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Visa represents freedom

John Esposito | Sunday, September 26, 2004

The decision of the Department of State, based upon information and advice provided by the Department of Homeland Security, to rescind the visa for Tariq Ramadan, a well-known scholar of Islam and Muslim leader, runs counter to American principles and values, is a threat to academic freedom, undermines President Bush’s policies and is against America’s national interest.

Professor Ramadan is a scholar recognized in Europe, America and many parts of the Muslim world. He is a prominent voice of mainstream Islam. Ramadan is a scholar and public intellectual whose positions can be found in his writings, speeches and appearances in major media. He is a well-published scholar in French and English whose positions have been stated clearly in major publications such as “To Be a European Muslim” and most recently in “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2003). Ramadan is a reformer who has argued forcefully for substantive Islamic reforms and an effective advocate that Muslims in Europe and America become integral members of the countries they inhabit, exemplifying Western standards of toleration, pluralism and interfaith understanding. He has been active in interfaith dialogue and an advocate of peaceful conflict resolution. At the same time, as with many intellectuals, political activists and religious reformers, who address major religious, political and social problems, he has taken positions on controversial topics with critical comments on issues such as France’s ban on the wearing of a Muslim headscarf, the authoritarian nature of many Muslim regimes, the dangers of religious extremism and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are those who agree with him and those who do not.

The fact that Ramadan received his visa after a rigorous screening process used for foreign visitors and then had it revoked without any clear explanation or evidence for the decision has raised concerns that pressure to reverse the granting of the visa came from those who disagree with Ramadan’s views as a scholar and as a public intellectual. Post Sept. 11, it is especially important to remember that disagreement and controversy do not constitute a security risk. Fear of such a disagreement is reinforced by the unsubstantiated charges and claims made by some media commentators such as the New York Sun columnist Daniel Pipes of Ramadan’s alleged “links” to terrorist groups. As is typical of many of Pipes intemperate attacks against Muslim intellectuals and major Muslim groups, he fails to provide any hard evidence but instead relies on hearsay, speculation and rumor. Pipes’ unsubstantiated charges and specious form of reasoning would not be acceptable in an undergraduate paper. There is nothing in the public record regarding Ramadan, or in his scholarship, that would indicate any basis for such allegations.

Denying qualified scholars entry into the United States because of their political beliefs or unsubstantiated charges brought against them strikes at the core of American principles and values and is a direct attack against freedom of expression and academic freedom. For this reason, the decision has been criticized by prominent professional organizations here and overseas among them: The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) the preeminent professional association in the field, The American Academy of Religion (AAR), the major professional association of scholars and teachers in religion, The American Civil Liberties, The American Association of University Professors and others.

Critics like Pipes seeks to discredit and eliminate anyone who represents positions that do not support their ideological agenda in order to silence dissent. This undermines U.S. national interests and weakens American prospects for success in the war against terrorism, by undermining the influence of those Muslims who themselves oppose terrorist extremism. It runs counter to President Bush’s stated policy, as described by Condoleeza Rice in mid-August, to pursue a public diplomacy that seeks to win the hearts and minds of the mainstream majority in the Muslim world. Today, U.S. government officials should be talking to, (and the American people should be listening to), Muslim leaders like Tariq Ramadan, rather than excluding them from the United States. The University of Notre Dame and the Kroc Institute are an ideal place for such an exchange to begin.

John L. Esposito is University professor of religion & international affairs and professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. His most recent books include “Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam” and “What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.