Just as Tariq Ramadan was preparing to take up a professorial post at the University of Notre Dame in August 2004, the United States government revoked his visa, denying him entry on ideological grounds.
The US State Department lifted the ban in January, and the Swiss scholar is set to arrive on American soil later this week for a series of speaking engagements – his first visit since losing his visa.
“It was a mistake by the Bush administration, to prevent intellectuals from being critical,” Ramadan said during a recent interview in Doha. “The main thing is for me to go there and build bridges.”
It can sometimes be difficult to tell if Ramadan – rigorous scholar, champion of Islam and outspoken advocate for the rights and assertiveness of Muslims in the West – is building bridges or burning them.
Born and raised in Switzerland, the 47-year-old is a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
He is often named among the world’s most influential public intellectuals yet regularly excoriated in both Muslim and Western media for a seeming lack of commitment to their respective values: he regularly denounces global capitalism, for instance, and says women should decide for themselves whether to wear the veil.
Last week he lectured in Doha at the request of the Faculty of Islamic Studies, where he will teach a course on contemporary Islam later this year. Before delivering his speech he considered the tensions within Gulf societies.
“You have some people that are very reactive to anything that has to do with the West, saying ‘this is the end of Islam,’” he said. “And you have some others saying, ‘No, we have to follow in the footsteps of the West because this is the way to be developed and modern,’ and in between you have people trying to find their way.”
In his next book, to be titled The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy for Pluralism, Ramadan writes about the shared values between Islam and the West.
“My understanding of Islam makes it clear that there is no contradiction in the Islamic values and the Western values,” he said. “To deal with modernity doesn’t mean that you lose your Islamic background.”
Yet since Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, DC, in September 2001, signs of a clash have been near-constant. After a unanimous parliamentary vote last week, Belgium inched closer to becoming the first nation in the world to ban the full Islamic veil in public. Ramadan's home country, Switzerland, recently voted to prohibit the construction of minarets.
And in the wake of Farouk Abdulmattalab's attempt to blow up an Amsterdam to Detroit flight on Christmas Day, the United States has increased background checks on visa applicants from Muslim majority countries.
But in US President Barack Obama, Ramadan sees a leader with a considerable grasp of the situation. Though impressed by Obama's speech to the Muslim World in Cairo last June, he thought the time for words had passed.
He pointed to Iraq, where despite elections terrorist attacks, such as Saturday's massacre of two dozen members of a single family in Baghdad, are still common and society remains fragmented along sectarian lines. He cited the lack of progress with Israel, which has continued to announce settlements in East Jerusalem despite the Obama Administration's repeated calls for a freeze.
“Netanyahu is sending a very strong message: 'we don’t care,'” said Ramadan.
Despite what he sees as Palestinians' continued suffering and the marginalization of many Muslim communities in the West, Ramadan believes Muslims must look forward, not back. “We need to stop nurturing the victim mentality,” he said.
This is among the key points of Ramadan's 2009 book, What I Believe, that Muslims living in the West need to engage positively and work to become full partners in Western democracy.
“As citizens it is our Islamic duty to abide by the law of the country as long it does not contradict with our religious beliefs,” he said during the Doha lecture. “We must criticise the government while remaining loyal to the law – this is critical loyalty.”
Dr Basma Abdelgafar, a professor of public policy at the Faculty of Islamic Studies who has read several of Ramadan’s books, attended the lecture and came away impressed.
“It’s a very useful type of contribution to our understanding of Muslims in the West,” said Abdelgafar, a Canadian of Egyptian heritage who was looking forward to having Ramadan as a colleague. “It has nothing to do with a person’s creed or belief, it’s that they are representing something that’s right.”
Ramadan's critics, however, see him as a dangerous radical. “I don't see anyone today who is as effective as Tariq Ramadan in furthering fundamentalism in France,” French journalist Caroline Fourest, the author of an anti-Ramadan book, said last year. She accuses him of double-speak – saying one thing to Muslims and another to Western audiences.
Paul Berman, a journalism professor at New York University, goes further. “The problem lies in the terrible fact,” he wrote in a lengthy 2007 article, “that Ramadan's personal milieu -- his grandfather, his family history, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition -- is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theoretical justification for religious suicide.”
That may be going too far. Ramadan has distanced himself from Al-Banna's political opinions and denounced radical violence. His website prominently displays a large banner ad supporting non-violent resistance in Palestine.
Still, he does have some views unlikely to sit well with some Westerners.
“The neo-liberal economy, the way it’s now impacting lives and killing people every day because of the injustices of the economy, this is a'anam al harb (the world of war),” Ramadan said during the interview in Doha. “This economic order is killing people, and this is why we need ethics in our economy, and this recent global crisis is telling us exactly this.”
Taking an anti-capitalist, even socialist, stance is neither illegal nor in opposition to the West. But his position on certain huddud punishments may be more problematic.
Ramadan was asked if he saw any contradiction between his stated commitment to Western values and his calling, on French TV in 2003, for a moratorium on the stoning of adulterers in order to debate the merits of the punishment.
“As long as we don’t have answers to these questions we have to open a debate,” he said last week in Doha. “It’s not a contradiction, because Amnesty International, a Western organization, is calling for the same thing on the death penalty. So why is it not a contradiction for them and it is for me?”
In truth, the New York-based rights advocate takes a rather less equivocal stance on legal executions. “Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances,” according to their website. “The organization works for an end to executions and the abolition of the death penalty everywhere.”
an edited version appeared in 5 April 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae