Muslim Scholar Tariq Ramadan: Radical or Reformer?
On a recent afternoon, Tariq Ramadan, the outspoken Muslim scholar and professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, took the stage at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall. Ramadan stood alongside John Esposito, professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown, holding court on “radical reform” in Islam and parrying with a warm, supportive audience. The room was filled with students and others, including women in headscarves, women with bare heads, journalists and professors. Such a gathering might sound relatively unremarkable for the nation’s capital, except for this: Tariq Ramadan was banned from the United States for six years, a visa restriction lifted in January by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s because Ramadan, whose name is as often mentioned with the word “radical” as with “reformer,” had become a lightening rod, a discussion point for post-9/11 restrictions on travel, ideas and the place of Islam in democracies.
Tariq Ramadan is the most visible, the most loquacious and the most oft-quoted Muslim scholar speaking in the West today. He tirelessly lectures across Europe and Britain, reaching out to young European Muslims with his conversations about Islam in non-Islamic nations. He appears on television, is quoted in print, and is asked to weigh in on virtually every debate that touches upon the place of Muslims in the West. His public message, for the most part, is straightforward: Islam and Democracy are not in conflict; indeed, he says, they complement each other.
He also asserts that Islam is not a “visitor” in the West — it is a European and American religion now, and should be recognized as such.
And yet there are those who do not trust him. Six years ago, Ramadan was ready to assume a professorship at the University of Notre Dame when the Bush administration suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, revoked his visa. Ultimately the revocation was attributed to money he donated to a Swiss-based charity, which, in turn, passed the donation along to Hamas. After years of petitions by academics and human rights groups, Ramadan was effectively absolved of wrongdoing; his visa status was summarily reinstated.
Yet the double mythology of Tariq Ramadan remained – he is seen, alternatively, as a misjudged Muslim reformer or a hidden radicalist.
Despite a lack of immigrant tradition, immigrants began flowing into France and elsewhere in Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s – many coming from the Muslim, Francophone former colonies of North Africa. In France, most went to live in high-rise buildings in the suburbs. These were ostensibly temporary workers, but they stayed, bearing children who were caught between two worlds, hamstrung by the militant secularity of the French, and their own, increasingly religious, practice of Islam as well as their geographic segregation from their French peers. Perhaps that transition wouldn’t have been so difficult, but these young people were often unable to find work, a trend that continues today. Young European Muslims face astronomical unemployment – in France it has ballooned to upwards of 20 percent, in some areas as high as nearly 40 percent, two to four times the national average – which has contributed to greater disaffection from society and made Islam, and radical Islam, more attractive to some.
Ramadan offered an alternative to that despair. Lecturing to this often disaffected group, he gathers crowds like a rock star. When I first heard him speak, in the spring of 2003, it was at a standing-room-only event at the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris. Dozens of girls were wearing the headscarf, a sight far less common in French public space than in the United States, as such apparel has met with a great deal of public scrutiny and controversy. The crowd hung on his every word, pleased with his message of inclusivity.
Ramadan offers practicing Muslims a path to integration, if not assimilation, and a way to feel at home in western democracies that allow for the full expression of Islam.
When we first met, at a Paris coffee shop, he told me the “essence of my work is to break down the ‘us vs. them’ or ‘ghetto mentality.’ “
Not everyone agrees. In “Frère Tariq ” (published in the States as “Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan“), French journalist Caroline Fourest accuses Ramadan of speaking with a “forked tongue” – espousing one thing in Arabic (incitement and radicalism) and another in French or in English (inclusivity). Those criticisms stem in part from Ramadan’s lineage: His grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization oft-cited as providing the fertile soil for modern Muslim extremism.
At the first event of Ramadan’s triumphant U.S. tour, he was pressed about his intellectual and spiritual relationship to this legacy, and his answers left many unsatisfied. And on Monday he appeared on CNN with Christiane Amanpour, who attempted to pin down Ramadan on a controversial moment: a 2003 televised debate in France with Nicolas Sarkozy, where Ramadan was asked to denounce the practice of stoning women in Islam. Instead, he called for a moratorium and debate, arguing that a man in Paris condemning stoning would have no influence on Islam in Muslim-ruled nations. At Georgetown earlier Monday, a reporter asked him to openly reject the practice of marrying underage girls in some Islamic societies. Ramadan quickly parried that by saying no woman should be forced to marry, an idea that would in itself raise the marital age.
What makes some people uncomfortable is that Ramadan has never specifically repudiated his grandfather, nor has he definitively offered his positions on the controversial aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood. (Paul Berman has argued, in the New Republic and in a forthcoming book on the same subject, that Ramadan is far closer to Hassan al-Banna in thinking than others would believe.)
Yet on the issue of modern Islamic terror, Ramadan has been clear — “Terrorism,” he told Foreign Policy , “which kills innocent people is not Islamically acceptable.” He was a loud and early voice against the London 7/7 bombings.
Ramadan is used to people questioning him. At Georgetown he pointed out (to audience laughter) that he had published a short book for journalists who are pressed for time. It’s called “What I Believe.” “This book is a work of clarification,” he begins in its introduction. “In recent years I have been presented as a ‘controversial intellectual.’ I do not represent all Muslims but I belong to the reformist trend. I aim to remain faithful to the principles of Islam, on the basis of scriptural sources, while taking into account the evolution of historical and geographical contexts.”
Reading this is a bit like attending on one of Ramadan’s many public lectures, including the one at Georgetown. Ramadan, appearing relieved to be surrounded by well-wishers, received thunderous applause as he thanked the ACLU and P.E.N. for their work on his behalf, as well as the many academics who spoke and petitioned for his visa to be reinstated.
“After six years, what I get from all this story, first, is that my name has been cleared,” he told a small group of reporters after the event. “So to be here for me is simply justice. And I come here in a peaceful mind, saying the story is over.”
In his message at Georgetown, he also chastised nations that have recently pushed Islam further to the margins – calling out Switzerland for banning minarets on mosques, saying such actions tell Muslims “you do not belong!” And he claimed that governments that protest the public wearing of the hijab or burqa use these issues to avoid discussing the economic marginalization of young Muslims in Europe. Noting his visa problems, he said, “You changed your own principles” in the West “out of fear of Muslim presence.”
Whether he is an instigator or a bridge builder, few really believe that Ramadan was actually dangerous to the United States.
“He has been excessively demonized,” said Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence who has spent decades looking at Islam in the West. “The lift on the [visa] ban is a normalization. An acknowledgment that he is neither the solution, nor the evil guy.”
“It was a counterproductive decision” on the part of the Bush administration, agrees Jonathan Laurence, professor of political science at Boston College. “He may not be the ideal ‘interlocutor,’ but he is certainly a valid one and we should have many more people like him. . . . He is so provocative because he excites a certain element of the secularist left, which fought these historical battles in a previous century. The banishing of outward religion from the public square was thought to be settled in much of Western Europe. So he represents, on the one hand, a voice from the past, a religious voice well known to European societies they decided to marginalize, but also a European future that frightens many because its is so different from what they know.”