GENEVA—In search of a restaurant to break the day’s fast, Tariq Ramadan negotiates the crowded rush-hour streets of his native city with the easy grace of the athlete he once was. But the soft-spoken scholar, whose short, receding hair and closely cropped beard reveal flecks of gray, is barely remembered, if at all, for those displays of soccer brilliance that almost turned a semi-professional career into a professional one. Instead, his renown—some would say his infamy—derives from his standing as one of Europe’s most influential and provocative Muslim thinkers.
The renown has spread. Named by Time magazine as one of the top 100 intellectual innovators of the new century, Ramadan is the author of some 20 books (including the recent Western Muslims and the Future of Islam) and countless articles that project his reformist vision of an Islam adaptable to liberal western societies far beyond the lecture halls of the universities of Geneva and Fribourg, where he formerly taught both European philosophy and Islamic studies. His lectures, cassettes, and talk-show appearances have even made him something of a media star, albeit a controversial one. In much of contemporary Europe and particularly France, where state secularism verges on the sacrosanct, simply being serious about religion invites as much suspicion as curiosity, even among some Muslims. “For me,” says Fatima Lalem, a nonpracticing Muslim and family-planning counselor in Paris, “Tariq Ramadan is someone who is good with words, but he’s not the modern, enlightened scholar that he likes to pretend he is.”
Many other European Muslims, however, find Ramadan’s reformist critique bracing and liberating. Oguz Ucuncu, a Berlin-based mechanical engineer and a leader of Milli Gorus, a Turkish Muslim organization with 513 mosques in its network, says, “Tariq knows how to deal with the young generation and how to begin to find answers of what is our place in European society.” Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, similarly hails Ramadan as “someone who symbolizes a modern understanding of Islam, adaptable to a European context.”
And, arguably, to an American one as well. That, in any case, was the consensus of the administration and faculty of the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies , which earlier this year offered Ramadan the Henry R. Luce professorship of religion, conflict, and peace building. But a controversial reputation has its costs. As what should have been his first semester at Notre Dame draws to a close, Ramadan finds himself living in limbo in his nearly empty Geneva apartment. The furnishings were shipped off to South Bend, Ind., more than four months ago, but nine days before Ramadan, his wife, Iman, and their four children were to depart for their new home, the U.S. State Department, acting on advice from the Department of Homeland Security, informed Ramadan that his visa had been “prudentially revoked.”
Homeland Security will not specify why Ramadan—who has visited the States for conferences and lectures scores of times in the past—might be considered a threat to the nation’s security, apart from saying that there are many possible grounds for denying or revoking a visa. “We don’t discuss particular cases,” says DHS spokesman Dean Boyd, adding that, in any case, the final call rested with the State Department. Officials at State clearly evince some ambivalence about having to make that call. After revoking his visa, they urged the scholar to reapply so that DHS’s findings could be re-evaluated. Embassy officials in Geneva interviewed Ramadan in early October, but a decision is still pending.
If government officials have been unable to specify charges, many outside officialdom have been free to speculate. His critics in Europe and America relate stories of contacts and associations with shady organizations and individuals, including al Qaeda operatives. While Ramadan has repeatedly refuted those allegations, often citing the findings of European intelligence services to buttress his case, he and his supporters (including Notre Dame, whose own review found the charges groundless) have a harder time countering the broader allegation that he is a radical in sheep’s clothing, a “gentle jihadist,” as one critic called him.
A miasma. If not an advocate of violence, his detractors say, Ramadan provides the ideological seedbed of a highly politicized Islam—Islamism, as it is called—in which more violent forms can take root. Those critics also say that Ramadan talks like a liberal reformer in front of some audiences and like an unyielding fundamentalist in front of others. After all, they note, Islam condones dissimulation (taqiyya) in dealings with “unbelievers.” And not for nothing is Ramadan the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian activist who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the first of the modern Islamist movements, in the early 20th century. “There is a miasma around him,” says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. “You can explain one, two, three, four, five things. But finally, when there are so many charges, you can’t explain everything away. We don’t need him in this country.”
The controversy clearly weighs most heavily upon the man and his family, but it has much wider implications. Above all, it raises questions about how America, and the West in general, are engaging in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. That world now numbers some 1.2 billion souls and transcends strictly geographic borders to include the roughly 15 million Muslims living in Europe and an estimated 5 to 7 million in the United States. It is hardly news that a decisive conflict is underway in that global community, with a small but well-financed minority hoping to make its absolutist and puritanical construction of religious law (or sharia) the foundation of an all-encompassing political and social order. A subset of these radical Islamists champion violence to achieve their ends, justifying terror as an instrument of holy war against the infidel. The question, of course, is how America and the West can identify and encourage those other Muslims—particularly intellectual and clerical elites—who see the radical Islamist agenda as a betrayal of the true spirit of traditional Islam and an unworkable blueprint for future states and societies. The controversy surrounding Ramadan, pitting detractors against defenders, who may both speak with the best intentions, shows just how hard it is to make those calls.
For the 42-year-old scholar—who declares for the record that he is “absolutely not an Islamist” of any variety—the seemingly endless task of self-explanation always begins at home, with his own controversial lineage and personal history. It is not simply his grandfather that causes him to be, as he says, “judged guilty by genetic association.” Ramadan’s father, Said, a follower and son-in-law of al-Banna, was driven from Nasser’s Egypt in the mid-1950s for his own Brotherhood activities, finally settling in Switzerland, where he became the head of the Geneva’s Islamic Center, backed for a time by Saudi money.
To make things more complicated, Ramadan will not simply disavow either of those forebears. While saying that he rejects al-Banna’s anti-westernism and his political agenda, he adds that he finds aspects of the early Muslim Brotherhood, including its emphasis on renewed piety and social programs, more than laudable in the context of late-colonial Egypt. He also writes movingly of his father, who helped draw Malcolm X away from the Nation of Islam and who spent most of his latter years in principled solitude as he broke with his Saudi backers and others who he felt betrayed the true spirit of Islam. Are Ramadan’s statements about those problematic figures proof that he speaks out of both sides of the mouth—or, to the contrary, that he owns up to the harder, more complicated truth? Any answer to that question should take into account that Ramadan has broken with own brother, Hani, because of the latter’s fundamentalist orientation.
Politicized. Part of Ramadan’s problem is that he is something of an intellectual outsider who cuts his own path. Gilles Kepel, author of The War for Muslim Minds and a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, sees Ramadan as less a scholar than an apologist with both political and prophetic aspirations. In Kepel’s view, the real question is not whether the man should be kept out of the United States—he thinks he shouldn’t be, barring proof of terrorist involvements—but why Ramadan should be offered such an academic plum. To Kepel, that fact speaks volumes about what he sees as the deplorably politicized state of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the United States, where much scholarship divides into simplistic pro-Arab or pro-Israel camps.
Such unflattering appraisals of Ramadan’s intellectual and scholarly standing discount what others see as a distinguished academic record. An avid reader from childhood—“My father told me that life was not all in books,” Ramadan recalls—he performed so well in his lycee that, at his teachers’ urging, he pursued independent studies and graduated early. After only one semester at the University of Geneva, he began teaching French literature at a secondary school. At 23, while pursuing graduate studies in philosophy and making his run at a soccer career, he was appointed the academic dean of a lycee, the youngest in the Swiss system. Amid teaching, soccer, writing about Nietzsche for his thesis and dissertation, and starting his own family with the sister of one of his teammates, Ramadan also took students on short Peace Corps-like missions in India, Africa, and Brazil. Little wonder that the earnest overachiever was selected one of Geneva’s outstanding citizens in 1990.
Throughout his teens and 20s, Ramadan relates, the quietly observant Muslim considered himself fully integrated into the larger Swiss society. More and more, though, events both close at hand and distant—the suicide of one of his students, the fundamentalist excesses following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the growing veil controversy in the French and Swiss public schools—made him ponder the meaning of being a faithful Muslim and a good European citizen. One thing that disturbed him was how ignorant Muslims themselves were of their own religion, a condition that, in his view, allowed the most extreme interpretations of the faith to gain currency. Dedicating himself to mastering Islamic sciences, he embarked in 1990 on a 20-month intensive program with some of the foremost scholars from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
It was after he returned to Europe that he joined the international lecture circuit, making his case for being both a good Muslim and a good western citizen. The increasingly censorious stand of the French Republic on the matter of veils prompted a short book, in which Ramadan argued that while the veil should not be imposed on any Muslim woman, neither should it be prohibited. Ramadan acknowledges that there is much Islamist heavy-handedness behind the veil controversy—and that some Muslim women have been forced or bribed into wearing the hijab head covering. But he argues that veiling should always be freely elected as no more than the outward expression of inward spiritual decision. At the same time, he asks, how can a government prohibition against such an expression not be considered a violation of republican rights? Forming connections with assorted activists and associations—some religious, some educational, some antiglobalist—in France and elsewhere, he spoke often in the immigrant-dense suburbs of Lyon and Paris. “I went to these communities not to urge them to close themselves off,” Ramadan says, “but to encourage them to make bridges to the larger society.”
But while much of what Ramadan espouses often resembles nothing more than progressive Catholic social thought or the corporate-capitalist critique of the antiglobalist movement, there have been at least two relatively recent controversies that threw his position into more problematic relief—and possibly played a part in Homeland Security’s appraisal.
The first grew out of an article that Ramadan published last fall on a Muslim website charging that certain prominent French Jewish intellectuals, including Bernard-Henri Levy, were increasingly biased “toward the concerns of their community” in their writing about delicate international issues, whether it be the Palestinian intifada, the Iraq war, or the instability of Pakistan. In France, where anti-Semitism is a growing problem (and one that Ramadan has frequently denounced when addressing Muslim audiences), to accuse an intellectual of putting communitarian interest over universal values is a serious charge. And this one met with sharp rebuttals, some of which themselves went over the top by suggesting that Ramadan’s accusation was tantamount to a modern version of the old anti-Semitic slander The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. “There were about four months of debate after that article,” says Ramadan, who stands by what he wrote. “The six or seven people I mentioned were invited to sue me. None did.”
Around the same time, in November 2003, Ramadan appeared on a TV debate with then French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who challenged him to call for the abolition of the stoning of women for adultery, a practice considered Islamic according to some fundamentalist interpretations of sharia. Ramadan, who is on the record opposing any Islam-sanctioned forms of corporal punishment, refused to issue a blanket condemnation, calling instead for a moratorium on the practice so that its legitimacy could be debated among learned Muslim scholars and jurists—the ulema—throughout the world. If he simply condemned the act, Ramadan explains, he and his views would have been dismissed from the discussion. And precisely by dint of calling for the moratorium, he says, those discussions are now taking place. “In Jordan, I met with eight scholars who told me that I was giving them a door to get out of this condition.” But what might seem like strategic wisdom to Ramadan was taken up by his critics as proof of crypto-fundamentalism.
The pity of excluding Ramadan on the grounds that his ideas might be dangerous, many believe, is that it seems to reject the American confidence in the marketplace of ideas. To Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University who differs with Ramadan on many points, such an exclusion appears to be driven by hard-line secularists and a number of neoconservative intellectuals who engage in what he calls “a velvet-glove Inquisition that insists on what can or cannot be a proper conversation on Islam and the modern world.”
The work. So far, much of the controversy swirling around Ramadan ignores the actual content of his work, his written words. That work elaborates a consistent rejection of the view that Islam is a set of legalistic regulations at odds with liberal understandings of rights and liberties. It further upholds his commitment to the view that Islam is, above all, a spiritual discipline. If there is something inherently incompatible between the fundamentals of this spiritual formation and the ideals and institutions of free, liberal societies, then Ramadan does not see it. But are such assuaging words part of some massive act of dissimulation carried out in the spirit of Muslim Brotherhood subversion? Consider what Oguz Ucuncu says: “There is a question of whether he has a secret agenda or not, and what we say is what Tariq also says: Take seriously what we say in public, and hold us responsible for what we say.”
The cost of shutting out Muslim thinkers such as Ramadan could be very high for America if the nation is really committed to winning the long-term war of ideas behind the war on terror. “Regardless of what you think of the substance of Ramadan’s views,” says New York University law Prof. Noah Feldman, author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy and a former constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, “we can only learn what we need to know about contemporary Islam if we have the chance to encounter people like him in our universities. Unless a person is an active security threat, excluding him or her from an academic visit is shooting ourselves in the foot.”