The modern Muslim

Controversial scholar Tariq Ramadan explains why Mohammed had progressive views of women, why the Quran is a prescription for peace -- and why he is banned from Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

Published February 20, 2007 1:06PM (EST)

Why are there so few moderate Muslims speaking out against Islamic terrorism? That's a common complaint heard in the West, but in truth, plenty of Muslims are critical of suicide bombers. What's harder to find are Muslim leaders who condemn terrorism while also maintaining credibility among disaffected Muslims, and intellectuals who can appeal to both secular Europeans and Middle Eastern imams. That's why the Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan is such a compelling figure.

Ramadan has been called the Muslim Martin Luther King, and he's often described as Europe's most important Muslim intellectual. He has no shortage of charisma -- a quality that serves him well as he reaches out to various constituencies. There's no doubt that Ramadan commands a large following. Hundreds of young Muslims turn up at his public talks, and tapes of his lectures are widely circulated. He travels frequently throughout the Islamic world, trying to build bridges between European Muslims and conservative clerics.

But there are some countries Ramadan can't visit. The United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all banned him -- each for different reasons. In 2004 Ramadan was all set to move his family to Indiana, where he'd accepted a teaching position at Notre Dame. But the U.S. State Department revoked his visa -- though exactly why remains a mystery. Ramadan says it's because he's an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. His critics say he has ties to Muslim terrorists. No evidence of a direct link to terrorism has ever surfaced, though plenty of people have looked for one. Yet his most vocal critics are in France, where Ramadan is a prominent public intellectual. The French journalist Caroline Fourest even wrote a book-length attack on Ramadan, titled "Brother Tariq."

One reason Ramadan garners such close scrutiny is his distinguished -- some would say notorious -- family background. In 1928 his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt -- the group that later spawned al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Banna was murdered in 1949. Ramadan's parents fled Egypt and settled in Switzerland, where his father, Said Ramadan, emerged as a major Islamic thinker. Tariq Ramadan resists simple labels. He's a devout Muslim, but one who wants to loosen the strict interpretations of Islamic law. He embraces the Western values of pluralism and democracy, while also retaining the anti-colonial mantle of his grandfather. Ramadan is often accused of being two-faced, making nice with Western journalists while giving fiery speeches to young Muslims. Ramadan says his tone may change, but he insists that his message is consistent.

I had the chance to see Ramadan last summer in Cambridge, England, where he spoke to a small group of journalists. (After his job at Notre Dame fell through, he took an academic position at Oxford University.) In person, Ramadan was elegantly dressed and quite dashing. Now, at the age of 44, he's just come out with a book about the life of Mohammed, "In the Footsteps of the Prophet." Ramadan recently went into the BBC studios in London, where he spoke to me about his efforts to reconcile Islamic values with Western secularism, his difficulties with the U.S. government, and his new reading of the life of Mohammed.

There have been many books about Mohammed. Do you see your book as a corrective to what other scholars have written about the Prophet?

No. The purpose of the book was not to correct or to come with new revelations about his life. It's really a rereading of his life, stressing two dimensions. The first one is spiritual. We can extract from his life the spiritual lessons for now and forever. And the second dimension is about contemporary lessons as to our relationships with our neighbor, with nature, with people from other religions. So it's really to come back to the teachings, the lessons and the meditations.

What do you think non-Muslims need to know about Mohammed? What are some of the most common misunderstandings?

The perception they have is all about violence, it's all about otherness, it's all about discrimination toward women. And I think all this is wrong. He was promoting peace. And the way he was with women was far ahead of what we sometimes find in Islamic-majority countries today. You know, the Prophet's life is really an introduction to Islam.

The picture you present of Mohammed is someone who had a very forward-looking attitude about the status of women. What lessons can Muslim women take away from Mohammed's life?

First, he was really treating women as women -- and not only as mothers, or sisters or daughters in Islam. Women are equal before God and have the same rights and duties. More than that, he was so respectful. He taught people the way they have to deal with women. When his daughter came to him, he stood up and welcomed her, talked to her, respected her, kissed her in front of the people. At that time, to have a daughter in this Arab tribe was quite a dishonor. It was not valued in society. And he was welcoming women in the mosque, letting them enter and talk in the mosque. Today, in the 21st century, people don't even let women come into the mosque and practice their religion. He was promoting knowledge. His own wife, Aishah, was a scholar. This is something that we cannot forget about his life.

So if you look at Mohammed's own life, you're saying the rules prohibiting women from entering the mosque are just wrong.

Yes, exactly. This is wrong. This is coming from two main mistakes. The first one is the literal reading of some of the verses. We are forgetting to put things into context. More important than one verse is understanding the overall message of Islam. This is one mistake. We are also confusing Arab cultures, which are historical, with the universal principles of Islam. I really think we have to come back to the Prophet's example to understand the way he was promoting the status of women. He wanted them to be involved at the social level, the political level, the scholarly level, but also within the mosque. Today, we need to come back to this and say, it is not Islamic to prevent Muslim women from entering mosques. Preventing them from getting knowledge is not Islamic. Forced marriages are not Islamic. And even domestic violence: You can't just quote one part of a verse in the Quran, forgetting that the Prophet himself never beat a woman. He was so respectful. So if he is our example, we cannot accept domestic violence. This is not Islamic.

There are also verses in the Quran that call on the wives of Mohammed to cover up. Do you read these as prescriptions for how women should dress? For instance, is there a commandment for Muslim women to wear the head scarf?

The head scarf is an Islamic prescription but it cannot be imposed. So it's an act of faith. We never had one woman forced to wear the head scarf during the Prophet's life. It's a choice. This is why I'm always saying it's against Islamic teaching to force a woman to wear a head scarf. But it's also against human rights to force her to take it off. It should be a free choice. Now, the discussion we have in some Muslim countries is not about the head scarf; it's really about what we call the "niqab" -- veiling the face of the woman. This is something which was specific to the Prophet's wives and not to all women. And this is why we must have an intra-community debate about veiling the face -- to say this is not Islamic. There is no compulsion in these matters. We really have to respect the choice of the woman.

In your book, you say Mohammed was not divine. He was a man chosen by God to receive the final revelation. This raises some interesting comparisons to the status of Jesus within Christian theology, since traditional Christian accounts do describe Jesus as the son of God. I'm wondering what, if any, implications this has for people today. Do you think Mohammed has the same status for Muslims as Jesus does for Christians?

No, not exactly. We recognize Jesus as a prophet but not as the son of God. For us, there is nothing divine in Jesus and nothing divine in Mohammed. They have one dimension coming from God. We are dealing with revelations, with texts coming to the prophets that they are transmitting to humanity. But at the same time, they have a human dimension. Even the Quran is saying to Mohammed that what he did in some instances is wrong. For example, once he was so obsessed with the protection of his community that as he was talking to some rich people, he neglected a poor old man who came to him asking a question about the Quran. And the Quran said, what you did in this situation was wrong. So God is speaking to a man who is a prophet -- the best among humankind -- but still a human being. The status is quite different from what we have in the Christian tradition. And more than that, he's not a mediator. So if you want to speak to God, you don't need the Prophet. You can talk to God straight away. It's an intimate dialogue between you and Him.

What about the Quran itself? Does the Quran have a similar status for Muslims as the Bible does for Christians?

Not exactly. For Muslims, the Quran is the very word of God. The Quran is what was revealed. But we still need our intelligence, our reason and our mind to understand what was said to us. Some of the verses should be understood as immutable. When we speak about the six pillars of Islamic faith, this is not going to change. This is trans-historical. When we speak about practices, there is no change. We pray as the Prophet was praying. We fast the same. And we perform the pilgrimage in the same way. But when it comes to understanding the Quran in social affairs, we need our mind and our intellect to understand the meaning of the verses in order to implement them in a new historical context.

To make another comparison to current Christian thinking, there's a big debate over the historical Jesus and how we should interpret certain episodes in his life. Especially the miracles. For instance, does a Christian have to believe in the Virgin Birth? And what should Christians make of the Resurrection? Was this an actual physical resurrection or something more ethereal? These questions have profound implications for a lot of Christians today, especially those with a more rational bent. Is there a comparable debate in Islam today -- whether to read certain episodes of Mohammed's life literally or metaphorically?

We don't have so many miracles in the Prophet's life. Really, what is presented as a miracle is the text itself. The Quran is perceived as a miracle. But still, we have what we call the "miraj" -- a specific episode in his life when he went in one night from Mecca to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem close to God in the sky.

This was the Night Journey, when the angel Gabriel took Mohammed to Jerusalem, where he met the prophets who'd come before him, including Abraham and Moses. And Mohammed was raised beyond space and time through the heavens. It's where he received the instructions about the five daily prayers. This is a remarkable story. But it does raise the question: Was this some kind of vision, or did it physically happen?

Muslims have exactly the same debates as Christians. For some Muslim scholars, this is a spiritual experience. Others say no, he did it with his body and came back. So the debate is there. But I'm not sure it has great implications about what to extract from this story. In the end, it's an act of faith. What we can extract from this story is the many ways the Prophet is trusted by his companions, and the meaning of these prayers that we have to perform every day. They were not revealed when he was on earth but when he came close to God.

Well, let me ask you about the prescription on prayer. Can you be a Muslim in good standing and not pray?

Once again, it's a discussion between scholars. I really think that a Muslim is one who recognizes that there is one God and then with his heart or her heart is sincere. And we cannot judge after this.

It sounds like you're saying that many of these questions -- about how to pray or whether a woman should wear a veil -- ultimately come down to personal choice. These should not be prescribed by imams or other Islamic authorities.

There are norms known by the believers. It's then up to everyone to choose and decide, knowing the norms. For example, I'm not going to say that praying is not an obligation. No, there is a prescription saying five prayers a day, but now, it's up to you to decide whether to pray or not. You decide which way you want to practice.

I'm not sure what that means. If you don't pray five times a day, have you sinned? Have you violated some core Islamic principles?

Violated? I will not use that term. But I will say that you know what you have to do as a practicing Muslim. This is your responsibility. A practicing Muslim who wants to do all his duties before God should pray five times a day. These are the prescriptions. Now, you cannot impose on anyone to do it. And you cannot say you are a bad Muslim because you are not doing it. You can only say you are not fulfilling all the prescriptions. As to judging your heart, it's not my business. It's between you and God. So I'm praying five times a day. I don't know how I'm going to be judged. I just know I'm not always satisfied with my practice. Since I don't know my destiny, I'm not going to judge the destiny of anyone else.

You have a very unusual background, including two Ph.D.s -- one dissertation on Islam, the other on Nietzsche. Has your study of Nietzsche affected how you think about religion? After all, this is the philosopher who declared that God is dead.

Yes, of course it had an impact on my way of dealing with religion. Nietzsche himself was very religious when he was young. And then he was so disappointed by the answers he got from his own religion. He was very harsh with people trying to avoid the only true question for him as a philosopher: When you suffer, what are you going to do with this suffering? Because to live is to suffer. This was Nietzsche's main statement. And I think it's really important because at the center of his philosophy is a quest for meaning. This was also a quest for innocence. And coming from where I was coming -- from the Islamic tradition -- for me it was really central in my own religious education: how you can combine innocence, suffering and the quest for meaning?

You have lived in several European countries and in Egypt. How do you think about your own identity?

What I can say is that I am Swiss by nationality, European by culture, Egyptian by memory, universalist by principle and of course Muslim by religion. All this is really important. I have no problem with being at the same time Egyptian by memory and European by culture. I don't have opposing worlds of references. I really think there are common hopes and common quests.

You went to live in Egypt for awhile, the country of your parents. I've heard that you felt out of place there and you realized that Europe was your real home.

Yes, that's totally true. I was living in Europe. You know, my parents had a very difficult exile. They left Egypt because of political reasons. And they dreamed of going back there. I started idealizing my country of origin. I wanted to go there and I was sure I would find people with the same commitment to justice. Egypt was the country of my dreams when I was young. So I went there, studied there, and I felt that, no, it was not that. I'm no longer Egyptian by culture. There's something very European in me. So I felt the gap. And then I decided, I have to go back home. And my home is not the home I was thinking it was at the beginning. What was the exile for my parents is no longer the exile for me.

Do you see your larger project as finding common ground between secular Europeans and conservative Muslims in the Middle East? Are you trying to build an understanding of Islam that's acceptable in both places?

I'm not trying to promote something which could be acceptable. If we come back to the roots of the European project, we have common roots with the Islamic-majority countries. I really think we are dealing with a clash of perceptions, not a clash of civilizations. I want to deconstruct these perceptions to come to the common roots. So I'm not trying to make Islam more acceptable. There's no point. I don't have to do this. My aim is not to be accepted or to please people. It's just to be consistent. In fact, my project is much more about reconciliation.

But Muslims in Europe face different issues than Muslims in the Middle East. Islam is a minority religion in countries like France and England, and in most Middle Eastern countries, there's no effort to separate religion and politics. In Europe -- especially in France -- there is an absolutely strict separation. And a lot of people wonder whether Islam can thrive in a pluralistic society as just one of many religions, or whether there is an inherent drive within the Islamic tradition to become the one dominant religion.

I can understand that question, coming out of the repeated assumption that there is no difference in Islam between religion and politics. This is not true. There is a distinction between what is the realm of worship and what is the realm of social affairs. And here, there is a field of negotiation and rationality. Now, let me come to the reality of Western societies. People are asking, is it possible for Muslims to live in secular society? Look, millions of Muslims are already showing every day that they don't have a problem. If you look at the United States, you have millions of Muslims who are living as quiet, peaceful American Muslim citizens. You don't have a problem. The great, great great majority of Muslims don't have a problem. Even in France. Five million Muslims are living in France. Half of them are already French. They don't have a problem. The problem of the French Muslims is not the secular framework. The problem is that in the suburbs, they are dealing with discrimination and social marginalization. It has nothing to do with religion. The religious and cultural integration is done.

But when you are in the suburbs and feel you are second-class citizens, that after four generations you are still perceived as French with an immigrant background, there is something wrong in the perception. When we had the riots in the suburbs in November 2005, you had politicians speaking about "them" as if they were not French citizens. And this has nothing to do with Islam. These are French citizens doing exactly what the French do when they are not happy. They demonstrate. They are doing exactly what your sons and daughters did during the '60s. So I really think all this perception that Muslims cannot live in secular society is totally wrong. Millions are already doing it in European societies. And let me add something: If we look at Senegal, at Turkey, at Indonesia, these are Islamic-majority countries, and they are dealing with this kind of separation and democracy. And they are open to the process of rational collective negotiation. So we cannot confuse the Islamic world with the Arab countries where the lack of democracy is not due intrinsically to Islam.

But some religious issues do come into play. The head scarf has been banned from French schools. Where does that leave Muslim families in France?

Yes, you're right. What happened is that two years ago, the French government changed the law -- what is called "the law of 1905" (separating church and state) -- just to ban the head scarf from schools. Before that, the secular traditional law in France was not against the head scarf. So the French debate about the head scarf became a political issue. It's not going to solve the problem. So what should young Muslim women do now? Do they have to avoid going to school? No, we have something in Islam which is a very flexible way to deal with reality. My position is it may be a wrong law. It may be discriminatory. But if a young Muslim girl has to choose between school and the head scarf, go to school. Go to school and learn.

The other choice might be to go to an Islamic school.

Yes, but there aren't many Islamic schools in France. And I really think the solution is not to create a parallel system. It's to be part of the system. To really be in the system as citizens and to be able, from within, to say we are respecting the laws, but we think this law is a bad one and we can challenge it. But I really think the decision to ban the head scarf had much more to do with internal political tensions between the French left and right than with the religious issue of how to integrate Muslim citizens. This may be the only law that discriminates against French Muslims.

But it does seem there are a number of cases -- not so much in terms of law, but in everyday practice -- where there are tensions. For instance, what if a company won't allow a Muslim employee to pray five times a day at prescribed hours? Can you eat non-halal meat if there is no halal meat available? What if a woman needs medical treatment and there is no female doctor available? Can she see a male doctor? Which takes precedence: Islamic principles or the cultural values of the country?

I really think that Islamic thinking about living in Western societies is already articulated and developed. For example, when you are in the workplace and you can't pray five times, you can adapt your practice by having the two prayers of the afternoon together and the two prayers of the night together. These are answers that we already have in the Islamic legal tradition, which are helping Muslims to adapt to a new environment. As to halal meat, you have many different opinions about what is possible. And for some, it's not against Islam to eat the meat in the Western countries. As for women going to be treated by a male doctor, there is no problem if there is no choice. These problems are constructed out of anecdotes by new immigrants saying they can't do that. In fact, Muslim communities in the West already have adapted to their situation.

One of the big points of controversy is whether Islam itself can be criticized. And this comes up in so many different situations -- for instance, the furor over the Danish cartoons. Yes, it was insensitive for the Danish newspaper to run these caricatures of Mohammed. But on the other hand, Islamic activists deliberately whipped this up into a frenzy, even circulating some cartoons that were never published in that Danish newspaper. And all kinds of violence erupted throughout the Middle East as a result.

Yes, I think Muslims should ask themselves what kind of image they are spreading with this attitude. I was in Morocco when it happened. From the very beginning, I said, "Take an intellectual critical distance. Don't react to this provocation. Yes, it's not your way to deal with the sacred. But it's a Western tradition just to laugh at religion. And you should understand that not all criticism means Islamophobia." There are legitimate criticisms of some Muslim behaviors and some principles that are not understood. You have to explain, you have to be part of the game, you have to be vocal, and not react emotionally to all this. I think the big problem is this kind of over-emotional reaction coming from Muslims, which is not acceptable.

By the way, it's really important to remember that in Europe, and even in the States, the reactions from Muslims were really reasonable. The strong reaction was coming from Islamic-majority countries. And not by accident. I think some governments and some groups were instrumentalizing this story just to get popular support. On the other side, you had far-right parties very happy to provoke this kind of reaction. So you have people on both sides trying to polarize the debate. And we should not fall into the trap. It's clear, as you are saying, that Muslims should be very, very open to criticism. We should tackle these questions and try to come up with sincere answers.

You are clearly a voice for reform within the Islamic world. Many people in both Europe and the Middle East pay attention to what you say. Do you see this reform movement in Europe as something that other Muslims from around the world will look at and follow?

Yes, it's already happening. For decades, we had our answers coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, from the traditional centers of Islamic knowledge. But now it has changed. For example, the meaning of civil society, the way we deal with medical issues, with ethics, it's really now the other way around. Some of our answers are going back there and helping people think about the problems in a new way. You know, I'm traveling a lot to Islamic-majority countries -- to Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia, Africa. Last summer I visited seven African countries -- some of them majority-Islamic countries, like Senegal and Mali. And they were listening to the way we're dealing with problems. So we had exchanges of ideas and methodologies. Our experiences in the West have already had a tremendous impact. You know, this call for a moratorium that I launched two years ago, at the beginning I got such strong rejections...

The moratorium on the Islamic edict about stoning women who've committed adultery.

By the way, it's stoning adulterous men and women. And it's not only this. It's stoning for the death penalty and corporal punishment. At the beginning, I was criticized by so many Muslims. Even in the United States, people were saying, what are you talking about? And then, after much discussion, I went to Morocco and sat with 40 scholars. Even the mufti of Egypt responded with three pages on my call and mainly he said this is the way forward. He may disagree on the way it's done, but on the content he's saying we have to think about it.

You went on French television to propose this moratorium. And what a lot of people in France couldn't understand is why you didn't just come out and condemn stoning. It seems like an ancient, barbaric practice. Why wouldn't you just say it's not acceptable?

[Chuckles] Yes, I said I'm against it. And I condemned it in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. But it was a political game with the [French] home minister. He wanted to use it by saying, "Look, he's not condemning this." But I'm saying I'm against it. What I'm trying to do is open a debate in the majority-Islamic countries. The moratorium is the first step to stop stoning. So open the debate and ask the Muslim scholars, what do the texts say? And in which context? This is the only way forward. Even in Pakistan, I was called by the Islamic commission because they wanted me to promote this idea there. And they used the idea of the moratorium in one case of a Pakistani British man who was to be killed. Then they stopped and he was freed. The important Muslim council in Indonesia asked me to present my position on this because they think it's the way to say, we take the texts seriously but we need a debate on the way these texts are implemented. Look, this is the way forward.

But I've heard that your call for a moratorium got you in a lot of trouble in some countries. It angered a lot of conservative clerics. Didn't Egypt and Saudi Arabia ban you after that?

Saudi Arabia, yes. They banned me after that. Egypt banned me for another reason -- because I'm critical of the regime and say it's not a democracy. But yes, in Saudi Arabia, they said no, we can't talk about this. This is against our religion. And some of the Muslims put me outside the realm of Islam as if I was betraying the very meaning of Islamic references, which is really interesting because Saudi Arabia remains one of the most important allies of the West. And the West is saying to the Muslims, "Look, you have to denounce stoning." So there's a great deal of hypocrisy here.

My point is reconciliation and consistency. I will be against the Saudi government and the way they are implementing Islamic principles. And I will never accept that a poor Pakistani in Saudi Arabia can be treated as a slave, as an animal -- you can be just beaten. In the name of Islam, I have to say no, this is not acceptable. So let us open the debate with Muslim scholars. So my point is not to please the West or to please the Islamic-majority governments. My point is really to be consistent with my values and the principles of justice and respect toward the poor and the innocent.

Well, you sound very reasonable and yet you keep getting banned from different countries.

[Ramadan laughs]

Why do you think the U.S. State Department canceled your visa? Why have you been banned from this country?

You know, for two years, I didn't know. I was to go teach at Notre Dame University. Everything was set. Then they revoked my visa with no explanation and they referred to the Patriot Act. So my understanding from the very beginning is that they were unhappy with my political discourse and my views on American policy.

American policy in Iraq and in Israel?

Exactly. When I went first to the American embassy in Switzerland, the first questions I got were about Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because I was saying resistance is legitimate. The means they are using is not, but resistance is legitimate. And your invasion of Iraq is a mistake, it was illegal. I'm not the only one to say that. The United Nations thought from the very beginning your actions were illegal. So I think these are the main reasons I was banned. Last September I finally got an answer: Tariq Ramadan gave 700 euros to a Swiss organization which was connected to Hamas. What they don't say, and what is really important to know, is that this organization is officially recognized by the Swiss government. All the money I gave was put in my tax form and everything was official. I gave them money to support schools.

The second thing, which is much more important, is that I gave the money between '98 and 2002. I gave 700 euros to a European organization to help build schools. And this organization was blacklisted in the States in 2003. So I stopped giving money one year before this organization was blacklisted in the States. And I got a letter from the American Embassy telling me I should have reasonably known that this organization was connected to Hamas -- meaning I should have reasonably known one year before Homeland Security that this organization was connected to Hamas. It's ridiculous. How could I have known this? So it's clear that this has nothing to do with the true reason. The true reason is that I'm vocal. I'm speaking loudly against American policy in the Middle East.

A lot of people don't know what to make of your relationship with your grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. His name is always brought up by your critics because they say you are a closet supporter of terrorists. And they say he laid the intellectual groundwork for terrorist organizations like al-Qaida. How do you respond to those criticisms?

As to my relationship with terrorists, if this was the case, it would have come out in all this discussion with Homeland Security. It means that really, there's nothing in my record. And there is nothing. Now, as to my relationship with my grandfather, I have with him the relationship I have with any historical figure. I put things into context and try to understand what he did. I support some things and I am selective and critical of other things. So, for example, I respect the fact that he was resisting colonization, and that he built 2,000 schools -- half of them for women -- which at that time was totally new. He was the father of my mother, and he wanted her to be educated, and he was pushing in that direction against many Muslim scholars at that time. I think this is the work of a reformist. He took from Mohammed Abduh something which was really interesting. He said we have nothing against the British parliamentary model; this is very close to what we have as Muslims. So he didn't have a vision of everything from the West as bad.

Now, he was the leader of an organization, and he was nurturing the members with slogans. And they were misleading to many of the followers. And here I'm critical of a very simple statement, which has been misunderstood by some of the followers. For example, you have, "The Quran is our constitution." For some, it's just come to the Quran and you refuse everything else. It was not what Hassan al-Banna was meaning. But this is the way it was understood, and you are responsible for some of the ways that people understand what you are saying. So it's really important for me to be clear on that and to go further in the critical reading of this historical period of time. So I'm not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and I'm not representing them. But I'm not going to demonize my grandfather to please the West. I'm just asking the people, read, put things into context and criticize what is to be criticized, but also be fair to what he was trying to do during his life.

You have gone on record condemning all acts of terrorism. Would you say suicide bombings are never justified?

Yes, I've said that many times. To kill innocent people will never be justified. People were using this against me. I said, "Look, it's never justified. You can, in certain circumstances, understand why people could be led to this. But to understand what is happening doesn't mean you are justified." But I'm also saying the situation of Palestinians now is so bad that it's understandable without being justifiable. As an international community, as democrats, as people protecting human rights, we have to say that we need to do something. You can't be silent as to the Palestinian oppression. My silence is as condemnable as their violence. We have to say no to suicide bombings, but also no to oppression.

One final question. You almost came to the United States. Your family was all packed and ready to move to Indiana. Why did you want to come here?

Yes, between 2001 and 2004, I came to the States almost 30 times. I met with so many leaders and scholars and Muslims, and they were telling me: We must build bridges between the European and the American experiences. And this is what I wanted to do. I'm still doing it from where I am, through a program like yours and video conferences. They are preventing me from being there physically, but I'm still exchanging views and trying to come up with a reasonable approach toward the future of our democratic societies. I think the voice that you are hearing now is a voice that may be necessary for American society today, especially under the current administration.

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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