Divisive Scholar Draws Parallels Between Islam and Democracy

Tariq Ramadan, who is banned from the United States, delivers the first of three video lectures planned this week at Georgetown University.
Tariq Ramadan, who is banned from the United States, delivers the first of three video lectures planned this week at Georgetown University. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Tariq Ramadan has a huge following in Europe but a controversial profile in the United States. The Islamic scholar has been barred from entering the country since 2004, when he was denied a visa he needed to accept a professorship at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Yesterday, however, students at Georgetown University heard and questioned the influential Egyptian-born writer as he gave the first of three public lectures to be delivered on the campus by satellite video hookup from London. For 90 minutes, he appeared on a large screen in Gaston Hall, seated and wearing a sports jacket and open shirt, with Big Ben in the background.

"Why Tariq Ramadan cannot be with us physically today, we are still not sure. But if we are serious about dialogue between Islam and the West, we need to listen to Islam's most important voices," said Thomas Banchoff, director of Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, which is sponsoring the lectures.

Ramadan, a citizen of Switzerland, is an outspoken but contradictory figure in Islamic scholarship. His grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most influential Islamic groups of the past century. He is popular with audiences in Europe, but he has been banned from entering France and accused of supporting the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revoked his work visa under the Patriot Act, saying he had "used a position of prominence . . . to endorse or espouse terrorist activity."

Ramadan's central message yesterday was that Islam and democracy are not incompatible in their tenets of equality and freedom for all and that tensions between them have arisen because of historic problems -- such as European colonialism, political manipulation by Middle Eastern autocrats and the influence of minority Islamic groups he described as "literalists."

"There is no contradiction between Islamic teachings and democratic principles. The problem is not the concept; it's the terminology," said Ramadan, 42, a fellow at St. Antony's College at Oxford University. The issue is not the relationship between church and state, he said, but "the relationship between dogma and rationality."

Ramadan listed five "indisputable" principles of Islam that are also fundamentals of democracy: the rule of law, equal rights for all citizens, universal suffrage, accountability of government and separation of powers.

"I'm not saying new things," he added. "This is as old as Islamic tradition."

Still, he said that some Muslims view democracy as an alien idea imported from Greece and Europe and that Islam will always be central to its followers' lives. Any attempt to impose secularism on Muslim-majority societies and avoid the "religious reference" in public life, he said, "will fail."

Some students in the audience of about 200 reacted positively to Ramadan's comments and said they appreciated Georgetown's effort to make his views available. Vishal Goradia, 21, a junior of Indian descent, said he was glad the scholar had been given the opportunity to speak. "He made a lot of valuable points. Georgetown has a clear commitment to constructive debate" on Islam, Goradia said.

Rana Fawad, 34, a public administration student from Pakistan, said Ramadan addressed some of his questions about political freedoms and Islam. "We don't have much democracy in our part of the world, but maybe it is because of personalities, not principles," he said after the lecture. "As an ideal, maybe it is possible."

Several faculty members disapproved of the event, saying that it gave Ramadan a one-way tribunal for his views promoting Islam with no chance for informed challenges. Robert Lieber, a professor of government, said that Ramadan has a "highly debatable record" and that his lecture sidestepped key issues, such as the poor treatment of women and religious minorities in Islamic countries.

"If you want critical engagement, you don't get it with one person delivering a monologue," Lieber said.

Supporters describe Ramadan as an articulate promoter of moderate Islam, but critics say he is an apologist for anti-Semitism and the oppression of women.

"Tariq Ramadan advocates a self-confident brand of Islam. He believes the religion has something to offer the West, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable," Banchoff said after the lecture. "He is tremendously controversial in the Islamic world, so he is fighting battles on two fronts."

Ramadan will speak in Gaston Hall by video again at 10:30 a.m. today and tomorrow.

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