GENEVA In a nearly barren apartment here, Najma Ramadan, a curly-haired blonde 3-year-old wearing tiny bear-shaped earrings, climbed the walls one recent evening, from pipe to pipe. The little girl’s toys sat far away, in boxes in South Bend, Indiana, where her father, Tariq Ramadan, was to have taken up residence in August as the Henry Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University.
Nine days before his family’s scheduled departure for the United States, Ramadan, 42, a Swiss theologian of Egyptian descent who is probably Europe’s best-known Muslim intellectual, received an urgent message from the American consul in Switzerland. Washington had just revoked the visa granted him after a security review last spring.
Neither Ramadan, a preacher of self-empowerment to European Muslims, nor Notre Dame were offered any explanation. They have since learned that the government received some information that caused it to “prudentially revoke” the visa pending an investigation, which has yet to occur. But the nature of that information – is Ramadan accused of a link to terrorism, of espousing terrorism, of terrorism itself? – has not been disclosed.
“It’s still not clear to him or us who turned him down and on what grounds,” said the Reverend Edward Malloy, president of Notre Dame. “We have no reason to think that he’s a mole or an underground instigator. He seems to be an above-ground, forthright advocate of what some refer to as moderate Islam, and we see him as a really good fit for our peace institute.”
Ramadan was to have held a joint tenured appointment at Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and with the classics department.
For years, Ramadan, a trim, telegenic man with a close-cropped beard and a soft, measured voice who condemns the use of violence in the name of Islam, has faced allegations that his public face of moderation conceals an extremist core.
Ramadan is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, one of the most important Islamist figures of the 20th century, and for many of his detractors that alone makes him suspect. It also gives him a considerable platform. In Europe, Ramadan is not just a professor but a high-profile intellectual who has produced 20 books, hundreds of articles, and scores of lecture tapes that are hot sellers in Muslim immigrant communities.
In much of his work, Ramadan tries to define a blended identity for Muslims in the West, arguing that one can be both fully Muslim and fully Western. His message to European Muslims is: Reject your feelings of victimization, participate more fully in your countries of residence, and demand your rights.
That message has been perceived as threatening by some Europeans, who fear that a growing Muslim population will lead to the dilution of national identities or the Islamization of Europe.
Further, Ramadan’s pungent political views have antagonized a diverse lot, from French intellectuals to Egyptian government officials, from supporters of Israel to Saudi clerics.
“When you are trying to create bridges, you are in the middle,” Ramadan said. “You are too Western for the Muslims, and too Muslim for the Westerners. Controversy is natural. But this particular controversy about whether I have a secret life as a terrorist or extremist is so old that, frankly, it’s – what’s the word? Boring.”
Notre Dame aggressively scrutinized Ramadan’s résumé and body of work before hiring him, and Malloy, who personally interviewed Ramadan, said that he hopes the government will reconsider its decision to bar him.
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, Russ Knocke, declined to offer any reason for the revocation of Ramadan’s visa. Another government official, who requested anonymity because he was consulting classified information, said that the decision was based not on Ramadan’s beliefs but on “his actions.” The official would not elaborate.
A senior European counterterrorism official who has investigated Ramadan said that European intelligence services have never turned up proof of wrongdoing on his part. The official added, however, that he thinks the United States is wise to keep him out because of what he referred to as the professor’s “dangerous” ideas.
Sitting in stocking feet before the computer in his otherwise empty home office, nibbling on Swiss chocolate, Ramadan said that news of the last-minute visa revocation upset and confounded him. He has traveled to America without problems more than 30 times in the last five years, he said.
These travels included a visit to the State Department, where he delivered a lecture on European Muslims to diplomats and officials from the FBI and CIA last autumn, he said. Ramadan has lectured Scotland Yard officers on European Muslim communities, too.
Ramadan said he received an offer for a tenured faculty position not only from Notre Dame but from an Ivy League university and, at a time when American students were hungering for greater understanding of Islam, he was courted by other top-tier schools, too.
“A scholar like him, who’s thoroughly Islamic but has his feet firmly planted in the modern world, is, I won’t say a pearl beyond prize, but certainly a pearl,” said Thomas Simons, a former ambassador to Pakistan and the author of “Islam in a Globalizing World.”
Others sharply disagree. In September, two Middle East scholars, Daniel Pipes and Fouad Ajami, applauded the government’s decision to revoke Ramadan’s visa, portraying the Swiss intellectual as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a dissembler who practices, Pipes said, “a quieter and gentler jihad.”
Several academic groups, however, from the American Association of University Professors to the American Academy of Religion, protested the government’s action as an effort to infringe on the free exchange of ideas.
American Muslim groups questioned the government’s ability or willingness to distinguish between what they see as Muslim moderates like Ramadan and extremists. And the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago expressed “deep concern” that the visa revocation was “one more horrific example of government suspicion, intimidation and exaggerated allegations against Muslims and Muslim communities.”
After several visits to Indiana, Ramadan accepted the offer from Notre Dame because he found there people “of faith and principle who wanted to build a space of mutual trust,” he said.
Notre Dame, in turn, liked the fact that Ramadan is a practicing Muslim and not a detached scholar, giving him greater authority when he talks about the Koran as a “living text” open to contemporary interpretations.
Several professors expressed reservations about Ramadan’s appointment because of his reputation in some quarters of Europe as a militant disguised as a moderate, according to the Reverend Richard McBrien, a professor of theology.
In his campus visits, however, Ramadan’s dynamic teaching style made a powerful impression, said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute.
Notre Dame was looking for a scholar who could “lead us into interreligious dialogue and intrareligious dialogue and religious-secular dialogue,” Appleby said. Ramadan’s approach “was rooted in a kind of spirituality and a scholarly method that was innovative and original and very fruitful.
“He has developed his own philosophy, his own synthesis of the West and Islam,” Appleby continued, “drawing from Nietzsche on the one hand and Islamic philosophers on the other. He has critiques of capitalism and globalization integrated into Islamic ideas. At the same time, he is challenging Islam to become more universalist, to embrace democracy, to help shape democracy.”
Al Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic revivalist movement that spread across the Arab world, was assassinated at the age of 42 in 1949. Ramadan never knew his maternal grandfather, but he studied him.
Ramadan is critical of his grandfather’s sloganeering – “The Koran is our Constitution” was one slogan – he disagrees with him about “many things about the West.”
Ramadan has said repeatedly that he is unaffiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which renounced violence in the 1970s and has been periodically banned in Egypt, as it is now.
Still, Ramadan’s genealogy is a big part of what makes him suspect to European intelligence services, just as it is what affords him a platform from which to preach about making Islam more modern.
In the late 1950s, Ramadan’s father, Said, settled in Geneva after fleeing Egypt during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Said Ramadan set up an Islamic center that became a European outpost of the Brotherhood, drawing visitors like Malcolm X.
As a youth, Ramadan said, he was not particularly committed to Islam. His commitment to Islam grew slowly, he said, starting after the Iranian revolution in 1979.
In the last year, Ramadan became the de facto representative of the French Muslim community in confronting the government’s proposed ban on head scarves in the schools.
On television last autumn, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister and now finance minister, challenged Ramadan to prove he was a moderate by telling Muslim women to “take off their veils” – Ramadan refused – and by calling for the abolition of the stoning of adulterous women mandated by a strict reading of Islamic law.
Ramadan called instead for a moratorium on stoning. “That way, you start a dialogue,” he said. “I won’t change any thinking in the Muslim world if I issue a blanket condemnation of stoning to please the French interior minister.”