The contrast could not have been more jarring. Outside, a small group of rabid protesters, shouting threateningly, carrying megaphones, signs, and cameras. Inside, a rapt crowd of 600 listening quietly to a message of civic engagement delivered by one of the Muslim world’s most articulate writers and thinkers, Dr. Tariq Ramadan.
It’s a shame that the protestors came to disrupt rather than to listen to Dr. Ramadan. It’s likely that they would have been both encouraged and challenged by Ramadan’s talk. Encouraged because he calls citizens to be involved and express themselves through our democratic mechanisms – exactly as the protesters were. Challenged because he calls citizens to think deeply about the issues facing our divided societies, and to face our fears with rationality – precisely where our protesters fell short.
Ramadan is perhaps the most prominent Muslim philosopher and thinker in the West. Swiss-born, but of Egyptian background, Ramadan is now currently a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford. In parallel, he holds several other visiting professor positions throughout the world. In 2000, Time Magazine named him one of seven greatest religious innovators of the 21st century; and in 2004, Time called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
There is no doubt that Ramadan is doing something right, because he has fierce critics in both the East and the West. But he has a massive and devoted following of people who appreciate his timely message for our troubled world: that Islam calls Muslims to commit to universal values of human rights and civil liberties, and that Western Muslims must engage fully and constructively in their host societies. Coming to Canada, Ramadan was to deliver his talk, “Creating thriving societies in troubling times,” to audiences in Calgary, Edmonton, London and Toronto.
So as US President Donald J. Trump made his inaugural address, and as the Women’s March on Washington attracted millions, Ramadan was in Canada calling Canadians of all backgrounds to a higher level of citizenship. He called Muslim and non-Muslim citizens alike to act as “integrated citizens”: not forsaking their individual identities, but leveraging them for the richness they bring to our citizenship. So whether of Arab or European background, or Muslim, Christian or Jew, he encouraged members of his audience to use their individual identities to enliven their ability to act and contribute to society.
Just metres away, one Canadian was doing just that to prevent the event’s protestors from becoming more disruptive. Fatima, one of the organizers’ volunteers, was outside discussing with the protesters, and addressing their angry and hateful discourse head on. A brilliant MBA student at the Rotman school at the UofT, Fatima is half Quebecois, and half Pakistani, and understands Western and Eastern prejudices better than most other Canadians. Composed and pleasant, she answered the protestors’ taunts with deft competence and a sense of humour, and kept them at bay for two hours.
While the protestors held signs that said, “Coran is hate,” and accused Ramadan of being a “terrorist,” Ramadan himself was explaining the seven C’s of citizenship to the audience inside. Communication, conviction, commitment, compassion: all mindsets that we need to adopt to enable our society to thrive. “Conformity” was certainly not one of his seven C’s: Ramadan called his listeners to listen, analyse, and disagree when necessary. “Change the players,” Ramadan asserted, when our institutions fail to serve the societies that elect them. Rather than being protesters outside the system, Ramadan called his audiences to see a role for themselves in the institutions that serve our democracy.
Turning philosophical at a point, Ramadan talked about human nature, and our tendency to be tantalized by both evil and good. In this context, he called for a renewal of society at all levels: an intellectual renewal, where we turn away from ideas that demonize and antagonize, and turn toward ideas that elevate and reconcile. A social renewal, where we shun practices that divide and marginalize, to be replaced by practices which unite and integrate. A political renewal, where we abandon a discourse of violence and hegemony, and favour a discourse of harmony and global welfare.
While Ramadan’s audience was disproportionately Muslim, his talk would have resonated with all audiences. In this time of fear and suspicion between countries and communities, a call for a rational response to the troubles we face as a world is essential. Fortunately, Ramadan was able to deliver to Canadians at a time when Trump and many other Western demagogues only exacerbate the tensions and problems.