Why Are “Moderates” so Reluctant to Criticize Religion?

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Why Are “Moderates” so Reluctant to Criticize Religion?

Why will Ramadan not take a stance on the harsh punishments prescribed by sharia law? His reasons seem to be multifarious. On the one hand there is the motive analyzed above. Ramadan seems to think that by means of “interpretation” we can achieve any result that seems acceptable. The relevance of this conviction is clear. If one is convinced that any desired social change can be effected by reading the prescripts in a way that is conducive to that end, one will be less enthusiastic about undermining scriptural authority. Why bother to demystify the notion of scriptural authority if you can read everything you wish into Holy Scripture? Why advocate adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents if, without acknowledging them explicitly, you can always read those human rights clauses into every biblical or qur’anic passage? Many who have a reputation of being reformers of religion seem to be motivated by this relativist stance towards interpretation. It is also, as we have seen, presupposed in what Ramadan contends. His relativist theory convinces him that by means of interpretation we can achieve everything. In combination with, or rather based on, this he presents a strategic argument. Condemning a religion “by its very essence, is not only unjust but deeply counterproductive,” Ramadan writes. He specifies: “It does not help the inner dynamic of reforms.”

Again, like a modern Carlyle, we have to address the underlying presuppositions of these words. The presupposition in this case is that criticizing a religion directly is “counterproductive” or – as Ramadan says – “deeply counterproductive.”[111] Ramadan makes allusions to an “inner dynamic of reforms.” But what does “inner dynamic of reforms” mean? Does it mean that in criticizing objectionable cultural practices we can only expect to make minimal progress, step by step? Do we first have to advocate a reduction of the amount of lashes from 200 to 100 before we can advocate the abolition of lashing altogether?[112]

On this topic there was a notorious confrontation between Ramadan and the incumbent president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy (1955- ). The subject of their discussion was the stoning of women accused of adultery. Ramadan did not clearly reject this practice. He proposed a “moratorium” on the stoning of women. Sarkozy, incensed, criticized him heavily for this, just as Hirsi Ali did in the case of the Saudi woman accused of mingling. There is a transcript of this debate between Sarkozy and Ramadan, made by Aziz Zemouri:

Sarkozy: A moratorium … Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?
Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.
Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should for a while hold back from stoning women?
Ramadan: No, no, wait … What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community … Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying: “Me, my own position.” But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities. Mr. Sarkozy, it’s necessary that you understand …[113]

But Sarkozy remained implacable, as we can understand. “To stone a woman because she is an adulterer. That’s monstrous!” Sarkozy exclaimed. He deemed it necessary to condemn the stoning outright.[114] But according to Ramadan this was “too easy.”

Many commentators have censored Ramadan for this. Paul Berman writes: “Some six million French people watched that exchange. A huge number of Muslim immigrants must have been among them – the very people who might have benefited from hearing someone speak with absolute clarity about violence against women. Ramadan couldn’t do it.”[115]

But the question is why couldn’t he do it?

There are three possible answers to this question. The first is the answer given by people who feel sympathetic to Ramadan’s approach. They usually consider the exchange of views with Sarkozy as an unfortunate accident that does not manifest Ramadan’s true opinion. He was a bit clumsy, perhaps, in answering the experienced debater Sarkozy, but, surely, Ramadan is against stoning. So, why all the fuss?

This answer does not seem very convincing to me, because the same point returns in the discussion with Hirsi Ali. In the discussion with Sarkozy Ramadan was disinclined to reject stoning outright; in the discussion with Hirsi Ali, he was not prepared to reject the flogging of the woman who “mingled” outright. There seems to be a pattern there. So the question still stands: why?

A second answer is that given by those who simply do not trust Ramadan. He has a double agenda, they say.[116] He poses as a reformer, but he is not one. Of course he will never reject stoning for adulterers; neither will he reject flogging for minglers. The reason is simple: he is not really opposed to those practices.

Tariq Ramadan.
Tariq Ramadan

To evaluate this claim we would have to read all of Ramadan’s work, as Caroline Fourest (1975- ) and Paul Landau, two of Ramadan’s most severe detractors, have done.[117] I have not read all of Ramadan’s writings; only the books by Fourest and Landau. So I will not presume to present expert judgment on Ramadan’s motives. But what I can do is to point out that there is a third explanation of his curious behavior. That is that Ramadan is under the spell of post-modern ideology. According to postmodernists, texts can mean everything. So “cruel and unusual punishments” in Scripture, which are so disquieting for people who believe a text has a fixed meaning, do not worry the postmodernist in the least. The postmodernist is convinced that simply by reading the text differently, by “interpreting” it, he can achieve any result.

The upshot of all this is that we can have our cake and eat it too. We can stick to the idea of an eternal revealed text and at the same time make the text do the work we want it to do. From this perspective, any attack on the text, on scriptural authority, divine revelation, and other elements of the theistic way of thinking contradicts “the inner dynamic of reforms.” It’s all “deeply counterproductive.” So we should never target “religion per se” as the cause of problems. It’s after all only a matter of interpretation.

Ramadan seems completely confident about the superiority of his cautious way of operating if compared with the more straightforward approach of critics of the Islamic religion such as Hirsi Ali,[118] Taslima Nasreen,[119] Irshad Manji,[120] Mina Ahadi,[121] Wafa Sultan,[122] Necla Kelek,[123] Nonie Darwish,[124] and others. But his confidence is predicated on a spurious notion of relativism about the meaning of texts, and therefore ultimately not very convincing. Which approach is the most fruitful remains to be seen, but as long as the one favored by Ramadan has not been vindicated by spectacular results, I am inclined to be skeptical. In the light of the problems as sketched before, the outright rejection of the idea of scriptural authority seems to be more straightforward and intellectually promising than any alternative I am aware of. There will always be parts of Holy Scripture that pose a problem to our modern morality and politics. And the sooner we acknowledge this, the more effective we will be in fighting injustice in this world.

Although Tariq Ramadan uses the concept of “Euro-Islam” it is hard to see that the kind of Islam he envisages is very promising. Much more attractive seems the perspective of Euro-Islam as developed by Bassam Tibi (1944- ). Tibi coined the concept “Euro-Islam” in 1998 in his book Europa ohne Identiät [Europe without Identity] (1998)[125] and further developed this idea in Euro-Islam (2009).[126] The difference between Ramadan and Tibi is that Tibi presents a kind of Islam that is really in harmony with democracy, human rights, and the European concept of freedom of the individual. Tibi defends Islam against Islamism, but he also defends European culture against erosion and he warns against the concessions that are being made by the politically correct European elite to extremist variants of Islam, which will undermine a culture of freedom in the long run.

I have now presented my analysis of a text from the Qur’an. My conclusion is that it seems difficult to deny that in the holy scripture of Islam there are passages that incite violence. My second example is from the Bible. We have seen, also in Ramadan’s criticism of Hirsi Ali, that there are violent passages in holy books other than the Qur’an. And although this was a weak argument to counter the claims of Hirsi Ali, because she focused on actual violence against contemporary Islamic women, the statement in itself is true. There is a plethora of violent texts in the Bible, above all in the Old Testament. Because these texts are not the basis for the actual stoning, flogging, and decapitation of people, they are less discussed by social reformers. But for the sake of a good understanding of how scriptural authority works, and what might be the answer to it, I will dwell on some problematic passages from the Old Testament as well. For the general argument developed in The Secular Outlook it is important to understand the whole structure of reasoning connected to religious ethics, that is: ethics based on religious foundations.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

[111] One of the strong points of Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God is that he convincingly demonstrates that the dominant relativistic mindset is based on assumptions that are just as dubious as the mindset of the religious believer. See on this: ibid., pp. 5-21.

[112] This seems to be the interpretation that Walter Laqueur gives to Ramadan’s remarks on this subject. He writes about Ramadan’s proposal to take a less strict attitude towards some religious precepts: “His suggestions were unanimously rejected. As one of the legal scholars put it, if we call for a moratorium on stoning women and the death penalty, tomorrow there will be the demand to abolish the Friday prayer. (Ramadan had not asked for the abolition of the old laws, only a moratorium.)” See: Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe, p. 92.

[113] Quoted in: Berman, “Who is afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” p. 58.

[114] This stance by Sarkozy is all the more remarkable because he cannot be accused of antireligious bias. About terrorists he says “Ces fous de Dieu n’ont rien à voir avec Lui ” [These madmen for God have nothing to do with Him]. And further: “Ils détournent un message d’amour et de paix en instrument de guerre” [They distort a message of love and peace into an instrument of war]. See: Sarkozy, N., La République, les religions, l’espérance. Entretiens avec Thibaud Collin et Philippe Verdin [The Republic, Religions, Hope. Conversations with Thibaudet Collin and Philippe Verdin], Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris 2004, p. 9.

[115] Berman, “Who is afraid of Tariq Ramadan?”, p. 58.

[116] See e.g.: Caldwell, Christopher, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London 2009, p. 237 ff.

[117] Fourest, Caroline, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, Encounter Books, New York 2008; Landau, Paul, Le Sabre et le Coran. Tariq Ramadan et les Frères Musulmans à la Conquête de l’Europe [The Sabre and the Qur’an. Tariq Ramadan and the Muslim Brothers out to Conquer Europe], Éditions du Rocher, Paris 2005.

[118] Hirsi Ali, Ayaan, Infidel: My Life, The Free Press, London 2007.

[119] Nasreen, Taslima, Selected Columns, Translated by Debjani Sengupta, Srishti Publishers, New Dehli 2004.

[120] Manji, Irshad, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2003.

[121] Ahadi, Mina, (with Sina Vogt), Ich habe abgeschworen: warum ich für die Freiheit und gegen den Islam kämpfe [I have Apostatized: Why I Fight for Freedom and against Islam], Heyne, München 2008.

[122] Sultan, Wafa, A God who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2009.

[123] Kelek, Necla, Die fremde Braut: Ein Bericht aus dem inneren des türkischen Lebens in Deutschland [The Foreign Bride: A Report from inside Turkish Life in Germany], Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2005.

[124] Darwish, Nonie, Cruel and Unusual, Thomas Nelson, Nashville 2008.

[125] Tibi, Bassam, Europa ohne Identität? Leitkultur oder Wertebeliebigkeit [Europe without Identity? Leading Culture or Arbitrariness in Values], 2nd ed., Siedler, München 2001 (1998).

[126] Tibi, Bassam, Euro-Islam: Die Lösung eines Zivilisationskonfliktes [Euro-Islam: The Solution to a Conflict of Civilizations], Primus Verlag, Darmstadt 2009.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dave Rubin Discuss Her Life, Islam and the Regressive Left (Full Interview)

Debate: Atheist vs Muslim (Christopher Hitchens vs Tariq Ramadan)

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here