Being Muslim has become synonymous with pointed questions, with tension and mistrust, even with conflict. It has become a global phenomenon with profound consequences for inter-communal relations, political rhetoric and policies at the local, regional, national and international level.
Hardly a week goes by without the ‘Muslim question’ being raised, through a local controversy, a regional conflict or a national debate, through violence, extremism or literalism, or through the rise to power of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt (years after electoral victory in Palestine).
Islam, well beyond its extremist, literalist or political interpretations, is become an issue; the globalisation of information reinforces a worldwide collective state of mind that legitimises doubt, mistrust and even stigmatisation, while touching off defensive reactions that range from a sense of victimhood to uncontrolled aggression. In sum, these are hard times for Muslims, who must confront numerous challenges, both locally and on a global scale.
Confusion is widespread. Everything seems connected, thrown together pell-mell, in an endless flow of media coverage that has become almost impossible to analyse and to decode. Fifa (the world football body) finally accepted headscarves, but France rejected them. Demonstrations against Sharia took place in the streets of London as did protests against its application in the US. Four French camp councillors were dismissed, then rehired, for fasting during Ramadan.
In the Netherlands, Muslims faced outright calumny… all amplified by real-time media coverage and the internet, as if to echo the rise of political Islam and the Arab uprisings, the civil war raging in Syria, the Israel-Palestine question, Sunni-Shiite tensions, incidents of stoning in northern Mali by literalist Salafists, and the resurgence of calls for a stricter application of Islam in Pakistan, Malaysia and certain monarchies. Nor can we overlook the repression against Muslims in China and now, Myanmar, as well as inter-religious tensions in numerous African and Asian countries.
Simply observing the state of the world and the societies that comprise it confronts us with the question of Islam: it lies at the heart of the coexistence of religions, of the relationships between civilisations, of secularisation, of ideological choices and models of state structures, of connections between regional cultures and globalisation, of civil society and its future, of the status of women and citizens.
The issue cannot be eluded: every responsible human being now faces the question of Islam and must weigh the evidence, draw conclusions, and take a stand.
Powerful lobbies and interest groups have much to gain from maintaining ideological and media pressure, with the avowed intent of transforming Islam into a threat and Muslims into shadowy, dangerous beings. One need only recall the words of David Yerushalmi (the instigator of the anti-Sharia campaign in the US): even if the attempt to pass anti-Sharia legislation fails, the important thing is to create a buzz, sow the seeds of controversy and convince the average citizen that Islam is a threat
The crushing failure of an anti-Islam campaign may be made out to be a huge success by virtue of the noise it creates. The same logic unites populists in many countries; carefully targeted media campaigns operating on a similar sliding scale are used in coverage of Muslim-majority countries. The deafening silence of most western media towards the Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali or Hosni Mubarak dictatorships quickly gave way to support for democracy with fine-tuned sensitivity to the treatment of women, of homosexuals and religious minorities in the successor regimes.
Precisely the kind of questions that were never asked of the dictators, and which are only whispered when it comes to allies in the Gulf. In fact, purely ideological media coverage and distortion of information stands increasingly exposed.
What I am describing is by no means a ‘global conspiracy’ against Islam and against Muslims, as some fantasise. Of course, centres of ideological interest do exist; but it is equally clear that the media machine and the political reactions it provokes form a vicious circle. Controversy whets public curiosity, which feeds into populist strategy that in turn drives short-term electoral tactics: the media then plays to a guaranteed audience.
In a hi-tech age, with its instantaneous processing of information and global competition, Islam is profitable. No doubt about it: Islam makes money, plenty of money. Caught between ideological manipulation and the logic of capitalism, Islam — and with it the fate of Muslims — finds itself in a negative, not to say oppressive, dynamic.
How are we to extricate ourselves? How, first and foremost, can we escape from the mentality of the eternal victim that overcomes us when the worldwide media and political tsunami, transforming Islam into a global threat, sweeps away all in its path. Paradoxically, in its extreme negativity, our predicament also contains many of the elements needed to overcome it and move beyond it. When people ask questions about Islam and Muslims — often in perfect ignorance — the latter are presented with an excellent opportunity to explain, to educate and to engage in dialogue.
If their worldwide visibility is seen as a problem because of their dress codes, their names, their colours (or because of regional conflicts), the solution is not to become less visible. The modern era has summoned Muslims to a global jihad of knowledge, of education, of dialogue, of communication and of resistance. A jihad of serenity, peaceful, non-violent; of bearing witness. Our point of departure is self-knowledge, and self-criticism that avoids the extremes of interpretational deception and self-flagellation.
A Muslim conscience must emerge, one that can clearly state what Islam is and what it is not (in full respect of diversity and pluralism), and to denounce hypocrisy, both our own and that of self-serving or populist ideologies. An open conscience can respond to the legitimate questions of a majority that seek to understand, as well as a courageous conscience that can stand up to the racism of a minority that deceives, lies and manipulates.
Our commitment must be individual, local, national and worldwide. The dynamics that today have made Islam a problem have also transformed it into a question: it is the responsibility of Muslim women and Muslim men to step forward with confident answers.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.