Ian Buruma on Tariq Ramadan

In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Ian Buruma profiles Tariq Ramadan.

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.”