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Too Scary for the Classroom ?

September 1, 2004
Geneva – Right now, I am supposed to be in South Bend, Ind., beginning my term as a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.
After all, my petition for a work/residence visa in the United States was granted in May, after meticulous clearance procedures. But nine days before I was to move, I received an urgent message from the American Embassy: my visa had been revoked. If I wished to reapply, I was told, I was welcome to do so; but no reasons for the revocation were given. Classes have now begun at Notre Dame, while my wife and children and I wait here in a barren apartment.

The State Department’s reasoning remains a mystery. For some time I have been considered a controversial figure in France; but this was well known by the American government when I received the visa in the spring. I have been
accused of engaging in “double talk” – that is, of delivering a gentle message in French and English, and a radical, violent one in Arabic.

My detractors have tried to demonstrate that I have links with extremists, that I am an anti-Semite and that I despise women. Repeatedly I have denied these assertions, and asked my critics to show evidence from my writings and
public comments. Their failure to do so has had little effect: I am repeatedly confronted with magazine articles and Web postings repeating these accusations as facts and fabricating new ones.

And now the web of lies has spread across the Atlantic Ocean. The most damaging accusations were in an article in Vanity Fair claiming that I had written the preface to a volume of essays that endorsed the stoning of women caught in adultery. Actually, the book condemned the practice as un-Islamic.

I admit that my intellectual project is inherently controversial. My goal is to foster communities within the Islamic world that are seeking a path between their often bitter experience with some American and European policies on the one hand, and the unacceptable violence of Islamic
extremists on the other. I understand, share and publicly discuss many of the Muslim criticisms of “Western” governments, including the deleterious worldwide effects of unregulated American consumerism.

I find current American policies toward the Middle East misguided and counterproductive, a position I believe I share with millions of Americans and Europeans. Yet I have also criticized many so-called Islamic governments, including that of Saudi Arabia, for their human rights
violations and offenses against human dignity, personal freedom and pluralism.

My more specific stances have also raised hackles in France. For example, I strongly oppose France’s new law banning female students from wearing head scarves, although on general human rights grounds rather than because I am a
Muslim. (I condemn the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq and think the French government should not submit to the blackmail of the kidnappers, who say they will kill the captives unless the ban is overturned.)

I was also accused of anti-Semitism after I criticized some leading French intellectuals – including Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut – for abandoning France’s noble traditions of universalism and personal freedom
because of their anxiety over Muslim immigration and their support for Israel.

The fact is, in the more than 20 books, 700 articles and 170 audio tapes I have produced, one will find no double talk, but a consistent set of themes, and an insistence that my fellow Muslims unequivocally condemn radical views
and acts of extremism.

Just days after 9/11, I gave an interview calling on Muslims to condemn the attacks and to acknowledge that the terrorists betrayed the Islamic message.
I have denounced anti-Semitism, criticizing Muslims who do not differentiate between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a political issue and the unacceptable rejection of individual Jews because of their religion and heritage. I have called for a spiritual reformation that will lead to an Islamic feminism. I reject every kind of mistreatment of women, including domestic violence, forced marriage and female circumcision.

My opponents also accuse me of being the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. I plead guilty to this charge. My response is: am I to be judged by the words and deeds of
an ancestor?

Those critics obsessed with my genealogy ought to examine my intellectual pedigree, which includes advanced study of Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche, among others. They should examine the time I have spent working in poverty-stricken areas with the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and the Brazilian
human-rights leader Dom Helder Camara, as well as with countless other Christians and Jews, agnostics and atheists.

For 20 years, I have dedicated myself to studying Islamic scripture, Western and Eastern philosophies and societies, and built an identity that is truly Western and truly Muslim. I make no apologies for taking a critical look at
both Islam and the West; in doing so I am being true to my faith and to the ethics of my Swiss citizenship. I believe Muslims can remain faithful to their religion and be able, from within pluralistic and democratic societies, to oppose all injustices.

I also feel it is vital that Muslims stop blaming others and indulging in victimization. We are responsible for reforming our societies. On the other hand, blindly supporting American or European policies should not be the
only acceptable political stance for Muslims who seek to be considered progressive and moderate.

In the Arab and Islamic world, one hears a great deal of legitimate criticism of American foreign policy. This is not to be confused with a rejection of American values. Rather, the misgivings are rooted in five specific grievances: the feeling that the United States role in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unbalanced; the ongstanding American support of authoritarian regimes in Islamic states and indifference to genuine democratic movements (particularly those that have a religious
bent); the belief that Washington’s policies are driven by short-term economic and geostrategic interests; the willingness of some prominent Americans to tolerate Islam-bashing at home; and the use of military force as the primary means of establishing democracy.

Instead of war, the Arab and Muslim worlds seek evidence of a lasting and substantive commitment by the United States to policies that would advance public education, equitable trade and mutually profitable economic and cultural partnerships. For this to occur, America first has to trust
Muslims, genuinely listen to their hopes and grievances, and allow them to develop their own models of pluralism and democracy.

Simply sponsoring a few Arabic TV and radio channels will not lead to real changes in Muslims’ perceptions. Instead, America’s only chance of making peace with the Islamic world depends on consistency between words and actions, and the development of cross-cultural trust over time.

I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world. To do this, we must become full, independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on
our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can
help bring about freedom and democracy. That is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat to America.

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