One year after the shock and outrage of 7/7, we have an optimistic report from the frontline of Islamic reform. In the past couple of decades, the promise that Europe’s Muslim minorities would act as a bridgehead between a beleaguered Islam and the west has not been fulfilled. If anything, a culturally disoriented second and even third generation of Muslims has been disproportionately drawn to the reassuring certainties of fundamentalism and identity politics. But things may be starting to change, especially in Britain, where a more confident Muslim middle class is emerging and wants a faith that is relevant to its life here—not one based on a literal adherence to the customs of 7th-century Arabia.
One of the standard-bearers of this new “rationalism” is Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-Egyptian philosopher who insists that the Koran must be read in its historical context. Ramadan’s celebrity status among Muslims derives less from his film-star good looks than his family connections—his Egyptian grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood—and the fact that he was absurdly banned from taking up an academic post in the US in 2004. In our interview with him, Ramadan warns against the temptations of identity politics and the Muslim grievance culture; he wants confident, integrated European Muslims to modernise a faith which he acknowledges to be facing a crisis of authority. Ramadan is often accused of a “double discourse”—tailoring his message to different audiences. There may be some truth in that, but Ramadan is a politician trying to change a conservative faith from the inside. Many Muslims—both moderate and militant—believe that Islam’s resistance to modernisation has been one of its great strengths, and they point to the weakening of other faiths, most notably Christianity, once literalism is abandoned. Loosening the grip of this seductive idea and accepting the historic distinction between citizen and believer is just the starting point for the reform project pursued by Ramadan and his fellow modernisers. It is vital for Europe’s future that they succeed.
Elsewhere in this issue you will find another optimistic report—on the state of British music. Nick Crowe’s ambitious audit is necessarily partial and we welcome alternative accounts.