Vigneux-sur-Seine, France -- Outside a suburban mosque near Paris, men sporting beards and traditional North African gowns direct other men to a ground-floor prayer hall and women to a winding cement staircase.
In an upstairs curtained-off area, housewives trade gossip and smack mischievous children. Few men or women pay much attention to a large TV screen, where a white-gowned, Moroccan-born imam drones on in Arabic.
But the crowd suddenly quiets as a man, dapperly dressed in a white polo shirt and dark blazer, steps up to a dais and preaches for the next two hours. "Some of you think that to be a European, you couldn't be Muslim," he tells the spellbound crowd in flawless French. "You need to prove to this country that you are French, that being a practicing Muslim is also your inalienable right."
Charismatic, with a trim beard and movie-star looks, Tariq Ramadan is the idol of growing numbers of French Muslims, especially the young. His message of Islamic pride also appears to be catching on with many of Europe's 15 million Muslims.
Ramadan's teachings, comparable to the black pride movement in the United States in the 1960s, say European Muslims should be faithful to their roots but demand their rights as citizens of the countries they live in. He sees his place in the West and not the Arab world, which he has described as corrupt. He has denounced al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and suicide bombers.
"He talks well. He's presentable on TV," said Franck Fregosi, an Islamic expert at the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France. "He probably best articulates the situation Muslims live daily in Europe."
The 41-year-old Islamic scholar has been hailed as a moderating force -- Time magazine called him one of its "innovators of the year" at the turn of the millennium, "the leading Islamic thinker among Europe's second- and third- generation Muslim immigrants."
But others have raised doubts about Ramadan. They say that behind the mask of moderation is another face of Islamic extremism, and they have called him the "King of Ambiguity" and the "Prince of Doubletalk."
And the controversy is about to cross the Atlantic: in September, Ramadan will accept a teaching post at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
"We are aware that he's controversial, but know that he has many supporters too," Julie Titone, director of communications at Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, told The Chronicle. "We're convinced that his messages of interfaith dialogue and nonviolence are genuine and will fit well with our mission."
But Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, says Notre Dame should "reconsider this appointment of someone who appears to be on the other side in the war on terror," in reference to an alleged meeting between Ramadan and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pipes, a vociferous critic of Islamic militancy, once praised one of Ramadan's books as a "thoughtful and moderate analysis."
Ramadan denies having ties with any terrorists, a claim bolstered by several French experts.
"He has never been fingered or suspected of being part of a terrorist cell," Roland Jacquard, author of "In the Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the Bin Laden Brotherhood," told Le Figaro newspaper last month. "But there are strong suspicions regarding the groups that support and finance his activities."
Ironically, some of Ramadan's harshest critics are secular Arabs.
"(He) is an extremely dangerous man," said Rachid Kaci, a North African and member of France's ruling Union for a Popular Movement party.
Ramadan's sermons are sometimes far from conciliatory.
"First, they parked us in housing projects," he told worshipers at the Vigneux mosque late last year. "Then they said we could leave -- so long as we shaved our beards, dropped our head scarves, accepted homosexuality."
In an October essay posted on www.oumma.com, a French Muslim Web site, Ramadan accused Jewish French intellectuals of blindly supporting Israel out of "sectarian concerns. These previously considered universal thinkers" placed their religion ahead of their obligation as scholars, he wrote.
In a televised debate viewed by some 7 million people in November, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said such comments were anti-Semitic and attacked Ramadan for criticizing the since-passed government plan to ban head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools.
"Tell French Muslims to make an effort to integrate . . . tell them to take off their veils," Sarkozy challenged Ramadan. "If you ask them, I'll believe you're a moderate. If you don't, it's because you are a master of doubletalk."
Ramadan shot back that the government should respect a 1905 law that guarantees freedom of expression. He also denied being an anti-Semite.
"First, I was criticized for pointing out instances of anti-Semitism in the Muslim community," he said in a later interview. "Now, people are calling me anti-Semitic."
"It's true he upsets people," said Abdelaziz Chaambis, spokesman for the Union of Young Muslims in France, a fundamentalist Islamic group in Lyon. "He's debating the biggest personalities in France and telling them integration hasn't worked, that Islam -- France's second biggest religion --
deserves its rightful place."
Back at the Vigneux mosque, there's no doubt which side Nadira Hebri is on as she listened to Ramadan's speech.
"Completely inspiring," said the 21-year-old publishing executive, who has anguished for months over whether to wear a veil in public. "Tariq Ramadan gives words to our experience."
In France, home to Europe's largest Muslim community of 5 million, tapes of his speeches sell briskly.
Schooled in Swiss and Egyptian universities, Ramadan earned a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Geneva and has written nearly a dozen books on Islam with the West. His latest work -- "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam" -- has just been published in the United States by Oxford University Press.
His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928 founded Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic revival movement that criticized Western decadence.
Al-Banna was later assassinated, leaving Ramadan's father, Said Ramadan, as the movement's spiritual heir.
In 1954, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Brotherhood for allegedly plotting a coup attempt, forcing Ramadan's parents to flee to Geneva, where his father founded an Islamic center partly financed by Saudi benefactors.
Two years ago, his elder brother, Hani Ramadan, was suspended from his job as a high school French teacher in Geneva after justifying death by stoning for adulterous women in an essay for the French newspaper, Le Monde.
But Ramadan is quick to reject the fundamentalist mantle. He says he has no ties with the Brotherhood and hasn't spoken to his brother since the stoning remarks.
"There's a wrong and superficial impression that because I am the son, or the brother of somebody, I have to think like this or that," he said in a recent interview at his office in Saint-Denis, a Muslim suburb of Paris.
"People have described Tariq Ramadan as the big bad wolf, (but) I simply think he's stepped into a social and political void," said Franck Fregosi. "He's the only one who answers the expectations of young European Muslims."