Tariq Ramadan has the measured delivery of an academic, which is no more than you would expect from a man who used to be a high school principal and wrote his doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. But as the leading Islamic thinker among Europe's second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants, the Geneva-based university lecturer also inspires a good deal of mistrust--from both Arab Muslims for his Western sensibility and Westerners for his controversial Islamic roots. Ramadan, 38, is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder, in 1928, of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic revival movement that spread from Egypt throughout the Arab world, criticizing Western decadence and advocating a return to Muslim values. Yet Ramadan says, "I'm a European who has grown up here. I don't deny my Muslim roots, but I don't vilify Europe either."
Ramadan's chosen task is to invent an independent European Islam: "We need to separate Islamic principles from their cultures of origin and anchor them in the cultural reality of Western Europe." With 15 million Muslims on the Continent, Ramadan believes it's time to abandon the dichotomy in Muslim thought that has defined Islam in opposition to the West. "I can incorporate everything that's not opposed to my religion into my identity," he says, "and that's a revolution."
Europe's Muslims are the product of immigration in the postwar years, when workers were recruited from Turkey, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent to meet the war-shattered Continent's manpower needs. While the first generation jealously guarded their cultural links with their homeland, their children and grandchildren have often felt torn between two cultures. "What I'm saying is, be proud of who you are," says Ramadan. "We've got to get away from the idea that scholars in the Islamic world can do our thinking for us. We need to start thinking for ourselves."
That means making European mosques independent of foreign funding and influence. It also means rereading the founding texts and producing a body of Islamic thought in European languages. Ramadan's recent book, To Be a European Muslim, was written in English; editions in German, Italian and Dutch are all forthcoming. And Ramadan's message isn't intended for Muslims alone. "The real question is about spirituality," he says. "If the presence of Muslims leads Europeans to think about who they are and what they believe in, that has to be positive." Thanks partly to Ramadan, Islam is on its way to becoming an integral part of Europe's religious landscape.
--By Nicholas Le Quesne