Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan is the idol of the Parisian suburbs. He is fighting for a modern Islam and against what he calls "Jewish intellectuals". Now the US administration has revoked his visa. By Jörg Lau
My attempts to hold an uninterrupted conversation with a 42-year-old man with designer stubble in a café in his native city of Geneva are doomed to failure. Young men wave from the street when they catch sight of him: calling out "Tariq! Tariq!" they smile broadly when he casually returns their greeting. One of them approaches us and offers to buy a round: "You were brilliant on television. You really showed the Minister of the Interior!"
The object of their admiration is not a pop star, but an Islamic scholar by the name of Tariq Ramadan. He teaches at the Swiss universities of Freiburg and Geneva, but has long been an icon throughout the French-speaking world.
As a matter of fact, his sphere of activity should have increased even more over the past few days. The Catholic University of Notre Dame in Indiana appointed Ramadan to the chair for Religion, Conflict and Peace-building. However, just a week before his departure for the United States, Ramadan learned that the American Department of Homeland Security had revoked his visa.
The US Foreign Office hinted that this unusual step was based on the anti-terror Patriot Act. The snubbed university is now demanding proof from the Bush administration that the man they wanted to employ as a bridge-builder between Islam and the West is, in fact, a security risk.
Recordings of his lectures have reached sales of 60,000
His incessant publications, travels, and lectures have made him the voice of young Muslims in the French-speaking world. Tariq Ramadan grew up in an environment steeped in politicised Islam. In 1928, his Egyptian grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the archetype of all militant Islamist groups.
His father was al-Banna's favourite pupil. Persecuted as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Said Ramadan went into exile in Geneva, where he founded the Islamic Centre: a Western European dependence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The influence of the centre was massive and even spread to the Black American civil rights activist Malcolm X.
Reforming Western society based on principles of democracy
Tariq Ramadan has remained faithful to the family legacy: he too wants to penetrate both politics and religion. However, he is not working towards a putsch in any distant country; he seeks reforms in Western society. Like his father and grandfather before him, he wants these reforms to be in the spirit of Islam; but unlike his father and grandfather, he wants them to be based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.
For years he has stood up in front of hundreds of people several times a week and spoken about the "Future of European Islam". A network of devoted followers organises his appearances. Recordings of his lectures have reached sales of 60,000.
Promoting a unique, unmistakeable Islamic identity
Ramadan is the hero of the French suburbs. Eloquent, educated, and self-confident, he demonstrates an attitude that is well received by his community because it disturbs the majority of people in society: at last a Muslim who plays neither the victim nor the preacher of poisonous hate, but who instead promotes a unique, unmistakeable Islamic identity.
"It is high time we Muslims in the West," he says, "freed ourselves from our double inferiority complex: our feeling of inferiority towards both the West and the Islamic world, which claims to represent the pure teachings of our faith."
"We have to offer an Islamic alternative"
Tariq Ramadan considers himself to be the voice of an "intellectual revolution" in Western Islam. "I say to Muslims: stop viewing yourselves as a marginalised minority. It is no longer about integration; it is about participation. We have to offer an Islamic alternative."
When the French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, was involved in a television debate about the Muslim headscarf last year, the obvious choice for his opponent in the debate was not just any old representative of official Islam, it was Tariq Ramadan.
"My furniture is already in America," says Ramadan, obviously wanting the statement to be taken symbolically, not literally. His followers are left in no doubt: the empire got cold feet; the empire is afraid of Tariq! The Bush administration has once again proven its talent for playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists. People are already talking about a conspiracy from "Jewish circles".
No immediate ban of stoning of women
It is not the first scandal surrounding Tariq Ramadan's public work: in Geneva he succeeded in preventing a performance of Voltaire's Mahomet because, he says, the play insults the Prophet. When asked about the stoning of women who commit adultery, he calls for a "moratorium" and a "wide debate within Islam", but not for an immediate ban.
In October 2003, he entered the debate about the Iraq war and new Islamic anti-Semitism in France with a "criticism of new communitarian intellectuals." Ramadan dismissed prominent hawks like André Glucksman as "Jewish intellectuals" whose anti-Saddam policy is based on "community logic".
Ramadan suggested that while these Jewish intellectuals were using the rhetoric of human rights, they were in fact representing Israel's interests. When asked why, if that was the case, Glucksman had taken the side of the Bosnian Muslims and the Chechens, Ramadan looks at a bit of a loss.
For weeks, the "Ramadan affair" - as this incident is known in France - was debated in the French newspapers. He is now viewed by some as an anti-Semite. It is very likely that Ramadan's irresponsible tirade cost him his professorship in America.
Speaking out against anti-Semitism in the Islamic community
Ramadan just cannot understand it: is he not one of the few prominent Muslims to speak out clearly (in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz) against anti-Semitism in the Islamic community? Is he not right to complain about the "lack of trust in public discourse"?
Obviously, he himself often suffers from a lack of trust: he repeatedly paints a picture of a Western society that is "prejudiced, racist, and Islamophobic through and through". The fact that his own father owes his life to the West, while his grandfather was murdered by the regime in Egypt, has not toned down his radical diagnosis that the West is suffering from a chronic hatred of Islam.
Maybe Tariq Ramadan's deep ambivalence towards the West is a legacy of his family constellation; maybe it is a tactic that allows him to talk to both sides. In his work, the recognition of the rule of law, rationalism, and freedom for citizens grapples with old feelings of cultural-religious superiority.
For Ramadan, the West is not - as tradition would have it - the enemy "house of war". It is the "place to bear witness" where Muslims are free to live according to their faith. He uses a clever differentiation to isolate "actual Islam" from all the mistaken developments that have taken place down through the history of Islam, for which he blames "Islamic cultures" outright.
The oppression of women, the lack of freedom, and the backwardness of the Arab world have nothing to do with a universalistic teaching that has been wiped clean of the stain of history. This argument is more than a little reminiscent of a socialist apologetic.
The Prophet and his disciples as the forerunners of Attac
For Ramadan's readers there can be no doubt that Islam is a morally higher alternative to the existing order. When Ramadan speaks of a reform of Islam, he is not really talking about Islamic self-criticism, but rather about a cultural criticism of Western decadence as seen in the light of the revelations of the Prophet.
His talent for interpretation leads him to draw some bizarre parallels: he succeeds in describing the Koran's ban on interest as evidence that the Prophet and his disciples were like an earlier version of Attac's anti-capitalists. He is always a welcome guest among people who are critical of globalisation and never fails to get a hug from French activist farmer José Bové.
Ramadan calls on Muslims to crawl out of the identity policy niche and to stop "thinking in terms of binary opposites". At the same time, he condemns consumerism and loose enjoyment, for which young immigrants in particular have developed a penchant.
In favour of religious pluralism
For Ramadan, the headscarf is an indication that young Muslim women are avoiding "the uncritical adoption of the fashions and behaviour of other people in Western society". He also believes that the struggle by young Iranian women against the enforced wearing of headscarves proves that pressure and violence are wrong.
So does that mean that the Ayatollah's end (building a theocracy) was honourable, but his chosen means ill-advised? Ramadan rejects this idea. He is in favour of religious pluralism and is not promoting Islam as the solution.
He also criticises the kidnapping of French journalists in Iraq and the kidnappers who demand an end to the ban on wearing headscarves in French schools.
Tariq Ramadan has succeeded in being promoted to the position of unofficial spokesman for a Euro-Islam that has abandoned the shattered self-confidence of the Diaspora and accepts the here and now of the modern Western world as its sphere of activity.
That alone is a service, even though it cannot be said for certain that it justifies the fact that Ramadan is labelled a liberal reformer. It would be wrong to exclude him from the debate about the Muslim's long path to the West. There are not many other people like this double agent of Modern Islam who are listened to by both sides.
This article was previously published in Germany's weekly "DIE ZEIT", 37/2004
DIE ZEIT© 2004
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan