A radical idea: How Muslims can be European, too
For a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man, Tariq Ramadan stirs up a remarkable amount of controversy.Skip to next paragraph
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In his own Muslim community, the Islamic philosopher-activist comes under attack for selling out his religion to the West; Britain has funded his lectures to young Muslims. But Western critics accuse him of being a Trojan horse for radical Islam. In the past two years, the US has three times denied him a visa.
In short, he has as many enemies as friends on both sides of the Muslim-Christian divide. But Dr. Ramadan, one of the most influential voices among Europe's growing Muslim population, is not surprised.
"When you are in the middle of the river, speaking to both sides suffering from a crisis of identity, you'll be criti- cized by both sides," he says in an interview. "My main concern is reconciliation."
Across Europe, a rising number of disputes are increasingly calling into question the compatibility of European and Islamic ideals. Britain, for example – Ramadan's current home base – has been immersed in a heated debate for weeks over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a face-covering veil.
Challenging powerful figures, such as Osama bin Laden, who seek to pit Muslims against the West, Ramadan has focused on encouraging European Muslims to remain both true to their faith and loyal to the secular societies in which they live.
That is an urgent task, he says. But he is well-placed to fulfill it: As the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he commands respect in the Islamic world; As a Swiss citizen fluent in English and French who boasts a PhD in philosophy, he is at ease in today's Europe.
"He's very exciting," says Abdul-Rahman Malik, a contributing editor to the British Muslim magazine 'Q.' "He's a believer, but able to communicate in the secular language that upper-middle class Muslims in Europe are familiar with."
In his books and articles, in lectures that are taped and widely circulated, on his website, and in debates with other Muslim figureheads, Ramadan addresses questions that European Muslims – especially young ones – come up against as they seek to respect their religion and their neighbors.
Should women and girls wear the hijab headcovering? (Yes, except where it is against the law, such as in French schools.) Does sharia, Islamic law, override local law? (No.) Is it wrong to listen to rap music? (It depends on the rapper.)
Such questions are daily dilemmas for young Muslims brought up in the traditional ways of their parents, many of whom immigrated from countries like Algeria or Pakistan, where mores were strict.
Moreover, Ramadan is thinking and speaking in the context of Islamic teachings hundreds of years old, first formulated in a very different world. In that context, it is not unusual for ulema, the Muslim clerics and preachers who set the discourse, to still divide the world between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb – the "house of Islam" and the "house of war" – between those countries under Islamic rule, and those where such rule remains to be imposed by the sword.
That sort of worldview, Ramadan worries, "leads to a simplistic, binary vision of 'us and them,' to a clash of two universes of reference, and pockets of Muslims living in a self-segregated reality."
It's a worldview that has wrought carnage on the streets of Europe and America: many of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings, and the 2003 Madrid bombings lived in such pockets of self-segregation.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Ramadan argues, Europe's 15-20 million Muslim inhabitants – most of them European citizens – cannot see themselves as foreigners in their new homelands. Instead, he says, they should see Europe as a "house of witness" where Muslims bear witness to their religion's message by living Islam peacefully in the modern world.
To do so, he says, Muslims must go back to Islam's roots, but with an entirely different purpose than that of the literalist Salafists who seek to recreate the "purity" of early Islam. His goal is "to return to the roots of tradition, find its universality so as to adapt it to today," he says.
In Ramadan's view, this approach is not simply an option; it is an imperative. The social and cultural norms of 8th-century Arabian Gulf tribes – some of which have been tightly woven into the practice of Islam over the centuries – are clearly irrelevant for European Muslims today.