Reinventing Islam in Europe: a profile of Tariq Ramadan

Reinventing Islam in Europe: a profile of Tariq Ramadan

Rosemary Bechler


The sophisticated exponent of a European Islam, Tariq Ramadan, articulates a project that speaks to a continent, and a faith, in transition. openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler encounters a complex mind on a restless journey.

Who is Tariq Ramadan? The question that French intellectuals and media outlets have been asking with accumulating force in the past two years is getting serious. In December 2003, Le Monde offered part of the answer: even as a Swiss national, he is the central figure of Islam in France today. A month later, Serge Raffy in Le Nouvel Observateur posed the matter in provocative terms: is he a brilliant, young philosophy lecturer who cites the Koran and Nietzsche’s or Heidegger’s critiques of western rationalism with equal mastery, while drawing crowds of young immigrants in Paris and New York; or the undercover heir to the Muslim Brotherhood, the “Trojan horse of jihad in Europe”, an arch dissimulator whose suave exterior hides an anti–Semitic core?

It’s not just the French and European press that can’t make up their minds about Ramadan. Mohamed Sid–Ahmed in Egypt’s Al–Ahram asks why this young intellectual is granted so much importance. His answer is that the controversy around Ramadan – from accusations of anti–Semitism by French intellectuals to the parallel critique from within Islam that he is soft on Israel – stem from the essential duality of his Swiss–Egyptian point of origin and intellectual project: “the issue goes beyond Ramadan as an individual. It has its origins in the undeniable duality between the Islam to which Ramadan assigns himself and the western, Judeo–Christian environment in which he was brought up”.

So who is Tariq Ramadan? He is, in the first instance, the 42–year–old grandson of Hassan al–Banna, founder (in 1928) of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic revival movement that spread from Egypt throughout the Arab world, criticising western decadence and advocating a return to Muslim values - often using violence in pursuit of this objective.

Hassan al–Banna’s moral example continues to exert enormous influence in Egypt today; the founder of Islamic Relief, Hany el–Banna (no relation) recently said “in Egypt, you don’t learn about him, you grow up with him”. Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, was driven into exile by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, and found refuge in Geneva. There, he founded an Islamic Centre, now headed by his combative brother, Hani Ramadan.

Tariq grew up in Geneva. He studied philosophy, writing a doctorate apiece on Islamic studies and on Nietzsche, and taught at the universities of Geneva and Fribourg. He led students on several field–trips to developing countries, meeting figures such as the Dalai Lama and Catholic exponents of “liberation theology”. After marriage, he took his family back to Egypt in a search for roots.

For a decade now, he has dedicated himself to the project of inventing a coherent “European Muslim personality”. He lectures in Switzerland, France, Belgium, the United States and across the Arab and Muslim world. He tells his audience: “whatever does not oppose our values we should take up and add to our legacy”. His answer to the question: “can Muslims live as full citizens in the area once known as Christendom?” is a resounding “yes”.

Tariq Ramadan has written a dozen books, most recently Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford, 2004).

As an active member of the European Social Forum, he has attracted the attention of Le Monde Diplomatique and the leaders of the anti–globalisation movement – and criticism from some of the latter’s activists. He has emerged as a pole of attraction among Europe’s growing Muslim population, and as a rival of other “stars” like the Arab European League’s Dyab Abou Jahjah. The French finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy, determined (when interior minister) to regulate the institutions of French Islam, attempted to embarrass Ramadan in televised debate on the issue of Islam’s treatment of women.

The swirling controversies that surround him in themselves reflect the key role that Tariq Ramadan is coming to play, as an ever more significant Islamic current develops in wary regard of establishment debates about the future of Europe – and what place there might be, or not be, for Muslims within the continent.

The mistrust he provokes – from Muslims for his western sensibility, from westerners for his Islamic ideas – is itself an important factor in any assessment of his influence. In 2003, he activated a waterfall of accusation from French thinkers after pointed accusations that their pro–war sentiments over Iraq served “Israeli interests”. He had charged that their selection of France’s Muslim community for a special warning to society as a whole revealed that their claim to a secular, universalist outlook had been abandoned in favour of a particularist loyalty.

But was his selection of prominent targets – Pierre–Andre Taguieff, Alain Finkielkraut, Alexandre Adler, Bernard–Henry Levi, Andre Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner, Bernard Kouchner – designed to insinuate that the real problem was that most were of Jewish origin?

Yet within the Muslim world, Ramadan claims consistently to have fought anti–Semitism, as well as literalists and Salafi adherents who hold to a strict reading of the Koran and the sharia. His stand against faith–based schools in France (“a trap”) is certainly unorthodox.

Close encounter

In short, openDemocracy wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Along with a well–annotated copy of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, I met Tariq Ramadan for breakfast in a decorous hotel near London’s Victoria station.

From the start, I felt in the presence of leadership: but of the style of an exiled prince, a king over the water, a president in exile, an errant soul. Tariq Ramadan, one had the impression, was what might have happened to Hamlet, had he survived the first intimations that there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark”. It is easy to forget that he is also a philosopher and erstwhile teacher, whose simple and clear examples of argument contain fastidious formulations it is easy to underestimate. One consequence of his analytical emphasis, and the greatest area of dissent with Arab nationalists, is that it insists on what Muslims and non–Muslims have in common.

What distinguishes Tariq Ramadan, and which he shares with other Muslim leaders – even those he strongly disagrees with, like Abou Jahjah – is his refusal to be a victim.

Whatever you make of his mission or of him, to meet Tariq Ramadan is to recognise that he wants to free himself above all from dissimulation and pretence. He is most passionate in articulating the discomfort of so many young Muslims in Europe who must cope with an “unhealthy schizophrenia…an uneasiness with the other and an inferiority complex almost impossible to live with”. Whatever else he is after – to be whole, and to make a contribution – this straightness of vision is, I believe, a genuine driver in his life.


Originally published on the Open Democracy website at http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-5-57-1996.jsp


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