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Under suspicion

Martin Beglinger portrays Tariq Ramadan, one of the greatest, most enigmatic and controversial thinkers of the day

The man looks like an Arab prince. Tall, slender, well turned-out, with refined features. Even his most bitter opponents admit that the 43 year old Tariq Ramadan cuts an unusually good figure. Especially when he smiles. And the handsome man has charm. That's where the problems begin. Because his charm tends to fog the reasoning of his opponent, or so they claim. They consider his carefully trimmed beard to be nothing more than a disguise. So writes the acclaimed French Islamic expert Gilles Kepel in his book "The war for Muslim Minds": "Tariq Ramadan wears a carefully trimmed beard, a thin line of hair, which stands for both Islam and for seductive elegance." Likewise, Kepel considers his dark blue suits and elegant shirts, which he always wears open and without the symbolically laden tie, to be the stylish mimicry of a hard-core Islamist.

For Ramadan, this is no more than an expression of his identity. "In my memories, I'm Egyptian, in my citizenship, I'm Swiss, in my belief, I'm Muslim." Tariq Tamadan is also the Muslim answer to talk-show philosophers like Bernard-Henri Lévy: worldly, perfectly trilingual (French, English, Arabic) and extremely eloquent. But primarily he's an incontestably brilliant intellectual who prays five times a day – an irritating novelty for secularised Europe.

The message of this "Muslim Globetrotter" (L’Hébdo) is "Euro-Islam": the reconciliation of Muslim religions with the European democratic state. He claims that he wants to make European Muslims, European citizens of Muslim creed. This is his mission day in, day out. He commutes with laptop and palm pilot between London, Geneva and Paris, at an inter-confessional conference in Spain today, Italy tomorrow and in Canada the next day. He speaks to an audience of thousands of Muslims in Tunisia, Morocco, southern Africa, Indonesia. In France, young Muslims are known to travel 200 kilometres to hear Ramadan live and then to be photographed standing next to him after. They are fascinated by the first Muslim media star who sits at the same table with ministers and Muslim teachers (when he's permitted) and can declaim with equal ease on the Sharia, Nietzsche's understanding of truth or – his personal preference – the Prophet.

In his home town of Geneva, Tariq Ramadan is recognised right away, as he is in Paris, at least since the fall of 2003, when he had a skirmish with the Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy on French national television, seen by seven million viewers. But in the little London cafe where we meet for a two hour conversation, sitting among Christians, Sikhs and Muslims, nobody appears to recognise him, even though his picture appeared on the cover of the Sun last July, shortly after the London terrorist attacks. The newspaper looked like a wanted ad and that was the idea. This "militant Muslim professor" is "the acceptable face of terror for impressionable young Muslims" and "more dangerous" than many preachers of hatred, the tabloid warned its millions of readers. This Swiss who, "due to contact with terrorists," is not allowed to enter the USA, should also be banned from England, the paper claimed.

The appeal was in vain. Only days later, Tariq Ramadan held a speech on Islam and the West to a London audience, at the invitation of Scotland Yard. The Chief of London Police protected him publicly. Shortly thereafter, none other than Tony Blair asked him to sit on a commission that was to advise his government on how to prevent young Muslims from being drawn into terrorism and radicalism. Ramadan has had similar conversations with the Dutch Prime Minister, in whose country in November 2004, the film-maker Theo van Gogh had been brutally murdered by a Muslim who was seeking vengeance for his sharply Islam-critical film that Van Gogh had made with the politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (news story) So where does that leave us? Is the man a friend of terrorism and a danger to democracy, as his opponents in France claim? Or one of the "100 most important intellectuals of the 21st century," as he was named by the American Magazine Time: a "Muslim Martin Luther," as the Washington Post called him? What is definitely clear is that Tariq Ramadan has had a guest professorship at the famed St. Anthony's College, Oxford since last fall, alongside such a liberal great as Timothy Garton Ash. In the "Dahrendorf Room," Ramadan gives lectures on Usul al-Fiqh, the basis of Islamic law.

Beyond Geneva, virtually nobody in Switzerland knows him, let alone any of his 22 books. Or Tariq is confused with Hani, his even more notorious brother, who got a little press when he defended stoning. (news story) But the world media have probably reported more on Tariq Ramadan than any other Swiss, aside from Roger Federer. New York Times, BBC, CNN, El Pais, al-Ahram, Le Monde – the man is to be seen on all channels and in all columns. No less than five books have been written about him in France since 2000, two of which are wild settling of accounts with the supposedly duplicitous preacher of aggressive Islamicism. A sixth book will come out next month, the first serious, well-researched Ramadan biography, written by the French journalist Ian Hamel.

Tariq Ramadan was brought into association with terrorism for the first time in 1995, when the then Minister of the Interior Charles Pasqua refused him entry into the country. No official explanation was given and seven months later, Ramadan succeeded through legal means in having the entry ban lifted.

The Swiss Islam expert may be the most watched intellectual in Europe, particularly in England and France. But the contacts with violent radicals that are so often alluded to by the media are never backed up with evidence. In the fall of 2005, an employee of the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for the secret service, told Ramadan biographer Ian Hamel: "I have never been aware of any connections between Ramadan and radical organisations. And common sense tells me that if we were aware of such connections, there would be an entry ban on him." The Swiss secret service, which has talked exhaustively with Ramadan, says much the same.

But the USA remains a forbidden country to him. In August 2004 - Ramadan sat with his wife and four children and their packed suitcases in Geneva – the Homeland Security Department annulled the visa they had already granted him. "Security reasons" they said, no more. So the professorship that had been offered to him at Catholic University of Notre-Dame in Indiana, came to nought. As the New York Times wrote in a long (and well intended) article about him, Tariq Ramadan has been invited thirty times in the last five years to give lectures in the USA - in the fall of 2003, it was at the invitation of the State Department – in which he has spoken to diplomats, CIA and FBI agents about Islam and the West. (One of his books is a response to Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations"). After massive protest in the USA against the violation of academic freedom, Washington conceded that Professor Ramadan was free to re-apply for a Visa. He did, but when no response came, he decided instead for Oxford.

His critics in France are not at all irritated that he has an appointment at England's top academic address, nor that he sits on a government advisory committee. According to writers Caroline Fourest ("Frère Tariq", review) and Lionel Favrot ("Tariq Ramadan dévoilé", review), he's simply a "master of duplicity," one who tailors his message to his audience, sometimes moderate, sometimes barbed, be it on violence or anti-Semitism. But Ian Hamel doesn't see much evidence of that, having poured through Ramadan's books and articles and attended many of his lectures in France. Tariq Ramadan condemned the attacks in New York just as he did those in Madrid, Bali and London. "These attacks are horrible and unacceptable. There's no justification for them, and I would say that in Morocco or Indonesia," he said in a media communiqué, hours after the London attacks. In our meeting, he repeated what he had already said to the Spiegel and other publications about the suicide attacks in Palestine: "The Palestinians have the right to fight for their own state. But this goal does not justify all means. Nothing justifies the killing of innocent civilians. The suicide attacker that blows up Israeli children can't portray himself as a martyr."

At the same time, Ramadan defends Israel's right to exist and insists that "the horror of the Holocaust has be recognised." On his website, he writes, "One must state with absolute clarity and force, that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and cannot be justified." And as he said to the Israeli paper Haaretz in May 2002, "It is to my chagrin that I hear anti-Semitic comments not only from frustrated and confused young Muslims but also from certain Muslim intellectuals and imams who think that the 'Jewish lobby' has its hand in every crisis. There is nothing in Islam that legitimates anti-Semitism or xenophobia."

The suspicion that he pulls the strings of Islamic terror may stem from his background. Tariq Ramadan was born in August 1962 into an extremely traditional Egyptian family that was living in exile in Geneva. He is the youngest of six children. His father, Said Ramadan, was the son-in-law of the legendary Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The Muslim Brothers called for resistance against the British colonial rulers that were occupying Egypt. And more generally, Hassan al-Banna promoted Islam as a political program. "Islam is the Solution" was one of his best-known slogans. Al-Banna, Tariq Ramadan's grandfather, is considered the founding father of 20th century Islamism and is revered by Islamic terrorist groups from Sudan to Afghanistan as a spiritual leader. Osama Bin Laden is thought to have studied the Egyptian's writings.

As a 14 year old kid, Said Ramadan was already standing at the side of Hassan al-Banna, and he didn't leave it until February 1949, when al-Banna was shot by Egyptian government agents. Soon afterwords, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and Said Ramadan – the "little al-Banna" as he was known in Egypt – went into political exile, which continued for several painful decades. In 1958, he moved, together with his wife Wafia, to neutral Switzerland, to Geneva, because various princes from Qatar and Saudi Arabia who supported the Muslim Brotherhood financially were already resident there. As was Said Ramadan from then on. In 1961, with Saudi funding, he founded the Centre Islamique in Geneva, which quickly became one of the most important Islamic centres in western Europe. The black leader Malcolm X sought advice from him as did Yusuf Islam, the converted pop singer Cat Stevens.

In Egypt, "Doctor Said" – as his fans call him – was still considered dangerous. The Egyptian leader Nasser tried to have him killed in Geneva in 1962, but the Swiss authorities got there before the six members of secret service commando, as the Genevan journalist Sylvain Besson reports in his book on the Muslim Brotherhood. For years, the various federal police forces could not agree if Said Ramadan should be expatriated or not. In the end, he was allowed to stay, because the department of external affairs realised that Ramadan, as a vehement opponent of the Moscow-friendly Nasser regime, could be useful to the Americans. For 34 years, up until his death in August 1995, the very spiritual Doctor Said was director of the Centre Islamique. At the end, he was a lonely and inconsequential man in exile, who was finally allowed to return to his homeland after 41 years – in a coffin. (Actually he wanted to be buried in Mecca but the Saudis wouldn't allow it, because Said had been criticising the regime as a hoard of hypocrites and thus stopped receiving funding from it.)

Said's son Tariq was hardly interested in politics or religion in his youth; he liked sports. He was a very good soccer player; for one season he played for Servette, and he wanted to go pro. At the same time, he was a good middle-distance runner and worked in the winter as a ski instructor. And he was, according to his biographer Ian Hamel, a lady's man. After middle school, Ramadan began to study philosophy and he discovered the third world. Together with fellow students, he took solidarity trips to Mali, Senegal, India and South America. He met liberation theologians, such as Dom Helder Camara, and Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama. The young Tariq Ramadan also travelled twice to Egypt to discover his roots, but he was very disappointed by the land of his dreams, which he found totally paralysed. In Geneva, he was busy putting up posters for the national council election campaign of his good friend Jean Ziegler, who had been a family friend for years.

Tariq Ramadan remains closely connected with the third world movement and the globalisation critics around Attac and Jose Bove and when he raves against the exploitive dictators of the South in his texts, he quotes none other than Jean Ziegler in his eternal fight against the "scoundrels" of this world.

In 1984, Ramadan completed his licentiate at the University of Geneva with a paper on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in 1988 he became a teacher of philosophy. The greater public of Geneva first took notice of Ramadan in 1993 when he wrote an open letter protesting the staging of "Mahomet", a play by the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, on the basis that it would offend the sensitivities of the Muslim community. Although it was Erica Deuber-Pauli, then responsible for culture in Geneva and wife of Jean Ziegler, who disallowed the performance by refusing the 310 000 franc subsidy, the whole thing reeked of cultural censorship and the odour clung to Tariq Ramadan.

In 1997, he was offered a teaching position in Islamic Studies at the University of Freiburg, but when submitted his dissertation to the University of Geneva in 1998, a major scandal erupted. Tariq Ramadan had re-interpreted the Muslim Brotherhood as a kind of socio-religious progressive group; it was an academic rescue attempt on his grandfather. This struck his two French supervisors as so untenable that they withdrew in protest. So Ramadan called on his old friend and university professor Jean Ziegler who did everything he could to rescue the dissertation. New supervisors were found and the work was approved, but only, as the Bernese Islamic studies professor Reinhard Schulze suggested, because a scandal should be avoided. A rejection of the paper would not only have ended Ramadan's academic career, it would have been used as political dynamite.

His doctorate is cited repeatedly as proof that Tariq Ramadan could be a member of the organisation that his beloved grandfather founded. He denies this categorically. "I was never a member of the Muslim Brotherhood." He does admit to admiring Hassan al-Banna and his anti-colonial struggle, but he claims to see the West differently from his grandfather. Journalists from Le Monde and Ian Hamel spent weeks in Egypt looking for a connection between Ramadan and today's Muslim Brotherhood (which recently increased their seats in Egyptian parliament by a factor of 6), but found nothing.

As a young teacher, Tariq Ramadan, aware that he had inherited a prostheletyzing spirit, founded the organisation "Muselmans, Muselmanes de Suisse". The response was luke warm, especially in German Switzerland. Immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, often not practising Muslims, are not especially interested in a man with Arab roots who preaches the pious life. Thus Ramadan turned to France, to the millions of mainly North African Muslims. He made contact with Islamic youth groups and held lecture series. Those who miss the charismatic grandson of Hassan al-Banna can hear him on a tape. A Muslim publishing house offers no less than 143 lectures by him; they've sold 60 000 copies thus far in France.

One of his first major public appearances outside the Muslim community was made possible by his friend Alain Gresh, editor in chief of the renowned Le Monde Diplomatique. Ramadan and Gresh published a book together on Islam which represented, for Ramadan, a noble entry into France's intellectual salon. The person who finally made him a figurehead - or public enemy – in France was Nicolas Sarkozy, who offered to engage in a 100 minute-long debate with the Swiss philosopher on television. It was a battle which, in the eyes of most non-Muslims, Ramadan lost when the sharp-tongued Interior Minister forced him to address stoning as a penalty for adultery. Whether he would distance himself from this punishment in Islamic law, yes or no? But Ramadan averted and said he demands "a moratorium."

"We thought that answer would be the end of him," Ramadan's friend, the Freiburg-based religious scholar Richard Friedli recalls. He survived it, but since then, Tariq Ramadan has been considered by many European liberals to be an unreliable opportunist who can't make up his mind and lacks the strength to distance himself from Stone Age Islamic laws. On the other hand, for Muslim fundamentalists he is a traitor. Decidedly so, since he agreed to work as an advisor for the British Iraq-war Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Ramadan sees himself here as a "bridge-builder," who has landed between the fronts. Because Islamic teachers do not agree on the question of stoning, he pleads for the victim, in the event of doubt. And thus for an open-ended moratorium on all corporal punishment, including the death penalty. As Ramadan said in our conversation, had he condemned stoning outright, he would have made a friend of Sarkozy but would have lost his audience in the Muslim world because he would be considered a Westerner. "Once condemned, I can't change anything in the Muslim world."

Tariq's brother Hani demonstrates how tricky this path of change is. Tariq can't persuade his own brother of the merits of a moratorium. Even Hani Ramadan, 46 years old, doctor of philosophy and, since the death of his father, director of the Centre Islamique, justified stoning as a punishment with cathartic effects in an article for Le Monde. And he called AIDs a punishment of God. After that, the Genevan government terminated his teaching appointment at a public secondary school but so far, the courts have stood behind Hani Ramadan in his claim that the dismissal was unjustified. (news story) Even if he wins his case, Hani will have ruined the reputation of his family in Geneva's liberal circles once and for all.

Aymen, 53, the eldest and Egyptian-born of the Ramadan brothers has stayed out of the media spotlight on Tariq and Hani. Aymen Ramadan is a neuro-surgeon in Geneva and, in his spare time, President of the Centre Islamique. According to the Nouvel Observateur, he lives with his second wife, from the Sudan, and often volunteers his services there. But, like his brother Hani, he prefers not to talk to the Magazin.

Because nobody (other than the secret service) has time to read Ramadan's 22 books and all his 799 articles, he is constantly being drilled on the same "Euro-Islam" repertoire. And basically, he always answers the same way:

Does a Muslim have to heed the constitution?
No exceptions?
No, because the right to practice a religion is guaranteed in all European constitutions.
And if the headscarf is forbidden in schools, as is the case in France?
The law must be respected, even if it is bad.
Does a Muslim woman have the right not wear a headscarf?
Yes, she has the right to a free choice.
Do Muslim women have the same rights as their husbands?
Yes, there can be no discrimination against women.
What would you do if your son were homosexual?
He would still be my son and I would still respect him.
Can a Muslim change his or her belief?
Can a Muslim woman marry a man of another religion?
Does Ayaan Hirsi Ali have the right to make a second film that is extremely critical of Islam?
She has every right to do so.

His principles are clear. The sentences which follow these answers don't contradict the initial statement, but reveal a lot about the core of this man. Tariq Ramadan is no friend of terrorists, no danger to democracy and no anti-Semite. He is, in European terms, a religious conservative.

Yes, women have the right not to wear a headscarf – like, for example, Ramadan's secretary in Paris. But he would definitely prefer her to wear one, as his wife and his little daughter do.

Yes, mixed marriages are permitted, but Ramadan's wife, a Swiss-French dual citizen and originally Christian, converted to Islam.

And yes, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has the right to say what she wants (as does Salman Rushdie). But Ramadan considers her critique to be morally wrong. "How can you influence a billion Muslims, when you just insult them, when you say that by today's standards, the Prophet would be considered a paedophile."

Tariq Ramadan wants to turn the 15 million Muslims in western Europe into devout and self-assured Muslims, and does not want 85-90 percent to remain non-practising Muslims on paper, as is the case today. That's what many Europeans fear, says Professor Richard Friedli in Freiburg. In secular Europe, such a self-confident and mission-driven religious moralist is a provocation. Ramadan demands "real pluralism", but he has nothing good to say about an integration which Europeans define as successful when a Muslim can no longer be identified as such; in other words, when religion is relegated to the private realm, as is the case with most Christians.

Ramadan would like European Muslims to stop longing for their old homelands. He would like to see them getting involved in their new ones, participating, voting, learning the rules as well as their obligations and the rights they are guaranteed in Western constitutions. But this irritates Europe with its empty village churches and low birth rates, says the religious studies scholar Friedli. He sees behind every fight over a planned minaret, the creeping concern of cultural infiltration. Tariq Ramadan says, "The 15 million Muslims in Europe are a fact, like it or not. And they are going to change the homogeneity of old European culture. True democracy involves the power to share, but some people here consider that a threat."

Ramadan insists there are "shared universal values" in Western democracy and Islam; values like democracy, the constitutional state, equality of citizens and a universal right to vote. Nothing enrages him more than Western condescension that denies Islam these values and sees in the Koran only reactionary and impracticable teachings. When confronted with this attitude, Ramadan attacks "Western arrogance," while his opponents wait and then rejoice that Ramadan is finally showing his true face, that of an anti-modern, stubborn hard-core Islamist.

There is, of course, little evidence of this enemy Ramadan in his book on "Globalisation: Muslim Resistances". In it, he criticises the whole gamut of Arabic and African regimes for being dictatorial and undemocratic. He takes on all the corrupt potentates and intellectuals; it becomes quite clear why he has been banned entry from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria. For the last half century, the Arab world has been wallowing in self-pity and calling itself a victim of colonial powers, of the West, of Israel. Enough of these excuses. "We Muslims must be more self-critical," is Ramadan's advice to the Arab world. "The West is neither monolithic nor diabolic. The tremendous accomplishments in the areas of law, knowledge, culture and civilisation are realities and it would be ridiculous to underestimate or, worse, reject these."

However, the West is not spared. Ramadan castigates the greediness of "neo-liberal capitalism," all the way to pornography. Here he sounds like a cross between Jean Ziegler and Joseph Ratzinger. And he knows that this tone works: "Any Western citizen of Islamic creed who speaks these truths runs the danger of being considered poorly 'integrated' and, in the question of identity, dubiously Swiss."

That is certainly what he is for Nicolas Sarkozy, who blames "Islamists" like Ramadan for fanning the flames in the French suburbs. His own secret service, however, proves the opposite: that there were no manipulators involved and that the problems are of a social, non-religious nature. It's exactly what Tariq Ramadan means when he speaks of "territorial and social apartheid."

In the hot nights of last fall, the Swiss professor was a long way away, although his Paris office is in the middle of the suburb of Saint Denis. "I admit, I had no inclination to take to the streets at night, in the midst of those flying stones and petrol bombs," he says in an interview with the Spiegel and the journalists ("Did you eat crow?") were a little taken aback when Ramadan added, "There's no doubt, violence is not the answer. The destruction of buses and cars must stop. These deeds must be punished. (...) Restoring order is of course the highest priority."

Ian Hamel doubts that Tariq Ramadan is truly the hero of the suburbs that his opponents depict him to be, and that he likes to see himself as. Hamel went to many of his lectures in the suburbs and provinces, and his audiences were not made up of children from the ghettos. Their language is rude rap. They want to hear hip-hop and not what Tariq Ramadan has to say about music in Islam. He is not, as he explains in his book "To be a European Muslim" opposed to music and song in principle, as many Islamic teachers are. But "the lyrics and the kind of music must correspond with the Islamic ethic. (...) This kind of entertainment must not lead to excesses that will cause people to forget their obligations to God and the people."

No, says Hamel, Ramadan's fans tend to be "integrated middle class Muslims who have work and go to vote." In his experience, it's no longer bearded men and veiled women that come to see him, separated by sex. "Some Muslim women wear their hair down and half of the audience members didn't pray once in the breaks."

Back in our cafe in London. Tariq Ramadan has meetings, he has to carry on, he's off to Mauritius, but first to French Clermont-Ferrand, where he's been invited to a philosophical colloquium on "Reason in Islam." A few days later, the conference is cancelled. The university authorities, he is informed, will not make a room available to a gentleman such as himself. It's the thirteenth time Ramadan has been dis-invited in the last eighteen months.


This article originally appeared in Das Magazin on January 7, 2006.

Martin Beglinger writes regularly for Das Magazine and won the Zurich Journalism Prize in 2001.

translation: nb - let's talk european