(Editorial): A Muslim scholar's exclusion

Author: Erik Runyon

Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar known for his work on Islamic theology and the place of Muslims in the modern world, was supposed to start teaching last week at the University of Notre Dame. But after he got a visa from the State Department, it was revoked at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security, which apparently sees him as a danger. Why is anyone’s guess, since the department declines to spell out the reasons he’s been barred.

Some critics regard him as an anti-Semitic apologist for extremism. Among them is Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, who wrote in Sunday’s Tribune to accuse Ramadan of connections with Al Qaeda, denying Osama bin Laden’s role in the Sept. 11 attacks and defending the March terrorist bombing in Madrid.

On today’s Commentary page, Ramadan rebuts the charges. He says Swiss and French authorities cleared him of alleged Al Qaeda contacts. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he insisted that whoever was to blame, “Bin Laden or others, it is necessary to find them and that they be judged.” And, he declares, “I have always condemned the terrorist attacks in New York, Bali, Madrid and elsewhere.”

The exchange makes an interesting debate, but unfortunately DHS, the key player, is not taking part. When contacted by the Tribune, a spokeswoman declined to specify what grounds it had for demanding that the visa be canceled. Apparently he was barred under a section of the USA Patriot Act, which bars entry to foreigners who have used a “position of prominence . . . to endorse or espouse terrorist activity.”

If the U.S. government has grounds to think Ramadan has worked with Al Qaeda to further its bloody ambitions, he should certainly be denied entry. But no one has produced tangible evidence that he is personally involved in such activities, and the law doesn’t require such involvement. If he is being refused permission to teach in this country purely because of his views, the government has an obligation to Notre Dame and the American people to acknowledge that—and to specify which of his opinions endangers public safety.

Nothing that has come to light so far suggests that Ramadan endorses terrorism. His defenders say that on the contrary, he is known for urging a more modern understanding of Islam and for firmly denouncing anti-Semitism. It’s not likely that Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies would knowingly grant its imprimatur to an apostle of violence.

Even if he did endorse terrorism, expressing such an opinion doesn’t pose the sort of danger that the Department of Homeland Security should worry about. It’s not illegal, after all, for Americans to express sympathy for Al Qaeda—or the Irish Republican Army or any other violent extremists. Only when such opinions veer into outright incitement to violence does law enforcement intervene.

As a foreigner seeking entry, Ramadan lacks the protection of the 1st Amendment, but that doesn’t justify keeping him out merely because someone finds his beliefs obnoxious. When someone expresses such views, Americans traditionally rely on a better remedy: the vigorous expression of opposing views.

The government does have a critical obligation to protect Americans against anyone who can reasonably be suspected of assisting in the work of fanatical killers. If Homeland Security thinks Ramadan falls in that category, it should say so—and offer whatever evidence it can produce. If not, it should let him in.


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