Muslim scholar barred from US preaches tolerance

State Dept. revokes visa days before classes at Notre Dame

Tariq Ramadan - a Swiss-born intellectual, imam, and activist - is one of Europe's most prominent Muslim reformers. Time magazine named him one of the 100 innovators of the 21st century. The University of Notre Dame has invited him to teach Islamic philosophy and ethics at its Kroc Institute for Peace Studies.

But just days before classes began, the US government revoked his visa on the basis of national security, without explanation. The scholar and his family were stranded as his furniture headed to Indiana. Many American scholars were stunned and have decried the government's action as an interference in academic freedom.

Is Ramadan a genuine threat to America? Does he promote views antithetical to US values? His new book, "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam," seems the natural place to look for answers. Its stated goals are to foster a reinterpretation of Islam that fits the times and to encourage Muslims' positive integration into Western society. The work represents an ambitious, complex effort to engage his fellow Muslims in reform.

It's not difficult to see why Muslim youths on the continent, struggling for a sense of identity and footing in a secular culture, throng to his speeches. The book reveals a voice of moral clarity and devout faith rooted in a sophisticated appreciation for what is good in Western society and for the contributions Muslims might make to Europe and the US, as well as to spurring change in the Muslim world.

This is home, he says, not some distant time and place, and one must find Muslim identity as an engaged citizen, not as a minority, an alien, or a victim. He provides guidance on how to search sacred Islamic texts for universal principles as distinct from tradition-bound cultural practices, and he places strong emphasis on humility and spirituality.

"Spirituality is the way in which the believer keeps his faith alive ... the intimate energy involved in the struggle against the natural human tendency to forget God," he says.

Ramadan - professor of philosophy at the College of Geneva and of Islamic studies at the University of Fribourg - is a vigorous advocate of interreligious dialogue, and a frank proponent of Islamic feminism. He questions efforts to build separate Islamic school systems, saying children are better off attending public schools and receiving Islamic teaching that is complementary, not parallel, to public education.

Ramadan has been accused by some of saying one thing to Westerners and another thing to Muslims, yet he seems to have no difficulty in this book and elsewhere rejecting extremism. This reviewer heard him speak at a national gathering of American Muslims in 2002. "We feel vulnerable and defensive, but this is not a time to justify ourselves," he said. "We have to be self-critical ... To kill innocent people anywhere is not Islam and must be condemned. We must speak out when radical groups use jihad wrongly, and when there is wrong in so-called Islamic countries."

In his book, he addresses in detail the question of Muslims' loyalty to their countries and to the Islamic "umma" - or global community of faith. This strong sense of brotherhood does not mean accepting injustice committed by another member of the faith, he emphasizes.

While his strong emphasis on faith understood and lived may cause discomfort in supersecular Europe, Ramadan's manner of expression should seem familiar to Americans for whom faith is a heartfelt reality and religious values are expected to guide daily living.

Why then, has he been termed persona non grata in the United States? The only clue comes from subsequent attacks in the US press by long-time critics of American Muslims, charging him with anti-Semitism and links to terrorism.

Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He has responded point by point in US newspapers to the charges, some of which he says have been continually repeated though disproved, and he asks to be judged on his own life, not his genealogy.

"Western Muslims" is part of an effort to revive the practice of ijtihad, the reinterpretation of the sacred texts, a practice which has been "closed" for 500 years. People involved in this effort hope to broaden the work to include other professionals along with legal scholars in redefining Islamic principles for the 21st century. Ramadan's book illumines for non-Muslims the moral foundations of Islam and what such an effort would entail.

It's difficult to imagine why anyone with a destructive agenda toward the West would devote such profound energies to this effort, or want to teach at a major Catholic university in the United States. If the US government is serious about winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world and avoiding a clash of civilizations, it might consider sitting down for lengthy discussions with Tariq Ramadan, rather than barring his entrance.

Jane Lampman writes about ethics and religion for the Monitor.

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