Leading philosopher explains what it means to be a Muslim in Europe today


Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan tells RUADHÁN MAC CORMAICintegration is a concept of the past

A RADICAL moderniser and a conservative ideologue. An apologist for extremists, a turncoat, a demagogue, a pragmatist and a passionate advocate for reconciliation between Europe and Islam. The Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan, perhaps Europe’s most influential Muslim intellectual, has a knack for dividing opinion.

Even western allies have differed on how to treat him. In 1995, Ramadan was temporarily banned from France; eight years later, he was invited to take part in a televised debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister.

His visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana was issued and then revoked by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2004, a year before he was hired by Tony Blair as an adviser.

When he was granted a visiting fellowship by St Antonys College, Oxford – where he still teaches – the college felt obliged to issue a statement that read: “Professor Ramadan is recognised as an intellectual throughout the world.”

Regardless of such controversies, his popularity among young European Muslims is that of a box office star, with CDs of his lectures selling like pop music and his public talks – enthrallingly delivered – drawing the sort of crowds that few philosophers could hope to attract.

Ramadan’s lineage is both a starting point for critics and one reason why Muslim audiences are so receptive to his words: his grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the foundation of modern political Islam.

A common accusation is that of “double talk”, the idea that he is a moderate to westerners and an extremist to Muslims.

The criticism is down to his not fitting in with the idea of what people expect of a Muslim, Ramadan believes. “I’m not coming with harsh statements. I’m a European. It’s very bothering when you have someone speaking the same language as you and he is a Muslim,” he says.

“You know the expression ‘it’s too beautiful to be true.” This is it. This is exactly what was said about the Jews during the 40s – ‘they say something but they mean something else’.”

He may use a different vocabulary or references when addressing different audiences, he adds, but the message is always the same, rooted in tolerance and understanding.

And the fact that he is banned from a number of Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, tells its own story. Ramadan’s profile surged when riots broke out in predominantly immigrant banlieues in France in November 2005, when the question of integrating young, second-generation Muslims – many of whom revere Ramadan – figured large in public debate.

Though he praises politicians for portraying the riots as a social-economic issue rather than a religious one, he believes little has been done in the past four years to resolve the underlying causes of those disturbances.

“As long as it’s calm, we don’t see it. What we want from the suburbs is: dont make noise and bother us. But there are no real policies,” he argues.

“The positive things are not coming from the government. The positive things are coming from the young people, who are putting their names on the electoral list – 60 per cent more in the two years after the riots.”

Ramadan was in Dublin at the invitation of the school of religions and theology at Trinity College Dublin and the Irish School of Ecumenics, and in two lectures here he returned to the need for better interaction between the academy and the public sphere, between the Muslim world and the West, and, in a sense, between the past and the present.

Asked whether it is possible to be fully Muslim and fully European, he points out that this has been shown to be happening for quite a long time, yet the “obsession” with new immigrants’ problems obscures that. “The great majority of Muslims [here] are Muslims by religion and European by culture . . . I would even go so far as to say that integration is a concept of the past, and that we need now a post-integration approach, saying that religious and cultural integration is done. You can be both, having your two identities.”

He might point to Tariq Ramadan, a devout Muslim who was born to Egyptian parents in Geneva, wrote a PhD on Nietzsche, and whose children attend state schools in Britain.

As for those who fear the growth of Europe’s Muslim population, he says Muslims must respect that fear and appreciate its roots. It is for Muslims to reassure, to explain themselves and, above all, to contribute to their society.

Ramadan says he has received “signs” that the new administration in Washington is prepared to lift the Bush-era ban.

He is also hopeful about Barack Obama’s potential to improve relations with the Muslim world.

“Things are going to change. He is quite clever – no one can deny the fact that he is clever. He started by acting on symbols [such as] Guantánamo. It’s a very important thing, but there are deeper [issues] . I think we want him to go further – from symbols to policies, and consistent policies.”