It's a question of them and US

October 22, 2004

Tariq Ramadan is a European Muslim who could help transform Islam's relations with the West, so why is the US trying to keep him out? asks Malise Ruthven.

It is not often that the US Secretary of State intervenes publicly in rows between warring departments within the Bush Administration. But in the case of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, Colin Powell let his displeasure be known when the Department of Homeland Security revoked Ramadan's visa nine days before he was due to take up a prestigious appointment as the Henry R. Luce professor of religion, conflict and peace-building at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Ramadan is a scholar of Islam who did his graduate work on Nietzsche before lecturing in philosophy in Geneva and Fribourg. He is also a prolific writer, with some 20 books and several hundred articles under his belt. He has been named by Time magazine as one of the world's top 100 scientists and thinkers - an impressive accolade for a man barely out of his thirties.

Ramadan was born to Egyptian parents and raised in Switzerland. He is charismatic and telegenic and has a considerable following among European Muslim youth, the result of both personal gifts and ancestry. His maternal grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's leading Islamist organisation in 1928. His father, Said Ramadan, was Banna's favourite disciple and married Tariq's mother before a crackdown by Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the Egyptian ruler, sent Said, along with hundreds of the brotherhood, into exile in 1954. With Saudi funding and patronage Said, founded the Islamic Centre in Geneva, a hub for European Islam.

Although Ramadan has consistently denounced violence and extremism, the DHS revoked his visa under the provisions of the US Patriot Act. An appeal was rejected: but, thanks to Powell's intervention, Ramadan has now been invited to reapply for a different kind of visa. A tug-of-war between departments seems set to run.

While Ramadan is backed by the great and good of the academy, including civil-rights organisations, Professors for Academic Freedom and the Association of Professors in Middle Eastern Studies, as well as some senators, there are powerful voices ranged against him. Fuad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, a caustic Muslim critic of Islamism, accused him of taqiyya or "religious dissimulation", traditionally practised by Shiite dissidents to avoid persecution. The implication is that he makes liberal noises to calm Western fears while quietly pursuing a hardline Islamist agenda. Daniel Pipes, a prolific self-publicist, critic of Islam and White House adviser, denies being behind the last-minute revocation of Ramadan's visa. But on his website, Pipes details numerous charges against Ramadan: his acquaintance with the Sudanese Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi; his alleged "contacts" with al-Qaeda; and the "intriguing possibility" that Osama bin Laden once studied with his father at the Geneva Centre.

Ramadan vigorously refutes the charge of taqiyya . The critics, he claims, have yet to produce one shred of evidence to prove that he says one thing to Western audiences in French or English and another to Muslims in Arabic.

The other argument is: "'You are the grandson of Hasan al-Banna.' And I say: 'So what? Our thoughts are not genetically transmitted.'"

The charge of taqiyya , he suggests, derives from what the French call " le devoir de réserve ", or non-partisanship. As a civil servant - he was dean of a high school in Geneva before his university appointments - he was not permitted to speak about his religious allegiance when representing the school.

Ramadan is equally forthright about the charges of anti-Semitism levelled against him. An article he posted on a Muslim internet site accused some prominent French intellectuals with Jewish backgrounds (including Bernard-Henri Levy, André Glucksmann and Bernard Kouchner) of putting "communalism" above universal principles in defending the US-led attack on Iraq. The implication of the article was that Jewish intellectuals, previously viewed as "universalist" in their outlook, were giving priority to the interests of Israel and the policies of Ariel Sharon over the universal claims to human rights advanced by the Palestinians.

"We must distinguish between anti-Semitism, which is targeting Jews because they are Jews and is quite unacceptable, and the policy of a specific state that sometimes uses Jewish references to justify oppressive policies. What we hear today is just incredible. When you criticise prime minister Ariel Sharon's policy, it's as if you are saying: 'I want to destroy Israel'.

That's not the point. When I criticise the American or Saudi policies, I'm not saying I want to destroy the US or Saudi Arabia. It should be possible to criticise Israeli policy without being understood as condemning the existence of Israel."

A glance through the Ramadan dossier on the internet reveals that he has indeed been outspoken in his condemnation of Holocaust denial and attacks on Jewish targets, such as cemeteries and synagogues, by Muslims in Europe.

"Too few Muslims have spoken out against these anti-Semitic and Judaeophobic phenomena," he told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz . The leaders of Muslim communities must educate people to "delegitimise elements of anti-Semitism". European imams must disseminate "an unequivocal message about the profound connections between Islam and Judaism". "The future," he tells me, "belongs to people who are ready to go beyond their intellectual ghettos and to build on common values. This is what I'm doing. I'm dealing with Jews, agnostics, Christians, with Buddhists in the name of universal common values. I am not prepared to be selective."

In his most recent book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam , Ramadan re-examines the Islamic tradition to accommodate the realities facing European Muslims and their counterparts in the North American diaspora.

Adopting the classical methodology - forged by religious scholars during the formative era of Islam - he makes a fundamental distinction between the religious duties of Muslims and their social and political obligations.

While the former (including prayers, fasting during Ramadan, payment of charity and the once in a lifetime performance of pilgrimage) are non-negotiable, all other duties derived from the Koran and the corpus of Islamic law are contingent on the wider sociopolitical environment, he says. Ramadan takes some of his grandfather's followers to task for encouraging Muslims in the West to develop a ghetto mentality, for example, by adopting dress codes that set them apart from their host societies. The concern of Muslims "should not be to imitate the dress of the Prophet's time, but to dress according to the principles - of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics and modesty - that underlay his choice of clothes".

This is a matter of individual judgement. "It is not Islamic to force a woman to wear the headscarf. Neither is it Islamic or in accordance with human rights to force her to take it off."

Muslims should strive to engage with the majority communities by setting an example as model citizens. These Western Muslims, he says, are going to have a tremendous impact on the Islamic world because they are at the forefront of new challenges that affect everyone. What is more, they are free. "They live in democratic societies. They come up with new ideas."

If Powell loses the argument and the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration persist in keeping Ramadan out, America's loss will be Europe's gain. The future of Islam is here.

Malise Ruthven is a writer. His books include A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America , Granta, and Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning , Oxford University Press.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments