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Banned in America

Tariq Ramadan of Switzerland, one of the world's most important Muslim scholars, was invited to teach at the University of Notre Dame. Then he ran right into the USA Patriot Act.
 
 
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At the end of July, the U.S. Government revoked a work visa for Tariq Ramadan, one of the world's most important Muslim scholars, on the grounds that he is a terrorist threat. Ramadan, Swiss-born of a prominent Egyptian family, was offered a prestigious chair at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The case illustrates, sadly, both the hyper-sensitive tendencies of the government – possibly, in this case, responding to anti-Muslim groups – and the kind of action that alienates America's five million Muslims and millions more around the world.

For the 42-year-old Tariq Ramadan looks like a dream come true – a brilliant philosopher of Islam and its evolving place in the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, who argues for a modernized Islam that favors pluralism, tolerance, feminism, and educational achievement. His work is rooted in Islamic traditions, but fully aware of the demands, challenges, and opportunities presented by the contemporary Western world. For those of us that are alarmed by the Bush administration's rough treatment of Muslims at home and abroad, but troubled by anti-modern tendencies among some Muslims, Dr. Ramadan is a measure of hope. It is hope vested not only by his eloquence, but his enormous following among Muslim youth.

So what happened with the visa? The Department of Homeland Security, apparently acting under provisions of the USA Patriot Act, requested the State Department to reverse an earlier decision to grant the visa. This is done to those who have used a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity." There is virtually no evidence that is public suggesting that Ramadan has ever espoused terrorism. As immigration expert Paul Donnelly wrote in the Washington Post a few days after the imbroglio erupted, "Notre Dame officials insist that they have reviewed every charge against the Swiss scholar and agree with the likes of Scotland Yard and Swiss intelligence, which have found them to be groundless."

The controversy around Ramadan came from a statement on French intellectuals – that some, like Bernard Kouchner and Bernard-Henri Lïàvy – were adopting "communitarian" rather than "universalist" perspectives in viewing the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war in Iraq. Translated, this means Jewish intellectuals were siding with Israel and against Muslim concerns. This point-of-view, while perhaps indiscreet, hardly qualifies as anti-Semitism, and Ramadan has been outspoken among European intellectuals in his condemnation of the rising tide of attacks against Jews in Europe, a position that has earned him plaudits in the Israeli press, including an approving interview in Haaretz.

But this is not enough for the attack dogs of the right. And here it gets interesting, because it is widely rumored that Ramadan's appointment to a major American university, one strongly associated with serious theological study, would not have been challenged if not for the intervention of anti-Muslim groups. Graham Fuller, a Mideast expert who is a senior RAND analyst and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, told the Chicago Tribune, "pro-Likud organizations want to block people who can speak articulately and present the Muslim dilemma in a way that might be understandable and sympathetic to Americans. They succeed by presenting this as a security matter. There is no way Homeland Security would initiate this on its own."

The usual suspects on the extreme right, such as Daniel Pipes and his small industry of Web site organizations, have been tarnishing Ramadan with a cascade of innuendo. Ramadan's grandfather was a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; his father might have had Osama bin Laden as a student; "intelligence agencies suspect" him of coordinating a meeting of al Qaeda leaders, etc. The list goes on without proof, relevance, or in many cases plausibility.

In an eloquent piece yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, Ramadan himself responded to the charges made by Pipes and others, forcefully refuting each allegation by laying out the facts. Then he added this, by way of explaining himself to readers:

"Anyone who has read any of my 20 books, 700 articles or listened to any of my 170 audio-taped lectures will discern a consistent message: The very moment Muslims and their fellow citizens realize that being a Muslim and being American or European are not mutually exclusive, they will enrich their societies...

The American public ought to know a few other facts about me. I take pride in my faith as a Muslim and the West as my home and birthplace and I make no apologies for taking a critical look at Islam and the West. In doing so I am being true to my faith and the ethics of my citizenship. Instead of mere theoretical criticism, I propose practical solutions to the challenges the world faces. I not only speak to ordinary citizens of many faiths, religious leaders and academics but also to politicians, world leaders and organizations."

Nevertheless, the drumbeat of paranoia – there is no other word for it – has many variations. It does not always name Muslims, as is the case with Professor Ramadan, but the tactics and effects are similar. The frightening "other" is posited to have secret cabals, networks, and plots; wily ways to undermine Western civilization; spies and traitors among the good people of America. These are tropes that go back a millennium, to the bloody crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, and the supposed clash of Christian civility with Islamic villainy has not ceased since. Like most villains, Muslims are imbued in this depiction with special powers of deceit and subterfuge. So, true to form, the news media reported the early August scare about the alleged threat from al Qaeda to financial buildings in tones that evoked a gripping conspiracy relying on domestic "cells" of al Qaeda casing the buildings and providing sustenance to the operatives. Despite these widely published intimations, never once were the domestic cells or co-conspirators actually described or definitively said to exist. But the impression of danger lingers.

This brand of discrimination has long beset Muslims in America, and the large number of Christian Arab-Americans as well. Their loyalties and basic rights have been questioned repeatedly since the 9/11 atrocities, and the verifiable numbers are stunning: 200,000 interviews by law-enforcement agents, thousands of detentions and deportations; more than 300 indictments for "terrorism related" crimes (virtually none of which actually describe a conspiracy of political violence against the United States); "special registration" for men from sixteen Muslim countries; restricted immigration, and so on. Social institutions and charities have been targeted; whole communities are under surveillance. The ways that this "anti-terrorism" campaign has affected these diverse communities remains unknown, but research suggests growing isolation, disillusionment, and fear.

As a result, Ramadan's case is especially disheartening. Here is a kind of philosophical hero, a European phenomenon to be sure, but one who was going to Notre Dame as a tenured professor, near to the large Muslim populations of Chicago and Detroit, on what appeared to be a long-term commitment. Here is someone who can speak to the individual's need for spiritual guidance in a modern context, who stands up for Arab rights in the Levant or Persian Gulf but does so within the tradition of non-violent action, who castigates his brethren who deny the horridness of 9/11 or the Holocaust, and who speaks with unadorned passion of our obligations to serve our communities selflessly. This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is surely electrifying and even visionary.

In this light, then, the Department of Homeland Security owes us – all of us – an explanation. Is there substantial evidence that Tariq Ramadan has been aiding and abetting terrorist organizations? Does he represent a national security threat, and how? If they cannot articulate a believable account of the danger he represents, then they are engaging in character assassination, pure and simple. (There is also the matter of academic freedom, or just freedom, and Notre Dame's right to bring in whomever it pleases.) That they may be doing so at the behest of certain interest groups in this country or abroad would be all the more troubling. DHS is a young bureaucracy, borne of Democrats' insistence on upgrading the U.S. war on terrorism from a White House whim to a full-scale government institution. Nothing could be more damaging to its credibility (compounding all the suspiciously timed orange code alerts) than to be the henchmen of extreme Likudniks.

But that's what it looks like today. In its response thus far to questions about its action in the Ramadan case, DHS is predictably hiding behind the USA Patriot Act and the iron curtain of secrecy that now shrouds much of the anti-terror effort.

Most troubling of all, perhaps, is the message this controversy sends around the country and the world: America is now closed to outside ideas, even those that try to solve its most pressing security problems. Scott Appleby, the director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, that was to host Ramadan, put it well, if with unwarranted optimism: "Tariq Ramadan is a strong but moderate voice in a world plagued by extremism. He addresses issues that evoke strong feelings because they touch the heart of personal and communal identity. We have known from the start that he is controversial. But controversy cannot and should not be avoided in a place that examines the challenges to international peace. The University of Notre Dame is such a place. We look forward to having him here."

John Tirman is coauthor and editor of The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11 (The New Press). He is program director at the Social Science Research Council in Washington, D.C.