When Western thinkers look for perspective on matters Islamic, they are likely to turn to Tariq Ramadan, a world-renowned Muslim scholar and professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University. The author of more than 20 books and a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and other leading U.S. newspapers, Ramadan will speak at BU today as part of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs fall seminar series.
Ramadan, 48, whose 5 p.m. talk at the School of Law Auditorium is titled Beyond Tolerance: Islam and Pluralism, lectures and writes frequently on the subject of Americans' and Europeans' escalating prejudice against and fear of Muslims.
He has pointed to an identity crisis gripping an America torn over the economy, immigration, and the specter of terrorism. But Ramadan believes "the United States is not inherently anti-Islam in a religious sense or anti-Muslim in a racial sense." It is time, he says, for Muslims "not to be on the defensive, to stop apologizing for being Muslims, and to be more assertive about their values, duties, rights, and contributions to the society in which they live."
"Ramadan is one of the most influential and sophisticated of thinkers in the contemporary Muslim world who is addressing these concerns," says Robert Hefner, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology and the institute's director. "Ramadan is simply one of the most interesting, lively, and creative thinkers in the Muslim world today." And Ramadan's views are important to non-Muslims, too, says Hefner, adding that the scholar "challenges the stereotypes of Islam, which, regrettably in my opinion, seem to be more prevalent today than a few years ago."
Ramadan has urged Muslims to have faith in America, and to learn from the historical experience of African Americans, who, "once enslaved and denigrated," are now "involved in all the mainstream American debates and activities."
But during the George W. Bush administration, when Ramadan was banned from entering the United States, he commented in the Washington Post that he "fears America has grown fearful of ideas," and that the nation was reacting to its critics not by engaging them but by stigmatizing and excluding them.
Ramadan, an Egyptian who grew up in Europe, will call today for Westerners to go beyond tolerance to a place of mutual respect. "I am totally against the concept of tolerance," he says. "It too often means, 'I accept that you are here, because I have no choice. I ignore you, but I suffer your presence.' This is no way forward. Respect means mutual knowledge, and not only what you can glean from the other's holy book."
To recurring accusations of anti-Semitism Ramadan says, "It must be possible for us to be critical towards Israel without becoming Judeophobic or anti-Semitic (or indeed, Islamophobic in the case of criticism of Saudi Arabia). I give no support towards any kind of anti-Semitism or racism. There is no hierarchy between racisms."
Ramadan's visit to the United States last April was the first since the State Department barred his entry in 2004, after he had accepted a faculty position at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. A frequent lecturer at major universities and foundations around the country, Ramadan had never been viewed as a threat to national security, but when his visa was denied he was forced to give up the Notre Dame position. Eventually the denial was traced to charitable donations he'd made to French and Swiss human rights groups that were active on behalf of Palestinians.
In 2009, at the urging of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Ramadan reapplied, was granted a visa, and returned to the United States. In a Washington Post column about the incident, Ramadan implored Western societies to "be more open toward Muslims and to regard them as a source of richness, not just of violence or conflict." He added that he has been open in his criticism of some Muslim countries and is in fact banned from entering Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and his native Egypt.
Ramadan has a master's degree in philosophy and French literature and a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Geneva.