"Who is Tariq Ramadan?" a British journalist asked me recently, reflecting the debate currently raging in certain European media circles over the young Muslim intellectual. But this question also reflected the general sense of confusion, often verging on scepticism, as to what to make of Ramadan and the intellectual project he has been developing for almost two decades now.
To some he is a brilliant young philosopher who brings together what is best in both Islam and the West. He is a bridge builder between two civilisations, a vocal activist calling for universal justice, and one of the shaping forces of our time. His detractors, however, accuse him of double-talk, delivering a gentle message in English and French, and a radical one in Arabic; of projecting a liberal face in order to conceal his true "Islamist agenda". Worse still, some have even labelled him "the Trojan horse of Jihad in Europe". As such, he is now a central figure in any debate around the future of Islam on the continent.
When I posed the question to Ramadan himself, however, he answered simply, as though the controversies which his mere presence often seems enough to create, are in fact completely irrelevant. "I am a committed intellectual who is a Muslim, and at the same time facing the challenges of his time," he said, then quickly added, "it is really important for me to be an active scholar connected to my community."
Born to Egyptian parents -- his grandfather was Imam Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement -- Ramadan grew up in Geneva, his father Said Ramadan having been forced into political exile when Gamal Abdel- Nasser clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood and executed some of its senior members. In Switzerland, Ramadan studied philosophy, and wrote his doctorate thesis on Islamic studies and Nietzsche. He has written more than 20 books and some 800 articles, while there are 170 tapes of his lectures now available. He currently teaches at the universities of Geneva and Freiburg in Switzerland.
It is this multiple identity -- at once academic and activist, committed Muslim and active Western citizen -- which sets the 42-year-old Ramadan apart from other Muslim intellectuals of his generation. Working simultaneously from the perspectives of both Islamic sciences and Western philosophical traditions has earned Ramadan a reputation for quoting the Qur'an and hadith in the same breath, and with the same mastery, with which he alludes to Nietzsche's critique of Western rationalism. More important, however, is the duality of being "truly Muslim and truly Western", as he once put it -- of bringing together the Islam tradition, to which Ramadan assigns himself, and the West in which he was brought up and received his education. Moreover, he is doing this at a time when the two are generally seen as pitted against one another in an ugly conflict -- though not, perhaps, one of their choosing. The debate, some argue, is therefore about what Ramadan represents, rather than who he really is.
But what does America have to fear from Ramadan to deny him entry onto its territory -- the man named by Time magazine last April as "one of the world's top hundred thinkers".