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The best books on Islam in the West

recommended by Tariq Ramadan

The Islamic scholar and commentator tells us what it means to be Muslim and Western, and explains how mainstream views get trapped between noisy extremism and a sensation-seeking media

Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss academic, philosopher and writer. He is the professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. He was elected by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss academic, philosopher and writer. He is the professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. He was elected by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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Are the values of the West – democracy, individualism, free speech and so on – really compatible with those of Islam, or will there always be a tension between the two?

I think when people talk about a clash of civilisations, we are actually talking about a clash of perceptions. If we have a superficial understanding of what Western values are and where they are coming from, and a very superficial understanding of what Muslim values are, we end up thinking that there are tensions and conflicts. But if you study deeply the values of both, you can see that there are overlapping objectives and understanding. The tensions are no more than you can find sometimes with Christians, Jews and people of other religions. I don’t think that we have intrinsic differences that are leading us towards clashes.

We talk about Muslims in the West as if they constitute a single, definable group. But is there more that separates Muslims in the West in the terms of ethnicity, language and culture than actually unites them?

For years, when we talked about migrants we talked about their nationalities – Pakistanis, Turks, Arabs and so on. Then all of a sudden a transnational way of thinking became common. We started talking about Islam in a very Orientalist way – that Islam is a monolithic religion that never changes, and that all Muslims are a single entity beyond their affiliation to a specific country. But all this is wrong. At the end of the day we do have practicing Muslims who refer to the same set of principles when it comes to the creed or when it comes to their religious practices. But if you look at the reality, you have people coming from different cultures and you have such diversity of interpretations in Islam. So I think it’s very superficial to say that all Muslims are the same. In fact, in the political discourse we are recreating the “otherness” of the Muslims – they are described as one specific, monolithic group, which is against all the real dynamics and realities that we are witnessing on the ground.

You have said before that the majority of Muslims have successfully integrated themselves into Western societies. But they are often perceived to be a silent majority, as the voices that seem to shout loudest are those of the extremists. Is this because there isn’t a single leader or body that can act as a spokesperson for mainstream Islam, similar to, say, Roman Catholics, who have the Pope and the Vatican? Is there a vacuum of leadership that extremists have been able to exploit?

It’s true that we don’t have a pope – we don’t have a central live authority in Islam. But this is not the problem. Most Muslim leaders have mainstream positions when it comes to citizenship, to democracy, and when it comes to secular society. The silent majority are listening to these opinions. The problem is the vicious circle when it comes to the media. It’s as if these people are not talking because all we hear are the voices of the people who are controversial and who are nurturing a sense of mistrust. So it’s not only because we don’t have a single authority – although I will agree with you that we are facing something that could be understood as a crisis of authority, not only in the West but everywhere.

But if you actually listen to what is said in the mainstream Muslim organisations in the West, you can see the discourse today is very clear on the fact that Muslims respect the secular system and the law of the countries and that we want to be citizens and contribute to society. Being committed citizens and knowing our duties and our rights – that is the mainstream discourse. This discourse is not actually that interesting. It just shows that we are normalising our presence as Western Muslims. What is much more interesting for the media is sensationalism. This is exploited by extremists who adopt marginal views, saying that Islam is not reconcilable with the West. So extremists and the media nurture this. It’s just a vicious circle. The violent extremists or literalists, this vocal minority, make people distrust the silent majority.

Is the media ignoring attempts by the mainstream to challenge the views of extremists?

I think that the media should do more to give the floor to people who express the views of the silent majority. Very often they also give the floor to people who might be Muslims, or who present themselves as ex-Muslims. They are not violent and they are not extremists, but they are also not representative of practising Muslims.

There is a tendency to believe that conservative Muslims – who may wear headscarves and pray five times a day – are extremists. The way it’s portrayed in the media, it’s not clear that we can trust a practising Muslim. Very often the only perceived moderate voices are those that lead their life like “us”, meaning mainstream European citizens who don’t practise their religion much on a daily basis. We need to construct a more sophisticated picture of who are these Muslims in the mainstream tradition. They may be conservative and strict, but they are still citizens, they respect the law of the country and they are not advocating violence.

The themes of loyalty and belonging are ones that are examined in some of your book choices. In Islam, where does ultimate loyalty lie – to your fellow believers or to your fellow citizens?

I’m always saying that three things are important for Muslims to show that they understand the West and their commitment to society. They are the three Ls. The first is knowing the law of the country and abiding by it. The second is knowing the language of the country. You need to speak English if you live in Britain. And I don’t only mean language as a means of communication, but also as a cultural reference. This is so important. It means from literature to poetry, you need to go as deep as possible in the use of the language. The third is loyalty. At the end of the day, you have to be loyal to both your principles and your country. The only right loyalty for a citizen is critical loyalty.

As a Muslim, my principles are telling me I should be loyal to my country and society. I am Swiss. This is my nationality and patriotism is not wrong – it’s encouraged in our tradition. But if you are a humanist or a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, sometimes in very specific borderline situations you are asked to do things against your values and you have to decide whether you are going to do it or not. For example, some Christians, Jews and even atheists and Muslims said in the Vietnam War that they were not going to go there because it was an unjust war. So conscientious objection can happen, but it doesn’t mean that you are not loyal to your country. You are loyal to your country but you are not blindly loyal to your government. Critical loyalty is essential for all of us.

Please tell us more about Muslims in the West, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad.

I think it’s an interesting book because Yvonne Haddad is positive without forgetting to be critical. Her perspective is: “Let us see what is actually happening and not come with a vision that is completely negative about Muslims in the West, but at the same time let us ask the relevant questions.” This is a collection of different essays which try to show how much the relationship between Muslims and their environment and the societies in the West has evolved. They ask some very interesting questions about what is actually happening and there are contributions from within the Muslim communities in Europe, as well as from the outside, so I think it’s a good balance.

Who are the contributors to the book?

Academics and people from within Muslim communities in the West. They acknowledge the dynamics within the Muslim communities in the West, but are also knowledgeable about the questions within.

What conclusion do they reach?

Their conclusion is that you need to go beyond fear and mistrust and look at what has been happening over time. This is what the subtitle is saying: “From Sojourners to Citizens”. It means that we now have Western Muslim citizens. This evolution is important. It’s not only an evolution in status, it’s an evolution in understanding.

The book is divided into two parts. The first looks at the Muslim diaspora in Europe and the second at Muslim communities in North America. How do the experiences of the two differ?

I think this is the starting point of the book. We have common challenges in North America and European countries. There are similarities when it comes to religious questions. But we have differences as to the nature, the stages and the origins of each of the Muslim communities. So the differences are important.

This book was published in early 2002, and doesn’t really touch on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Ten years on, what have been the long-term effects of the attacks on the integration and acceptance of Muslim communities in the West?

This is important, and why I wanted to have this book first. The book talks about the very deep evolution that is happening. We cannot underestimate what happened in September 2001, but we have to be very cautious not to overestimate it. Many of things that were said about Muslims and their loyalties [in the aftermath of the attacks] were the same before September 2001. We had all these discussions in Europe and in the United States about the wearing of veils and headscarves before. What happened with September 11 is to add to a sense of insecurity and mistrust. These psychological factors are deeper now. I think Western Muslims have to deal much more now with negative perceptions and the questioning of their presence. But as to the deep historical experience, we have to be cautious about putting too much emphasis on its impact. Yes, there is more fear and there are more questions, but on the ground at a local level, things are moving in the direction they were already heading before 2001.

Tell us about your next choice, Islam in America.

Jane Smith’s is an important and knowledgeable book. She gives us a picture of what is happening in the Muslim communities in America – Islam’s evolution there and its deep historical context. She writes about the reality of Islam in America mainly through the experience of migrants. Once again it is not avoiding critical questions, but it is much more positive because it’s based on historical evolution – how things are moving forward, the way the discourse is changing, and the way the young generation is getting a better sense of what it means to be an American. At the same time, it is not dismissing the religious concerns that Muslims have living in the West.

Does one’s country of origin and socioeconomic status affect the integration of Muslim communities into a Western country? Muslim immigration to Britain and France was essentially linked to colonialism – for example, Pakistanis coming to Britain and the North Africans migrating to France. Where have most Muslim migrants to the United States come from?

Immigrant Muslims in America are mainly from the Middle East and Pakistan. They are usually educated people – professors, teachers, computer scientists, engineers and so on. Many of them quickly buy into the American dream that you can find your place and be very quickly integrated if you have the skills and know-how to contribute. In Europe, it is a completely different story for migrants. They came from previously colonised countries and with a very modest background as to their knowledge of their religion, their culture and surrounding society.

Between this book and my next choice, Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican, you can also get an understanding of the relationship between Muslim migrants in America and African American Muslims. The African Americans, as to their social status, are experiencing things that are not that different from what new European Muslims are facing in Britain and in France. As Jane Smith is showing, religious integration is essentially done. The critical issue today for African American Muslims and European Muslims is social justice and social integration.

Religion is often cited as a barrier to integration. But what you are suggesting here is that socioeconomic factors are often more important.

Exactly. This is what I have been repeating in France and Britain for many years. Stop ethnicising, culturalising or Islamising socioeconomic problems. We need social policies. This is very important when it comes to schools, for example. I don’t want private, separate schools for Muslims. For me, it is not a panacea. But if you go to some areas in Britain, France and the United States and see how some people are living and the second-class schools that they have, they understandably are not happy with the state school system. So in order to give their children the best opportunity to succeed, they create Islamic private schools. The education system is not working, so they are creating a parallel system. It is a religious answer to a socioeconomic problem. The state school system should be reformed by understanding the needs of people who are living in very poor and segregated areas in our societies. So I think that sometimes Muslims are coming up with religious answers to socioeconomic problems and then you have politicians using the socioeconomic problems and making them religious. And we have what I call a “strategy diversion” in the political discourse. As they don’t have political answers, they just come up with a religious problem, and I think that’s wrong.

Let’s move onto your next book, which examines the spread of Islam among black Americans. Can you tell us more about it?

I think that Sherman Jackson is one of the most important intellectuals in the United States right now. He’s an African American who converted to Islam. He is saying to Muslim immigrants in the United States: “We African American Muslims have a problem with you. You are coming with an Islamic understanding from the Arab world and you want to buy into the American dream and just show Islam is kind and nice and that we share your values.” But he is saying that there are cultural problems and socioeconomic injustice and that you can’t get a sense of what’s really happening in the United States if you don’t understand the very deep tension between blackness and whiteness. What he’s saying here is that it’s beyond a religious problem. It’s a racial problem, which is based on power and history, and a political and social system which is based on structural discrimination. He’s questioning the Muslim leadership in the United States and saying that the new Muslim immigrants are not getting it right. They are forgetting history.

So he’s essentially saying that Islam amongst African Americans in the United States is closely informed by their historical experience.

It is informed by their experience as black Americans. I think this is very important. It’s not a new version of Islam – it is Islamic principles understood within a specific environment. What Sherman is saying is that racial issues and the very long history of discrimination are very important. He argues that if immigrant Muslims are not aware of this, they will do exactly the same to their fellow Muslims as the whites are doing to the blacks. And this is exactly what is happening. Today the African American Muslims are not working with the new immigrants. This is not because of a different understanding of Islam, but it’s a class issue. You have new Muslim immigrants who are very privileged within society and the African American Muslims are saying that not only are they second-class citizens with the whites, but now they are second-class Muslims amongst Muslims.

What does Young, British and Muslim

tell us?

I chose this book because it talks just about what is happening in Britain. Once again, we may agree or not with what he is saying, but he’s showing how the younger generation of Muslims have a better understanding of their environment, are becoming much more integrated and are going beyond the social divides and the social tensions. Philip Lewis is saying much the same as Jane Smith – there are still problems, but there is movement, there is evolution and there are new responses to new challenges. I think this is positive in itself. Once again, we may disagree on some points, but the very deep historical evolution is there.

He also points out, doesn’t he, that you have a community in Britain that is united by Islam but divided by ethnicity, generation, class and country of origin?

Yes. What he is saying is exactly that point. There is evolution but we have to be very cautious not to get the sense that it is monolithic. He studies the divisions and tensions between cultures and between religious interpretations. On this, he’s right.

In the wake of the 2005 bombings in London, there has been a focus on extremism among British Muslims. Has extremism flourished in Britain more than in other Western countries?

I don’t think there was more extremism in Britain. The attitude of the government in the 1980s and 1990s was to allow people to say what they wanted. I remember myself asking why people were able to call for the murder of the prime minister without being arrested or questioned. In the name of freedom of expression in Britain, the floor was opened up for people to say what they wanted. This was not necessarily good or bad, but this was the reality and Britain was perceived as the place in Europe where anything could be said. You then had a change in policy after the 7/7 bombings. So, I wouldn’t say there was more extremism in Britain – it was just more open and more visible.

And how significant were the extremists within Muslim communities?

They never gained ground. You just need to take a look at the figures – they were completely marginalised. After the 7/7 bombings I was in the [British government’s] task force and was explaining that these extremists were not meeting in mosques but were meeting outside the community. They never represented something that was significant within the Muslim communities. Today, it is quite clear that even the networks they did create are more marginal. Over the last 20 years the violent extremists never gained ground within the Muslim community. They were vocal but they were not representing Muslims.

Tell us about your final choice, British Muslims – Loyalty and Belonging.

I chose this book as it is by a new generation of European Muslims who are trying to set the scene for a new discourse and new understanding. It’s interesting to read this book because they are saying that they are British Muslims, and confident about their loyalty to Britain. They are talking about a sense of belonging and loyalty, which is part of what I have been saying for years – citizenship is not enough. A sense of belonging is important. Loyalty to your country is critical. In all the discussions and papers that are presented in this book, there are Muslim voices analysing what is happening on the ground and showing how things are improving.

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