LONDON—With his slender build, neatly trimmed beard and soft voice, Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan appears an unlikely candidate to carry the burden of being cast as the Islamic world's Martin Luther.
The 44-year-old Oxford University professor has been banned from the United States under murky allegations of violating the Patriot Act and rejected by Islamic traditionalists.
But for many, he is the conscience of Western Europe's Muslims—the man who can articulate what it means to play an active part in secular society while remaining true to the Quran.
"I'm always telling people I'm Swiss by nationality, I'm a Muslim by religion, I'm an Egyptian by memory and I'm a European by culture," Ramadan told The Associated Press in an interview at his home in a leafy London suburb.
"This is my identity, I have more than one. Be confident with all of this."
His views have made him both feted and reviled. He most recently made waves by criticizing the violent Islamic reaction to Pope Benedict XVI's comments on Islam—saying the appropriate response was dialogue not an explosion of outrage.
In the West, official views of him contrast sharply on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Bush administration has barred him for travelling to the US, alleging he provided "material support to a terrorist organization"—a claim Ramadan says stems from his contribution of $764 to a Palestinian charity. But Bush's closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, sees Ramadan as one of the best chances to bridge the divide between the West and Islam—and has named him to a task force on tackling extremism.
Ramadan's message resonates among Europe's Muslim youths because he is able to relate to their struggles in straddling cultures. Being the grandson of Hassan Al Banna, founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood organization—the Arab nation's most powerful opposition group—gives him credibility among many Muslims.
"He is a charismatic, well spoken, articulate defender of something that can be loosely described as liberal Islam," said John Sidel, Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. "One could simply say if he didn't exist we would have to invent him."
Ramadan, a visiting fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, has presented a nuanced view of the furor surrounding Pope Benedict's citation of a medieval text that linked the Prophet Muhammad to violence.
Ramadan lambasted Muslims for their "emotional" reactions, accusing extremists of stoking dangerous reactions for their own aims. He has said some Muslim regimes were manipulating the violent demonstrations to distract attention from their own repressive policies, and that conservatives on both sides were trying to encourage a sense of a clash of civilizations.
He urged the world to listen to Benedict's words carefully, instead of latching on to inflammatory soundbites taken out of context.
"We have to listen to the deep message he was saying and come back with very deep articulated arguments here," he told AP.
But Ramadan also took aim at Benedict's world view, saying that the pope's placement of European culture strictly within the boundaries Christian and Greek traditions misrepresents historical realities: the great contributions Muslim thinkers have made to Western civilization.
Wearing beige slacks and a pale blue shirt, seated in the airy living room of the Victorian-era home he shares with his wife and four children, Ramadan takes care before delivering his words in the gentle Francophone English accent developed from his Swiss roots.
He bristles at critics who accuse him of being too Muslim—or not Muslim enough.
His most vocal critic is Caroline Fourest, a French journalist, whose book "FrÚre Tariq" (Brother Tariq) claims Ramadan is a polished media performer, who promotes religious tolerance while disseminating a more fundamentalist message on the ground. "It's what we call the double speak of Tariq Ramadan," she told the AP.
Ramadan rejects such claims—saying his goal is to foster a new vision of Islam fit for the modern world.
He believes Muslims must become more self critical, and harbor less of a victim mentality, and only then can space be created for Islamic thought to move forward. He said Islam can be adapted to 21st century life and that Islamic scriptures are flexible enough to provide relevant guidance without key tenets of the faith being lost.
The problem is that theologians make rulings on certain subjects without having the worldly experience to do so. His call for an Islamic reformation—which has been likened to Martin Luther, the revolutionary 16th century monk who ignited the Protestant reformation—involves a "shift in the center of gravity" away from the mullahs and closer toward experts in fields like science, economics and the arts.
Many Muslims say that because democracy is not written in the Quran it is un-Islamic, but Ramadan believes such literalist pronouncements are dangerous.
He accuses regimes in countries such as key US ally Saudi Arabia, which he is also banned from visiting, of hijacking the religion to protect their dictatorships.
He says that such views and his fierce criticism of the Bush administration are the real reason he is not being allowed to visit the United States.
"By criticizing Saudi Arabia I make the United States not happy at all because I'm putting my finger on something which is hypocrisy. You are speaking about spreading democracy around the Islamic world and at the same time you are with the least progressive Muslims as long as it protects your interest."
Two years ago, days before he was scheduled to arrive in America to become a professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame, the United States canceled Ramadan's visa, barring him under the Patriot Act. The State Department alleged that he was barred for actions "which constituted providing material support to a terrorist organization."
Supporters say Ramadan was barred because the administration cannot handle an articulate critic of its views.
"Should he be allowed to appear in the American media, he would be a poster boy for a very appealing brand of Islam, that non-Muslims could ascribe a certain kind of credibility," Sidel said. "Whether on Iraq or other policies, him speaking would make things even more difficult for the Bush administration."
R. Scott Appleby, Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute at Notre Dame, said the government decision to bar Ramadan because of his ideas was "an infringement of our constitution."
"He doesn't try to foment violence, he doesn't speak in a way that would undermine the government," he said. "Yes, he is critical of American foreign policy. But so are other American academics."