A few weeks ago marked the return of Tariq Ramadan, a prominent and controversial Islamic scholar to the United States. This is the first appearance Ramadan has made in America after having been banned from entry to the United States in 2004. This ban prevented Ramadan from accepting a position as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.Of the more interesting and substantial controversies surrounding Ramadan is that of his family lineage. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamic group originating in Egypt in 1928. This group has committed terrorist attacks in the Middle East in the name of Islam and elements of its ideology have been highly influential on Osama bin Laden and Al-Qa’ida in general. Additionally, Ramadan is criticized in the West for not outright condemning practices perpetrated in the name of Islam such as the stoning of women and suicide bombings.Controversies aside, what makes Tariq Ramadan such an interesting figure, and why he is important in a dialogic sense, is that he tries to bridge the perceived gap between Islam and the West. He has published many works on Islamic theology and its compatibility with Western secular society. While Ramadan firmly asserts that Islam presents a superior ethical system compared to Western secularism, he is a leading proponent of dialogue between Islam and the West and trying to reach mutual understanding and acceptance.Equally important, Ramadan also advocates for dialogue within Islam itself in order to address those practices supposedly justified by Islam that violate basic human rights such as the concept of Hudud (pronounced “hoo-dood”) or retributive justice based on the “eye for an eye” principle found in the Old Testament. Among the punishments falling under the Hudud concept are stoning of women for committing adultery, the lopping off of hands or feet for theft, and the death penalty for committing murder. Ramadan has called for a moratorium on the practice of honor killings and other such practices while the Islamic principles that supposedly justify such acts are reevaluated within a modern context. This step, although positive, has not been without controversy here in the West.
Recently Christiane Amanpour on CNN interviewed Ramadan where she challenged him for not having outright condemned Hudud practices. Ramadan defended himself by stating that he, personally, is against these practices, but because Islam is not monolithic – there are many schools of thought within Islam – condemning Hudud is not going to do the least bit good, especially if it’s done by a European Muslim in Paris. Ramadan is calling for all these practices be stopped while Muslim scholars go back to their religious texts, reevaluate, and participate in a dialogue questioning if these practices are really sanctioned by the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammad and Islamic law in general. I think that we, as Westerners, have a tendency to think of Islam as a monolithic faith in which all Muslims believe the same things. When practices within Islam are viewed from a Western standpoint, things ranging from women wearing veils to the stoning of women accused of adultery, are sometimes viewed as the total expression of Islam. In reality, Islam and the Islamic world are far more complicated, just as there are different expressions of Christianity and Judaism.