Luther students interview internationally known activist

Luther College students had a rare chance to interview an internationally known activist and scholar of contemporary Islam in January. Tariq Ramadan spoke via Skype on Jan. 23 to Robert Shedinger's class on contemporary Islamic thought and Todd Green's class on Islam and the West.

Ramadan has a strong pedigree of Islamic activism. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Muslim revivalist organization, in Egypt. Ramadan's father, also active in that brotherhood, was forced out of Egypt by the dictator Gamal abdul Nasser in the 1950s. Ramadan was born and raised in Switzerland, where his father had fled. For the past 20 years, he told Luther students, he has divided his time among teaching, working at the grass roots level with Islamic groups and writing. Ramadan's scholarship centers around what it is to be Muslim in a Western European context, and he works to help Muslims become active citizens, to inject their principles into a system many see as dominated by the wealthy West.

Shedinger, associate professor of religion, said it was valuable for students to hear Ramadan "because he straddles the line between more traditional Islamist thinking and more liberal Western forms of Islam. It was important for my students to see that Muslim thinkers cannot be easily placed in either a fundamentalist or liberal category."

As he spoke to the students, Ramadan emphasized the need to accept diversity in thought, religion, and culture. "One of the great challenges we have is, how do you learn to question without judging," he said. Speaking about the Islamic religion, he referred to Islams, plural, and said he tells Muslims "Unity is accepting and managing diversity of thoughts and interpretations."

He said it is important for students to know that they cannot reduce Islam to only one opinion. "And you know this," he told them. "If you come back to your own tradition, whether it is Christian or Jew or Buddhist, you will see that it is exactly the same."

Green, an assistant professor of religion, and his students spent January examining whether Islam and the West are engaged in a clash of civilizations driven by irreconcilable cultural and religious differences. He called Ramadan "a child of two 'civilizations,' a Muslim from an Egyptian family born and raised in Europe," and "the most prominent Muslim intellectual in the West endeavoring to reconcile his Muslim and Western identities."

The benefit of this session for his students, Green said, "was that Ramadan's scholarship both touches on the heart of the tensions between Islam and the West, and seeks to overcome them."

"To his admirers," the New York Times wrote in 2007, "(Ramadan) is a courageous reformer who works hard to fill the chasm between Muslim orthodoxy and secular democracy." Ramadan's traditionalist opinions and activism have drawn critics, though, who have accused him of anti-semitism, oppression against women, and religious bigotry. Now a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, he was invited in 2003 to hold an endowed chair in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Just before he was to arrive to take that post, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revoked his visa and barred him from the country for six years. He was accused of supporting terrorism or helping to supply funds to Palestinian organizations. The charges were never proved, and in 2010 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted the ban against him.

Shedinger said his discussions with a former student are what eventually made the session with Ramadan possible. Since the publication of Shedinger's book "Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion," he has worked closely with the Islamic Organization of North America, a relationship that helped put Shedinger in touch with Ramadan. "I would never have written that book had it not been for my interactions with a Muslim student in my first ever Islam class at Luther in 2001. So in an interesting way, a Luther student made it possible for future Luther students to talk directly with a scholar like Tariq Ramadan," Shedinger said.