America's relationship with the Islamic world continues to be defined by hostile confrontation: the so-called war on terror, the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political crisis in Pakistan, and the continuing stand-off with a theocratic Iran over its nuclear program. Managing these challenges has dominated the Bush presidency, and the same tasks will preoccupy whoever takes over in January 2009.
The next president, however, will also need to broaden the political discourse, redefining America's interaction with the Islamic world so that is not only about combating violence and extremism. With America's standing in the Middle East at historic lows, Muslim communities in Europe largely estranged from the majority populations around them, and Islamist movements on the march in the Middle East and beyond, building bridges of dialogue and understanding will be increasingly important.
The difficulties involved in building such bridges have been encapsulated in the controversy over Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim intellectual currently based in the Britain. A devout Muslim who insists that traditional Islam can coexist in mutual respect with the liberal societies of the West, Ramadan has become an obsession of the U.S. and European media. Indeed, The New Republic last June devoted more than 28,000 words - a substantial portion of the magazine - to probing his background and writings.
But despite all the attention, opinions diverge widely as to whether Ramadan should be revered or reviled. Some commentators praise him as Islam's Martin Luther, an intellectual activist who will help oversee an Islamic Reformation - and hence a perfect interlocutor for the West. Others assert that he only masquerades as a moderate reformer, and is in reality a dangerous absolutist who brooks no compromise between Sharia and modernity.
Ramadan certainly holds opinions that run contrary to mainstream Western views on many issues -- including gender equality, the role of religion in society and the benefits of global capitalism. But the inordinate amount of attention he attracts is less a product of his admittedly distasteful views than our own paranoia about the perceived threat that traditional Islam poses to our liberal and pluralist societies.
Ramadan purports to be intent on diminishing mistrust between the Islamic world and the West, including between Muslims living in the West and the non-Muslim majorities alongside them. He is certainly not the secularizing renegade that many Americans and Europeans would prefer as an intermediary. But precisely because he is seeking to build bridges between traditional Islam and modern Western society, he does represent the kind of intellectual capable of broadening understanding on both sides of the communal divide. He should be engaged with caution, not treated as a dangerous pariah.
Ramadan's recent employment history is a good indicator of the controversy he provokes. He is now a fellow at St. Antony's College in Oxford. But while one of Europe's finest universities finds him fit for an appointment, the United States does not even deem him worthy of entry. Notre Dame University offered him a professorship, to begin in 2004. Ramadan intended to take up the post, but was ultimately refused a visa by the U.S. State Department on the grounds that he had made financial contributions to two European charities that had provided funds to Hamas.
What makes Ramadan so hard to pin down is that he is simultaneously at home in seemingly incompatible worlds. He is urbane, erudite and multi-lingual. He supports "universal values," and argues that Muslims living in the West should participate fully in the political and civic societies of which they are a part. Ramadan condemns terrorist violence in favor of dialogue and peaceful resistance.
But Ramadan is also the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He believes in the upholding of traditional - his critics would say reactionary - Islamic attitudes toward the role of women, going so far as to side-step the question of whether female adulterers should be stoned. Ramadan disavows any hint of anti-Semitism, but is a vociferous critic of Israel's "unjust and wretched policies which continue to kill an entire people in an occupied territory." He rails against the economic inequalities and materialism that he attributes to the spread of capitalism.
To be sure, some of Ramadan's ideas are offensive to the West's liberal traditions. But so are those of devout practitioners of other religious creeds. In the end, Ramadan seeks a synthesis that enables his community to preserve its beliefs and traditions while coexisting peacefully with and within the Western world - precisely why he needs to be engaged, not shunned.
All the attention devoted to Ramadan has done at least as much to exaggerate his influence as to elucidate his views. In addition, his notoriety masks the reality that a Reformation within the Islamic world -- like its counterpart in Christianity -- will evolve more from deeper social transformations than from the role of individual leaders.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli certainly played important roles in the onset of pluralism within Christian Europe. But at least as important in bringing pluralism to Christianity and eventually separating church and state were the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The social upheavals they spawned hastened the spread of rationalism, the rise of middle classes, the establishment of public education systems, and other developments that shaped modern Christianity and prompted the secularization of political power.
Western intellectuals would be better served figuring out how to expose Islam to similar developments, and less time spilling ink over one public figure who, however controversial, may well be able to modestly advance Islam's dialogue with the West.