Despite a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper denouncing his visit, there were no protesters when controversial Muslim orator Tariq Ramadan spoke last night.
Instead, hundreds of people were turned away from the sold-out event, as Ramadan spoke to more than 800 people, most of them between ages 20 and 40, at the Jean Lesage Amphitheatre at the Université de Montréal's Jean Brillant building.
"I came from Quebec City, and got here at 6:30 (an hour before the speech started), but I couldn't get in," said a frustrated Ndeye Mariefall, 66, who was standing outside the amphitheatre an hour and a half after the speech started, clutching a book written by Ramadan. "I've read what he has written and now I wanted to see him in person. I'm still hoping to get that chance." When it comes to the Swiss-born professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, nobody, it seems, can agree whether he is a Muslim moderate or Islamic fundamentalist.
The debate swirled this week, in the days prior to his visit. On Thursday, the Muslim Canadian Congress, a Toronto-based organization of secular Muslims, and Point de Bascule, an online news agency opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, took out a full-page ad in Le Devoir accusing Ramadan of hiding his true views on issues like the stoning of women behind a facade of moderation.
It accused Ramadan of being an "Islamic ideologue" and a "real professional of waffling." The Quebec department of Immigration and Cultural Communities and the Institut du Nouveau Monde both quickly denied any affiliation with Ramadan or Présence musulmane, the organization that sponsored the visiting professor's talk.
Asmaa Ibnouzahir, a spokesperson for Présence musulmane, dismissed the ad as "a meaningless collection of unfounded statements." "All those who accuse him of doublespeak have never produced any tangible proof," she said.
The organization promotes Ramadan's vision that Islam is compatible with pluralistic Western society, said Ibnouzahir, an international aid worker. "It's about feeling comfortable as Muslims while accepting multiple cultural identities." She said the organization's Montreal chapter was founded in 2004 and has about 30 members, including students, intellectuals, workers and non-Muslim supporters.
In his speech yesterday, Ramadan gave pointers on how to live life on a continual quest for spirituality in a secular society.
"In public life, you don't impose who you are, but you must offer your own example about what it is to live spiritually," Ramadan told the conference. "We can't deny who we are and be invisible in order to be accepted. We must accept who we are and help our fellow citizens understand this." Mariefall said Ramadan is a figure who preaches unity, rather than division.
"People interpret much more than they listen when it comes to him," Mariefall said.
But French writer Caroline Fourest, author of Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, charged that close scrutiny of Ramadan's writings prove that behind his eloquent, cultured facade, he is an Islamic fundamentalist who opposes equal rights for women and homosexuals.
"He is not at all a moderate, despite appearances," she said.
"He aims to seem well-meaning and charismatic, but he uses his charm to promote wearing of the veil and to campaign against mixed marriages and homosexuality." Ramadan, 47, is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's largest Islamic political group.
His family settled in Switzerland after Egypt banned the organization in 1954.
The Brotherhood officially opposes the use of violence to achieve Islamic rule.
In 2004, the U.S. barred Ramadan from taking up a teaching position at Notre Dame University as a suspected supporter of terrorism.
In 2003, Ramadan aroused controversy during a television debate with future French president Nicolas Sarkozy by saying that he favoured a moratorium on the stoning of women, but refused to come right out and condemn the practice.
Such waffling galls Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.
"I wish he would make clear, unequivocal statements sometimes. I am always worrying about what's behind his words," said Hogben.
However, Hogben added that while she respected critics' right to express opposition to Ramadan's views, she also supported Ramadan's right to express them.
"I would go and listen to him," she said.