By Karen Armstrong
July 31, 2010
The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism,
By Tariq Ramadan
Allen Lane RRP£25, 224 pages
I was fully engaged with this book from the very first sentence – “This book is a journey and an initiation” – because an initiation is exactly what we need at this perilous moment in history. Like so many religious terms, the word initiation has lost much of its force in modern times. But in all the great spiritual traditions, initiation signified the creation, often painfully acquired, of a new self. Classical yoga, for example, was not an aerobic exercise but an initiation that consisted of a systematic dismantling of egotism. Those yogins who succeeded in extracting the “I” from their thinking found that, without the distorting filter of selfishness, they perceived the world quite differently.
Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University and author of The Quest for Meaning, is convinced that we are all experiencing a profound loss of confidence. “Fear, doubt and distrust are imperceptibly colonising our hearts and minds. And so the other becomes our negative mirror, and the other’s difference allows us to define ourselves, to ‘identify’ ourselves,” he writes. Ramadan has experienced this personally. A powerful voice for reform in the Muslim world, he is routinely vilified in the west – often by liberals who decry the absence of any such “reformation” in Islam. The suspicion and insecurity that have come to dominate our politics frequently prevents us from seeing others clearly; the “other” becomes our shadow-self: a projection of everything that we believe that we are not – or fear subliminally that we are.
The “toleration” that was the watchword of the Enlightenment philosophers is not enough, Ramadan argues. Toleration literally means “to suffer” or “to endure” the presence of others and implies a relationship of domination; the powerful are requested “to moderate their strength and to limit their ability to do harm”. But such grudging acceptance is detrimental to both the person who tolerates and the one whose presence is merely endured. What is required is respect, based on a relationship of equality. Tolerance can “reduce the other to a mere presence” but “respect opens up to us the complexity of his being”.
It is always a temptation to imagine that my truth is the only truth. But, Ramadan insists that there are universally shared truths that are arrived at differently in many systems of thought, secular and religious. If our choice of our own truth is at all meaningful, we must experience other truths as truthful: if our own truth is forced upon us by its uniqueness, it would lose its meaning. This perception of diversity is crucial to Hinduism, Buddhism, and the more profound forms of monotheism. The Koran, for example, endorses pluralism: “Had God so willed, he would have made you one single community.” (5.48).
This is a prophetic, passionate and insightful book. Ramadan’s message is urgent: our very survival depends upon our ability to build a harmonious, respectful global community. We have now entered the realm of emotional politics dominated by instantaneous public reactions. In this age of global communications, we are possessed by tidal waves of global emotions that inspired the mindless violence in the Muslim world after the publication of the Danish cartoons and the tearful ritual gatherings after the death of Princess Diana. Voters are now less interested in ideas and convictions but are mobilised instead “by their fears, their need for security, reassurance, comfort and clearly defined points of reference and identities”.
With populations kept in a constant state of alert, there is a mass feeling of victimisation, which erodes all sense of responsibility. Victims feel justified in blaming a “dangerous ‘other’ who is at once so far away, so close at hand and even among us that we no longer know who ‘we’ are”. The threat of terror is so great that ignoring human rights has become acceptable, so that surveillance, the loss of the right to privacy, summary extraditions and “civilised” torture camps are beginning to be taken for granted.
The remedy, Ramadan is convinced, is to reshape ourselves at a profound level. Time and again, he returns to this theme. The initiations devised by the religious, philosophers and the arts enabled practitioners to transcend the narrow confines of self-regarding, fearful egotism, in which “we” become the measure of all things. We need to understand what drives us, analyse our emotional blocks, wounds and anxieties and master them. Instead of blaming the other, we need to develop the critical ability to stand back and speak out against the abuses of “our” side, taking back full responsibility for our actions. We have to reacquaint ourselves with history, realising that there is no such thing as a “pure” personal or civilisational identity and that we have all been shaped by diverse influences.
But this, as Ramadan acknowledges, will not be easy. These days we expect instant transformation, instant makeovers, and the change wrought by conventional initiation is slow, incremental and imperceptible. We have lost the habit of inwardness and of open-hearted listening, and confuse emotion with spirituality. Ramadan is an important voice and his message could not be more relevant. But many will feel baffled by his eloquent plea for an empathy that makes room for the other in their minds and hearts: they would rather be right.
Initiation involves far more than an intellectual acceptance of a position; it has to reach a level deeper than the cerebral, so that we lay aside habitual modes of thought, abandon self-serving certainties, and realise how little we know about one another. If we cannot work assiduously to cultivate a profound sense of the unique sacredness of every single human being, we will enter a moral void. To begin their personal initiation, perhaps, readers should meditate on some of Ramadan’s words and make them their own. They would do well to start with his dedication of the book: “To the semi-colon”, which “in a world of simplified communications and simplistic binary judgments ... reconciles us with the plurality of propositions, and with the welcome nuances of the sentence and of complex realities.”
Karen Armstrong is author of ‘The Case for God’ (Vintage)