America’s relationship with the Islamic world continues to be defined by hostile confrontation: the so-called war on terror, the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political crisis in Pakistan, and the continuing stand-off with a theocratic Iran over its nuclear program. Managing these challenges has dominated the Bush presidency, and the same tasks will preoccupy whoever takes over in January 2009.
The next president, however, will also need to broaden the political discourse, redefining America’s interaction with the Islamic world so that is not only about combating violence and extremism. With America’s standing in the Middle East at historic lows, Muslim communities in Europe largely estranged from the majority populations around them, and Islamist movements on the march in the Middle East and beyond, building bridges of dialogue and understanding will be increasingly important.
The difficulties involved in building such bridges have been encapsulated in the controversy over Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim intellectual currently based in the Britain. A devout Muslim who insists that traditional Islam can coexist in mutual respect with the liberal societies of the West, Ramadan has become an obsession of the U.S. and European media. Indeed, The New Republic last June devoted more than 28,000 words - a substantial portion of the magazine - to probing his background and writings.
But despite all the attention, opinions diverge widely as to whether Ramadan should be revered or reviled. Some commentators praise him as Islam’s Martin Luther, an intellectual activist who will help oversee an Islamic Reformation - and hence a perfect interlocutor for the West. Others assert that he only masquerades as a moderate reformer, and is in reality a dangerous absolutist who brooks no compromise between Sharia and modernity.