State Department Bans Distinguished Muslim Scholar

Tariq Ramadan, a world-renowned Islamic scholar, sits in an empty apartment in Switzerland, unable to take up his new post at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., due to the last minute revocation of his work visa by the U.S. State Department.

His visa was revoked under a section of the PATRIOT Act that bars entry to foreigners who have used a "position of prominence . . . to endorse or espouse terrorist activity," a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, Russ Knocke, told the Associated Press.

But neither he nor anyone else in the government has been specific on how exactly Ramadan has done so.

The abrupt move surprised and dismayed university officials who recruited Ramadan to teach Islamic philosophy and ethics this fall. He had already applied for and been granted a work visa this past May.

"We stand behind Tariq fully, and are proud of the appointment," Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, said in a radio interview. "We look forward to a reversal of the decision or some kind of communication, more solidly about the rationale behind the decision."

The U.S. State Department’s revocation, acting at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security, surprised his colleagues because Ramadan’s work focuses on building bridges between Islam and the Western world. His books include To Be a European Muslim and Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Time magazine named him one of 100 Most Influential People in 2003.

"The question now is really this one: we are dealing here with academic freedom," Ramadan told the radio program "Democracy Now!"

"I have a voice, which is a strong voice, but once again, I’m against all kinds of violence. I’m trying to build bridges between Muslims and the Islamic world and the west to try to promote this living together. . . . I think that really for all of the citizens in America, it’s really a very important question. Is this the way we are trying to deal with the Islamic world, and if we have a kind of pressure we can just ban someone?"

Raised in Geneva, Ramadan works to confront the alienation he perceives between Islam and modernity, frequently warning of the dangers of religious isolationism. He is extremely popular in Europe, especially among Muslim youth. Last year, 50,000 tapes of his lectures were sold in France alone.

On campus and off, many are rallying in support of the scholar.

"This decision is jeopardizing academic freedom," said Habia Mbarak, president of the national Muslim Student’s Association (MSA). "His voice is in America’s interest to promote."

MSA is organizing a national day of action on Sept. 24. They hope to mobilize campuses across the country both in support of Ramadan and for the protection of academic freedom and free speech. Mbarak called the decision "pure discrimination," and said that "it’s crucial to bridge ties with the Muslim world."

Her sentiment was echoed in a letter sent to Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Nihad Awad, the executive director, wrote: "I seriously hope that you will reconsider this decision and allow this internationally renowned academic to help build bridges between the Muslim World and the United States. This latest action of such a high profile figure makes our task to reach out to the Muslim world much more and unnecessarily difficult."

On the Notre Dame campus, the Notre Dame Muslim Student’s Association "are trying to get support to get Professor Ramadan reinstated," said Priscilla Wong, the group’s faculty advisor. They have initiated a petition process, and hope to use the signatures they collect to bolster their objection to the State Department’s decision. She said that so far the campus has responded positively to their efforts.

Tariq Ramadan has been the subject of controversy before. He has been accused of anti-Semitism and of having ties to radical Muslim groups. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, was the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the first modern Islamic radical groups. However, there is no evidence that he is involved with the group, and he has disavowed any connection.

The U.S. government was aware of all such charges when it initially granted him a visa, and Notre Dame University investigated the allegations and found them to be groundless.

Notre Dame is challenging the State Department’s decision.

"This is somebody we’ve hired, we thought was a good hire, and we had good reason for it," Rev. Edward Malloy, president of the university, told the campus newspaper, The Observer.

In a letter to the paper, the Jewish Law Student’s Society at the Notre Dame Law School wrote, "We know of nothing in Professor Ramadan’s history indicating that he presents a threat to our country or our university. . . . Professor Ramadan is engaged in a scholarly and political project challenging Muslims, Christians and Jews in the West to revisit deeply held notions of identity, tolerance, and coexistence. . . . We hope that the Department of Homeland Security will allow Professor Ramadan to become a part of the Notre Dame community."

Notre Dame’s president told the South Bend Tribune that Ramadan’s case was part of an ongoing pattern, saying, "It’s becoming progressively difficult to get [foreign] graduate students and faculty here."

His observation was supported by a press release issued by the American Immigration Lawyer’s this month that noted: "The Ramadan visa denial illustrates the reason that many from the Muslim world feel unwelcome in the United States. A recent report from the Association of American Universities states that at least 60 Muslim scholars were prevented from starting their academic programs on time last fall on account of delayed security checks."

"There has been a 10-20 percent drop in the number of visas issued since 2001 for all visitors to the United States," the group added. "Visa applications themselves decreased 15 percent between 2002 and 2003, as anticipated delays and denials caused prospective visitors to decide not even to apply for a U.S. visa."