On a recent afternoon, Tariq Ramadan, the outspoken Muslim scholar and professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, took the stage at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall. Ramadan stood alongside John Esposito, professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown, holding court on “radical reform” in Islam and parrying with a warm, supportive audience. The room was filled with students and others, including women in headscarves, women with bare heads, journalists and professors. Such a gathering might sound relatively unremarkable for the nation’s capital, except for this: Tariq Ramadan was banned from the United States for six years, a visa restriction lifted in January by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s because Ramadan, whose name is as often mentioned with the word “radical” as with “reformer,” had become a lightening rod, a discussion point for post-9/11 restrictions on travel, ideas and the place of Islam in democracies.
Tariq Ramadan is the most visible, the most loquacious and the most oft-quoted Muslim scholar speaking in the West today. He tirelessly lectures across Europe and Britain, reaching out to young European Muslims with his conversations about Islam in non-Islamic nations. He appears on television, is quoted in print, and is asked to weigh in on virtually every debate that touches upon the place of Muslims in the West. His public message, for the most part, is straightforward: Islam and Democracy are not in conflict; indeed, he says, they complement each other.
He also asserts that Islam is not a “visitor” in the West — it is a European and American religion now, and should be recognized as such.
And yet there are those who do not trust him. Six years ago, Ramadan was ready to assume a professorship at the University of Notre Dame when the Bush administration suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, revoked his visa. Ultimately the revocation was attributed to money he donated to a Swiss-based charity, which, in turn, passed the donation along to Hamas. After years of petitions by academics and human rights groups, Ramadan was effectively absolved of wrongdoing; his visa status was summarily reinstated.
Yet the double mythology of Tariq Ramadan remained – he is seen, alternatively, as a misjudged Muslim reformer or a hidden radicalist.