Controversy follows Tariq Ramadan to Rotterdam

Tariq Ramadan.
By Gert Van Langendonck

Controversy seems to follow Tariq Ramadan wherever he goes. In Rotterdam, where the Swiss philosopher and theologist has been asked to contribute to the multicultural dialogue, the gay community is up in arms over Ramadan's statements about homosexuality and the role of women in society.

A split tongue, is how French journalist Caroline Fourest described Tariq Ramadan in her 2006 book Frère Tariq (brother Tariq). Fourest argues that Ramadan has a moderate discourse for Western consumption, and a radical one buried inside Arabic-spoken tapes that are widely distributed in immigrant communities throughout Europe.

Ramadan's defence of a "European Islam" (an Islam that adapts to the rules of European society) has made him enemies within orthodox Islam as well as in the West, where some have argued that Ramadan wants Europe to adapt to Islam rather than the other way around. It is the latter that has been dubbed Ramadan's "double discourse".

Jeckyl and Hyde

Whenever Ramadan (46) moves to a new country - and he has moved a lot: from Switzerland to France to the US to Britain to the Netherlands - sooner or later someone digs up quotes from his tapes as proof of his "Jeckyl and Hyde" identity. The latest to do so is the Gay Krant, a newspaper for the gay community in the Netherlands. Ramadan was recently hired by the city of Rotterdam to "help lift the multicultural dialogue to a higher level". He is also a guest lecturer at Rotterdam's Erasmus university.

Life and career

Ramadan was born in Switzerland where his parents fled to after being exiled from Egypt. His grandfather Hassan Al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political opposition group that wants to make Egypt an Islamic state.

Ramadan is a fellow at the University of Oxford and an adviser to several British government institutions. In 2004, he was forced to give up his tenure at Notre Dame University in Indiana after the US authorities denied him entry because of a 1,300 dollar contribution to an organisation with links to Hamas. The American Civil Liberties Union (UCLA) is sueing the US government on Ramadan's behalf.

On March 21, the Gay Krant published an analysis of Ramadan's tapes - there are about a hundred of them - in which it noted several controversial remarks, complete with date and time stamps.

On women they quote him as saying: "Allah has an important rule: if you try to attract attention through your manner or the use of perfume, through your appearance or gestures, you are not on the right spiritual path."

And: "When walking in the streets austerity requires that you always cast you eyes down to the pavement."

On homosexuality Ramadan said: "God has established norms and the norm is that a man is meant for a woman and a woman is meant for a man."

And: "The word of Islam is very clear on this point: homosexuality is not allowed."

Stoning adulterous women

Another often cited example of Ramadan's "double discourse" comes from a 2003 TV debate with then French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy during which Ramadan said he favoured a "moratorium" on the stoning of adulterous women, but stopped short of condemning the practice outright.

In a written reaction to the Gay Krant's article, Ramadan said he had been quoted out of context and that "these sensitive topics are brought up with the sole purpose of creating controversy". The people behind "this campaign", he wrote, "are dangerous not just to myself or to Muslims but to the future of our societies".

In an opinion article in NRC Handelsblad, entitled 'Will the real Tariq Ramadan finally come out of the closet?' Gay Krant editor in chief Henk Krol responded: "If the position of women in society or condemning honour killings are sensitive topics to someone who was hired to 'build bridges', then both the city of Rotterdam and its adviser have a serious problem."

'Terminate contract'

The right-wing liberal party VVD in the Rotterdam city council has asked for Ramadan's contract to be terminated.

The city reportedly paid 1.79 million euros for Ramadan's activities in Rotterdam in 2007 and 2008, but only 55,000 euros went directly to Ramadan - the rest went towards organising debates and meetings in the framework of the 'citizenship, identity and feeling at home' project.

Additionally the municipality pays 200,000 euros a year for Ramadan's professorship at Erasmus university, which includes travel and accommodations for him and his three research assistants.

But Ramadan has his defenders too. Markha Valenta, an openly lesbian scientific researcher at the University of Amsterdam and a government adviser, wrote in NRC Handelsblad:

"If Tariq Ramadan is dangerous, it is not because he rejects Europe but because he embraces it. This is even scarier than someone who attacks you. Because what Tariq Ramadan is saying is: we are not so different as you think."

Right to disappove

Valenta even defends Ramadan's right to disapprove of homosexuality.

"If he indeed said what he is accused of, this actually makes him more representative of the West than the Gay Krant, which seems to have forgotten that homosexuals, like Muslims, are a minority (...) Many people in the West still think homosexuality is unnatural and should not be recognised (...) The point is that Muslims should respect the civil rights of gays and lesbians and the other way around. That Muslims (and gays) should respect the public arena and the democratic rule of law. Tariq Ramadan has always done so."

Ramadan himself says he has always stressed that the rights of homosexuals should be respected, "but it cannot be denied that Islam and Christianity and Judaism all prohibit homosexuality".

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