Muslim scholar has visa revoked

Author: Geneive Abdo, Tribune religion writer

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has revoked a visa granted to Tariq Ramadan, a renowned Islamic scholar who is accused by some Jewish groups of being a Muslim extremist, effectively barring him from a teaching post he was to begin this week at the University of Notre Dame .

Ramadan, a rising academic star in Europe who is regarded by Islamic scholars and experts as a Muslim moderate, was appointed to teach Islamic philosophy and ethics in South Bend through the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. University classes begin Tuesday.

A resident of Switzerland, Ramadan was given a visa in February that permitted him to work in the United States, according to government officials. That decision was reversed July 28.

Notre Dame officials said the university was working with the U.S. government and hoped to have the decision reversed. In a statement issued to the Tribune, the university said no reason was given for the visa revocation.

“Professor Ramadan is a distinguished scholar and a voice for moderation in the Muslim world,” the university said. “We know of no reason his entry should be prevented.”

Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s consular affairs section, said Monday that Ramadan initially received a visa after being cleared by Homeland Security. But Homeland Security later reversed its decision, ordering the State Department to revoke the visa.

According to Shannon, Ramadan’s visa was revoked under a section of the U.S. immigration law dramatically changed by the USA Patriot Act, the controversial legislation approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In addition to allowing the U.S. to revoke a visa from an alleged member of a terrorist organization, the new section authorizes visa revocation because of someone’s political activities if those efforts are seen as endorsing terrorism. Visas also can be revoked because of membership in social groups or other organizations that have offered a “public endorsement of acts of terrorist activity” that could undermine U.S. “efforts to reduce or eliminate terrorist activities.”

Shannon did not say which specific piece of the law was applied in Ramadan’s case.

Contacted by phone, Ramadan declined to comment Monday.

It is Ramadan’s pedigree, rather than his writings, that has particularly exposed him to criticism. His grandfather is Hassan al-Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative religious and political organization that has influenced Islamic groups and movements across the world. Founded as a radical group that sought the violent overthrow of the secular Egyptian government, it has since renounced violence as a means for political change.

Notre Dame officials felt Ramadan’s perspective would be valuable to the conversation in the U.S. about Islam. Departing from traditional Islamic thinking, Ramadan has written that there are multiple interpretations of the Koran and that Muslims should engage in ijtihad, a perpetual process of interpreting the holy texts of Islam so that the faith evolves and is compatible with modern times.

Barring intellectuals such as Ramadan from the United States undermines the U.S. government’s efforts to fight terrorism, said John Esposito, a Georgetown University professor and author of “Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.”

“At the heart of it, people refuse to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists,” said Esposito, who describes Ramadan as “an established academic . . . with a strong record.”

“They want to say all Muslims are a monolithic threat, which means they are excluding the very audience President Bush and his administration should be reaching out to—the moderates,” said Esposito, a leading expert on Islam.

He and other scholars said they suspected the government’s decision to bar Ramadan could have been influenced by some Jewish groups that have waged a campaign against scholars and public intellectuals whose views on Islam and the Middle East conflict with their own.

For example, Web sites such as Campus Watch, run by pro-Israel activist Daniel Pipes, seek to expose professors who allegedly hold anti-Israel views.

“The essence of the problem is that pro-Likud organizations want to block people who can speak articulately and present the Muslim dilemma in a way that might be understandable and sympathetic to Americans,” said Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency. The Likud party leads the political coalition currently in power in Israel.

“They succeed by presenting this as a security matter. There is no way Homeland Security would initiate this on its own,” said Fuller, who is an expert on political Islam.

Some Jewish groups in France have called Ramadan an anti-Semite, and pro-Israel activists in the United States have contended he is connected to Al Qaeda. However, investigations in other countries have never substantiated links between Ramadan and Al Qaeda.

Pipes said Monday that he did not know of any Jewish groups in the United States that had filed a complaint about Ramadan with the federal government. But it’s possible some might have done so, he added.

“I do know that elements in France have told the U.S. government that he is not suitable for the position,” said Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, a strongly pro-Israel advocacy group.

“I worry that he is engaged in a complex game of appearing as a moderate but has connections to Al Qaeda,” said Pipes, who said he read about those connections in the French media.

Scott Appleby, director of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, challenged Ramadan’s critics to provide evidence of such links.

“If Mr. Pipes or anyone else has solid evidence that Tariq Ramadan has `connections’ with Al Qaeda—whatever that might mean—I would like to see it,” Appleby said. “Otherwise, unsubstantiated charges intended to defame a Muslim intellectual is troublingly reminiscent of some of the darkest moments in U.S history.”

Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East expert at Columbia University who has been harshly criticized by Jewish groups for speaking out against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, said his critics try to block scholars who disagree with their views.

“These people simply don’t want these voices to be heard. Anyone who complicates this by introducing real views of real people that Americans might find reasonable seems threatening to them,” said Khalidi, who along with Esposito has been targeted on the Campus Watch site.

Ramadan’s case, he said, demonstrates how scholars’ views can be distorted by their opponents.

Asked if his aim was to remove Islamic and Middle Eastern professors from their teaching posts, Pipes said, “Absolutely not.”

“The purpose of Campus Watch is to alert administrators that there is a problem” with the views of some scholars, he said. “We have not taken any steps to have anyone removed from their jobs.”

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