Islam’s new revolutionary

“Referring to those who denounce him for condoning suicide bombings – a claim he successfully challenged in a French court – he says such allegations are deliberately spread by the agents of Islamophobia, especially America’s hard-right lobby, who nurture fear through the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory that the Islamic east and the Christian west are incompatible.”

Interview with Tariq Ramadan in The Herald, 26 October 2005

Islam’s new revolutionary

By Anne Simpson

The Herald, 26 October 2005

It is the lot of the prophet to be simultaneously vilified and acclaimed, and so it is with Tariq Ramadan, who is both the subject of visa refusals and the recipient of eager invitations from the west to explain the heart of darkness in the Muslim east. As for Ramadan himself, he acknowledges the very mention of his name is divisive: those trapped in religious or right-wing zealotry damning him as a heretic, those of liberal persuasion welcoming him as the Martin Luther of his ancient faith.

The result is that the Swiss-born Islamic intellectual has emerged as a compelling enigma, which is why he will pack the debating chamber of the Oxford Union when he lectures there tonight. In Britain alone, during the past few months, Ramadan has reeled from pariah status to a recognition that his is the mobilising voice for an Islamic reformation. After the July bombings in London, the Sun railed against him coming to the UK to address a conference, only to abandon its knee-jerk anger days later to proclaim the professor as “a hero of young Muslims”.

During our conversation, Ramadan reflects somewhat dryly that this was the closest the tabloid came to apologising for its previous rage. On his subsequent visit to one of Britain’s largest mosques, his audience listened attentively as he spoke of being ” the matchmaker between Islamic and European thought”.

But who is he really? In a religion without a universal authority figure, Ramadan, at 41, the husband of a teacher and the father of four, is increasingly seen as the progressive communicator to fill a dangerous vacuum. Indeed, as long ago as 2000, Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most important innovators of the 21st century. In Iran recently, a mainstream newspaper described him as the Gandhi of Islam.

Daunted by that suggestion, and the Luther reference, Ramadan says simply: “We should compare like with like . . . These were great people. I am not at their level. I am just trying to say, from within my tradition, Islam is not the problem. The problem is with Muslims. We have to reform our understanding in order to be faithful to the spirit and principles of Islam while meeting the challenges of integration.”

Historically, the Muslim lack of hierarchy was regarded as an advantage, allowing for multiple identities within the religion. But that asset, says Ramadan, has become a liability which accounts for the rise of fanatical imams whose medieval mind-set contorts the Koran for their own ends and who remain wilfully ignorant of western life. No surprise, then, that Ramadan’s teaching attracts the wrath of extremists from opposing camps. He is on record, for instance, as saying that although Arabic is the language of Islam, Arab culture is not the culture of Islam. “The Arabs should learn from western Muslims, because this is the best way of facing new challenges.”

And to those who allege he is an anti-semite because of his defence of the Palestinian cause, he says: “There is an ethical imperative to explain to people what is going on in Palestine and, when I criticise Israel’s policies, I am not being anti-semitic. If the international community does not speak out, then our silence is as bad as violence.”

That sentiment alone is seized by Ramadan’s enemies as evidence that “he preaches moderation out of one side of his mouth and hate out of the other”. But he insists: “I am the wrong target.” Referring to those who denounce him for condoning suicide bombings – a claim he successfully challenged in a French court – he says such allegations are deliberately spread by the agents of Islamophobia, especially America’s hard-right lobby, who nurture fear through the “clash of civilisations” theory that the Islamic east and the Christian west are incompatible.”But my work is about what it is to be truly Muslim and truly European.” In that, at least, Ramadan is living proof. “Swiss by nationality, Muslim by religion, European by culture, Egyptian by memory. And, if you are speaking about my philosophy, I am international.”

His family, in fact, possesses a history of Islamic political involvement. Hassan al-Banna, his maternal grandfather, was a founder, in 1928, of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the cornerstones of modern Islamist fundamentalism. His father, Said Ramadan, was an exile from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s purge of political troublemakers in 1954. On arriving in Geneva – where Tariq still lives – Said founded an Islamic centre which is now run by another son, Hani.

Ramadan knows, though, that what he calls “this silent revolution in Islamic thought” will succeed only if Muslim communities take immediate steps to face down interpretations of the Koran which bear no relationship to modern life. He, for instance, considers the subjugation of women as un-Islamic, and not only rejects traditional punishments such as stoning but challenges this assumed right of the Muslim east to dictate his religion.

Ramadan, then, is an essential presence on Tony Blair’s Muslim taskforce established weeks after 7/7 in an attempt to root out Islamic extremism in Britain. He is critical of those Islamic bookshops in Britain which refuse to stock the works of renowned European thinkers and which instead perpetuate a sense of guilt among young Muslims for not striving to live up to an alleged Islamic ideal. But he cautions against the notion universities contain cells of Muslim extremism. “All those radicals we have learned about were on the margins of communities. We have to be very careful not to overreact.”

Equally, Home Office proposals to return alleged militants to their countries of origin fills Ramadan with foreboding. “What is the future for human rights if we return people to places where torture is commonplace? When people remark, ‘Well, look what they do in Saudi Arabia’, are they really saying that Saudi Arabia should be our teacher? The European Union is right to remind the UK these are not our values, this is not our philosophy.”

But how does Ramadan feel when Islam is used to justify terrorism? “Horrified. We can have resistance to oppression but the means must be legitimate. Terrorism which kills innocent people is not Islamically acceptable. Within Islam, there is an accepted diversity. You can be a literalist, a Sufi mystic, or a reformist, so long as you don’t say some are less Muslim than others. And we must never say terrorism or violence are a part of this diversity.”

Recently appointed by Oxford University as a visiting professor at St Anthony’s College, Ramadan is a respected scholar on European campuses. He is also senior research fellow at the Lokahi inter-faith and academic foundation in London. But, in 1995, he was banned from entering France by the then minister of the interior on suspicion of having links with Algerian terrorists. He fought that accusation and won, and now has an office in Paris.

Yet in America his acceptance by the White House has been slow in coming. Last year, he was prevented from taking up a post at Notre Dame University in Tulsa, Indiana, when the Bush administration revoked his visa, claiming Ramadan endorsed terrorist activity. The State Department has since advised him the situation has changed and, should he re-apply for a visa, one would be granted. But if that suggests his message for mutual open-mindedness is finally getting through, he is still banned from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia, “countries where I have been vocal against dictatorships and oppression”.

So, in the bleakest moments, does Tariq Ramadan ever feel this would be a better world without religion? “No, because the problem is not religion. The problem is human beings.” How different things would be, he muses, if all of us were angels.