I have been lucky enough to hear a number of world leaders and intellectuals speak at Gaston Hall over the course of my four years at Georgetown, including President Obama, Kofi Annan, Hamid Karzai, Tony Blair and the secretary general of NATO. This past Monday, however, I heard Tariq Ramadan, who blew all those previous speakers out of the water. Along with President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ramadan has been one of my favorite speakers to have graced the stage in Gaston Hall. What struck me most about Ramadan’s and Johnson Sirleaf’s lectures is that both contained substance and sincerity – a combination usually lacking from most speakers at Gaston.
This was Ramadan’s first Washington appearance since 2004, when the U.S. government under President George W. Bush revoked his visa. Ramadan had already accepted a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame, packed up his home in Switzerland and enrolled his kids in school in Indiana. The pitiful explanation for the revocation of his visa was that he had made a donation to a Hamas-linked charity. But at the time he made the donation, Hamas was not on the United States’ list of groups linked to terror. As Ramadan said at the time, if U.S intelligence agencies did not know that Hamas was linked to terror at the time, how could he?
The U.S. government claimed that its classification was retroactive, which is silly. The real reason most probably had to do with Ramadan’s outspoken criticisms of the Bush administration’s mishandling of the war on terror and invasion of Iraq. Fortunately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued an order this past January that enabled Ramadan to obtain a visa and return to the United States. When I heard about this I sent an e-mail to my Islamic Studies professor and the associate director of the Al-Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, John Voll, asking him to try to get Ramadan to speak at Georgetown before I graduated, and he did. When asked about the visa ordeal Ramadan responded with, “It’s over, let’s move on.” And, in that spirit, I will.
Ramadan made both the Time Magazine “Top 100 innovators” and Foreign Policy Magazine “Top 100 Global Thinkers” lists due to his extensive work in contemporary Islamic studies. He has written numerous books, in both English and French, in which he contends that Islam is harmonious with the principles of liberal democracies in Europe and the West. I read one of those books, “Radical Reform,” in Voll’s class. In it, as well as in the lecture of the same title he gave on campus, Ramadan advocates for a significant change in the way Muslims relate to Islam’s sacred texts in the contemporary context. He believes that Muslims have been trying for too long to adapt to modernity, rather than having a vision for the future and changing the world for the better based on that vision.
Throughout the Q-and-A session, Ramadan repeatedly referred to the principles of Islam and the Shariah – or divine law. Most people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have a very superficial understanding of what Shariah really is. In Western media, Shariah is often depicted as a medieval set of laws that are outdated in our modern societies. As Ramadan rightly mentioned in one of his answers, however, the Shariah is a set of goals and principles based on justice and universal human rights, rather than a list of codes and laws. So when contemporary Islamic intellectual activists – like al-Turabi and an-Naim of Sudan or Soroush of Iran – talk about Islam and democracy and reference the Shariah, they understand that the practical implementations of the Shariah will be subject to human interpretation and should thus be dynamic and democratic. Ramadan’s works and writings show that Islam is a religion for the 21st century for those both in the East and the West.
I think that all Georgetown students should be proud that the university has been active in its attempts to allow an important voice to be heard despite extenuating circumstances. I applaud the Berkley Center for having Ramadan speak to students via satellite in the spring of 2007 and the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding for bringing him in the flesh this week. We should have nothing to fear from bringing controversial or even “radical” speakers to campus if we as Georgetown students commit ourselves to creating an environment of respectful and mutual dialogue. We will learn from each other and maybe even find out things we did not know about ourselves.
Omar Noureldin is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and a member of the Muslim Student Association.
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