February 17, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 266

Tariq Ramadan – Reformist or Islamist?

February 17, 2006 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 266

Egyptian journalist 'Adel Guindy published a three-part series of articles in which he sought to enlighten the Arab public about Tariq Ramadan, one of the most popular propagators of Islam in Europe. The series, which appeared in the Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani and on reformist websites, [1] presented important parts of the book Frère Tariq ("Brother Tariq") [2] by Caroline Fourest, a French sociologist and journalist who deals with secularism and religious extremism. [3] In the book, which was published in 2004, Fourest examines Ramadan's sophisticated message, pointing out that he conveys one message to a Muslim audience and a different message to the larger public, and that sometimes he is even capable of addressing both audiences simultaneously and conveying a different message to each. [4]

Tariq Ramadan is a controversial figure in the West. He was banned from France for a time, and the U.S. refuses to issue him a visa because he is suspected of supporting terrorist operations. [5] However, the British Home Secretary invited him, in August 2005, to join 13 Muslim shapers of public opinion in a task force aimed at "examining ways to prevent young Muslims in Britain from deteriorating into violent extremism"; in October 2005, he was also invited to lecture at Oxford University. [6]

In his articles, Guindy follows Fourest in examining whether Ramadan is a reformist ( islahi) or an Islamist (salafi) who clings to the admired path of the first Muslims. Is he encouraging dialogue or a clash of civilizations? Is he preaching for the integration of the Muslim minority in the West, or for its self-isolation? Does he support or condemn terrorism? Is he a Muslim Brotherhood member, or is he unconnected to them?

The following are highlights from the series on Tariq Ramadan:

Family Background

Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movements, the Egyptian Islamist Sheikh Hassan Al-Bana. Tariq Ramadan's father, Sa'id Ramadan, joined the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth. At age 20, Hassan Al-Bana chose Sa'id to be his personal secretary, and a short time later sent him to Palestine to establish a branch of the movement there. After World War II, when Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini returned to Palestine, Sa'id Ramadan helped him to form military groups for the struggle against the Jews. [7]

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Sa'id Ramadan was sent to Pakistan as Al-Bana's ambassador, and represented the Muslim Brotherhood at the World Islamic Conference in Karachi. During the 1950s, he was highly influential in Pakistan, which became an Islamic republic. "Even Abu Al-A'la Al-Mawdudi, who later became one of the great theoreticians of terrorist jihad, thanked Sa'id Ramadan for 'awakening his [religious] consciousness.'" [8]

After Hassan Al-Bana's assassination in 1949, Sa'id Ramadan returned to Egypt and became a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He published a monthly magazine in Arabic and English titled The Muslims, which became a primary means for spreading the movement's ideology throughout the world. In 1954, he went to Jerusalem with Sayyid Qutb in order to participate in the World Islamic Conference, and was elected conference secretary-general. [9]

In the late 1950s, Sa'id Ramadan managed to persuade Saudi Prince Faisal to help him establish Islamic centers in Europe's main capitals. In 1958, he settled in Geneva and there founded the Islamic Center, which became the headquarters of Muslim Brotherhood members expelled from Egypt. In 1964, he opened Islamic centers in London and Munich, and became the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad. His Egyptian citizenship was revoked after he was sentenced in Egypt to three life sentences on charges of treason against his homeland.

Reformist or Salafi?

Following Fourest, Guindy explains that "Tariq Ramadan and his supporters are leading a campaign to present him as a 'reformist,' as a 'Martin Luther of Islam,' or as a thinker who is introducing changes into Islam so as to encourage rationalism, modernism, and even secularism. [Ramadan] does not hesitate to hint that he is a divine emissary, by mentioning that 'according to the prophetic tradition, every 100 years there will come a reformer to renew the Muslims' religious understanding.'"

Guindy adds that Ramadan belongs to the Salafi stream, to which Qutb, Al-Mawdudi and Al-Bana belong, and says that "Ramadan does not hesitate to express his hatred for the liberal reform stream. He is opposed [to the notion of] Islam developing into an individualistic faith that does not force itself on others... He condemns those who are opposed to the unique way of dress that distinguishes Muslims from others (such as the veil), describing them as traitors who have surrendered to Western thought. He also condemns those who think that the Koran and the Sunna cannot be a source of authority for contemporary personal and cultural behavior, and depicts liberal Muslims who understand liberalism in the Western sense, [i.e. as an outlook which] encourages rationalism and personal individuality, as 'Muslims without Islam'...

"In a November 2003 interview with the Paris Arabic-language radio [Beur FM], Tariq Ramadan said: 'There is a reformist rationalist stream, and there is a Salafi stream that is trying to remain faithful to the foundations [of the religion]. I belong to the [latter] stream. That is, there are a number of principles that I consider to be basic, and that, as a Muslim, I cannot deny'... However, during a February 2004 UNESCO conference, when [author and French Muslim cleric] Ghaleb bin Sheikh, who belongs to the reformist liberal stream, attacked him, he said: 'I am not a Salafi. A Salafi is someone who clings to the written word [harfi] and I am not like that.' Ghaleb bin Sheikh believes that [concepts such as] 'shura' ['advisory council'] and 'ijma' ['religious consensus'] should be used as means for reinterpreting [the religious sources], and, when necessary, as a means of abolishing some of the verses that run counter to human dignity as it is understood today. Tariq Ramadan is completely opposed to this trend, and sees it as treason and as apostasy in Islam [riddah]. He stresses that the text is eternal, but its interpretation is relative."

Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood

"Tariq [Ramadan] sometimes says that he is not a 'member' of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if one must have a membership card in order to be affiliated with the organization. On the other hand, during [Ramadan's] 1998 visit to Cairo, the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood said: 'The activity of Tariq [Ramadan] and of his brother Hani is faithful to the organization's ideas.' Tariq Ramadan's views are clearly similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if his way of expressing them is Western. [His Islamism in Western guise] was shaped by the education he received in the house of Al-Bana's followers, and by the fact that he grew up in Switzerland and thus speaks native French, knows English well, and understands the mentality and ways of the West."

Tariq Ramadan maintains a close relationship with Muslim Brotherhood member Yousef Nida, who was a close friend of his father. In 1988, Nida founded the Al-Taqwa Bank, the financial arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi heads the bank's jurisprudent committee. Ahmad Huber, a Swiss convert to Islam who is an enthusiastic fan of Hitler and of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, was a co-founder of the bank, which halted its activity after being placed on the U.S. list of organizations providing aid and funding to Islamic terrorism.


"Doublespeak is the key to understanding Tariq Ramadan." In his audio recording Islam and the West, Ramadan sets out his strategy as follows: "I must speak in a way that is appropriate for the ear hearing me... yet faithful to the religious sources of authority." He advises his listeners to adopt a cautious media strategy: "We must know how to speak to those who do not share our history."

Guindy explains that lying and misleading are prominent Muslim Brotherhood characteristics, and that the principle of taqiyya (hiding one's true belief out of fear that it will be repressed), which is common amongst the Shi'a for historical reasons, is found in all streams of Islam. "Today, this method [of doublespeak and taqiyya] is used in the heart of the Western democracies, not due to fear of exposure, but in order to continue the secret advance [towards defined goals] without worrying anyone. Thus, a body such as The Union of Islamic Organizations in France can harshly condemn suicide operations, while the Fatwa Council of the same organization simultaneously issues a clear fatwa legitimizing these operations."

Ramadan's Attitude Towards Violence

"When Tariq Ramadan is asked whether he is willing to condemn terrorism, he answers, like the other Islamists, 'Of course we condemn terrorism... but we support the resistance [muqawama].' On October 3, 2001, Le Monde published an article by Tariq [Ramadan] which begins by condemning the September 11 [2001] operations, but very quickly begins to cast doubts as to the role of bin Laden and Al-Qaeda [in the attacks]. Ramadan says: 'We must ask the real question: Who stands to benefit from these operations? It is inconceivable that any "Arab or Islamic" cause would benefit from it.' The article goes on to focus on the idea that the U.S. government was undoubtedly the beneficiary, since [the attacks] provided it with 'a pretext to revoke public freedoms in the U.S. and to wage a Crusader war against the Islamic world.' Ramadan then calls upon Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide 'to fight together' (but does not specify against whom)."

In a September 2004 interview with an Italian magazine [Panorama], [Ramadan] says about the killing of an eight-year-old Israeli boy by Palestinians: "This deed in and of itself is worthy of condemnation, but it is understandable under present circumstances... It is forbidden to attack civilians, but the U.S. government policy leaves the Palestinians no other choice."

With regard to the Islamist regime in Algeria, Ramadan "identifies a number of mistakes in the actions of the [Islamic] Salvation Front, such as its call for women to remain at home and not work. He hastens to condemn the 'terrifying repression' of this Islamist group, but says not a word about [the massacres] it carried out."

According to a report by Spanish judge Balthazar Garzon about the local terrorist cells and their involvement in the events of 9/11, Spanish police stressed that Ahmad Ibrahim, a high-ranking Al-Qaeda member apprehended in Spain, had regular and close contacts with Tariq Ramadan. Similarly, when Ayman Al-Zawahiri visited Geneva in August 1991, Ramadan coordinated a conference in his honor, attended by Sheikh Omar Abd Al-Rahman (the "Blind Sheikh" who was convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing).

Tariq Ramadan has emphasized that his grandfather Hassan Al-Bana did indeed call for jihad, but explains that this jihad is limited to "legitimate defense" or "struggle against oppression." In his book Trends in Modern Islamic Thought, Tariq Ramadan writes: "The Brotherhood use violence only as a last resort, when they are convinced that violence will help in [observing] their faith and realizing their unity." In other words, explains Guindy, "the Muslim Brotherhood may not be calling for armed revolution, but they will be forced to resort to it if others do not heed their demands."

Civil Identity Versus Religious Affiliation

Guindy argues that Tariq Ramadan purports "to help the European Muslims in finding the balance between their identity as Muslims and their identity as citizens." To this end, he published the books Muslims and Secularism (1994), To Be a European Muslim (1999), and The Muslims and the West (2003).

At first glance, it appears that [Ramadan] is calling on Muslims to give equal weight to the terms "French" and "Muslim," without worrying that they may be betraying their identity. However, his true views are soon revealed. In Muslims and Secularism, he says: "These two affiliations [to the religion and to the homeland] are not of an identical nature or (of equal) degree. Being a Muslim means that you have an entire outlook on life... while being French means that you [merely] have a role as a citizen..."

In his audiocassette Our Identity in Coping with Calls to Integrate and to Participate [in Public Life], he clarifies that "the role" connected with citizenship is merely "a geographic situation" that "cannot affect [one's] life and the meaning [one] assigns to it."

In his audiocassette Living in the West, Ramadan says: "When I live in a country or when I am a citizen in it, I respect its constitution. This is an Islamic principle." However, he hastens to qualify this statement by stressing that a country's constitution and laws must only be respected "as long as there is no social, cultural, economic, or legal aspect in that country that contradicts any Islamic principle." He makes it quite clear that "the Muslim respects the laws of the country only if they do not contradict any Islamic principle."

Integration Into the Host Society

In another audiocassette, Tariq Ramadan says: "We agree to integrate into the host society... I accept the laws, provided they do not force me to do something that is against my religion. If you must become a bad Muslim in order to be a good Frenchman, we say no... We must reject the [kind of] integration that tells us: 'Be a Muslim, but change your garb (e.g. the veil).' In a letter to the sheikh of a Paris mosque, whom he mockingly addresses as an "enlightened Muslim," Ramadan said: "You are so open that you have become nothing. You are not proud of what you are... Compromising on principles is a sign of fear and weakness."

Ramadan calls on Muslims not to assimilate in Western culture but to create "an alternative Islamic European culture that is clean of all non-Islamic influences... The Islam of Tariq [Ramadan] and of the Muslim Brotherhood transforms the anger [of Muslims in Europe], which stems from certain cultural reasons, into hatred. The hatred is supposed to be well hidden, but it is extremely dangerous. Moreover, in all places in Europe where one finds [this type of] Islam among the Muslim youth, [one also finds that] the traditional Islam of the first-generation immigrants is collapsing... [Ramadan] does not like this traditional Islam, and calls upon young people not to emulate their parents because 'they do not practice the true Islam.'"


According to Tariq Ramadan, educating children "in a way that is opposed to Islam," as occurs in public schools in the West, is "aggression against the Islamic personality of the child." Ramadan calls on pupils to integrate into public education for practical reasons, but encourages them to ask questions, argue, and criticize every time they encounter anything that is incompatible with Islam in classes like biology, history, or philosophy. Similarly, [Ramadan] also "calls upon girls to refrain from sports activity if it includes any exposure of their body to men."

The Islamization of Europe

Guindy states that "Tariq Ramadan's goal is to gradually develop the West towards accepting more and more Islam." In his audiocassette Islam and Secularism, he calls on Muslims "to participate in public life in all spheres... so that we will be able to change things towards [accepting] a greater measure of Islam." He warns against talking about "political Islam" and preaches instead an "all-encompassing Islam" (Islam shumuli). Ramadan maintains that "it is important for the Muslim to act like a citizen in order to influence his social environment, but it is forbidden for him to be influenced by the environment."

In other words, "Ramadan's aim is identical to Al-Bana's, but he takes the democratic Western reality into account... He is now focusing on Islamizing society. He [says that he] does not seek to turn the West into Dar al-Harb but rather into Dar Shahada. This is wordplay: the expression shahada can be understood as da'wa [propagation of Islam] but can also be understood as istishhad [martyrdom] through jihad...

"Tariq Ramadan is trying to spread and expand the [Muslim] nation by creating small groups everywhere that will join together, and grow little by little, until overall expansion [is achieved]... He seeks to persuade others that his way is 'progressive' merely because he is a not a terrorist." However, says Guindy, "worse than the fact that he is a fundamentalist is the fact that he tries to force his view on the Muslims, and even on society as a whole, [in the guise of] a reformist. In 1993, he was successful in stopping the performance of Voltaire's play Mahomet in Geneva, claiming that 'in the current international conditions, it could harm Islam.'"


Tariq Ramadan's concept of rationalism is totally different from the concept of rationalism as conceived by Western philosophers in the age of enlightenment. Ramadan compares rationalism to ijtihad, which means looking for answers that are not mentioned clearly in the Koran or in the Sunna. He regards "critical thought" as "Western extremism." Because he seeks to defend Islam from the critical approach, Ramadan says that "doubting is part of a specific history." That is, doubting is part of the Christian heritage, but not part of Islam. Ramadan also holds that rationalism now means "the rational path to rediscovering the faith," and should no longer be understood as "critical thought" regarding issues of faith as Western philosophers understood it.


In January 2003, Ramadan said: "I totally accept secularism." However, a year later, he fiercely opposed the ban on the veil in France's public schools. Guindy explains that "[Ramadan] accepts secularism as he understands it. That is, [he does not accept] secularism that separates religion and politics. As he stated in his audiocassette On Secularism, [he accepts only] 'pluralistic secularism that treats all religions equally... and enables us to return to our sources with dedication.' That is, Ramadan "doesn't even examine the religious principles for aspects that are compatible with secular society. On the contrary, he tries to 'develop' secularism in a way that is compatible with his fundamentalist outlook."


Tariq Ramadan differentiates between modernity [hadatha] and modernism [tahdithiya], which he regards as "extremism." Instead of modernism, he proposes the concept of "Islamic modernity." French Islamic affairs expert Jacques Jormier summarized Ramadan's stance on modernism as follows: "There is no place for the modernization of Islam, but only for the Islamicization of modernity." Tariq Ramadan talks of "Islamic progressiveness," by which he means "exploiting technological advances in the service of Islam. That is, one can be an extremist and at the same time use the latest technology - especially if the technology is being used in order to strike at modernity."

Ramadan also rejects out of hand the possibility that Turkey and Tunisia could be models for modern Islam, arguing that "the legislation implemented in these countries was created during the colonialist period." He disregards the fact that Turkey was never a colony, and that secularism was established by the governments of these countries after independence and not during the imperialist era.

Corporal Punishment

"Tariq Ramadan condemns 'bad behavior towards one's wife' but does not condemn [wife]-beating because it is permitted by the Koran." In a November 2003 debate on French television in which he participated with the French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan was asked about an article written by his brother Hani that justified the stoning of women. Ramadan did not say whether or not he objected to this sort of punishment, but said that he personally "called for a moratorium on the implementation of the punishment." He added that he hesitates to object to this punishment because he does not "want to lose credibility amongst the Islamists." [10]


Tariq Ramadan is in favor of imposing shari'a-based laws in Muslim countries. In his view, "anyone who opposes the shari'a, which is based on clear texts, deviates from the religion and is no longer a Muslim."

"He rebukes the Egyptian government for not respecting human rights, but he is opposed to the [notion that] these right may include freedom for a Muslim to convert to another religion." At the same time, Ramadan sometimes says: "My view - which is a minority view - is that [Muslims] have the right to convert, provided that the convert does no damage to anyone around him."

Palestine and the Jews

"Tariq [Ramadan] took no interest in the issue of Palestine, until Hamas, which is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, became more prominent. At that point, his opinions against Arafat and the peace process became similar to those of Hamas. In a book he co-authored with Alain Gresh [editor of the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique], he said that the destruction of the State of Israel is currently impossible in practical terms, so he supports the idea of 'one state' for both Jews and Arabs... as a step along the way to a solution."

"With regard to the Jews, Ramadan adheres to the Koranic position, maintaining that Jews willing to form an alliance with the Muslims are dhimmis..."

Clash of Civilizations

"Islam will in future be one of the strongholds in the battle against Western hegemony." However, "Ramadan rejects the possibility that the West and the rest of the world are threatened by the 'Islamic awakening' that he is urging." In his audiocassette Islam and the West, he predicts that "the increasing disintegration in the West will lead to the triumph of Islam." He also underlines the Islamic influence on Western culture and the fact that Muslim thinkers in Andalusia participated in creating part of the present heritage of Europe. However, "it is hard for him to accept the notion that assimilation and integration did not occur in only one direction [i.e. that Islam was also influenced by the West]."


Tariq Ramadan often accuses his critics of "Islamophobia." This term became widespread following the death penalty fatwa decreed in 1989 against Salman Rushdie, when public attention was shifted from the threat to freedom of expression to the matter of "racism and hostility against Islam." In 1997, the Islamic Parliament of Britain published a document which defined Islamophobia as any attack on the Prophet and the Koran and any criticism of the moral and social foundations of Islam - which includes treatment of women, corporal punishment, and the like.

While French law bans racist statements and statements that incite against specific groups, it does not treat attacks on a religion as a crime. Tariq Ramadan and the other Islamists are attempting to argue that "criticizing Islam is the same as inciting against Muslims," and thus they justify suing those who are critical of Islam.

When a committee of experts at Fribourg University rejected his doctoral dissertation in 1998, Ramadan claimed that he had been a victim of Islamophobia. [11] Following his 2003 television debate with French Interior Minister Sarkozy, when a Swiss MP asked whether a figure as controversial as Ramadan should be lecturing at Fribourg University, Ramadan again raised the issue of Islamophobia and urged students to sign a petition supporting him. Thus, "throughout the years Ramadan has managed to evade any criticism by presenting himself as a victim."

*A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] Watani (Egypt), September 25, 2005; October 2, 2005; October 9, 2005.

[2] Fourest, Caroline (2004). Frère Tariq. Grasset, 425 pp.

[3] Unless explicitly indicated otherwise, all quotes in this document are taken from Guindy's articles (which are based on Fourest's book).

[4] On October 29, 2004,, France's leading Islamic website, posted Tariq Ramadan's reaction to Fourest's book. Ramadan claimed that the book contained many lies and mistakes. For example, he explained that he had "told Muslims that it would be legitimate to fight if they were prevented from observing the fundamental duties of Islam." Fourest, he said, had distorted his words, saying that he had "encouraged Muslims to fight our constitutions [i.e. the constitutions of European countries] whenever they fail to respect Islam. She disregards the fact that I said that the constitutions of Europe do respect the fundamental duties of Islam."

[5] In 1995, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy banned Tariq Ramadan from entering France due to his connection with an Islamist responsible for terror activity in Paris. In July 2004, the U.S. authorities rejected Ramadan's request for a visa that would permit him to lecture at the Catholic University of Notre Dame. Guindy comments that Ramadan "began to realize that he had to distance himself from the image of an Islamic propagandist and present himself as an 'academic intellectual and university professor,' even though he [was only] a teacher at Saussure high school and taught one hour a week as an external lecturer at Fribourg University."

[6] Guindy notes that Tariq Ramadan often quotes Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi. In September 2005, after the British government refused to give Al-Qaradhawi a visa to lecture in London, Ramadan said: "If Tony Blair prevents Al-Qaradhawi from entering... many members of the task force [to prevent extremism among Muslim youth in Britain] will ask themselves what is the use in dialogue with the British government."

[7] Haj Amin Al-Husseini, who operated in Germany during World War II, called upon the Muslims to fight alongside Nazi Germany. He established two divisions of Bosnian Muslim recruits who participated in the fighting alongside the SS. While in Nazi Germany, he also worked to prevent the rescue of Jewish youth from annihilation by the Nazis.

[8] Abu Al-Alaa Al-Mawdudi (1903-1979) was a prominent thinker of the Islamic revival movements.

[9] Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was a prominent thinker of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. He was executed in Egypt on charges of plotting to assassinate Egyptian president Gamal Abd Al-Nasser.

[10] On March 30, 2005, Tariq Ramadan published, on his website, a call for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning, and the death penalty in the Muslim world. See:

[11] According to historian and biographer Curtis Cate, Tariq Ramadan's thesis on Hassan Al-Bana was rejected by Fribourg University because it was so unequivocally favorable to him. Ramadan eventually received his doctorate from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Geneva. Caroline Fourest points out that Ramadan never received a doctorate in theology, though he passes himself off as a bona fide "theologian."

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