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Sought-after partner: Tariq RamadanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Europe's Muslim of Choice

Joachim Schubert-Ankenbauer (dre)
February 15, 2006

He's the man EU officials and journalists alike seek out when Islam and Western Europe don't see eye-to-eye. Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan has been in demand again recently.


There may not be a Muslim intellectual more popular at the moment than Tariq Ramadan.

If he's not holding lectures in French suburbs in front of excited young people, he's celebrated like a head of state during visits to Khartoum in Sudan. The British government uses him as a top-level consultant, and the EU has made him a regular on every commission dealing with intercultural or inter-religious dialogue.

His message rarely wavers: "It is possible to be both European and a Muslim."

Grandson of a radical Muslim

It's a sentiment many European Muslims would outright reject. As Danish flags burn in the Middle East, the dispute over the publication of Mohammed caricatures in a Danish newspaper threatens to deepen divide between Europe and its 11 million-strong Muslim community. Ramadan has been in demand of late, traveling from talk show to talk show to try and bring some reason and perspective into a debate spiraling out of control.

Pakistan Demonstration Verbrennung Flagge Dänemark Israel
Image: AP

At a recent discussion on Swiss television, Ramadan said that he understood the outrage in Arabic countries and, once again, explained why the caricatures had been offensive. He also gauged the level of reaction as exaggerated and repeated what has become his mantra.

"I've never suffered because of my heritage in Europe," said Ramadan. The statement carries special weight given that his grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which all radical Islamists trace their roots.

The ideal of a "European Islam"

"I've experienced the contact to the cultures around me as completely positive. I never saw that as something threatening," he said. "Through my personal experience, I've been able to pass along to Muslims one fundamental idea: It's possible to be both a European and a Muslim."

Kopftuch in Schwarz-Rot-Gold
Both a European, and a MuslimImage: dpa

Ramadan's notion of a "European Islam" that distances itself from the dreams of the restoration of the Caliphate shared by fundamental Muslims in many Arabic countries has yet to receive widespread acceptance in Europe. Many Europe countries have only recently begun seeking dialogue with their Muslim communities. French intellectuals and politicians call Ramadan, who studied French literature and Islamic studies and resides in Geneva, two-faced.

"There is an enormous amount of mistrust towards me," said Ramadan. "They say that what I'm saying is too good to be true, and that I must say something else when I speak in Arabic. Trust is missing, the progress made is not acknowledged."

Denied US visa

Skepticism is not limited to Europe. When the University of Notre Dame asked Ramadan to visit as a guest professor last year, the United States government denied him an entry Visa. That same year, TIME magazine named him to a list of the 100 most important thinkers in the world.

The controversy surrounding Ramadan is perhaps explained by the fact that his proposals demand more than either side is willing to give. Western Europeans find it hard to imagine Islam finding a place in their modern, pluralistic society. Muslims, on the other hand, are unwilling to let their religious traditions submerge under the secularism widespread in many European societies. Ramadan is frequently asked on which side he stands, an answer he is often unwilling to give.

Finding a modern Islam

"Muslims simply cannot allow themselves to do the West a favor. I can sit here and tell you, 'Yes I'm a liberal Muslim.' Then I go to the Muslim world and nobody listens to me," he said.

He said it's important to work from within.

"You need to have a debate with the Muslims about the old scriptures, about corporal punishment or the death penalty," he said. "How were they meant back then, and how are they to be understood and implemented today?"

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