Islamic “Reformism” and Jihad: On the Discourse of Tariq Ramadan

by Paul Landau

The entire discourse of those who call themselves ‘reformist’ and that is, more exactly, neo-fundamentalist, uses the paradigms of the philosophically and politically secular West, in order to undermine them by resorting to a “double language”.

- Altan Gokalp [1]

Tariq Ramadan has often been accused of employing a “double language”: of presenting his ambitions and true objectives under a deceptive cover. To determine whether or not this is so, we need to analyze his discourse and study his texts. Ramadan is a particularly prolific writer and in reading him, one realizes that he has recourse to a certain number of concepts that appear again and again in his writings and that one can consider as “keywords” of his discourse. “Partnership” is one such keyword, for instance; “dialogue” is another. Here we are going first to examine the concept of “reformism”, which has a central place in the discourse of Ramadan and in his presentation of the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood. [2] Thereafter, we will see how Tariq Ramadan approaches the concept of jihad and examine his position on this crucial matter.

“Islamic Reformism”

One of the fundamental concepts of the discourse of Tariq Ramadan is that of “reformism”. He has recourse to this concept whenever he presents his own conception of Islam or when he makes reference to the Muslim Brothers. Thus, in his Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Ramadan constructs a typology of philosophical currents in contemporary Islam and distinguishes six major tendencies: scholastic traditionalism, Salafi literalism, Salafi reformism, literalist political Salafism, “liberal” or “rationalist” reformism and Sufism. In the third category, that of “reformism”, he cites the names of Hassan Al-Banna, Rashid Rida and Sayyid Qutb, as well as those of the Indian author Mawdudi and the Iranian Shariati. [3]

The use of the term “reformism” to designate this school of Muslim thought is deceptive. Strictly speaking, the term “reformism” designates a political doctrine aiming to transform political, economic, and social structures by legal means. This definition immediately sets in relief the problematic character of the use of the concept “reformism” by Tariq Ramadan. The theorists whom he treats under this head are, in effect, the principal theoreticians of contemporary Islamism: those who aim at the overthrow of the currently ruling regimes in the Arab-Muslim world via violent jihad. Thus, the authority of Sayyid Qutb is invoked by the most radical currents in the Islamist movement. As for Shariati, he was one of the inspirations for the Ayatollah Khomeini. [4] These are not reformists, then, but revolutionaries: i.e. partisans of a radical transformation of existing political structures who advocate the use of violence.

In fact, Ramadan intentionally creates a confusion between two schools of thought that are distinct, even if historically linked: the first is that of the Muslim thinkers known as “reformists” of the end of the 19th century , such as Afghani and Abduh; the second is that of the theoreticians of contemporary Islamism, such as Al-Banna, Qutb and Mawdudi. As Gilles Kepel explains, the appropriate term in scholarly usage to designate the first school is “Salafism”, which he defines as: “a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the nineteenth century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas. It advocated a return to the traditions of the devout ancestors (salaf in Arabic). Exemplified by the Persian Afghani, the Egyptian Abduh, the Syrian Rida, it sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization….” [5]

Afghani and Abduh, Precursors of Contemporary Islamism

Those called “reformists” by Tariq Ramadan are the precursors of contemporary Islamism. Al-Afghani and his disciple Abduh, in effect, established the foundations of Islamist doctrine and they have exercised a direct influence on the development of the Muslim Brotherhood. Born in Iran in 1838, Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani studied Islamic theology in Karbala and Najaf, the principal centers of Shia Islam in Iraq. Afterwards, he travels in India, makes the pilgrimage to Mecca, stays for a time in Afghanistan and Egypt, and finally heads to Europe. In Paris, he publishes a clandestine journal, The Most Solid Handle [Al Urwatul-Wuthqa], which defends revolutionary and anti-Western ideas. His most well-known disciple, Mohammed Abduh, studied and taught at the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, before joining Al-Afghani in Paris in 1884. In 1899, he is appointed the Grand Mufti of Egypt. One of his students was none other than the father of Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Afghani is the first Islamic thinker in modern times to have formulated the claims of Islam in political terms. He interpreted the message of the Quran in a revolutionary manner and transformed it into an ideological weapon against the colonial powers and against “the Muslim sovereigns accused of having dismembered the Ummah into nationalist micro-states”. [6] A half century before Mawdudi, Al-Banna and Qutb, Afghani defined the supreme objective of the Islamist movement: to re-establish the Ummah. [7]

One of the pivotal ideas of Muhammad Abduh – an idea that is also found in Al-Banna and Tariq Ramadan – is the essential importance of education. Latifah ben Mansour has noted that a large number of Islamists have been school teachers (Al-Banna and Qutb in Egypt, Madani and Benhadj in Algeria). Tariq Ramadan (himself a school teacher in Geneva) insists on this point in his book Aux Sources du renouveau musulman [On the Sources of Muslim Renewal], in which the chapter on Abduh is titled “Muhammad Abduh, Education and Teaching.” It is the importance that Abduh attaches to education that explains his opposition to Afghani, who gave priority rather to political action. Ramadan comments:

Two aspects of his engagement will have priority henceforth: education and teaching, on the one hand, and, by the necessity of things and far removed from the precipitation of Al-Afghani, a politics of stages conceived for the long-term. [8]

This idea of a politics of stages is fundamental to the history of the Islamist movement. One finds it in most of the theoreticians of the Islamist revolution (Al-Banna, Qutb, and Ramadan himself). It is in fact the same opposition between Afghani and Abduh that is playing itself out again today, a century later, between the two tendencies of the Islamist movement: that of the “jihadi”, who advocate the use of violence and terrorism to assure the triumph of Islam, and that of the Islamists sometimes mistakenly described as “moderates” – such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Tariq Ramadan – who give priority to education and the effects of propaganda over the long term and who criticize the “precipitation” of Ben Laden and his followers. [9]

The Taqiyya in the Islamist Movement

Another aspect of Al-Afghani’s model that influenced the Muslim Brothers is the practice of dissimulation or taqqiya [10]: “If you cannot say something openly, one must say the contrary”. As Dominique Urvoy has observed, Al-Afghani’s taqqiya is also to be found in Tariq Ramadan:

In the first place, he plays with words, as when he uses the term “secularism” in order to say something different [from what is customarily understood by this term]. Moreover, as Abdou Felaly put it during a conference in Toledo in referring to a certain “mental restriction”, he does not say everything….

Professor Urvoy has put his finger on one of the essential elements of the discourse of Tariq Ramadan: an element that became evident during his famous televised debate with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, during the latter’s first tenure as French Minister of the Interior. When questioned by Sarkozy concerning the practice of stoning adulterous women in certain Muslim countries, Tariq Ramadan – like his brother Hani [11] – declared himself in favor of a “moratorium” on the application of this particularly barbarous form of punishment. This is to say, to speak clearly, that Ramadan is for stoning, but defends a temporary suspension of the practice. The term “moratorium” was not chosen by accident. It designates a “pause granted prior to continuing an activity in a given domain”. Now, this corresponds precisely to the Islamist strategy of “suspension” of controversial doctrinal points discussed by Dominique Urvoy:

If a democratic norm contradicts an Islamic norm, one can abrogate the latter temporarily, but one will re-establish it later when the time is right. The controversial points are allowed to hibernate, but it is altogether a matter of reactivating them sooner or later…. For example, jihad, which Muslims are supposed to renounce if they live in the West or at least to interpret in a purely “interior” manner, but which they are obligated to re-institute as soon as this becomes possible.

We will see how on precisely this last point Tariq Ramadan also practices taqqiya, appearing to condemn jihad even as he condones it….

Modernity and Universality of Islam

If we apply the definition given above, Ramadan is indeed a Salafi. He too preaches a return to the original idealized origins of Islam – i.e. to the Quran and the Sunna: to an “Islam purified of the accidents of its traditional interpretation”. [12] He too claims to “uncover the roots of modernity” in Islamic civilization. This is even one of the cardinal points of his discourse: “To consider oneself at home is not to hesitate to apply the qualifier ‘Islamic’ to every law, every institution, every organization, every cultural trait, and every process that is compatible with our references”. [13]

This idea of the “modernity of Islam” that Ramadan adopts is already to be found in Hassan Al-Banna, who formulates it as follows:

The best thing for all humanity is for Muslims to return to their religion and this will be one of the most important factors favoring peace on earth. What pushes us in this direction is not a blind fanaticism, but rather the most intense conviction concerning the well-foundedness of Islamic traditions, as well as the fact that the message of Islam is in perfect agreement with what modern thought has revealed concerning the most healthy norms of society and its intangible foundations.[14]

This insistence on the modernity of Islam and its universalist pretensions accounts for the constant efforts of Tariq Ramadan to gain recognition as a scholar (as Gilles Kepel has noted, who describes him as “a Swiss national” who “yearns for intellectual status within the French academic and publishing worlds” [15]). By virtue of his style of discourse, Tariq Ramadan tries to acquire legitimacy in the academic world, attempting to pass for a “Muslim reformer” whose attachment to modern ideas and democratic values cannot be doubted. He seeks to inspire confidence in his academic interlocutors – by adopting their language.

Of The Westernness of the Islamists

In doing so, Tariq Ramadan exploits a fundamental misunderstanding in the popular view of Islamist movements: namely, the idea that Islamists are “obscurantists” who know nothing about the modern world…. Now, on the contrary, Islamists, as many observers have remarked, are, in effect, Westerners, inspired by modern political ideologies. Thus, the historian Bat Ye’or notes that Islamist ideologies “developed – not at all in a traditional and obscurantist milieu – but among intellectuals holding degrees from American and European universities.” [16] Daniel Pipes provides several concrete examples that illustrate this too often overlooked fact. Hassan Turabi, the Sudanese Islamist leader holds degrees from the University of London and the Sorbonne. [17] Abbassi Madani, leader of the Algerian FIS [Islamic Front for Salvation], has a doctorate in education from the University of London. Mohammed Abu Marzook, head of the political branch of Hamas, holds a degree from the University of Louisiana…. [18] (In a somewhat different register, Osama Ben Laden himself, who we have become used to seeing bearded and with a turban in front of the entry to his cave on Al-Jazeera, once upon a time, when he was performing his pilgrimage to Scandinavia – the holy place of sexual liberation – posed for a photo “beside a rather wild-looking Swedish blond wearing thigh-high boots and a mini-skirt”. [19])

What this enumeration shows – and it could easily be extended – is that the Islamists are, in effect, Westerners, educated in Western universities and using the concepts and tools of Western thought. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is precisely therein that their danger lies…. What is dangerous about the Islamists is not Islam, but the ideological usage that they make of it (hence the suffix –ist). For the Islamists, Islam serves, in effect, as a substratum upon which they construct an ideology of power inspired by European political ideologies (Communism, Fascism, Nazism). Paradoxically, however, at the same time the Islamists use their Western educations to make themselves accepted among Western audiences and to dissimulate the subversive and dangerous character of their ideology and their political objectives.

Tariq Ramadan is a virtuoso in playing upon this confusion and the basic misunderstanding of the real nature of Islamism that it entails. He presents himself as a “professor of philosophy and Islamology” and invokes his title of “expert consultant to different commissions attached to the European Parliament”…. He is at once the favorite lecturer of the Muslim Associations – an orator adored by the youth of the banlieues who represent that principal target of his propaganda – and “the reformist intellectual who defends a moderate Islam”…. He is the “pyromaniac fireman” who lights the flame of Islamism among his Muslim public and tells his Western interlocutors he is putting out the fire.

Jihad: the Core Ambiguity of Tariq Ramadan’s Discourse

In order to illustrate the fundamental ambiguousness of the discourse of Tariq Ramadan, we are going to see how he treats certain of the most delicate issues in the current debate about Islam. The best example is that of jihad, to which he has devoted a small book entitled Jihad, Violence, War and Peace in
. [20] Here is what he writes in the introduction:

The term jihad, which has become so widespread in the media, seems alone to bear the entire burden of the fears that Islam and Muslims provoke. What has one not heard, in effect, about “holy war”, about the fanatic mobilization of “God’s crazies”, about this “new scourge of rampant fundamentalism”?

What follows is characteristic of Ramadan’s modus operandi. To start with, he recognizes the pertinence of the question: “The observer is indeed forced to admit that Islam is in a regressive state nowadays, since everywhere we see groups, movements, parties and governments calling for jihad, for armed struggle, for political violence.” But immediately thereafter, having recognized the reality of jihad, he insidiously relativizes its significance:

Wars have never provoked as many deaths as the world order instituted over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries: currently, 40,000 persons die each day of hunger, of which approximately 10,000 die because of the debt. Never before this famous globalization… has any world order provoked as many deaths as have been provoked in the last two centuries and especially today. The calculation is very simple: every two days the current world order provokes the same number of deaths as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This global reality, this violence, is not a mater of arms.

This “very simple calculation” is typical of the style of argumentation of Tariq Ramadan and of his discourse: the true war-mongers are not those who call for jihad. The real guilty parties are the current world order and globalization. As proof, he calls upon the figure of 40,000 dying of hunger per day. Consequently, globalization kills more than jihad….

Following this introduction, Tariq Ramadan explains that jihad also designates an effort at internal purification and the “spiritualization of a being before the Creator”:

Everything in the message of Islam appeals for peace and co-existence among men and among nations. In all circumstances, one has to prefer dialogue to silence and peace to war. With the exception of one situation that makes struggle an obligation and opposition a testimonial of fidelity to the sense of one’s faith, jihad is the expression of the refusal of all injustice and of the necessary affirmation of equilibrium and of harmony in equity.

This passage invites several comments: in the first place, concerning the claim that “everything in the message of Islam appeals for peace.” It is not our purpose here to discuss the veracity of this proposition. Doing so would drag us into a false debate. In effect, as the specialist in Islam Olivier Roy has pointed out, what is important is not what the Quran says, but “what Muslims say the Quran says”. [21] It is not for us to determine the genuine message of Islam and of its fundamental texts. The latter are susceptible to diverse interpretations like all religious texts. The question that matters to us is whether Tariq Ramadan supports the jihad conducted by Islamist groups around the world in the name of Islam….

Now, on this crucial question, the response of Ramadan is clear: he is, in effect, in favor of jihad. Not only does he not condemn the terrorist groups who engage in jihad, but he justifies their actions by describing jihad as “armed resistance”… and invoking the authority of the Pope and the Abbé Pierre in support of this characterization! Thus, just as “the Pope took a position concerning the situation in the former Yugoslavia”, i.e. in favor of the use of force, and just as “the Abbé Pierre called for an armed intervention by the West in appealing to the example and the teachings of Jesus”, so there exist “situations in which armed resistance is legitimate”. The examples that Ramadan gives of such situations are revealing:

We do not deny that there are struggles that circumstances will lead us to have to confront with arms or stones in hand, in order to oppose ethnic cleansing here or military occupation there or another type of aggression like those…of which we continue to be witness in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in Chechnya or others [sic.].

This enumeration adheres to the Islamist vision of the world, which continuously exalts the jihad against the West undertaken by the “fighters for Islam” in Afghanistan, Palestine and Chechnya. It is precisely these three places that serve nowadays – along with Iraq – as the focal points of all the discourses calling for jihad and that one finds mentioned, notably, on the Islamist websites. Thus, far from condemning jihad, Ramadan in fact makes himself the apostle of jihad, calling it “armed resistance” and preaching struggle “with arms or stones in hand”…. It is not hard to understand, then, the opinion of Christian Delorme, a former fellow traveler of Ramadan, who nowadays asserts that “both the action and the thought of Tariq Ramadan are dangerous”. [22]

In fact, it would seem that certain of the followers of Ramadan have taken literally his call for “armed resistance” – like Djamel Beghal, the French terrorist implicated in planned al-Qaeda operations. During questioning by French investigators, Beghal declared: “Before 1994, I was not really [a] practicing [Muslim]. In 1994, I attended courses given by Tarek Ramadan….” [23] Or like the youthful French converts to Islam who have left to join jihad in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Bearing Witness (shahada): Another Example of the Double-Speak of Tariq Ramadan

We find the same ambivalent and hypocritical attitude in examining another of the key concepts in the discourse of Tariq Ramadan: that of bearing witness. This concept appears in many of Ramadan’s writings and he has even dedicated a whole book to it.

Of course, the entire world is a terrain for bearing witness. But there exists a space, bearing an incomparable symbolic charge, that constitutes the core of the entire system and where millions of Muslims live nowadays. At the center, more than anywhere else, the at once axial and radial principle of shahada takes on all its sense. [24]

In order to understand the true sense of the message of Ramadan, we need to pause to consider this essential term shahada. It bears several senses and Tariq Ramadan exploits this polysemic quality in order, in effect, to scramble his message. In Arabic, shahada signifies, in the first place, bearing witness or testimonial. It also serves to designate the profession of faith made by someone who converts to Islam. Finally, shahada designates dying for the glory of God: i.e., martyrdom. It is thus that the authors of suicide-attacks are called shahid, martyrs, by the Islamists and by their own families. In certain parts of the world, these shahid are the object of a genuine cult. (As is his habit, Ramadan plays on this ambiguity in speaking of shahada: a term that he translates as “bearing witness” for his western readers, but which takes on a very different connotation for the Arab-speaking reader.) In order to decrypt the true meaning of Tariq Ramadan’s message, it is necessary, then, to compare what he says concerning martyrdom as such with what he says about “bearing witness”.

In one of his most noted fatwas, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the President of the European Council of Fatwa and Research and Ramadan’s intellectual guide, authorized suicide-attacks, including those carried out by women. Now, asked about this very question in a collection of interviews, Ramadan not only does not contradict Qaradawi, but expressly and fully agrees with his assessment:

Martyrdom remains, however, a very important dimension of Islam, in the sense of resistance against oppression, against tyranny, for the protection of one’s being and/or one’s land. It is a genuine testimonial of one’s faith… Such is the genuine act of bearing witness, ash-shahada, a sign of sincerity and profundity. [25]

Thus, the “values” to which Muslims should “bear witness” according to Ramadan are hardly those of peaceful coexistence and inter-religious dialogue…. Ramadan, like Qaradawi, seems unreservedly to approve suicide-attacks carried out by Islamist terrorists against innocent civilians. He revisits the issue, moreover, in the same collection of interviews and, in response to a question of his interlocutor, Jacques Neirynck, he makes his approval perfectly clear:

Jacques Neirynck: It remains the case, nonetheless, that the image created by jihad scares the West. What shocks the most, of course, are those Muslims who sacrifice their lives. There have been suicide-commandos, notably in Beirut, against American and French troop barracks. There are regularly such attacks in Palestine…. During the Iran-Irak War, the Iranian army used children, who deliberately walked through minefields, to clear a path. Obviously, all of that makes the West uneasy…

Tariq Ramadan: …To resist all forms of oppression, all dictators and all unjust colonizations in the name of one’s faith, in the name of one’s human conscience, even going to the point of sacrificing one’s life if necessary – this represents a very strong recommendation of the quranic message. He who takes his resistance and his combat all the way [jusqu’au bout] is called shahid in Arabic: literally, he “bears witness”. [26]

This passage gives cause to pause. Tariq Ramadan’s response is clear and unequivocal. In the face of the feeling of “unease” invoked by his interlocutor, he seems entirely unperturbed in his apology of martyrdom and suicide-attacks. He does not dwell on the examples given by Jacques Neirynck: suicide attacks in Lebanon and in Palestine (that is to say, Israel) or child-soldiers in the Iran-Irak War. For Ramadan, the only thing that counts is the intangible, abstract principle of shahid, which he links to the “quranic message”. (In fact, the opinions of contemporary Islamic authorities are divided on this question. Several have expressed their disapproval of suicide-attacks – in particular, when they are committed by women or children – but not, as noted, Ramadan’s mentor Sheikh Qaradawi. [27])

The only limitation proposed by Tariq Ramadan concerns the age of the shahid. “The decision requires that the person who takes it has attained at least the age of puberty,” he says. This means, in more explicit terms, that thirteen-year-old children may commit suicide-attacks. Thus once it has been decrypted, the genuine message of Tariq Ramadan appears far less innocent than upon first glance. Behind the reassuring appearance of a “Muslim reformist”, partisan of a modern European Islam, there appears to lurk an apologist for suicide-attacks, for “human bombs” and child-soldiers.

Paul Landau is a specialist in Islamism and the author of numerous articles and the book-length study of Tariq Ramadan and the Muslim Brotherhood Le Sabre et le Coran (Éditions du Rocher, 2005). He is currently working on a study of Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the pre-WWII Mufti of Jerusalem. The present article has been adapted from chapter 8 of Le Sabre et le Coran with the kind permission of the Éditions du Rocher.

Translated from the French by Transatlantic Intelligencer
© 2005 Transatlantic Intelligencer. All Rights Reserved.


[1] « Le multiculturalisme: un produit du principe de précaution? », in L’Islam in France, special issue of the journal Cités (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2004).

[2] See, for instance, Tariq Ramadan, Aux sources du renouveau musulman. D’al-Afghani à Hassan al-Banna, un siècle de réformise islamique (Lyon : Éditions Tawhid, 2002).

[3] Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 24-28.

[4] See Paul Landau, Le sabre et le Coran (Éditions du Rocher, 2005), pp. 118-119.

[5] Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002), pp. 219-220.

[6] Dominique Urvoy, « La place du secret dans la pensée religieuse musulmane », interview in L’Islam in France.

[7] On the concept of the Ummah or Muslim community in contemporary Islamism, See Landau, Le sabre et le Coran, chapter 11.

[8] Ramadan, Aux sources du renouveau musulman, p. 105.

[9] On the purely tactical opposition between Qaradawi and Ben Laden, see Landau, Le sabre et le Coran, chapter 12.

[10] See Urvoy, « La place du secret dans la pensée religieuse musulmane ».

[11] [Director of the Islamic Center of Geneva. – Editor’s Note]

[12] Tariq Ramadan, Être musulman européen (Éditions Tawhid, 1999), p. 187.

[13] Tariq Ramadan, Musulmans d’Occident (Éditions Tawhid, 2002), pp. 53-54.

[14] Hassan Al-Banna, As-salam fil-islam [“Peace in Islam”], cited in Tariq Ramadan, Aux sources du renouveau musulman, p. 234.

[15] Kepel, Jihad, p. 369.

[16] Bat Ye’or, Juifs et chrétiens sous l’islam (Berg International, 1994), p. 202.

[17] On Tourabi and his influence on Tariq Ramadan, see Landau, Le sabre et le Coran, chapter 4.

[18] Daniel Pipes, “The Western Mind of Radical Islam”, First Things, December 1995.

[19] Gilles Kepel, Chroniques d’une guerre d’Orient (Gallimard, 2002), p. 84.

[20] Tariq Ramadan, Jihad, violence, guerre et paix en islam (Éditions Tawhid, 2002).

[21] Olivier Roy, Généalogie de l’islamisme (Hachette, 2001).

[22] See Landau, Le sabre et le Coran, chapter 6.

[23] Cited in S. Besson, « De Genève, deux frères inspirent l’islam militant en Europe », Le Temps, 30 September 2002.

[24] Tariq Ramadan, Dar ash-shahada, L’Occident, espace du témoignage (Éditions Tawhid, 2002), p. 72.

[25] Tariq Ramadan, Peut-on vivre avec l’islam?, Entretien avec Jacques Neirynck (Lausanne : Favre, 2004), p. 109.

[26] Tariq Ramadan, Peut-on vivre avec l’islam?, p. 179. Emphasis added.

[27] See Paul Landau, « La légalité des attentats-suicides au regard du droit musulman », Metula News Agency, September 29, 2004.