I had the opportunity to sit for a conversation with the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan at the end of the 2009 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal. Ramadan is a public intellectual who has been a figure of both much praise and much condemnation, occasioned by controversial statements and positions that have cast him alternately as courageous and dangerous. As an activist, Ramadan continues to call for European Muslims to resist the encumbrances of minority status and to strive to play a central role in European public life as engaged and active citizens. Through his writings and lectures, he speaks both with and on behalf of Muslims in the West, as well as for Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active in the academy and in various grassroots engagements, lecturing extensively on social justice and the necessity of inter-cultural dialogue. Ramadan describes his work as at once protecting “Muslim identity and religious practice” and encouraging the European Muslim “to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”

Professor Ramadan’s most recent publication is entitled What I Believe (Oxford University Press, 2009). His other books include Western Muslims and the Future of Islam; Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation; The Messenger: the Meanings of the Life of Muhammad; To Be a European Muslim: a Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context; and Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity. He is currently Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University (Oriental Institute, St Antony’s College). He also teaches at the Faculty of Theology at Oxford and is, at the same time, a Senior Research Fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

In July 2004, Professor Ramadan, under contract to teach at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, had his work visa revoked by the U.S. Department of State, under a provision of the Patriot Act. The ACLU and various academic organizations contested the government’s refusal to issue Ramadan a visa. In January 2010, the Obama State Department reversed the earlier decision, issuing an order allowing Ramadan to enter the country.

Professor Ramadan grew up as a practicing Muslim in Geneva, Switzerland, in a family with a widely known and—for many—controversial history of Egyptian religious and political leadership. Before we began the formal part of our conversation, Ramadan indicated that in nearly a dozen interviews during his visit to Montreal, he had repeatedly been asked to respond to various controversies surrounding statements he had made in regard to the Middle East and about his grandfather’s role as a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather than recapitulate these issues, forcing Ramadan to reiterate a series of refutations that he was clearly tired of making, I began by asking about his immediate family and his relationship with his parents. I wanted to know whether and how his parents had cultivated his identity as a Muslim. In a somewhat surprising turn, Ramadan told me of a childhood marked less by an insistence on becoming and being Muslim than by the instilling of the fundamental value of love. We begin the conversation below with a discussion of Ramadan’s education and his ongoing work as an advocate for Islam in the West.

The following is a brief excerpt of the interview. Click here to read the entire transcript (pdf).

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DKK: I’m fascinated by your attraction to Nietzsche as a student. You wrote your dissertation on him, and I can certainly understand the appeal of his engagement with suffering, as well as the eventual affirmation that you find in his work. But what attraction was there for you in Nietzsche’s wrestling with nihilism and his characterization of the implosion of Christianity?

TR: You know, many people misunderstand this, because they think that I was coming to Nietzsche because he was very critical towards Christianity, and that, as a Muslim, I was very happy when he said, “God is dead.” It’s exactly the opposite, in fact. I read Nietzsche for other reasons. I read everything that was published. I had to do this. I wanted to add to the concept of suffering in Nietzsche’s philosophy, which was Nietzsche as a historian of philosophy. Because he was, as Heidegger said, the last metaphysician. And he took a very strong and critical look at everything which was coming out of the Western tradition. But he was distorting Socrates, Hegel, and even Schopenhauer and other scholars.

DKK: Sure.

TR: But this was very important. I wanted to read what they said, and to read what he said about what they said, and how he was interpreting them. And then there was a point that was quite critical for me, which was that Nietzsche, when he was young, was a believer; and then at one point, he asked the question: “Does your faith help you to avoid the very essence of who you are? Is it, at the end of the day, a question of a power struggle with others?”

So, from where do you get your power? From where do you get your confidence? And, more importantly, from where do you get your answers? Is it, per se, an answer that you are getting out of your own quest? Or is it a power struggle and a relationship with the Other? He was asking a very critical question for me that was…

DKK: Deeply existential!

TR: Exactly! This was an existential question. But, in the end, it’s really saying, “Tell me what you are doing with your suffering, and I will tell you who you are.” So, are you using the suffering to transform it into a sense of guilt? Or are you using the suffering to be a better human being? And this was the very question, because he said that we are innocent—so use your suffering to be an artist, and not to be someone who is deeply obsessed with the sense of guilt.

DKK: Ressentiment.

TR: Exactly: le ressentiment and le mépris, and this power struggle. So I would say that this is essential, because in the name of religious love, in the name of this connection with God, we can translate this quest for meaning into a power relationship, and I don’t like that. But I think that he was asking the critical question, and the central one as well, which was about innocence. What is innocence in our lives? And this is a very deep question for the Christian tradition.

DKK: Yes, of course.

TR: What is innocence? And in the Muslim tradition, the classical Islamic tradition, we say, “the starting point is all about innocence and permission,” but it’s very often distorted by people of power, by people of rules, and I think that Nietzsche is philosophically asking the right question to people dealing with the legal dimensions of religions.

DKK: You see the kind of agonistic struggle that Nietzsche was advocating, in the Islamic context, as a challenge to the literalists. But Nietzsche was contrasting strong notions of good and evil, inflexible conceptions, and the ways in which those over-determine the self and over-determine possibility.

TR: Yes.

DKK: So that, on the one hand, there’s the romantic Nietzsche, who, as you just said, would proclaim. “I am free to make myself who I am and who I want to be!” But then, on the other hand, there’s a grounded Nietzchean reading that says, “I only read myself over and against these traditions that I have to resist,” which is to say that the death of God moment is a temporary moment, that the nihilistic moment is a temporary moment of freedom, and that there has to be a kind of strenuousness to one’s resistance and one’s criticism.

TR: Yes, but I think that this is disputable, because Nietzsche had many stages. And I think that this power of will and the will to power—everything that he was connecting to art and to this dimension of…

DKK: Music.

TR: Yes, music, being something which is beyond human being and beyond morality. And even beyond this are the jails and prisons of human conscience and consciousness. I think that this is not only a matter of resisting, or of indicating a tension within Christianity. Nietzsche was really asking, “What is the essence of a human being?” It’s ultimately about who we are.

You know, when he came back to the Greek tradition, he was looking for innocence beyond anything else. If the Olympian gods are acting or behaving like this, it means that we are innocents. We do what they do, and they cannot blame us for doing what they are doing. So, this innocence is something you find at the end of the nineteenth century, for example, in the French poet Rimbaud. It was exactly the same for him.  He was looking at coming back to Greece—the classical Greek and Hellenistic traditions—to avoid nurturing a sense of guilt. But I would say that it’s not only against tradition. It’s really the deep question of who we are in this being and how do we deal with life, since life means suffering.

This interview has been edited and condensed. To continue reading, click here for a complete transcript (pdf).—ed.