Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue

Tariq Ramadan, Muslim, scholar, activist, Swiss citizen, resident of Britain, active on several continents, is a hard man to pin down. People call him “slippery,” “double-faced,” “dangerous,” but also “brilliant,” a “bridge-builder,” a “Muslim Martin Luther.” He wants Muslims to become active citizens of the West but four years ago was himself refused permission to enter the U.S. He could not take up the teaching position he’d been offered at the University of Notre Dame. Oxford University took him on as a visiting fellow instead.

To his admirers, he is a courageous reformer who works hard to fill the chasm between Muslim orthodoxy and secular democracy. Young European Muslims flock to his talks, which are widely distributed on audiocassettes. A brilliant speaker, he inspires his audiences, rather like Black Power leaders did in the 1960s, by instilling a sense of pride. A friend of mine saw him last year in Rotterdam, talking to a hall packed with around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. To them he had the aura of an Islamic superstar. Even my friend, an Iranian-born Dutchman with entirely secular views, was impressed by the eloquence of this Muslim thinker, who wishes to press his faith into the mainstream of European life. His critics see things differently: they accuse him of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, promoting the oppression of women and waging a covert holy war on the liberal West.

I first met Ramadan last year in Paris. The French news magazine Le Point had organized a debate between the two of us on Muslims in Europe (or “Eurabia,” as some fearful people are now calling my native continent). I was instructed to “really push him.” But if the hope of Le Point was for sparks to fly, they were disappointed. Ramadan is much too smooth for sparks. Slim, handsome and dressed in a very elegant suit, he spoke softly in fluent English, with a slight French accent. His first languages were French and Arabic, but he heard English at home in Geneva, spoken mostly by visiting Pakistanis.

Perhaps I didn’t push hard enough. We agreed on most issues, and even when we didn’t (he was more friendly toward the pope than I was), our “debate” refused to catch fire. So when I set off for London a few months later to talk to him again, I felt that I had seen the polished Ramadan, the international performer who, in the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht, an expert on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute, sounds “like a British diplomat at the U.N.,” the kind who leaves you with “a strong impression that prevarication is in the DNA.”

So who is Tariq Ramadan? What does he stand for? Even physically, he proved a hard man to pin down. We had made an appointment, but fixing a time was a challenge. His Oxford college had no idea where he was. A home number could not be provided. E-mail messages went unanswered. Perhaps he was in Rotterdam, where he holds a chair in “Identity and Citizenship” at Erasmus University. Perhaps he was in France, or maybe somewhere else, appearing on a television talk show, signing books, speaking at a conference. Finally, a secretary from his office in Paris was able to make a connection. He was in Stockholm. We managed to meet the next day at the house of a friend in London. Ramadan, beard neatly clipped, was dressed, as always, in a smart suit and an open shirt.

“I want to be an activist professor,” he told me. This means that he spends more time writing, speaking and advising everyone from Tony Blair to the elders of mosques than on university teaching. Ramadan, who is 44, also lives the life of a devout Muslim, praying five times a day. The main thing, for him, is to find a way for Muslims to escape their minority status and play a central role as European citizens. “The fact that Western Muslims are free,” he said, “means that they can have enormous impact. But it would be wrong to claim that we are imposing our ways on the West. New ideas are now coming from the West. To be traditional is not so much a question of protecting ourselves as to be traditionalist in principle.”

Traditionalist principles, for Ramadan, apply to politics as much as to religion. Muslims, he says, should not try to create a “parallel system” to Western democracy, let alone aspire to building a Muslim state. “There is no such thing,” he says, “as an Islamic order. We have to act to promote justice and inject our ethics into the existing system.” According to Ramadan, the global order of neoliberal capitalism allows the wealthy West to dominate the world. Resisting this order is part of his task as an activist professor, who derives his “universal principles” from his Muslim faith. This message not only provides educated European Muslims with a political cause but is also pushed with considerable success at such international leftist jamborees as the World Social Forum, where the world’s antiglobalists meet.

I asked Ramadan what it was like to grow up as an Egyptian Muslim in Geneva. And not just any Egyptian Muslim: his maternal grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, founder in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to resist what it regards as Western domination and create an Islamic state. Al-Banna was murdered in 1949, by Egyptian government agents, following the assassination of the Egyptian prime minister by a Muslim Brother. “Difficult,” Ramadan replied, “very difficult, and full of tensions. There were very few Muslims in Geneva in the 1960s, apart from a few United Nations people and some North Africans. Some of my brothers were attracted by Western life, and one of them even rejected everything to do with religion. But our parents were very liberal about it, never forcing me to pray, always open to dialogue and discussion.”

“Liberal” was a surprising description of Ramadan’s father, Said Ramadan, al-Banna’s favorite disciple and a tireless promoter of political Islam. He had to escape from President Nasser’s Egypt, after the Muslim Brotherhood was banned there in 1954 (a Muslim Brother was accused of trying to kill Nasser), and settled in Geneva. The youngest of six children, Tariq was named after Tariq Ibn Ziyad, the North African Muslim who conquered Spain in 711. Ramadan denies being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood — one of whose credos is “God is our goal, the Prophet our model, the Koran our law, holy war our way and martyrdom our desire” — but is proud of his illustrious background. To many Muslims al-Banna is still a very great man. When I met Ramadan later in the week at the gigantic East London Mosque, I heard him being introduced, with a tone of reverence, as al-Banna’s grandson. “With older people it lends authority to what I’m saying,” Ramadan told me, as we walked through the mosque, where the main languages were Bengali and Urdu, apart from quotations from the Koran, which were in Arabic.

Even though Ramadan’s father represented the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, promoting the cause of Islamic government, Ramadan went to a mainstream Swiss school, where he got a solid grounding in French literature and European philosophy. He graduated a year early and studied philosophy, literature and social sciences at University of Geneva. By age 24, he was already dean of a high school and later lectured in religious studies at a college in Geneva and the University of Fribourg. I was fascinated to learn that of all European philosophers, Ramadan chose to study Friedrich Nietzsche, who had anticipated the death of religious faith. He even wrote his doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. Had he ever experienced any doubts himself?

“Doubts about God, no,” he replied. “But questions, yes. Nietzsche raised strong and accurate questions about religion, on how religious identities are built, and how believers use victim status to become killers themselves. I also read everything by Dostoyevsky, whom I liked from the very beginning. That was my universal frame of reference. It was not easy, growing up in a committed Muslim family while dealing with people outside who were drinking, and all that. But I was protected on ethical grounds, as a religious person, first of all by playing sports, every day, for two hours or more — football, tennis, running. And reading, reading, reading, five hours a day, sometimes eight hours. My father warned me that life was not in books. But it meant that even though I stayed away from drinking, I got respect from the people around me. I was known as ‘the professor,’ ‘le docteur.’ ”

The notion of the bookish grandson of Hassan al-Banna reading Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky is arresting but not entirely surprising. Like them, he was wrestling with the idea of a disenchanted world that appeared to be falling into nihilism. In his teens and early 20s, Ramadan says, he “felt lonely in Europe, facing racial discrimination, and all that. So I idealized Egypt. My body was in Europe, but my heart was over there. I wanted to go back ‘home.’ ”

In 1986 Ramadan married a Swiss woman, the sister of one of his football buddies who had converted to Islam. She took the name Iman, and they moved with their young children to Cairo in 1991, where Ramadan studied Muslim philosophy with scholars from Al-Azhar University. Their stay in Egypt deepened his understanding of Islam but also turned him into a convinced European. “I felt I had been misled,” he told me. “The philosophical connection between the Islamic world and the West is much closer than I thought. Doubt did not begin with Descartes. We have this construction today that the West and Islam are entirely separate worlds. This is wrong. Everything I am doing now, speaking of connections, intersections, universal values we have in common, this was already there in history.” At the same time, he realized that “home” was actually in Europe, that while Islam was his faith, his culture was European. Ramadan’s intellectual struggle to bridge different traditions was a personal one too.

In his book, “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam,” published in 2004, Ramadan lists various approaches to Islam, from “political literalist Salafism” — militant, anti-Western, in favor of the Islamic state — to “liberal reformism,” which sees faith as an entirely private affair. I asked him at the mosque where he placed himself. “A Salafi reformist,” he said, which might seem a contradiction but is explained in his book as follows: “The aim is to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice, to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”

Ramadan’s favorite Muslim philosophers are the late-19th-century reformists Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who tried to revive Islam under Western colonial rule by rational interpretation of the holy texts. They were skeptical of religious tradition, accumulated over time, and looked for core principles in the Koran that spoke to reason. For them there was no contradiction between scientific reasoning and their Muslim faith. And female emancipation or democratic government could be reconciled with the original principles of Islam. Both had lived in Europe. Both were harsh critics of colonialism and Western materialism. In Ramadan’s words, “They saw the need to resist the West, through Islam, while taking what was useful from it.”

Speaking about his grandfather, Ramadan observed: “People say that his ideas formed the basis of Al Qaeda. This is not true.” The spiritual father of revolutionary Islam, according to Ramadan and others, was another Egyptian Muslim Brother, Sayyid Qutb, who advocated a holy war against the idolatrous West. Ramadan pointed out that “Qutb actually joined the Muslim Brotherhood after my grandfather was killed. They didn’t even know each other. My position on Hassan al-Banna is that he was much closer to Muhammad Abduh. He was in favor of a British-style parliamentary system, which was not against Islam.”

This may or may not be an accurate representation of Hassan al-Banna, but it tells us a lot about the way Ramadan presents himself. Reconciling what seems hard to reconcile is what makes him an interesting and sometimes baffling figure. It is why the University of Notre Dame appointed him as Henry R. Luce professor of religion, conflict and peace building. Prof. R. Scott Appleby, the man who did everything he could to bring Ramadan to South Bend, Ind., was hardly naïve about Ramadan’s European reputation. Over breakfast in New York recently, he told me: “He’s doing something extraordinarily difficult if not impossible, but it needs to be done. He is accused of being Janus-faced. Well, of course he presents different faces to different audiences. He is trying to bridge a divide and bring together people of diverse backgrounds and worldviews. He considers the opening he finds in his audience. Ramadan is in that sense a politician. He cultivates various publics in the Muslim world on a variety of issues; he wants to provide leadership and inspiration. The reason we wanted him is precisely because he’s got his ear to the ground of the Muslim world.”

And this may also have been the reason that the U.S. State Department revoked his work visa in July 2004. Ramadan had already sent all his family possessions to South Bend. His children had been enrolled in local schools. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Ramadan was denied entry under a provision of the Patriot Act that bars foreigners from the U.S. who “endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” After the A.C.L.U and various academic groups contested the government’s refusal to process Ramadan’s application for another visa, a federal judge ruled that the State Department had to make a decision. The State Department refused to issue another visa on the grounds that Ramadan had donated roughly $900 to two European organizations that give aid to Palestinians. The organizations were, and still are, legitimate charities in Europe but since Ramadan made his donations have been blacklisted in the U.S. for supposedly giving money to Hamas. The A.C.L.U. lawyer, Jameel Jaffer, told me that Ramadan had fallen foul of the same principle that used to bar Communists from coming to the U.S.: his politics are not welcome.

But what exactly are his politics? Ramadan explained to me what shaped his political understanding: “In my family, resistance was a key concept, resistance against dictatorship and colonialism. When I was 18, I started to travel to southern countries, in Latin America, India and Africa. The people I met were often leftists. The liberation theologists in Brazil were very important, resisting in the name of religious principles. I was at home with this discourse. I was also close to the Tibetans and spent one month with the Dalai Lama. It was the same philosophy, spiritual commitment and resistance, in their case against Chinese colonialism. Perhaps because of these personal experiences, I started to read the work of my own grandfather, who used the Scriptures, the story of Moses, against British colonialism. He was saying in the 1940s what the liberation theologists were saying in the 1960s.”

Some of Ramadan’s critics, most notably the French journalist Caroline Fourest, who wrote a sharp attack on him titled “Frère Tariq” (Brother Tariq), draw a direct line from Hassan al-Banna, through Said Ramadan and Tariq Ramadan himself, to the militant Islamism threatening the West today. Such was the disquiet in France about Islamist violence that Ramadan was barred from that country in 1995. The ban was eventually lifted. Ramadan prefers to see the family legacy in terms of “Islamic socialism, which is neither socialist, nor capitalist, but a third way.” In this reading, his father’s friendship with Malcolm X is much more significant than any Saudi Arabian connection. This is why Ramadan was a popular speaker with African-American Muslims before his visa was revoked.

“Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” throws some light on Ramadan’s idea of “Islamic socialism,” an ideology, combining religious principles with anticapitalist, anti-imperialist politics, that goes back to the time of the Russian Revolution. (Libya’s strongman, Muammar el-Qaddafi, is one who claims to rule according to these principles.) The murderous tyranny to be resisted, in Ramadan’s book, is “the northern model of development,” which means that “a billion and a half human beings live in comfort because almost four billion do not have the means to survive.” For Ramadan, global capitalism, promoted by such institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is the “abode of war” (alam al-harb), for “when faced with neoliberal economics, the message of Islam offers no way out but resistance.”

To be a sworn enemy of capitalism does not mean you are a communist, a fascist, a religious fundamentalist or indeed an anti-Semite, but it is something these otherwise disparate groups frequently have in common. Advocating a revolt against Western materialism on the basis of superior spiritual values is an old project, which has had many fathers but has never been particularly friendly to liberal democracy. Ramadan’s brand of Islamic socialism, promoted with such media-friendly vitality, in conferences, interviews, books, talks, sermons and lectures, has won him a variety of new friends, especially in Britain and France.

Gilles Kepel, a leading French scholar of Islam, describes in his book “The War for Muslim Minds” how Ramadan “reached out to make alliances with the far left, working a territory abandoned by his rivals” — rivals, that is, like André Glucksmann, once a Maoist, now a supporter of the war in Iraq. Kepel goes on to explain that Ramadan “exchanged his costume as the Muslim Youth’s spokesman — an outfit too tight to accommodate his ambitions and talent — for the garb of the universalist intellectual.” Just as Marxists claim a universal validity for their political ideology, Ramadan says he believes that religious principles, as revealed in the Koran, are universal. It was as a universalist that Ramadan promoted the right of Muslim women to wear the veil at French schools. “Rights are rights,” he said, “and to demand them is a right.”

This has been read as a rallying cry to convert the West to Islam, the first step toward the establishment of Eurabia. Ramadan denies that this is his intention. “Whatever your faith,” he explained to me, “you are dealing with your fundamental principles. The message of Islam is justice. The neoliberal order leads to injustice. The point is to extract universal principles from one’s faith, but in politics it has to be a personal decision. The danger of my discourse in France is that I’m telling people to be citizens. Muslims are still treated as aliens. I’m telling them to vote.”

Ramadan, as Kepel observes, is “balanced on a tightrope,” for his socialism is not always congenial to devout Muslims. Marx (along with “the Jew,” “the Crusader” and “the Secularist”) is a demonic figure for the Muslim Brothers. Ramadan is candid about his enemies: “My fiercest critics come from majority Muslim countries. Traditional Salafists condemn me for being against Islam.” Conversely, Ramadan’s defense of certain practices rooted in Islamic tradition creates much suspicion among those who might otherwise agree with his politics.

Two media-driven controversies helped to make Ramadan both famous and notorious. The first was an exchange on French television in 2003 with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister (now running for president as the candidate of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party), well known for his description of rioters in poor immigrant neighborhoods as “scum.” Sarkozy accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers, a punishment stipulated in the section of the Islamic penal code known as huddud. Ramadan replied that he favored “a moratorium” on such practices but refused to condemn the law outright. Many people, including Sarkozy, were outraged. When I talked with Ramadan in London, the mere mention of the word “stoning” set him off on a long explanation.

“Personally,” he said, “I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive. But now I can say that Sarkozy helped me enormously, because the controversy helped me to spread my ideas.”

The other, perhaps even more contentious issue, also raised by Sarkozy, was Ramadan’s supposed anti-Semitism. A month before the television debate, Ramadan posted an article on a Web site named Oumma.com, titled “Critique of the (New) Communalist Intellectuals.” This article had been turned down by both Le Monde and Libération. Ramadan’s main argument was that “French Jewish intellectuals” — like Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard Kouchner, André Glucksmann and Pierre-André Taguieff (in fact not Jewish at all) — who used to be “considered universalist intellectuals” had become knee-jerk defenders of Israel and thus “had relativized the defense of universal principles of equality and justice.” Ramadan was trying to turn the tables on those who accuse Muslims of obsessing about their victimhood by accusing “Jewish intellectuals” of doing precisely that, thinking of just their own tribal concerns, while Ramadan’s pursuit of justice for Palestinians was supposedly part of a universalist project. These intellectuals were of course “the rivals” who, in Kepel’s phrase, had “abandoned” the left, just as many early neoconservatives had done in the U.S.

Ramadan’s attack was unfair. The intellectuals he mentioned had all championed many causes other than Israel, including putting a stop to the mass murder of Muslims in Bosnia. And by compiling this blacklist of Jews and placing a philosopher whose name merely sounded Jewish among them, he opened himself to the charge of anti-Semitism. The response was shrill. André Glucksmann wrote: “What is surprising is not that Mr. Ramadan is anti-Semitic, but that he dares to proclaim it openly.” Bernard-Henri Lévy compared Ramadan’s article with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the vicious Russian forgery about Jewish world domination. It all was vastly overblown, but these labels have a way of sticking to their target. When I asked the British Labor politician Denis MacShane, one of the few British politicians with a deep knowledge of France, about Ramadan, he repeated all the allegations about Ramadan’s religious bigotry but said that the “fundamental dividing line is about Israel and the Jews.”

Ramadan himself says that it was because of his views on Israel and on U.S. policy in Iraq that he was deprived of his visa to teach in the U.S. He told me: “I was asked to take part in a dialogue in Paris with representatives of American Jewish organizations, including Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress. It turned out to be less of a dialogue than an interview about my opinions on the Palestinian conflict. Rosen promised to talk to President Bush. But after this interview, I knew I would never get a visa.”

This might sound like just the kind of conspiracy theory anti-Semites tend to indulge in. But unlike some Islamic activists, Ramadan has never expressed any hostility to Jews in general. There is no question that he is ferociously anti-Zionist. He sees this as part of his resistance to colonialism. A glance at his Web site shows precisely where he stands. “The dignity of the Palestinians is to resist, ours is to denounce. … That means denouncing fears as much as the unjust and wretched policies which continue to kill an entire people in an occupied territory.”

Ramadan is in fact one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism. In an article in Le Monde, he wrote: “We have heard the cries of ‘down with the Jews!’ shouted during protest demonstrations, and reports of synagogues being vandalized in various French cities. One also hears ambiguous statements about Jews, their secret power, their insidious role within the media, and their nefarious plans. … Too rarely do we hear Muslim voices that set themselves apart from this kind of discourse and attitude.”

Nonetheless, Ramadan’s criticism of Jewish intellectuals missed the point. The main reason his European critics, Jews or non-Jews, have turned against Islam, and political Islam in particular, is not Israel so much as a common fear that secularism is under threat. That fear is coupled with a deep disillusion, in the wake of failed Marxist dictatorships, with the kind of anticolonial leftism that Ramadan now promotes in the name of universal principles rooted in the heart of Islam. As Denis MacShane put it to me, “Ramadan repudiates core European principles that developed from Galileo to gay marriages.”

What enrages former or current progressives is the apparent paradox that lies at the heart of Ramadan’s political rhetoric. On global capitalism he speaks like a 1968 left-wing student revolutionary, but on social affairs he can sound like the illiberal conservatives whom those students opposed. In American terms, he is a Noam Chomsky on foreign policy and a Jerry Falwell on social affairs. One of Ramadan’s fiercest critics in France, Caroline Fourest, fears that he has long-term plans to challenge European secularism through religious bigotry. She told me over the phone that she considered Ramadan “more dangerous than the obvious extremists, precisely because he sounds more reasonable.” The question of women is key to this.

I wanted to know what exactly Ramadan meant by “Islamic femininity,” described in “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” in terms of “natural complementarity” and “autonomy of the feminine being.” This sounded a trifle vague. He replied: “When you are struggling for your rights, you can achieve a legal status. This is necessary. We must have the struggle for equal rights of women. But the body must not be forgotten. Men and women are not the same. In Islamic tradition, women are seen in terms of being mothers, wives or daughters. Now woman exists as woman.”

I was not sure this answer left me much the wiser. Later I put some of Caroline Fourest’s allegations to him — that he had advised Muslim girls to avoid shaking hands with men; that he warned against mixed swimming pools; that women should not be allowed to engage in sports if their bodies were exposed to men. He claims that these quotes were taken out of context. “What I mean,” he said, “is that men and women should have a choice. If they want to follow the rules of modesty, they should be able to choose to do so. Myself, I shake hands with women.” I asked him whether his own daughters practiced their faith. He laughed and said that he certainly hoped so, but they were free to choose. Both were sent to ordinary public schools in Switzerland and Britain.

The question is how far secular society should be pushed to accommodate Islamic principles. “We are in favor of integration,” Ramadan says in a recorded speech, “but it is up to us to decide what that means. … I will abide by the laws, but only insofar as the laws don’t force me to do anything against my religion.” A Muslim must be able to practice and teach and “act in the name of his faith.” If any given society should take this right away, he continues, “I will resist and fight that society.” There is some ambiguity here. What does it mean to act in the name of one’s faith? In 1993 he was against the performance of “Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet,” a play by Voltaire, in Geneva, saying it “would be another brick in the edifice of hatred and rejection.” And yet he is careful not to call for violence or legal bans. As in the case of the Danish cartoons lampooning Islam, he prefers to use such words as “respect” or “tact.”

Olivier Roy, perhaps France’s greatest authority on Islam, says that the matter of respect, what he calls “the discourse of dignity,” is Ramadan’s greatest appeal to his followers. I asked Roy in a telephone interview recently who Ramadan’s main followers were. “Not the first generation of immigrants,” he replied, “and certainly not the fundamentalists. The poor in the French suburbs don’t care about him, either. He appeals to people of the second generation, who have a college or university education but do not feel fully integrated. They are the would-be middle class, and for them the discourse of respectability, of dignity, is very important.”

I thought of Roy’s words as I walked through Brick Lane, in London’s East End, on the way to the mosque where I was to meet Ramadan one day in December. Brick Lane used to be a poor Jewish area, where refugees from Russian pogroms eked out a living in the Sunday markets, cheap clothing stores and kosher dining halls. Now the Jews have moved up and on, and the area has become “Bangla Town,” home to Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Brick Lane itself is lined with curry restaurants and stores selling “Muslim fashion” — head scarves, burqas, men’s baggy pants, even “Halal cosmetics.” I was struck by the word “fashion.” It denotes choice, a matter of modern identity more than a tradition left behind in the villages of Pakistan or Bangladesh. The same stores sold audiocassettes of the kind used to promote Ramadan’s speeches: cassettes with such English titles as “Islam for Children” or “How to Live as a Muslim.”

This is the world in which Tariq Ramadan operates, an urban Western environment full of educated but frequently confused young Muslims eager to find attractive models they can identify with. I thought of the Somali-born Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as charismatic in her way as Ramadan. Having had her fill of controversies in the Netherlands (she wrote the film “Submission,” which led to the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist), she now works at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Her mission, too, is to spread universal values. She, too, speaks of reform. But she has renounced her belief in Islam. She says that Islam is backward and perverse. As a result, she has had more success with secular non-Muslims than with the kind of people who shop in Brick Lane.

Ramadan offers a different way, which insists that a reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment. From what I understand of Ramadan’s enterprise, these values are neither secular, nor always liberal, but they are not part of a holy war against Western democracy either. His politics offer an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.

Ian Buruma is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the Henry R. Luce professor at Bard College. His most recent book is “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.”

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