Populism is Victimhood

Tariq Ramadan on the ‘intimate universal’

On Friday evening I went to a lecture by Tariq Ramadan. The majority of the audience were Muslim, as a Ramadan is a globally read voice in moderate Islam.

Personally, Islam makes no more sense to me than any other religion. (I find every claim to reveal and define the transcendent as incomprehensible as the next.) But as the citizen of a nation that protects my liberty of thought and my freedom of expression, the freedom of Muslims to practice their faith and tradition is ultimately inseparable from my freedom, too.

And this brings me to Friday. The same day that an American president was inaugurated who had campaigned on a proposal to ban Muslims from entering America, I found myself sitting in a room with a few hundred people from my city, most of whom seemed to identify with local mosques. The question, “What is happening to the world?” hung palpably in the auditorium.

Ramadan’s talk was titled Creating Thriving Societies in Troubling Times. His thesis: embedded in the core of every ideology, philosophy, culture, and religion is a single, underlying ambition: peace. This animating, common principle is the hope of living in peace with one’s self and with the outside world. Ramadan calls it the ‘intimate universal.’

The idea here is that Tariq Ramadan (a Muslim) and myself (a person who can’t make any sense of beliefs in unfalsifiable deities) still share something essential in common. At the end of our respective logic trails, we end up aiming in the same destination: a desire for peace within ourselves and our world.

What gets us into trouble is ‘othering’: failing to recognize the common humanity — the ‘intimate universal’ — in one another. When a population fails to acknowledge the humanity of another population, the certain result is victimhood: they took our jobs; they are changing our society; they don’t follow our customs; they, them, those people… At scale, like a virus, this attitude snowballs into populism. “Populism is victimhood,” says Ramadan. And such mass victimhood manifests itself in a agenda to oppress, silence, and control someone else — specifically another group of someones.

I certainly don’t believe in Ramadan’s religion, but I do share his belief that living in peace does not require us all to share the same beliefs.

The alternative is terrifying.