Muslim Martin Luthers The Theologians Working Towards a Euro-Islam

Leading Muslim scholars are laying the theological foundations for a "Euro-Islam" which would reconcile their religion with the challenges of modernity. But just how compatible is Islam with secular Western values?

By and

The air in the conference room is stale, and the dour mood among those present is not much better. The room smells of sweat, cigarette smoke, cold coffee -- and plenty of problems. That comes with the territory at a meeting of some 100 social workers who work in flashpoints like the London boroughs of Hounslow, Eastleigh and Ealing.

In their districts they often have to deal with angry youth gangs, unemployment and failed integration policies. Today, on this particular Thursday, they have gathered here in the large hall of the Holborn Bars conference center to learn that multiculturalism also has positive aspects and, most importantly, that no one needs to be afraid of Muslims.

Up on the stage, Lucy de Groot, the organizer of the one-day seminar "Cultural Diversity and Social Cohesion," presents “with great pleasure” a speaker whose appearance alone is enough to add a touch of brilliance to this gloomy conference room. Smiling here and nodding there, the “esteemed guest” strides up to the podium with the confidence of an entertainer who has grown accustomed to success. Tariq Ramadan knows how to win people over.

Many of the veteran social workers have an almost enraptured expression on their faces as they look up at the tall, thin man. With his striking features and dark well-trimmed beard, his sand-colored suit with its elegant casualness, the unbuttoned collar of his bright yellow shirt and his slightly dark complexion, Ramadan resembles a Latino singer. “It’s wonderful to be in London,” he says warmly into the microphone. “Thank you very much for inviting me.” Ramadan places the fingertips of his well-manicured hands together and gazes confidently at the audience. His fan club is guaranteed to be even bigger after this afternoon.

Officially, Ramadan, 45, is a professor of Islamic studies in Geneva. But now he has just come from Oxford, where he teaches at St. Antony’s College as a visiting fellow. In effect, Ramadan is something of a modern-day itinerant preacher. His mission is to boost the self-confidence of Europe’s Muslims and to explain his vision of a “European Islam” to Europe’s Christian elite. The new brand of faith which, according to Ramadan, “is currently taking shape among European Muslims with Islamic-European culture” aims to reconcile Western values with the teachings of Islam. This “Euro-Islam” has allowed Ramadan to win friends among immigrant children and proponents of interreligious dialogue -- and make enemies among right-wing nationalists and hardline Islamists.

Ramadan has given thousands of presentations over the past few years, speaking to a wide range of audiences, including Muslims and Christians, atheists and Jews, church representatives and politicians, industrialists, students and anti-globalization activists. Over the weekend, he made four appearances in France where he spoke to over 2,500 people, mostly young Muslims. Tonight he will speak in Birmingham at a police convention, tomorrow morning his schedule takes him to Blackpool; he can't remember off the top of his head who he's talking to there.

The highly popular speaker can devote little more than half an hour to Lucy de Groot’s seminar. But that’s enough time for a brilliant presenter like Ramadan to talk about his religion, Muslim minorities, integration and exclusion -- and to alleviate the fears of his audience of an impending “clash of civilizations,” as prophesized by Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington.

“We start to run into problems when we construct new dividing lines, when we cease to see society as a whole,” says Ramadan to the worn-out-looking men and women sitting at large round tables. “Instead of perceiving Muslims as ‘the other’ or foreigners, try to see them as fellow Englishmen and women.”

All the listeners can do is nod in approval. After all, this man is one of the most prominent Muslims in Europe -- even if he is also one of the most controversial.

A scholar and a blusterer, a reformer and an Islamist, a rationalist and a demagogue -- surely no other Muslim has been given such varied labels as Ramadan.

Some, like the British government, see him as a Muslim visionary who provides a modern interpretation of the Koran and breaks with outmoded traditions. “We need trust and dialogue and a more flexible faith,” says Ramadan. This kind of language prompted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to appoint him to what was essentially a Muslim task force to combat extremism. On the other side of the Atlantic, Time magazine placed him on its list of the 100 people who comprise "tomorrow's most influential individuals."

Others see him as an Islamist in disguise, a “wolf in sheep's clothing,” a master of deception. And, as a matter of fact, Ramadan has made a number of statements that don’t sound remotely liberal or tolerant.


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