Why Does Tariq Ramadan Cause Such A Stir?

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By Eleanor Goldberg
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) With an open collared baby blue shirt and Dolce & Gabbana jacket hugging his slim frame, Tariq Ramadan appears the epitome of Western sophistication.

But from 2004 until just a few months ago, the Department of Homeland Security viewed him with suspicion.

Ramadan, a 46-year-old Oxford University professor and a golden child of American academia, was banned from the U.S. for six years because of alleged ties to a Muslim charity that supported the militant group Hamas.

"A silly decision from the Bush administration," as Ramadan prefers to put it now.

Ramadan, the author of more than 20 books on Islam and the grandson of the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, is widely considered a go-to scholar on all things Islam. He's made enemies on both sides with his criticisms of both U.S. foreign policy and Islamic fundamentalism.

Now, six years after he was blocked from taking a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame, Ramadan is finally in the U.S. after a federal appeals court ruled the DHS had to rescind the ban, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later approved a 10-year visa.

Making the rounds on his first U.S. speaking tour, he's quick to address the issue that pops up at the top of a Google search of his name.

Speaking to a group of journalists this week, Ramadan said his visa was initially rejected under the Patriot Act in an atmosphere of post-9/11 American nervousness.

When he reapplied and was interviewed at the U.S. embassy in Switzerland, he said, most of the questions related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraq war. (He's critical of the U.S. support of Israel and considers the Iraq war illegal.)

It wasn't until two years later that he learned the reason for his exile: he had contributed 700 euros between 1998 and 2002 to a charity he thought promoted education for Palestinians but actually supported Hamas. The U.S. blacklisted the charity in 2003.

The ACLU subsequently filed a lawsuit to prevent the U.S. government from banning foreign scholars based on their views.

"I think, for many of us, it was an astonishing thing to see someone as vibrantly engaged in the kind of work we do excluded by the United States," said Harvard professor Diana Eck, former president of the American Academy of Religion, which joined in the suit.

Rather than revisit the unpleasantness of the past, the Swiss-born academic is more interested in contemporary issues facing Muslims. For one, he says Western Muslims need to integrate better into society and make a concerted effort to "feel at home."

"This obsession with foreign policy is not helping us to be citizens," Ramadan said, adding that Muslims do themselves a disservice by constantly focusing on terrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

It's also a mistake to establish separate Muslim schools, he said, insisting that Muslims need to be involved in all discussions of public policy, from politics to education to the social sciences.

And while American Muslims may remain "suspicious" about the sincerity of President Obama's overtures to the Islamic world, they are more apt to get involved in the conversation now, according to Ramadan.

"It's quite clear that the current administration is much more well perceived by Muslims around the world after what we got for eight years," Ramadan said.

Part of his job, he said, is "trying to promote a shift in the center of gravity of authority in Islam." If you want to be taken seriously by Muslim audiences, "you should be rooted in the tradition," he said, which is why he's trying to develop a network of scholars in the West and in Muslim-majority countries who discuss their interpretations of Islamic scriptures.

When it comes to the controversial topic of liberating Muslim women abroad, for example, Ramadan says many scholars in Muslim countries tell him in private: "We agree with you. But we aren't going to say it."'

Ramadan says dialogue is the most effective approach because it's what's worked for him. For 15 years, he said, scholars agreed with Ramadan that female genital mutilation "is wrong and not Islamic." But it wasn't until Jan. 12 that 34 Muslim scholars signed a fatwa banning the practice.

His message, after the six-year ban, has drawn large audiences during his Washington debut -- even if they also include protestors who view him with lingering unease.

"Lo and behold," said fellow author Reza Aslan, who also teaches at the University of California, "the earth didn't open up and swallow us up."