- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

LONDON — Tariq Ramadan’s call for modernizing Islam has earned him the hatred of Muslim traditionalists. The Bush administration sees him as a threat and has banned him from the United States. France banned him from the country in 1995, linking him to Algerian terrorists, but leftist organizations successfully campaigned to overturn the measure, and he is now welcome there.

But underscoring the conflicting reactions provoked by this soft-spoken Muslim from Switzerland, British Prime Minister Tony Blair sees Mr. Ramadan as one of the best hopes for bridging the divide between the West and Islam, and has put him on a task force to tackle extremism.

To his admirers, the 44-year-old Oxford University scholar is the conscience of Western Europe’s Muslims — the man who can articulate what it means to play an active part in secular society while remaining true to the Koran.

“I’m Swiss by nationality, I’m a Muslim by religion, I’m an Egyptian by memory and I’m a European by culture,” Mr. Ramadan told the Associated Press in an interview at the suburban London home he shares with his wife and four children.

His campaign to modernize Islam has drawn comparisons to Martin Luther, the 16th-century father of the Protestant Reformation. It involves a “shift in the center of gravity” away from the monopoly of theologians and closer toward professionals in fields such as science, economics and the arts.

He thinks Islamic thought can move forward only if Muslims become more self-critical and harbor less of a victim mentality. He says Islam can be adapted to 21st-century life and its scriptures are flexible enough to provide guidance without losing key tenets of the faith.

Many Muslims say that because democracy is not in the Koran, it isn’t Islamic, but Mr. Ramadan says such literal pronouncements are dangerous.

He most recently made waves by criticizing the violent Muslim reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s comments in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s remarks tying the prophet Muhammad to violence.

The appropriate response, Mr. Ramadan said, should have been dialogue, not an explosion of outrage.

He said Islamic extremists are using Benedict’s remark to stoke dangerous reactions for their own aims. He accused some Islamist regimes of manipulating the violent demonstrations to remove attention from their own repressive policies and conservatives on both sides of fomenting a clash of civilizations.

Muslims should heed the pope’s words carefully, he told the Associated Press. “We have to listen to the deep message he was saying, and come back with very deep articulated arguments here.”

Mr. Ramadan also said that the pope misrepresented history by placing European culture strictly within Christian and Greek traditions while ignoring the great Muslim contribution to Western civilization.

Two years ago — and days before he was to arrive in the United States to become a professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame, the United States canceled his visa. The State Department said he was barred for actions “which constituted providing material support to a terrorist organization.” Mr. Ramadan said the charge stems from his donation, then worth about $750, to a Palestinian charity.

U.S. authorities have furnished no further explanation, and some of his supporters say Mr. Ramadan was shut out because his arguments, made on U.S. soil, would have been hard for the Bush administration to dispute. “He would be a poster boy for a very appealing brand of Islam. … He is a charismatic, well-spoken, articulate defender of something that can be loosely described as liberal Islam,” said John Sidel, professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.

Mr. Ramadan’s message resonates among Europe’s Muslim youths because he relates to their difficulty in straddling cultures. His grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s most powerful opposition group — and his father was forced to seek asylum in Switzerland, where Tariq was born. This pedigree gives him credibility among many Muslims.

Among his Western critics is French journalist Caroline Fourest. Her book, “Brother Tariq,” portrays Mr. Ramadan as a polished media performer who promotes religious tolerance while disseminating a more fundamentalist message on the ground.

She told the AP she thinks the Bush administration acted appropriately, saying: “He’s more likely to radicalize Western Muslims than make Middle Eastern Muslims more liberal.

“I’m sure he would be a fantastic prime minister of somewhere like Iran,” she said, but “in Europe he cannot be considered a liberal.”

Mr. Ramadan rejects such statements, saying his goal is an Islam fit for the modern world.

Slender of build with a neatly trimmed beard, Mr. Ramadan chooses his words carefully in English inflected with a gentle Swiss-French accent.

He accuses regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which also bans him, of hijacking Islam to protect their dictatorships.

“By criticizing Saudi Arabia, I make the United States not happy at all because I’m putting my finger on something which is hypocrisy,” he said. “You are speaking about spreading democracy around the Islamic world, and at the same time you are with the least progressive Muslims as long as it protects your interest.”

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