A radical idea: How Muslims can be European, too

London, England - For a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man, Tariq Ramadan stirs up a remarkable amount of controversy.

In his own Muslim community, the Islamic philosopher-activist comes under attack for selling out his religion to the West; Britain has funded his lectures to young Muslims. But Western critics accuse him of being a Trojan horse for radical Islam. In the past two years, the US has three times denied him a visa.

In short, he has as many enemies as friends on both sides of the Muslim-Christian divide. But Dr. Ramadan, one of the most influential voices among Europe's growing Muslim population, is not surprised.

"When you are in the middle of the river, speaking to both sides suffering from a crisis of identity, you'll be criti- cized by both sides," he says in an interview. "My main concern is reconciliation."

Across Europe, a rising number of disputes are increasingly calling into question the compatibility of European and Islamic ideals. Britain, for example - Ramadan's current home base - has been immersed in a heated debate for weeks over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a face-covering veil.

Challenging powerful figures, such as Osama bin Laden, who seek to pit Muslims against the West, Ramadan has focused on encouraging European Muslims to remain both true to their faith and loyal to the secular societies in which they live.

That is an urgent task, he says. But he is well-placed to fulfill it: As the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he commands respect in the Islamic world; As a Swiss citizen fluent in English and French who boasts a PhD in philosophy, he is at ease in today's Europe.

"He's very exciting," says Abdul-Rahman Malik, a contributing editor to the British Muslim magazine 'Q.' "He's a believer, but able to communicate in the secular language that upper-middle class Muslims in Europe are familiar with."

In his books and articles, in lectures that are taped and widely circulated, on his website, and in debates with other Muslim figureheads, Ramadan addresses questions that European Muslims - especially young ones - come up against as they seek to respect their religion and their neighbors.

Should women and girls wear the hijab headcovering? (Yes, except where it is against the law, such as in French schools.) Does sharia, Islamic law, override local law? (No.) Is it wrong to listen to rap music? (It depends on the rapper.)

Such questions are daily dilemmas for young Muslims brought up in the traditional ways of their parents, many of whom immigrated from countries like Algeria or Pakistan, where mores were strict.

Moreover, Ramadan is thinking and speaking in the context of Islamic teachings hundreds of years old, first formulated in a very different world. In that context, it is not unusual for ulema, the Muslim clerics and preachers who set the discourse, to still divide the world between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb - the "house of Islam" and the "house of war" - between those countries under Islamic rule, and those where such rule remains to be imposed by the sword.

That sort of worldview, Ramadan worries, "leads to a simplistic, binary vision of 'us and them,' to a clash of two universes of reference, and pockets of Muslims living in a self-segregated reality."

It's a worldview that has wrought carnage on the streets of Europe and America: many of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings, and the 2003 Madrid bombings lived in such pockets of self-segregation.

Finding Islam's universality in its roots

At the beginning of the 21st century, Ramadan argues, Europe's 15-20 million Muslim inhabitants - most of them European citizens - cannot see themselves as foreigners in their new homelands. Instead, he says, they should see Europe as a "house of witness" where Muslims bear witness to their religion's message by living Islam peacefully in the modern world.

To do so, he says, Muslims must go back to Islam's roots, but with an entirely different purpose than that of the literalist Salafists who seek to recreate the "purity" of early Islam. His goal is "to return to the roots of tradition, find its universality so as to adapt it to today," he says.

In Ramadan's view, this approach is not simply an option; it is an imperative. The social and cultural norms of 8th-century Arabian Gulf tribes - some of which have been tightly woven into the practice of Islam over the centuries - are clearly irrelevant for European Muslims today.

"There is no other way but rereading, reunderstanding, being self-critical," he insists. Such a departure from dogmatic interpretation doesn't, however, mean questioning the central tenet of Islam - that the Koran is the word of God, as revealed to Mohammad.

But it does mean looking at the Koran as "an eternal message meeting a historical reality," he says. "A dogmatic approach to the text has nothing to do with the text, but with the mind of the reader," he adds.

At a more practical level, Ramadan urges European Muslims not to shun the societies in which they live but to embrace them and play as full a role as possible in their development. "Islamic ethics should nurture a commitment to society," he says.

Few Muslim-majority countries offer their citizens a chance to play much of a role, he points out: Most of them are dictatorships. In Europe, on the other hand, "we have rights; the democratic process helps us, through freedom of speech, both to participate in politics and break new ground in thinking about Islam."

If he could, Ramadan would democratize the whole process of deciding what acceptable Islamic behavior in today's world should look like.

"We cannot just rely on the scholars of the text," he says. "They give us the norms, but now we are dealing with a specific context [modern-day Europe] and the norms are simple but reality is complex."

In that vein, Ramadan demands a new way of looking at sharia, Islamic law derived from the Koran and prophetic tradition, which is often seen as being at odds with the modern world.

" Sharia is a set of values and principles, a path with objectives," he argues. "Seeing it as a closed structure is a betrayal of its origins: When Muslims were confident, they took things from outside, but it is when you have no confidence that you define Islam in opposition to the West."

Heresy, or vitally fresh approach?

This all sounds like dangerous heresy to many Muslim ears. Indeed, Ramadan is banned not only from the US, where the Department of Homeland Security prevented him from taking a teaching post at Notre Dame University, but from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria as well.

"In the Muslim world he is attacked by fundamentalists," says Dounia Bouzar, a French former social worker who has written extensively on Islam and French society. "He is a subversive in the preachers' world and a revolutionary compared to most scholars."

Ramadan has found refuge, however, at Oxford University in Britain, where he is a visiting fellow and from whence he ventures forth on lecture tours, sometimes funded by the British government as it struggles to integrate the sort of young men behind the London bombings last year.

Some observers wonder, however, whether that sort of young man listens much to the fairly high-flown philosophizing in which Ramadan indulges.

Are youths in Paris suburbs listening?

In Britain, says Navid Akhtar, a film-maker of Kashmiri origin, most young Muslims are "more concerned with how to survive in hard economic conditions and settling their ethnic identity," Mr. Akhtar adds. "Navel-gazing about what if the Koran meant this or that does not play out in their lives."

Nor is Ramadan's name widely known among the sort of young men in the Parisian suburbs who vented their anger at society in outbursts of fiery violence last November. But his cassettes circulate widely among students and young people of Muslim background in France.

"Everybody listens to him," says Ms. Bouzar. "Any kid seeking himself is liberated by this possibility to be French and Muslim: Ramadan's proposals carry weight because they make sense."

Ms. Bouzar worries, though, that Ramadan's approach to modernizing Islam is based "on a vision that Islam has invented everything, that all human values are already in Islam," which she says could prevent listeners from recognizing that rights must be won through avenues such as education and democracy.

Though Ramadan has focused on making Islam relevant to European-born Muslims, he says he has also found receptive audiences in Muslim countries such as Morocco, Jordan, and Niger.

"We in the West are at the forefront of new challenges, so we find new answers," he says. "And Western Muslims are having an impact on Muslim-majority countries by the answers they come up with, their involvement in Western society, the way they speak about the rule of law and democracy and loyalty. We are creating a debate and opening doors."

It is an uphill battle, he acknowledges. "My struggle is not one with short-term results," he says. "It will take time changing mentalities."