship, corruption and resignation.


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