'Third way' speaks to Europe's young Muslims
Tariq Ramadan targets the struggle of balancing Muslim roots, European present.
The lecture draws such a crowd at the Institut du Monde Arabe that its organizers begin to panic. Tables are removed and more chairs added. Still, by the time Tariq Ramadan arrives, it's standing room only, with stylish 20-somethings - many wear- ing headscarves - lining the walls.Skip to next paragraph
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For this throng of jeunes de banlieue - sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants struggling to break free of the impoverished suburbs ringing French cities - Mr. Ramadan is a combination of spiritual leader and rock star.
Soft-spoken, with the charisma of Bill Clinton, the Swiss-born professor teaches at the University of Fribourg and the College de Geneve, but travels extensively around Europe on speaking engagements. He offers a fresh approach to Islam's troubled encounter with the Western world: a "third way" of integrating Muslims into European society.
For a rising generation in search of an identity that straddles Muslim roots and a European present, the paramount question is "how to be at the same time fully Muslim and fully Western," says Ramadan, who has been speaking on this issue for about a decade. He urges young Muslims neither to assimilate - and thus lose their culture - nor to separate themselves and reject Europe. "The essence of my work," he says in an interview, is to break down the "us versus them," or "ghetto mentality."
Ramadan's credibility among his young listeners is powerfully enhanced by his lineage: His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the radical Muslim Brotherhood to fight the British occupation of Egypt.
But that same lineage makes some French wary. Ramadan, now in his 40s, was once associated in the French press with the radical-leaning Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF) because he gave speeches to their followers.
But the professor is critical of extremism and fundamentalism. He has spoken out against French mosques that receive money from the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, concerned that this reliance will promote radicalism, imported along with imams from these countries. He publicly distanced himself from his brother Hani Ramadan after Hani published articles advocating literal interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law.
Ramadan calls himself an independent, promoting Western values of open dialogue by using his bully pulpit liberally. The activist scholar is known for his stance of inclusivity toward women, Europeans, and Jews. At times critical of the West, he also takes his coreligionists to task for the Sept. 11 attacks and for anti-Semitism.
Ramadan has written a series of books aimed at reconciling the relationship of Muslims, their faith, and their adopted countries. He presents, says Jocelyne Cesari, a resident scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, "what young people want to hear ... [the idea] that you can find a way to practice Islam without questioning the basic values and norms of European society and secularity."
Writing and lecturing primarily in French, Ramadan has had particular impact in France. The majority of his audiences are the descendants of immigrants from France's former colonies, especially Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The majority of immigrants first came to France to fill labor shortages in the 1960s and, like their counterparts who went to other West European countries, were expected eventually to go home.