The Muslim scholar who was issued and then denied a visa to teach in the United States because of alleged ties to "terrorists" is calling for an immediate moratorium on corporal punishments, stoning and the death penalty that Muslim fundamentalists say is mandated by Sharia.
Writing in the French newspaper Le Monde, Tariq Ramadan said in Western societies, "the infliction of corporal punishments, stoning, execution in the name of a religious standard that would impose itself on an entire society, cannot be accepted". The Islamic world, he writes, "sends very contradictory messages: firm and definitive condemnations come from a small minority of Muslim intellectuals or social or political actors, while certain governments attempt to legitimise their Islamic character by the application of these repressive practices".
Calling for a robust debate over "the future of relations between civilisations, religions, and cultures", Ramadan urges "an immediate moratorium in the Muslim world in the very name of Islamic principles themselves".
"When we call for a moratorium" on the application of Sharia, he says, "voices in the West assert: `That's unacceptable; it's not enough!' Others in the Muslim world exclaim: `It's unacceptable; it's treason to our standards'!"
Ramadan wonders how such a debate is possible given the hardened attitudes of both Islamic and Western societies.
At least one Muslim scholar, Prof Omid Safi, chair for Islamic Studies at the American Academy of Religion at Colgate University, believes this kind of debate is "not only possible but essential".
He told this writer: "It's true that this kind of intra-Muslim conversation may be attractive to the West. But it is not for the benefit of the West that it should happen. It is for the benefit of Islam, and for all of us simply as human beings. The `fundamental debate' Prof Ramadan is urging will find its subject matter within the core of Islam itself." Safi is chair of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (PMU), a relatively new, small but growing movement within Islam.
Safi, who is the editor of "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism", says of the movement: "Our aim has been to envision a socially and politically active Islamic identity that remains committed to ideals of social justice, pluralism, and gender equality. The aim here is not to advocate our own understanding as uniquely `Islamic' to the exclusion of the past fourteen-hundred years of Islamic thought and practice."
Ramadan voices a similar idea. "The evolution of minds," he says, "will only happen in the Muslim world as a result of this debate, which should allow this universe to reconcile itself with the essence of its message of justice, equality, and pluralism rather than to be obsessed with its most repressive and violent aspects because of frustration with bad experiences or feelings of alienation fostered by the leitmotiv of Western domination."
"Isn't it possible," he asks, "to stipulate non-negotiable universal values (the integrity of the human person, equality under the law, rejection of degrading treatment, etc.), while recognising and acknowledging the diversity and specificity of standards (religious and cultural), the histories that can lead to their expression and demand?"
In August 2004, the US revoked the visa it issued to Ramadan to teach Islamic philosophy and ethics at Notre Dame University in Indiana. He received a visa from the State Department and was scheduled to start his classes in late August. But just days before he was set to travel, his visa was revoked without explanation at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security.
Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at Fribourg University in Switzerland, was barred under a section of the Patriot Act, which denies entry to foreigners who have used a "position of prominence ... to endorse or espouse terrorist activity". He has been described by Time magazine as one of the 100 most likely innovators of the 21st century.
Ramadan is not the first to be denied a visa to the US in recent months. A group of Cuban Grammy nominees was denied US visas and could not attend the award ceremonies in Los Angeles. Dora Maria Tellez, a Nicaraguan historian and former Sandinista official, was excluded because of purported involvement in terrorist acts — even though she had travelled to the US numerous other times. And a group of Chinese computer scientists met the same fate. But it is unusual for a visa to be issued and then rescinded, as in Ramadan's case.
Ramadan's position on Sharia suggests a solution. He says "the ulemas agree neither on the interpretations of the contents (nor sometimes on the authenticity) of the texts that refer to these practices nor, by the way, on the prerequisite conditions and the socio-political contexts in which they are possible. In the absence of any consensus on the subject, we must, therefore, open a large and pluralistic debate, by deciding to stop the practices immediately".
He adds: "The application of Sharia is used today by repressive powers that attack women, the poor, and their political opposition in a legal near-void in which summary executions of accused persons — whose human dignity is not respected, accused persons without defence, without a lawyer — are increasing. Contemporary Muslim conscience cannot accept these denials of justice."
"Whole swathes of Muslim populations, from Nigeria to Malaysia, regularly demand the strict application of Sharia, and the majority of ulemas — Muslim scholars trained in Islamic law and theology — limit themselves to asserting that these punishments `are almost never applicable', by insisting on the prerequisite conditions, but they avoid expressing themselves clearly on the question, most often so as not to lose their credibility with these populations."
"The unilateral condemnations that we hear in the West will not help things evolve. For the moment, we're living through exactly the opposite phenomenon: Muslim populations convince themselves of the Islamic character of these practices by virtue of Western rejection ... the less Western it is, the more Islamic it is."
He concludes: "We have to emerge from this perversion, and Western governments and individuals have a major responsibility to allow the Muslim world to engage in this debate..."
The writer has managed economic development projects in the Middle East and in many other areas for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy administration. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times