Controversial Islamic Scholar Coming to America

Controversial Islamic Scholar Coming to America

Paris ( - A Swiss-born Muslim scholar scheduled to begin teaching at a U.S. university next month is a controversial figure in Europe, where he is accused of anti-Semitism and advocating violence against women.

Tariq Ramadan plans to teach at Indiana's Notre Dame University, instructing students on Islam, conflict and peace building.

Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood.

With a perfect command of the language and a tailored western look, he is well-known in France, where disaffected Muslim youths listen to his speeches on Islamic pride. But some municipalities have barred him from speaking because he is considered a threat to public order.

Ramadan has denied allegations in the French media that European agencies suspect him of meeting with senior al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Geneva, in 1991.

Late last year, in a television debate with French government minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan refused to condemn "lapidation" - the stoning of adulterous women, a punishment that is carried out under strict interpretations of the Koran.

A public outcry followed the publication of an article in which Ramadan accused French intellectuals of being pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian purely for sectarian reasons -- that is, because they were Jewish. They were placing their religion above their obligation as scholars, he charged.

Not all the intellectuals he singled out were, in fact, Jews. The article brought him vitriol at a time when France has seen a rise in anti-Jewish violence, often originating in the Muslim community.

"His thoughts seem European and appeal to Muslims living in the West," said Yonathan Arfi, president of the Union of Jewish Students of France. "And then he talks about 'lapidation.' We took a long time to understand his discourse, but now he has been unmasked."

In August, Ramadan will go to Notre Dame University on a tenured appointment to teach about Islam.

Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the Catholic institution, said he was aware of the controversy surrounding Ramadan.

"If we felt Tariq Ramadan were anti-Semitic or opposed to women or an advocate of violence, those would be barriers to him joining our faculty," he said. "We don't believe that those are fair accusations."

Appleby said that since 9/11 there is a greater awareness in the U.S. of the need to better understand Islam and communicate with Muslims - particularly those who have views that are very different from standard western ones.

"We find Ramadan to be an important and influential intellectual who is attempting to speak to two different and disparate audiences - to the West, so far primarily to France and Switzerland in western Europe; and to the Muslim world, in the West and beyond it."

Appleby said there was a great deal of curiosity on the Notre Dame campus about Ramadan and what he would be teaching.

"There's a general concern about Islam and the need to understand it better and for this, we need to have people who are Muslims and Muslim intellectuals."

Ramadan, who did not reply to a request for an interview, has described himself as a liberal progressive who helps Muslims adapt traditional Islam to their daily westernized lives.

But some analysts have accused him of hiding an Islamist agenda.

Last January, he complained that his freedom of speech was being violated after several French cities, including a neighborhood in Paris, refused to rent him halls for speaking engagements because they deemed his presence to be a security threat.

His talks on Islam have made him somewhat of an icon to Muslim youth, who are in search of an identity in a French society that has failed to integrate them socially and economically.

France has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe, about five million-strong, comprising mostly immigrant workers from North Africa and their descendents.

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