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Stifling Ramadan

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, August 25, 2004

I read with disbelief the revocation of Tariq Ramadan’s U.S. visa in the Aug. 24 Chicago Tribune. While I don’t wish to enter into the political Olympics of such revocation, silence about its repercussions on academic freedom as well as its potential cross-cultural objective dialogue is tantamount to committing both academic suicide and counterterrorism fallacy. And so, I air my opinion about the dangers of such revocation on both objective scholarship and ‘war on terror.’

Although written early in the 20th century, the book “Miss-Education of Negroes” by Carter Woodson still resonates in the 21st century. In this book, Woodson argues, to paraphrase, that if you are able to control one’s thinking, you need not worry about his actions; if you can make him believe that he is inferior, you don’t need to make him behave in an inferior way; he will always ensure that he acts in an inferior way. Such a man will strive to ensure that he dances to your tune without forcing him to. In short, you have enslaved his mind.

Though this piece was written to address the Negroes problem as they struggled to assert themselves in American history, this process of mental slavery still surrounds our institutions of learning and has ensured that what we know or should know passes through political microscope by way of deciding what is taught and who teaches it.

Now this is a bit palatable in those countries continuously branded as undemocratic. However, it defeats all logic when it happens in the U.S. – a country that prides itself of upholding the values of democracy and, therefore, as a symbol of freedom and democracy to the world.

Just as the world braces itself to understand and address transnational terrorism, often designated as ‘Islamist terrorism,’ counter-forces are ceaselessly striving to ensure that such channels are extremely narrowed. There is no better environment to start the process of cross-cultural understanding than in academic institutions. For in such places, students are not only taught about other cultures, but also interact with other students and scholars from different cultural, social, religious and political backgrounds in ways that confirm such teaching, checking against biased and distorted scholarship about other cultures or groups that have permeated institutions of learning over the years.

The 9/11 Commission Report recommends a need to open the lines of communication in the U.S. to the Islamic world, which includes opening educational institutions, including libraries, aimed at recreating the better image of U.S. in such places. But such a process of cross-cultural understanding need not be a one-way channel. It should not be envisaged that only the Islamic world need to better understand U.S. ‘best values’ and intentions. The Islamic world also has something that the U.S. must understand for that process to be complete.

This ‘something’ is what scholars such as Tariq Ramadan are striving to make the U.S. understand about Islam and the Islamic world.

However, when such views are silenced merely because someone’s kinfolk held certain opinions – in Ramadan’s case his grandfather’s role in Muslim Brotherhood – or that they have been critical of certain policies – in Ramadan’s case what has been perceived as anti-Semitism – then not only are the principles of democracy, which U.S. claims to possess and strives to inculcate in other parts of the world, are challenged.

Most importantly, students who stand to benefit from such objective scholarship are denied their right to objective knowledge. In so doing, scholarship is made an underdog of politics. Thus, the minds of such potential conflict transformers are stifled to think only within the framework provided by the politics of the time.

And so we come back to Woodson’s argument that controlling the mind of a person will let him or her behave in a manner consistent with what the designer wants him or her to do.

Denying scholars such as Ramadan the opportunity to stretch out the tight circle of thinking that prevails not only in the Islamic world and other parts of the world but also among many U.S. citizens who know little about those parts of the world is equivalent to enslaving the minds that were about to think out of such an ever tightening circle. Thus, the graduates of academic institutions will be those who only have one picture of the story, as presented not only by our biased media institutions, but also by subjective scholarship.

Although the U.S. is undeniably at the crossroads on how best to eradicate potential terrorism, it continues to gag the moderate and objective voices that are ready to help it reach where it wants to go with this ‘war on terror.’ Terrorism is far from being won.

Camlus OmogoAlumniClass of 2004Aug. 25