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Discourse misses Ramadan’s presence

Beth Erickson | Friday, September 24, 2004

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series exploring the controversies and implications surrounding the visa revocation of Tariq Ramadan, a professor who was scheduled begin teaching at Notre Dame this fall.

As controversy regarding the State Department’s revocation of Professor Tariq Ramadan’s visa continues, students and professors at Notre Dame are expressing concern that – without unconventional voices like Ramadan’s – the discussion of Middle Eastern conflict will remain unilateral on campus and at other academic institutions.

“In addition to relying on the sound and often brilliant scholarship of dozens of non-Muslims, it is necessary to engage the opinions and ideas of influential Muslim intellectuals, including controversial ones like Ramadan,” director of the Kroc Institute Scott Appleby said. “We have invited him to join our community of debate and intellectual discourse as a participant in a conversation that is wide-ranging, complex and absolutely critical to peace and justice issues in our time.”

The administration has maintained that it exercised caution in appointing Ramadan, and despite the controversial nature of his ideals, has insisted that the multilateral discussion he would foster would contribute to the University’s mission.

“I read his latest book, and particularly concentrated on the conclusions that he reached and certain things he was writing about,” University President Father Edward Malloy said in an interview earlier this month. “On he basis of all of that, it seemed to be that the reason for hiring him – which was to promote a conversation within the Peace Institute, with Islam and with a particular representative of the Islamic tradition – made good sense … People don’t have to agree with him, but it’d be naïve to think that we could go over the next couple of decades without taking Islam seriously.”

Students enrolled in the class Ramadan was scheduled to teach have been reading his writing and reported no evidence of radical or offensive material.

“I was supposed to be in his class this semester, and right now we’re reading his works, and I can’t see anything wrong with them,” said sophomore Arabic and political science major Anne Kroeger, adding that though she cannot speak for her classmates, she was “pretty sure” they felt the same. “Some people say he is anti-Semitic – but when did it become wrong to express your point of view? I really feel that people should be able to speak their minds without having to fear consequences.”

Many at Notre Dame argue that issues concerning the Middle East stir controversy because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

“[It is] very important to get multiple perspectives on events,” psychology professor Darcia Narvaez said. “The U.S. is very ethnocentric and needs to grow up to have adult conversations about complex realities – and negotiate settlements instead of using violence to suppress perceived threat.”

This lack of knowledge is often seen as a danger to academic freedom and intellectual discourse.

“Professor Ramadan’s presence will make a valuable contribution not only to the Arabic studies program but to the intellectual life of the University as a whole,” said professor of classics and theology Joseph Amar. “Because we are living in a time when people are being manipulated because of their fear, all freedom is jeopardized – academic and otherwise. What we know cannot hurt us; the danger lies in what we do not know.”

Others, such as Daniel Pipes, the creator of Campus Watch, a Web site designed to review and critique Middle East studies in North America, oppose the free dialogue argument.

“Wars are not resolved through dialogue but through one side giving up; our goal should be for our allies to defeat their enemies,” Pipes said. “If we forget this basic fact, we will wake up and find that our allies have instead been defeated.”

Several students have also backed the government’s decision in this matter, arguing that caution must be exercised in cases such as Ramadan’s.

In August, the American Association of University Professors addressed a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge on behalf of Ramadan. In the letter, Dr. Robert O’Neill, Chair of the Special Committee on Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis, criticized the revocation of Ramadan’s visa.

“Foreign scholars offered appointments at an American institution of higher learning should not be barred by our government from entering the United States because of their political beliefs or associations or their writings,” the letter said. “Assuming that the work visa issued to Professor Ramadan was withdrawn for the reason stated by the Department of Homeland Security, then the action was manifestly at odds with our society’s respect for academic freedom.”

The issues brought to light by Ramadan’s case have resonated at other American academic institutions ever since September 11.

“The PATRIOT Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security have fostered an atmosphere that has led to a witch hunt on a number of campuses directed against professors of Middle East and Islamic Studies,” said professor of Middle East studies Asma Afsaruddin. “While this nation has genuine security concerns, such concerns should not result in policing the academy and intellectuals to ensure political correctness. This very notion severely threatens our basic values of academic freedom and integrity.”

Afsaruddin also worried that the government’s decisions in cases like Ramadan’s will have a long-term impact on U.S. foreign relations, as well as academic freedom.

“I think it is a highly unfortunate and ill-considered [action on the government’s part] which will have an adverse effect on the academy as a whole, since it effectively puts us on notice that we may be penalized for speaking our conscience if that goes against the status quo,” he said. “It has important consequences as well for civil liberties and for our long-term relations with the Arab and Islamic world.”

University administrators have said that at least in this case, it cannot yet be determined whether or not the PATRIOT Act and the Department of Homeland Security are in fact stifling academic freedom.

“In the case of Professor Ramadan and Notre Dame, I think we have to see how this plays out before we can make any clear judgment,” University spokesman Matthew Storin said. “Obviously the visa revocation did raise question.”