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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Islam in America under President Barack Obama

Aired April 8, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00]

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, almost one year after U.S. President Barack Obama offered the Muslim world a new beginning, is the outreach working?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

The U.S. has set a new tone towards the Muslim world under President Obama, and it's a sharp change from feelings during the Bush administration, especially after 9/11, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were perceived by many as a war against Islam and Islamic radicalism was identified as a major threat for the U.S.

President Obama reportedly wants to remove such language from national security documents, extending the approach that he unveiled in Cairo last June.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: And it wasn't just Muslim countries that were caught up in the U.S. struggle against terrorism. So were some Muslim individuals, such as the Swiss-born Egyptian scholar Tariq Ramadan. He was accused of helping the Palestinian group Hamas, even though he denied it, and he was refused entry to the United States in 2004, as he was preparing to become professor at Notre Dame University in the American Midwest.

But last year, he won an appeal against the ruling, and he's visiting America for the first time since then. Tariq Ramadan joins me for his first interview back in the United States.

So thank you for being here.

TARIQ RAMADAN, MUSLIM SCHOLAR: Thank you for your invitation.

AMANPOUR: So you must be really relieved to be back in the United States, right?

RAMADAN: Yes, I'm happy. And it's, for me, you know, the whole process is clearing my name from all these wrong allegations and accusations, and now it's quite clear that, you know, my record is clear and there is nothing wrong in what I have been doing.

AMANPOUR: Do you think you were caught up in the heat of that moment back in 2004, or do you think some of those sensitivities remain?

RAMADAN: I think that it's deeper than that, because just after September the 11th, I came here, and I was invited, and I spoke -- I was even invited to the State Department to give a lecture there. So it was really about my criticism towards the American policy in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and what I called the unilateral support towards the Israeli government, not respecting the Palestinian rights. So it was at that moment under the Bush administration.

AMANPOUR: So now you're back, and you've got a series of public events planned. Tonight you're going to talk about Islam in the secular world. You're going to Chicago, you said. You're going to Washington. Why are you back and taking such a public profile, high profile?

RAMADAN: Look, because, in fact, this story with the previous administration is over. Now it's really for me to come to the essential. And the essential is to say, for example, as a European and as a Westerner, that Islam is a Western religion and that Muslims are now American Muslims, European Muslims, and we have to live together. We have a common future.

It's quite important to reach out. This is the time when we need more explanation, more dialogue, and understanding better what the president, Barack Obama, said in Cairo was this. It was not only a speech towards the -- directed towards the Muslims and the Muslim-majority countries. It was also to the Americans understanding that now we are living together.

And the second point, which is very important for me, is the critical responsibility of the Western Muslims towards the Muslim-majority countries. This is also something that we have to do, because if we want democratization, if we want to live together, if we want to share values and hopes, it's very important to engage in this dialogue.

AMANPOUR: So, President Obama, as we mentioned, and as the world knows, has sort of charted a different course towards the Muslim world. That speech in Cairo was quite revolutionary. Has the promise of that speech been fulfilled even in part over the last year?

RAMADAN: I think that, you know, we have to be constructively critical. Many things are still the same and remain the same. What he came with was a new vision and a new discourse, a new way to talk to the Muslims and to talk about our diversity and living together, and this has to be acknowledged.

What he said, for example, about us living together and the values, this, you know, Cairo speech was very deep and very well thought.

[15:05:00]

Now the point is that these were, you know, words. Still, what I'm -- when I'm talking with ACLU and all the organizations who are supporting me, the American Academy of Religion and the American Association of University Professors (inaudible) they were supporting me and what they are saying is that there is a new policy towards, you know, individual and scholars coming in the country. Still now we have to think about, you know, anything which has to do with security, and still we have scholars not being able to come in, and still we have Guantanamo, and still we have Iraq, and many international things.

AMANPOUR: Well, right, and precisely the things that you criticized the previous administration for. There is still a war in Afghanistan.

RAMADAN: Exactly, yes.

AMANPOUR: There is a war still in Iraq, although the president wants to remove all troops. There's still no resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Are you going to say anything different about this administration than you did the last one?

RAMADAN: It's quite clear that it's changing, and we have to acknowledge the shift. I don't want to criticize for the sake of criticizing. It's really constructive criticism.

So, yes, we are waiting for this administration to deliver and more practical things. We heard the words; now we need, you know, practical things to be done. And then, for example, when you had tensions with the Israeli government today, still the Palestinians are suffering in Gaza and they are suffering in the West Bank. We need things to be changed, and we need also this discourse on Islam to be translated into something which is a real policy for the future.

So I would say exactly the same as to what we are expecting, but there are positive trends that we have to take into account.

AMANPOUR: You, yourself, Mr. Ramadan, are a very controversial figure. You describe yourself as a Muslim reformer, as an Islamic reformer, and yet there are many people who say that you speak with a forked tongue, and I'm going to show you the cartoon -- and it's one of many, many cartoons that have been put out about you, this one particularly on a Canadian Web site, and we'll have it full screen.

Basically, people are saying, because of some of the positions that you take or do not take, that you present yourself as one thing, but that you are an Islamist in sheep's clothing, as some people have said. You are a closet fundamentalist. Or as the French academic Caroline Fourest has said -- what has she said -- "I don't see anyone today who's as effective as Tariq Ramadan in furthering fundamentalism in France," for instance.

So you're very controversial, because you do not take absolute positions against certain things that people in democracies, people in the West believe should be condemned out of hand.

RAMADAN: I think that this is...

AMANPOUR: Such as stoning of women.

RAMADAN: No, this is completely wrong, because you have to come to what I'm saying and now the way it's described by people.

AMANPOUR: Can I show you then what you were saying...

RAMADAN: Yes...

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: ... in -- in a French debate with then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy back in 2003? Now, these are the pictures. What basically you were saying was, we should have a moratorium on stoning of women, while we can get a consensus amongst Islamic scholars. And Mr. Sarkozy was furious. He said, what do you mean a moratorium? Don't you condemn it out of hand? What are you saying, that we just stop it a little bit, discuss it, and then continue it?

So, tell us, should you not condemn out of hand stoning of women for whatever reason?

RAMADAN: No, this is not the point, and the way you are translating what I am saying, what I said, is wrong. What I was saying is that myself, in my position, is this. I'm against implementing not only stoning. It's the hodud (ph), what we call in Arabic, the hodud (ph), is the penal code. Stoning, death penalty, and corporal punishment.

My position is that this is not implementable, but we are dealing with Muslims, and we are dealing with governments, and they are -- they believe in the Koran and they believe in the scriptural sources, and we have texts on this. To condemn sitting in Paris is not going to change anything on the ground, while, for example, France or the United States of America are dealing with these petro monarchies and they are dealing with governments implementing them.

My position is quite clear. I'm against implementing them, and what I'm asking the scholars is three things. What do the texts say? What are the conditions? And in which context?

As long as we don't come to this answer, we have to stop. So look at my pedagogical way to deal with...

AMANPOUR: So what -- so what are you saying, that they should be stopped, but you should have an agreement by Muslim scholars?

RAMADAN: No, no, we should -- you know, of course you are not going to impose into the Muslims to stop it while you are not doing it in Saudi Arabia, for example. You accept it to happen because they have the money that keep you -- to keep us quiet.

My position is quite clear. In the name of Islam, we have to stop and to come to a moratorium on this and to have a discussion, exactly like Amnesty International, when it comes to death penalty, it's saying, let us first go for a moratorium, to stop it right now, and then to have a discussion. What is wrong with this?

[15:10:00]

AMANPOUR: But to have a discussion to lead to what, to a full stop?

RAMADAN: For me -- for me, it's quite clear that this is not implemented, because the conditions and the very essence of the text is not now respected. It's done against poor people and women. So if you reduce what I'm saying to the way you translated it right now, of course, say, oh, he's not quite clear. Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: No, no, I translated what you said and what President Sarkozy said.

RAMADAN: No, no, no. No, no, no. No, no, no. No, he took this in three minutes, and he was playing with words, because today you know what he's saying? Today President Sarkozy is telling us that Saudi Arabia is a moderate country. Well, who has double talk?

So let me come to one point which is quite important for me, is that when you talk to Muslims -- and we want things to change -- you have to listen to the condition and to take into account their environment. You cannot just impose democracy by (inaudible) these are the principles that you have to follow. Let the Muslims come to their principles from within. And this is exactly what I am doing.

So there is no double-talk. If there was a double talk, why would be -- would I be banned from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, and six Muslim- majority countries? Why?

AMANPOUR: We will...

RAMADAN: A double talk...

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: We'll talk more about this, plus the condition for Muslims in Europe and in the United States. Stay with us. We'll be back with more from Tariq Ramadan in a moment. And also, James Zogby will join us. He's the president of the Arab-American Institute, and we will talk again about challenges facing Islamic communities in the United States and in Europe.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:13:30]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICOLAS SARKOZY, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): The burqa is not a religious symbol. It's a sign of enslavement, of debasement. I want to say this solemnly: The burqa will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic. We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind a net, deprived of all social life, deprived of their identity. This is not how the French republic perceives the dignity of women.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: That was French President Nicolas Sarkozy weighing in again on this debate and talking in June of last year. Joining me again here in the studio, Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, and in Washington, James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute.

Mr. Zogby, thank you for joining us. Tariq Ramadan, thank you for staying with us.

JAMES ZOGBY, ARAB-AMERICAN INSTITUTE: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk about what President Sarkozy said again there. He's talking about religious symbols, religious -- religious clothing. Is that something you agree with, that women in France should not wear the burqa in public places?

RAMADAN: No, I don't agree with this. I don't -- you know, I didn't agree with the French policy banning the headscarf in schools. I said it's wrong. And new laws for banning the niqab, covering the face, or the burqa in the streets is not going to happen. First we got the European Union saying this is not legal, this is not constitutional.

So my position is that the starting point is to have a position of principle. It's against Islam to impose to a women to wear the headscarf or the burqa. It's against the human rights to impose to a woman to take it off. This should be the principle of freedom.

And the second thing is, I don't think that the burqa or the niqab is an Islamic prescription, but I would go for more pedagogy, talking from within to some Muslim girls and women who think that this is the right way. It's a pedagogical process. You are not going to solve the problem by coming with new laws and restriction on freedom in that way.

AMANPOUR: James Zogby, this particular issue of clothes, symbols, religious or cultural, that doesn't play such a role here amongst Muslims in the United States, does it?

ZOGBY: No, and Europe's problem is bigger than clothing. It's a question of self-definition. There is no ethnicity that defines being American. The absorptive quality of the American identity is such that Italians, Irish, Polish, and, yes, Arabs and Pakistanis within a few years become American, and America becomes changed with them. That doesn't happen in Europe.

You can be a third-generation Kurd in Germany and also be a Turk or an Algerian in France and also be an Arab or a Paki in London. That is the problem Europe faces, is that it has a difficulty expanding the definition of nationality to include a multicultural society. And that fundamental, I guess, bigotry or narrowness of identity is the real problem that France is facing, and they can't force this, as Tariq is saying -- they can't force people to adopt a French way, whatever that means, and not change France to reflect the diverse population that its country is becoming.

AMANPOUR: I want to show some full-screen poll results from the Pew Research Center. I mean, it was taken a couple of years ago, 2007, in fact, but the -- the findings were quite dramatic. In one way -- in one place, they said that 47 percent of American Muslims say they think of themselves first as Muslim rather than American, but on the whole, they basically indicate that Muslims by and large see themselves as very well integrated here in the United States.

They -- the vast majority -- 73 percent see themselves as never having faced any issues of discrimination or racism. And this compares very favorably -- or, rather, unfavorably -- with the poll results in Europe. Why is that, do you think, that Americans here are so much more Muslims integrated that they are in Europe?

ZOGBY: If you're asking me, I think the fact is, is that American society, when you come to America, the table is set for you. That is not the case in Europe. You are a stranger and treated as such. Even when they are tolerant, the tolerance is, "We will accept you here, but you don't become us."

In America, it's very different. You become us. We, in fact, as the song went a few decades ago, we are the world, and proud of that.

I think if you look at that poll, though, this question of complex identity is something we're pretty comfortable living with. You get the same kind of percentages of Christians saying the same thing. Born-again Christians say, "My identity is Christian first, but I'm an American." And Jews will -- will operate in the same way.

And so we are able to deal with a complex set of identities and feel comfortable with it in a way that Europe is not. This insecurity that the -- the French president is reflecting is really a problem that Europe is having across the board, not just with Muslims, but with a whole range of new people who are coming in, including, you know, Polish plumbers working in London who, when they have kids who are born in London, what are those kids going to be? Are they forever going to be Poles living in London? Or will they ever become British? That is a problem that Europe has to figure out how to deal with.

AMANPOUR: Do you think, Tariq, in general, that Europe will be able to figure this out? As James said, it's not just Muslims, but immigrants in general?

RAMADAN: Yes, I agree with that, that there is a problem of migration and immigrants in Europe, but I would say, we have to be very cautious not to judge Europe as if it was, you know, the same situation everywhere. We have now the second, third and (inaudible) generations, four generations in France or in the U.K.

And far from these national controversies about this new visibility -- because at the end of the day, in Switzerland, my country, we have this ban of the minarets, the headscarf in France, the mosques in Germany. All the visible symbols are problematic because it's as if this is a new presence creating problems.

But, still, if you go now and you assess what is happening in the societies -- in the Gallup, for example, survey is showing that the European Muslims are feeling European. They are feeling German. So we have to be -- to be cautious not to -- to look at it in a negative way, because I really think that deep down there is a movement of integration, contribution, and it will work, but we need time.

[15:20:00]

AMANPOUR: And I want to further ask you about your personal background, because you are the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which did usher in a period of Salafism, of extremism, of belief in a very strict version of Sharia and Islamic law. You've also not fully condemned a certain cleric who in 2003 talked about the rationalization for women as suicide bombers. And there are people...

RAMADAN: Please -- please -- please, no...

AMANPOUR: There are people here who are very confused about how to judge what you believe and what you're talking about and what you're trying to preach about Islam and reform.

RAMADAN: If you want to judge someone, you read what he is writing, and you look at what he's doing, and you don't come with, "Oh, your grandfather, it was said," because, first, what is said about, you know, my grandfather in this specific period of time in the '30s and the '40s was not what is said now, and we have to be very cautious to look at, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood as something which has to be historically contextualized. This is one.

The second -- I'm not living in Egypt. I live and I was born and raised in Europe. And I am producing a thought for my time. I want to be judged on this.

So anyone who is telling you, I was not clear in suicide bombings, for example, or targeting innocent, he is wrong or she is wrong. This never happened. My position on this is, the Palestinian resistance or the Iraqi resistance is legitimate. The means should be ethical. You cannot target innocent people. You cannot target civilians. I was always clear.

But let me tell you something which is revealing in the whole discussion that we have now. If someone like me comes with these thoughts, producing something which is, I can be a European and an American and a Muslim, and I can be a citizen, I should be contributing to my society, if so much mistrust is shedding on what I'm saying, what does it mean? Is it revealing something about me or about the state of affairs within the society, which is spreading around suspicion (ph)?

AMANPOUR: You're nodding, James Zogby. Is it revealing about Tariq Ramadan or about the state of the society that we live in?

ZOGBY: Listen, after President Obama spoke in Cairo, I remember I was actually on your network, and then I did another, and the reactions that -- that his speech received from American conservatives was shocking. I said at the end in answer to a question, will President Obama make change in people's attitudes? I said among Muslims, yes, but I'm not so sure he's going to win over American conservatives.

There is a problem. And Tariq is absolutely right. And the problem's here. And I think President Obama has correctly identified his mission as president both ways. It's to create American understanding of the Muslim world, as well as Muslim understanding of America.

We've got a problem here. What is said about him is said about me. I'm a Maronite Catholic who, after I spoke at the Department of Justice's 40th anniversary of the civil rights -- signing of the civil rights bill, bloggers writing for fairly respectable sites said "Jihadist" or "Hezbollah supporter" or "Wahhabi supporter," Holder's buddy is a "Wahhabist." I mean, how nonsensical is that?

AMANPOUR: Do you think that -- but...

ZOGBY: And yet that is the poison that spreads and really begins to define myself and Tariq and others in very unfair ways.

AMANPOUR: OK, but do you think those are in the more -- some might say -- the creepy, loony corners of the blogosphere, or do you think this is something that is a real obstacle towards understanding, in -- in the majority of the country?

ZOGBY: Not in the majority, but in a significant enough group of elites who begin to define and put it in print, and then make some people in politics hesitant to be able to speak out. Listen, when you had Barack Obama's opponents, mainstream Democrats and the Republican nominee, questioning his being a real American, not just his birth, but, yes, ma'am, no, he's not an Arab, he's a decent human being, that stuff sticks, and it means that we have leadership that has failed to address these issues.

AMANPOUR: OK, so you're here, Tariq Ramadan, to try to fix this. Can you do anything, do you think, that'll make a difference in these speeches that you're going to deliver and these public appearances?

RAMADAN: At least I'm trying to do something which is to speak about the new we. The new we, it's you and me, in the same of our common values and principles, to come together and to nurture around a sense of belonging, because at the end of the day, what is very important for American Muslims to feel at home and to contribute in a critical way, constructive way, exactly for Europeans.

And we all have to understand as citizens that this is a very, very imperative responsibility if we want to be able to talk to Muslim-majority countries and to Muslims around the world.

[15:25:00]

So the speech of Obama talking to Americans is very important, but us together, at our level, we should be much more committed to change these mentalities of victimhood.

AMANPOUR: It's a discussion that's going to go on for a long time, clearly. Tariq Ramadan, James Zogby, thank you both so much for joining me.

ZOGBY: Thank you.

RAMADAN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And next, we have our "Post-Script." An act of philanthropy more than 1,000 years ago that could still be a beacon for moderation in the Islamic world today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:27:00]

AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." In most of the Muslim world, women are still struggling for equality. And in some places, extremists are doing everything possible to prevent them from making progress, even bombing girls' schools, as we know, and as happened again in the Pakistani city of Peshawar today.

But go to the Moroccan city of Fes and you can see the legacy of a 9th century Muslim woman who was a pioneer in education. Fatima al-Fihri founded the oldest university in the world, Al-Karaouine, with money that she inherited from her father, who was a successful merchant. Educating both men and women, it is still a testament of one woman's vision for the Islamic world.

And that's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.

END