This interview with renowned Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, continues the series introducing leading religious thinkers who attended the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne in December 2009. It was recorded for Eureka Street, and is sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Australian Catholic University.
Ramadan speaks about the need for Muslims to be open to other faiths,
and about one of his passions — education, particularly Islamic
education. As a former high school teacher and headmaster, and now
Professor in Islamic Studies at Oxford University, he sees education as
crucial in overcoming problems in this era of inter-religious conflict.
I first met Tariq Ramadan in his hometown, Geneva, in Switzerland, in 2003. He was one of the interviewees in a documentary I was working on for Compass called 'Tomorrow's Islam'. It featured progressive Muslim leaders and thinkers from around the world. Then, as now, he struck me as a highly appealing and charismatic character.
But in the meantime, serious allegations have been made against him, and opinion about him is divided. To his fans and supporters, he is an articulate reformer, or, as he calls himself, an 'activist professor', who works tirelessly around the globe building bridges between the Muslim community and broader Western society. But his detractors have labelled him 'dangerous' and 'double-faced'.
The criticisms of him are reflected in two major incidents. First, in 2004 he was appointed to an academic post in America at the Catholic University of Notre Dame. Just a week before he was due to arrive in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security revoked his visa. Its only explanation was that he was a threat to national security.
His appeal to overturn the decision failed, but it revealed the only specific charge against him was that he had made a few donations to Palestinian charities with links to Hamas.
Second, in 2005, French investigative journalist, Caroline Fourest published a book critical of Ramadan, more recently published in English with the provocative title, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan. Fourest's most serious charge is that while Ramadan speaks in benign progressive tones to non-Muslim Western audiences, he says the opposite to Muslims.
While it's difficult to fathom the degree of angst and opposition he has provoked, they are explained partly by his family background, and his political agenda.
His parents were political refugees from Egypt, fleeing to Switzerland in the early 1950s after his maternal grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, was gunned down in Cairo. It is widely believed he was assassinated by the Egyptian military as part of a crackdown against Islamic activists by the secular government.
Al-Banna is a revered but controversial figure in recent Islamic history, as he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is widely recognised that radical elements of the Brotherhood — particularly writer and political philosopher, Sayyid Qutb, and his followers — are the major inspiration for the current wave of violent Muslim extremists.
But Ramadan is adamant that while his grandfather was a religious leader and reformer who supported the formation of an Islamic state in Egypt, he was a deeply spiritual man and eschewed violence. Ramadan is also a devout Muslim, and sees himself continuing in this line of Islamic reform and deep spirituality.
Ramadan argues that Muslims in Europe should become contributing active citizens in the countries where they live, and develop a European Islam that's in tune with their new environment. So he challenges members of his own faith, but is also critical of Western capitalist society for being oppressive and unjust. Politically he espouses a form of socialism that he says is inspired by the universal principles of Islam.
In 2006 journalist and academic, Ian Buruma, carried out an investigation into the charges against Ramadan, interviewing all the major protagonists, including Ramadan himself. He wrote up his findings in a feature article published in The New York Times in February 2007, and he came to a positive conclusion:
'Ramadan offers a different way, which insists that a reasoned but traditional approach to Islam offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment.'
From what I understand of Ramadan's enterprise, these values are neither secular, nor always liberal, but they are not part of a holy war against Western democracy either. His politics offer an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.
Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.