Chicago Tribune: On U.S. speaking tour, once-banned Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan shares his vision for the future

The Bush administration denied Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan a visa six years ago, forcing him to turn down a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit and fought successfully on his behalf. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revoked a ban, allowing the Swiss-born Ramadan and another Muslim scholar to visit the U.S. On his first trip back, Ramadan, now a professor at Oxford University, gave a keynote address this month at a fundraising dinner for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He also sat down with the Chicago Tribune.

Q: Why do you think you were banned from the United States?

A: I gave money to many organizations and two were blacklisted in the United States. (The Bush administration) said you gave the money so you should reasonably have known that these organizations were connected to Hamas, or allegedly connected to Hamas. The problem for (the Bush administration) was that they made a mistake because I gave the money between 1998 and 2002, before these organizations were blacklisted in the States, while they were never blacklisted in Europe where I lived. This was all a pretext for keeping me outside (the U.S.). It was an ideological exclusion.

Q: Why do you think Hillary Clinton revoked the ban?

A: It is quite clear (Obama administration officials) don’t want to follow in the footsteps of the Bush administration, especially when it comes to freedom of expression. They want to send a very strong signal that (they) are accepting (of) Muslim scholars. They want to open new channels for dialogue.

Q: You’ve been criticized for double-speak, saying one thing to Muslim audiences and another to Western, non-Muslim audiences. Right-wing blogger Robert Spencer has called you a “stealth jihadist.” Are you a stealth jihadist?

A: No. They all know that. These are people who have a problem with the Muslim presence. They are scared our presence in the West is going to change Western policies to something which is more open, for example, toward Palestinian rights, more critical toward the unilateral support of the States toward Israel.

Q: Your critics point to your grandfather, Hassan al Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Muslim group in Egypt that has been violent at times. They draw links between your own beliefs and that of the Brotherhood. Do you belong to the Muslim Brotherhood?

A: I don’t belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. (A few days ago) someone asked me to condemn my grandfather. I said, “Look. I’m not from the Muslim Brotherhood. He was living in the ’30s and the ’40s. He was against British colonization. He built schools. He was promoting a vision. There are things with which I agree, and others, that put into context, I may disagree. But I’m not condemning him. He never killed someone.”

Q: Some have blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for spawning violent extremist groups like al-Qaida and Hamas. Is that a fair assessment?

A: No. It’s not. It started as a non-violent organization. Hassan al Banna never told people to kill anyone. The new age of radicalism and violent extremism started in jail under the repression of (then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdul) Nasser. We need to contextualize, have a historical take on that and not to (just say) the essence of the movement was violent.

Q: What do you hope to achieve on this trip?

A: To share with American-Muslim citizens and all American citizens a vision for the future and what we can do together. I also want to talk to American Muslims about our great responsibility toward Muslim-majority countries. If you want to help Muslim-majority countries to get more freedom, more respect, more dignity, it’s not by killing people. It’s by being involved in your society and spreading a better understanding so people understand that you can’t only have a foreign policy that bears on your interests and not respect the dignity of people, especially Muslims. The blood of an Afghani or the blood of an Iraqi or the blood of a Palestinian, man, woman or child, has the same value as the blood of an American citizen. This has to be understood.