Tariq Ramadan is banned from the US and accused of plotting Islamic revolution in Europe. He may also be the one man to save us all from the Clash of Civilisations. Deborah Orr meets a twinkly eyed academic on a thankless mission
It's pretty weird, to find oneself enscon- ced in one's Soho drinking club, picking at a sea bass and waving away the wine list (regretfully), while chatting reasonably about what might be the best way of tackling the stoning-of-women problem. It's pretty weird, actually, to have decided that one's Soho drinking club is just the place to hang out for a couple of hours with a devout Muslim at all.
Professor Tariq Ramadan styles himself as a "Salifi Reformist" (the Saudis are Salafis too, though literalists). He counts Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, as his granddad. He is banned from the US under the Patriot Act. All this conspires to suggest he won't be terribly comfortable in the Groucho Club. But that's life, isn't it? You've got to stand up for western liberal values in whatever way you can.
Anyway, Ramadan's alluring pitch is precisely that he has few problems with western liberal values. He has spent most of his life as an academic, writer and activist, engrossed in the task of squaring the most liberal interpretations that Islamic texts have to offer with the most Islam-friendly of the values that the West cherishes, and thereby trying to persuade the world there are only a few small matters on which the supposedly clashing civilisations don't snugly converge. He presently lives in London, and pops down to Oxford for a couple of days a week to take tutorials in his role as a senior research fellow at St Antony's College.
For his efforts in splicing western and Islamic values, he's been lauded by Time as one of the 100 most important innovators of the century, and condemned by many Europeans as a secret exponent of the Islamification of Europe. His most trenchant critics, though, come from Muslim countries, which is a difficulty that seems to convince Ramadan he's on the right track. He and "some of the petro-monarchies", for example, appear to despise each other more than anything else on the planet. Conversely, his most ardent fans are among the young and educated European Muslims who flock to his charismatic lectures, buy his books and exchange tapes of his speeches.
Born in Switzerland in 1962, he was brought up there as his father, Said Ramadan, and all of the Muslim Brotherhood, had been banned from Egypt in 1954, after an alleged assassination attempt by one of the group on President Nasser. Ramadan confesses that he idealised Egypt in his youth, and assumed that he'd find life there more convivial to him than Europe. But moving there with his young family in 1991, after he had received a doctorate in Islamic studies and Arabic from the University of Geneva, he came to realise that living in a Muslim culture wasn't all he'd cracked it up to be.
"I was sharing this religion, something which was a majority Islamic experience," he explains in fluent French-accented English, "but the experience just showed me that there was a lack of awareness of its importance. It was normal there, whereas, as a minority citizen living in Switzerland, it was something to be struggled for. It was a way to protect myself and it was a way to find myself. So I really understood after a while that my place was in Switzerland - in Europe in fact."
Certainly Ramadan seems perfectly at home among the snowy linen and the lunchtime drinkers, chatting in French with friendly animation to the waiters about the somewhat limited Islamic luncheon options.
His new book, a biography of the prophet Muhammad, he vouchsafes, started out as a pitch from Channel 4 for a documentary. Ramadan liked the idea, but doubted whether he'd get the geographical access that was clearly necessary for the project to work. The film-makers were confident though, and told Ramadan that they'd sort out the necessary visas.
"So they called the Saudis, who said it should be OK. They called the Egyptians - because I wanted to start with a discussion with the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Juma - and they said it should be OK. Then they called the Israelis, who said: 'We will see.'
"Ten days before we were due to go, the Channel 4 people called the embassies back because they had (omega) no permission from anyone. The Saudis said: 'No, it's not going to happen.' The Egyptians said: "No, it's not going to happen." And the Israelis said: "Yes, yes, why not?" He throws out his hands in comic frustration, rolls his eyes, and guffaws at the absurdity of it all.
There he sits, all slight, toned physical perfection, all fastidious grooming, all glowing with non-drinking, non-smoking, body-is-a-temple spiritual health. He's passionate about applying Islamic standards at a personal level. It all sounds improbably high-minded and exacting, so it's a surprise to discover that Ramadan is a good companion - playful, warm, quick to laugh, and occasionally flirting on the outer fringes of self-deprecation (he contends that his religious devotion is largely about sublimating the ego, in something like the manner of a western 12-step programme).
It's often inferred that Ramadan puts on whatever face he feels is suitable for the company he's keeping. But it's hard to fake a sense of humour, and Ramadan's is appealing. Life, for him, appears to be a fascinating, stimulating, deep, dangerous, challenging, frustrating, yet somehow entirely reconcilable, irony. No wonder people don't trust him. He's just too light-spirited and easy-going to conform to received ideas about what a deeply religious man ought to be.
Like a lot of people, I'd never heard of Ramadan until he popped up after 9/11, looking refreshingly personable and talking more good sense on the telly than the rest of the entire world put together. A brief and admiring mention of his welcome contributions in The Independent brought forth a slew of email invective, mostly from France and mostly suggesting that Ramadan was not all that he seemed. Far from being a conciliatory figure, his detractors claimed, he was a committed and enthusiastic Islamic misogynist, fooling patsies like me so that he could bind them up in burquas and chain them to the sink at some later date.
Likewise, the flagging up of this interview brought forth a drily disapproving hope that I would question Ramadan about his "moratorium on stoning". The implication was that he'd more or less demanded that adulterous Muslim women should be stockpiled for a few years in order that there could be a really spectacular bout of unspeakable bludgeoning one happy future morning. The truth, needless to say, is a little more complex, as Ramadan is only too eager to explain. He is keen to get across, first of all, that the moratorium that he has called for across the Muslim world covers capital and corporal punishment of all kinds. "The French, they represented it as just being about stoning," he says, "but it is much more comprehensive than that."
He is desperate also to emphasise the response he has had to a letter he sent out to politically influential Islamic scholars in a number of countries, asking if they would agree that physical punishment is not Islamic. He claims to have already received positive answers from "Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt" and is optimistic about the progress of the experiment. This, he says, is partly due to the conciliatory and respectful manner of his approach.
"If you say to the Islamic majority now, 'You have to stop this, it has to be condemned,' they are not going to listen to you," he says. "They are just going to say that this is the West, again, imposing its values."
Ramadan prefers instead to work from within, persuading Islamicists that there is no scriptural basis for physical punishment, and that until this issue is cleared up it is wrong to continue with such practices.
"This is plain injustice," he says emphatically. "Yes, we have texts dealing with capital punishment, corporal punishment and stoning. But what are the conditions and the context? It is so important now that we have these discussions about the injustices done in our name. In the name of Islam we have to stop."
He does have a point here. It's extremely difficult to have a rational discussion with intelligent and feisty western Muslim women about the problems western feminists have with Islam, because they seem sincerely to believe that Islam does not need feminism as Muhammad clearly gifted men and women with total equality. Point out that the lives of Muslim women don't chime with this utopian scenario, and they'll mutter darkly about colonial and cultural influences. Ramadan is of course familiar with the territory himself.
In his 2004 book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he included a passage on the birth of Islamic feminism, and was taken aback by the criticism he got from women, who scoffed at his appropriation of this western concept. "I say, look, for me Islamic feminism is to struggle for the rights of women in the name of Islam against two kinds of discrimination: cultural discrimination, and the literalist approach to the text."
These twin distortions, he says, bear the main responsibility for the tainting of the Muslim message, and his biography of Muhammad is very much a clarion call for Muslims to look again at the context in which Muhammad's life was lived, and the compromises he made with the culture in which he operated, in order to understand how his decisions and instructions would be played out today. Essentially, that's what styling yourself as a Salafi reformist is about: stripping away the myriad practices adopted into Islam by the cultures that have embraced it, looking beyond the decisions Muhammad made in his lifetime, then basing contemporary questions on their aims and motivations instead, and disregarding the medieval interpretations that have become inappropriately embedded in the faith.
The Messenger emphasises the active role of women in early Islamic society, and insists that modesty should never be confused with "disappearing from the social, political, economic or even military sphere". Asked why it is that Muslim majority cultures have moved so far away from such teachings, Ramadan offers a feminist response: "Islam has no problem with women, but Muslims have. Men have problems with women. The point is really essential."
He warms to his theme, and dives into the controversy over the veil. In The Messenger he writes that he does not believe it's Islamic for women to mask their faces by wearing the niqab, and that a "revelation" in the Koran instructing the wives of Muhammad to speak to men only from behind a screen should not apply to all women. He's also clear that another revelation, on the covering of the hair and the throat, is indeed a prescription for all Muslim women. Frustratingly, revelations are the only aspect of Islam that are not up for discussion, so there's no room for speculation on why that might be. As is often the case, though, Ramadan manages to negotiate such glaring contradictions with some diplomatic skill.
"At the end of the day," he declares, in the traditional manner of the football manager, "the hijab is the prescription, the niqab is not. When I was asked about Jack Straw, I said: 'Look it's the right question, asked by the wrong person,' and it became a bad question. But the question is legitimate. I want the discussion to be opened: 'Is this really Islamic?' I would say no.
"With covering the hair, the point for me is always to say, it's an Islamic prescription but we have to be clear on one point. It's a free choice. It's against Islam to (omega) impose on a woman to wear it. And it's against human rights too. People have to know they have the choice. The struggle is to empower the women in our societies, and education is the key."
His own children, four of them, were educated at mainstream state schools. Ramadan thinks that faith schools are OK for the people who want them, but that he and his children have benefited from mainstream education. His eldest daughter, he says with paternal wonder and pride, "is in her twenties now, and a liberated women". He corpses for a moment, then raises his eyebrows. "A very liberated woman..." I decide it isn't seemly to go there, though I'm hugely tempted to invade his family's privacy and ask him what he means.
Ramadan considers Muslim violence largely to have emerged from similar roots to Muslim misogyny. "Violence is against Islam, but still you have Muslims using violence, and in a profoundly wrong way, so you have to challenge this. It's a necessary internal and intra-community debate, and our non-Muslim fellow citizens have a role to play. The questions they are asking are necessary. The only problem is the way these questions are asked. If you approach issues, from the cartoons to the niqab, by saying, 'We have absolute freedom of speech, and you don't,' then we are struggling - the West on one side, Islam on the other side. This polarisation provokes a victim mentality. Both sides feel: 'They are against our values.' Both are wrong.
"It's a two-way process. We have to change our way of looking at the West. When you are born and raised in the West and you understand the history, the mentality, the collective psychology, you can integrate so many things that are better than their equivalents in the culture of origin.
"Every single human being is selective, or should be selective, with his or her culture. Take democracy. For years there was talk among Muslims about how we shouldn't promote democracy. But this is now really moving. There's a silent revolution. In the States, in Canada, here in Europe, it's changing."
He's aware, of course, that the rather louder revolution, which crashes aeroplanes into iconic western buildings, and kills blameless Londoners on tube trains, tends to divert attention away from this charmingly seductive process of warmly generous cultural exchange. Again, he's able to come up with a plausible response. Ramadan was part of the "task force" gathered by the Government in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings, and is clear on what he sees as the aberrant minority behaviour of some British Muslim men.
"None of them were long-standing, practising Muslims - sometimes it had just been two or three weeks before they became involved. They were very well integrated in the Western culture, but they also had this binary vision - us versus them. They were not psychologically integrated; you can be intellectually and socially integrated, but not psychologically integrated, because the sense of belonging is missing.
"We have to share the responsibility in this culture to give value to this presence. It's very important for the Muslim communities to have a very strong discourse about their perception of what it is to be in the West. People say: 'How can I integrate into the British culture when the British culture is all about going to pubs? Pubs mean alcohol and we cannot drink.' You have to say, 'Look, you have a very simplistic impression of what the culture is.'"
Ramadan himself, though, is unhappy with much of what he perceives as typically Western culture. In Western Muslims And The Future of Islam, he talks of the tendency in developed societies "to dive into the most intense feelings and emotions, which even if they are not real or deep, give us the sense that we exist". This pinpoints the motivating force behind all sorts of risky and destructive behaviour, I think, and certainly provides a useful commentary on the progress of some of my own madder little adventures in the liberal fleshpots.
His own belief is that the daily practice of Islam protects against such "demeaning" trends, and thereby makes the West a less dangerous place for Muslims to be than for materialists. But with neo-liberal economics, above all else, he sees no possible accommodation. Western Muslims, he says, should not "work for a multinational that plunders the planet, or in an armaments industry that produces death, or banks that fuel a murderous economic order". He insists that "economic resistance" is a western Muslim's duty, and he fervently believes that the introduction of Islamic moral values would mitigate many of the excesses of the global economy. It is here that Ramadan's socialistic vision of Islam forms a clear alliance with the far left. As president of the think-tank the European Muslim Network, he is actively involved in the anti-globalisation movement. Again, though, such views are hardly confined to Islamicists.
Some people have suggested to Ramadan that his promotion of economic resistance was the real reason why the US would not allow him into the States to take up his post as Professor of Islamic Studies and Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was told he wasn't going to get a visa just a few days before moving there, and it took him two years before he wrung a specific explanation out of the Americans, who said that he couldn't come in because he had "endorsed or espoused a terrorist activity". The activity was making a donation of about $900 to a European charity that gave aid to Palestinians. It is now black-listed in the US, but not in Europe, for allegedly giving money to Hamas. At the time he made the donation, the charity was not black-listed, even in the US.
One can't help feeling that his family connection to the Muslim Brotherhood - an organisation set up in 1928 and dedicated to the establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate - might have been a factor. It is almost universally reported that Ramadan "claims" not to be a member, even though his views are not at all compatible with those of the widely influential and widely despised organisation. Once more, Ramadan explains his position with a clarity that is nuanced rather than categorical.
"There are things my grandfather did that I respect totally. First, he was a spiritual man. All the stories I got from my mother and from my father about him, and the people who were around him when I came back to Egypt - people of strong faith - say that he was coming from a Sufi tradition, which is what I try to do.
"Second, he did something that if I had been in his position at his time I would have done - he resisted colonialism. And he built or adapted 2,000 schools, half of them for women, and built or supported 1,500 social enterprise institutions to help the people.
"He created an organisation that came with slogans. I am suspicious of slogans. When you say "The Koran is our constitution," the way he was saying it, was not the same as the way his followers were saying it, so I'm critical of that, and I'm critical of his perception that Muslims had to have a strong hierarchical organisation.
"But people confuse my grandfather at the start of the movement, with what the movement became after he was killed, and Nasser began his revolution. So when people ask about my grandfather, I don't have a simple answer - he was bad or good. People want me to condemn the whole thing, and I say, "No, I'm not like that."
What is Tariq Ramadan like then? He's like a man who is doing his best to build bridges between sets of values that seem at times, even by his own optimistic credo, to be irreconcilable. He's like a person who is trying his best to find a way forward during a fearful and difficult time. He's like a guy who will defend what he loves about his homeland and about his religion, to the hilt. "The rule of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage, the accountability of elected leaders before the people who elected them, and the separation of church and state." These, he says, are the most precious assets of Western democracy. "Do we have, as Muslims, a problem with these five principles? No."
I, for one, see no harm at all in taking a small punt on his sincerity. Sure, a number of my own beliefs can never be compatible with Islam, just as they can't reach an accommodation with Catholicism or Scientology. But I do share with Islam - apparently - a belief that people who think differently to me should be defended as far as it is possible to do so. That so many people are so unwilling to trust Ramadan on this point, is very much part of the problem.
Tariq Ramadan's 'The Messenger: the Meanings of the Life of Muhammad' is published by Penguin at £20