A Euro-Islam, or an Islamist Trojan horse?

The massive immigration of Muslims to Europe has many analysts concerned that demographics and radicalism will change the nature of the Continent in the next several decades. Perhaps instead it could change the face of Islam by forcing it to compete in a post-Enlightenment environment — or so some Islamic scholars hope. Der Spiegel reports on a “Euro-Islam” movement that seeks to reconcile the Muslims with modernity and end the kind of 7th-century radicalism that currently plagues Islam and the world. Or does it?

In effect, [Tariq] Ramadan is something of a modern-day itinerant preacher. His mission is to boost the self-confidence of Europe’s Muslims and to explain his vision of a “European Islam” to Europe’s Christian elite. The new brand of faith which, according to Ramadan, “is currently taking shape among European Muslims with Islamic-European culture” aims to reconcile Western values with the teachings of Islam. This “Euro-Islam” has allowed Ramadan to win friends among immigrant children and proponents of interreligious dialogue — and make enemies among right-wing nationalists and hardline Islamists.

Ramadan has given thousands of presentations over the past few years, speaking to a wide range of audiences, including Muslims and Christians, atheists and Jews, church representatives and politicians, industrialists, students and anti-globalization activists. Over the weekend, he made four appearances in France where he spoke to over 2,500 people, mostly young Muslims. Tonight he will speak in Birmingham at a police convention, tomorrow morning his schedule takes him to Blackpool; he can’t remember off the top of his head who he’s talking to there. …

Some, like the British government, see him as a Muslim visionary who provides a modern interpretation of the Koran and breaks with outmoded traditions. “We need trust and dialogue and a more flexible faith,” says Ramadan. This kind of language prompted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to appoint him to what was essentially a Muslim task force to combat extremism. On the other side of the Atlantic, Time magazine placed him on its list of the 100 people who comprise “tomorrow’s most influential individuals.”

Others see him as an Islamist in disguise, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a master of deception. And, as a matter of fact, Ramadan has made a number of statements that don’t sound remotely liberal or tolerant.

Tariq Ramadan has an interesting history, and not one necessarily indicative of moderation. His grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, the clandestine organization that would later spawn the Ba’athists as well as Islamic Jihad in Egypt, which would eventually provide most the leadership of al-Qaeda. Ramadan got stripped of his US visa for donating money to Hamas front groups, losing a prestigious position at Notre Dame.

On the other hand, the Islam he presents differs significantly from that of the extremists, even in Europe. Ramadan has argued that Islam has to reform itself to remove the temporal from the spiritual, and that Muslims have to accept secular authority as a result. He blames Islamic leaders for the poor relations Islam has with the West, especially those nations which ostensibly run themselves as Islamic theocracies while violating major tenets of the faith. However, Ramadan has also defended shari’a as an acceptable law, which tends to blur the temporal/spiritual line that Ramadan says he wants to establish.

Ramadan isn’t alone in at least airing the notion of an Islamic Enlightenment, where hermeneutics replaces literal meaning for the Koran and historical context gets considered in its interpretation. Turkey began the effort with Mustapha Kemal at the establishment of the country. He demanded — and imposed — a modernized Islam and a secular state. That tradition continues today despite tension among Turks as to the imposed limits of Islam. Other scholars in Europe want to see a similar brand of Islam that strips the religion of its pretensions to temporal power and limits it to the personal sphere.

Can this work? It did in Turkey, but that took a specific set of circumstances and a leader with the power to impose the solution. European scholars pursuing an Enlightment certainly help, but only as long as they’re sincere about their desire for that goal. Whether Ramadan qualifies as sincere or as a man looking to build a Trojan horse for radical Islam in Europe will remain to be seen.