Asking for indulgence from the crowd gathered in the fully attended lecture theatre in Northrop Frye Hall, he explained he was a bit disoriented, having just arrived from the airport. It was nonetheless a bit surreal to hear Ramadan spend the first five minutes of his talk discussing how various interpretations of the definition of 'human being' make the concept of his talk difficult. It would have more logical to speak of the varying ways people define what is "ethical.," But Ramadan is a philosopher, whose field of study seeks logic and frequently takes a convoluted path to arrive at it, on those few occasions it actually does. In this instance, defining ethics may have been redundant since, as it eventually became clear, Ramadan sees that definition predetermined for each of us based on our religious affiliation.
"Islamism" conjures mental images of enraged Jihadis whose closed minds are filled with violence and hatred. Tariq Ramadan is the opposite of that stereotype in every conceivable way. He is a soft-spoken, engaging Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. Emphasizing the need for religious ethics in public life, he referred to the common ethical cores, but also noted differences in the substance of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The evening could have been a model for the type of multi-faith approach reasonable academics have extolled for ages.
But there were a few ominous hints in Ramadan's speech that suggested Canadian Muslim reformer Tarek Fatah might not have been far off the mark when he called the Oxford professor "a man committed to the goals of the worldwide Islamic jihad as laid out by his mentor, Sheik Qaradawi, and his father, the Trotsky of world Islamism, Said Ramadan.."
Calling for religious values, and the implication being that meant Islamic religious values in particular, to have a greater role in politics and the public sphere, the philosophical groundwork for Sharia Law's being accepted as a facet of Western multiculturalism is the logical extension.
He will have enablers in the media and among liberal academics who shriek and decry whenever a Christian politician talks about faith-based values, yet these same people embrace Ramadan's aim of increasing Islamic influence in the public sphere.
Ramadan didn't discuss that influence in terms of religious practice, but rather in those of "ethics", but as he noted that the term had different meanings within religions and cultures, religious practice is the most likely explanation for the aspiration he expressed.
Saying he didn't want to change Islam, but "the minds of Muslims", Ramadan, while repudiating violence, held on to fundamentalist tropes such as how the hijab, a head covering meant to enforce modesty among Muslim women, could be "freeing" for them.
From the many hijabs in the audience, as well as the number of questions from students discussing their own experiences as Muslims, the crowd appeared to consist mainly of students from U of T's Muslim Students Association, which co-sponsored the talk.
In response to one of those questions, when discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Ramadan, who implied that the fault was one-sided, with all the "injustice" perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians, said it was not a religious conflict but a political one.
While religion is quite obviously a facet of that conflict, there is also a clear hypocrisy at best in the way Ramadan characterizes it.
Why else would the treatment of the Palestinians be more of a concern to him than the even worse than the "political" discrimination faced by Palestinians in Lebanon? No honest person discussing the issue of Israel/Palestine doubts for a moment that were both Israelis and Palestinians all Muslims and if the conflict were ethnic rather than religious, the Muslim world would care no more about it than they do about the discrimination faced by Kurds in Turkey, Baha'i and Zoroastrians in Iran, and Shia in Saudi Arabia. All these face brutal oppression at the hands of Muslim governments, among many other examples of such Islamic state-sponsored discrimination.
Though he implied otherwise, it is obvious that Ramadan's interest in the Palestinians is that of a Muslim promoting Muslim interests.
According to Tarek Fatah, Ramadan has said, “We (Muslims) should all be careful not to be colonized by something which is coming from this consumerist society … It should be us, with our understanding of Islam, our principles, colonizing positively the United States of America.”
By promoting that goal with charm, smiles and wit rather than animated proselytising or threats, Ramadan may create an environment more accepting to Islam as a political force in the west. Whether the honesty of his aims are articulated by him or perceived by others remains to be seen.