Tariq Ramadan’s book, Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity, discusses the misconceptions both of Muslims and Westerners that Islam is not compatible with modernization. While the West is generally seen as a rational bastion of human rights, the Muslim world is portrayed by the media as a backward part of the world in which women’s rights are trampled on. For Ramadan, “The question becomes then, can the Muslim world accede to modernity without denying some of the fundamentals of the Islamic religion?” (1) Ramadan will assert that modernization is indeed possible.
Contrasting the history of the West with that of the Muslim world, Ramadan shows that historical events have had a strong impact on how rationality, rights and values are understood. The West, shaped by a revolt against the authoritarian Church, has created a rational skeptical system devoid of God and religious values (5). Thus, while human rights are touted in the West, blind scientism and endless progress have isolated men from each other and from God (7). The Muslim world, in contrast, has never had such a culture of doubt and thus has not moved away from a God-centered universe. The history of colonialism has left its mark, however, and the Muslim world is continuing to fight against anything perceived of as Western. Ramadan reminded his readers that this fight against “Westernization” should not be equated with a fight against modernization (7). The West, he holds, represents only one kind of modernization.
Ramadan attempts to show that despite the lack of progress and human rights present in contemporary Muslim governments, Islam is not incompatible with modernity (12). Ramadan attempts to prove that Islam is compatible with democratic principles as well as modern progress through an appeal to a non-literal interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna, a look at ijtihad, an explanation of the original permission given by God to do all that is not prohibited (19), instructions in Medina to tolerate all religions (24), and an appeal to historical rights of non-Muslims. Ramadan stresses that this Islamic interpretation of modernity would be different than that of the West due to the centrality of communalism within Islam, for one must be united both with God and with other men.
The book highlights some of the major problems within the Islamic world that work against a healthy modern culture. Ramadan cites the lack of human rights and unaccountable dictatorships as a strong roadblock against modernization. According to Ramadan, this is particularly difficult to change due to Western interests in keeping the Muslim world stable and predictable (274), dictators’ interests in keeping their positions, and a lack of political culture in many Muslim countries. Another challenge is the identification of modernization with Westernization, which leads to either a rejection of the modern world and its human rights or an embrace of a soulless capitalism that benefits only the ruling elite. Those who do genuinely want a healthy modernization have proclaimed Islam as the solution to contemporary hardships, but fail to offer a plan or clear vision of such a system (45-46). This failure is what Ramadan attempts to remedy.
Throughout the book, Ramadan identifies misconceptions and generalizations that prevent his readers from seeing how Islam can cope with modernity, even while his own misconceptions color the work. Ramadan bases his discussion of a modern Islamic state on the belief that though Islamic countries are not currently “modern,” there is nothing in the Islamic worldview which prevents them from being so. Islam itself is not opposed to modernization. However, there are a few problems with this formulation. First, Ramadan never clearly places his interpretation of Islam against other interpretations and therefore never explains why his interpretation is the correct one. Which leads one to question: what Quranic passages is Ramadan leaving out? Why is a literal interpretation of the Quran to be rejected? The second problem with this formulation is that this principle is not applied equally. While Ramadan holds that the vision of Islam (its ideal beliefs and goals) should be examined rather than the corruptions of Islam in the world, he does not think to do this in regards to rationalism, liberalism, individualism, or capitalism. Rather, all of these Western systems are quickly proclaimed to be untenable because they do not work perfectly in today’s world. In a similar vein, Ramadan rails against the distorted Western perceptions of the Muslim world which paint the Muslim as violent and suppressing women. Ramadan then pays lip service to the opposite, stating that Muslims have a simple perception of the West as well, equating it with Christianity. However, Ramadan’s own portrayal of the West is far worse than the simple Christian vision he rejects in his contemporaries. To Ramadan, the West is devoid of all values, rational to the point of being anti-religious (246), individualistic to the point of desiring no solidarity (247), and economically driven to the point of exploiting all things with no moral or governmental regulation (246). It seems clear that Ramadan’s perception of the West is highly skewed rather than based on fact. If one thing should be clear in an examination of the West, or of anywhere for that matter, it should be that there are always multiple perspectives. There is no “Western” mindset anymore than there is one “Islamic” mindset. In this sense, Ramadan’s book, while offering a valid interpretation of how Islam can adapt to modernity, is simplistic and highly subjective.