Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim professor barred from entering the United States under the Bush administration, has appeared publicly in New York for the first time since his ban was lifted earlier this year.
Speaking in a panel discussion on problems facing Muslims in Europe and the US, he said believers there were still not considered true citizens and that the West needed to re-examine the “forced integration” of Muslims.
“The danger, the threat for our societies in America and Europe is not the Muslim presence,” Ramadan said. It is the fear of this Muslim presence “that causes us to betray our own principles” he said.
He told the audience that after arriving in the US on Wednesday he was detained by customs authorities for one hour and questioned on what he was going to talk about in his speeches here.
“I know why I was banned from this country... I am not going to keep quiet when I think the American policy is wrong. When going to Iraq was wrong and was illegal and not to support the rights of Palestinians,” he said.
Ramadan's visa was revoked six years ago after allegations surfaced that he had donated money to a Swiss charity that Washington said supported terrorism and gave funds to Hamas, a Palestinian militant group.
Ramadan had said that he had no links to terrorism, was against Islamic extremism and promoted peace.
Us versus them
“Just after September 11 in this country you had President Bush speaking about the Muslims in a way that was 'us versus them'. 'They don't like our values.'” Ramadan said. It was clear that Bush was talking about extremists but “ implicitly the message that we got is that there is a problem with Muslims,” Ramadan said.
Ramadan, who teaches contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University in Britain, said that in the US as well as in Europe, Muslims are still not considered to be true citizens. “They are still talking about 'the other' within, the outsider within,” he said.
The Swiss scholar said the facts prove that millions of Muslims are well integrated in Europe and North America. He characterised these Muslims as being law-abiding citizens, who learn the languages of the countries where they live, and are loyal to the values of those countries.
He believes western countries need to change their focus away from the issue of “forced integration” of Muslims to an examination of how they can better contribute to society. He said young people are paving the way in this regard and described Muslim women as a “driving force”.
“When you look at the way they [women] are dressed you may think they're oppressed, but if you listen to what they think and how they are involved in the Muslim communities, you are getting a sense that there is a new leadership and empowerment,” he said.
Ramadan also spoke about the debate in France on barring women from wearing the niqab and burqa.
“The only right position for me is not ... to tell women how to dress or how not to dress. The only right feminist attitude is to say 'you dress the way you want.' Let the women be autonomous.”
Turning to the contentious issue of stoning adulterous women in Muslim majority countries, Ramadan said he had called for a moratorium on it.
In response to allegations in a new book by writer Paul Berman to be released later this month, Ramadan condemned anti-Semitism and defended his grandfather – who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 – saying that “he never supported the Nazi or the Fascist system”.
In 2004, when Ramadan was about to take a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame, his visa was suddenly taken away. On his behalf, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to challenge the decision to bar Ramadan from the US.
He was permitted to return to the US after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed orders in January of this year enabling him to re-enter.
From New York, Ramadan will go on to speak with scholars in Chicago and Detroit and will meet members of the US Congress next week in Washington D.C.
Karin Kamp in New York, swissinfo.ch
Ramadan holds an MA in philosophy and French literature and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies from Geneva University.
He is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University and teaches at the Faculty of Theology at Oxford University.
He is a senior research fellow at Doshisha University in Japan and president of the Brussels-based think tank European Muslim Network.
He has published more than 20 books on Islam.
Tariq Ramadan was born in Geneva in 1962. He is married with four children.
He is the grandson of Hassan-al Banna, who founded the prominent Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1928.
His father, Said Ramadan, fled Egypt due to the persecution of that organisation and settled in Switzerland.
Ramadan, who lives in London, says he is trying "to build bridges between two worlds that don't know each other very well".
In 2004 he was barred by the US government from taking up a post at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
In January 2006 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit against then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for denying visas to foreign scholars, including Ramadan.
The ACLU accused the Bush government of manipulating the Patriot Act.
Ramadan has said he opposes the US invasion of Iraq and sympathises with the resistance there and in the Palestinian Territories.
He has condemned Islamic violence, has no connections to terrorism and promotes peaceful solutions but he has been dogged by allegations that he is an extremist despite his public pronouncements.