Is this How the US Engages Muslims?

September 3, 2004

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security revoked an earlier decision to grant an entry and work visa to Swiss theologian Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan had accepted a visiting professor position at the University of Notre Dame, but spokespeople for Homeland Security and the State Department are now invoking laws suggesting that Ramadan represents a “public safety risk or national security threat” and that there is a risk he might “engage after entry in terrorist activity.”

This ill-conceived decision sends the wrong message to reform-minded Arabs in Europe and the Muslim world about the commitment to the democratic principles of open debate and exchange of ideas that America seeks to export.

Ramadan may be the most well-known Muslim public figure in all of Europe; he is invested in the democratic process and has used his prominence to urge young Muslims in the West to choose integration over disaffection. He publishes widely on being a European Muslim, has led thousands of prayer meetings and lectures throughout France and Europe since 1997, and cassettes of his recorded sermons circulate widely. If he had been born in the United States, one French philosopher has written, Ramadan naturally would have been a “tele-koranist.” Though he has been dogged by accusations of being a radical Islamist in moderate guise, others have heralded the 42-year-old preacher as the closest thing to a legitimate spokesman for young European Muslims from Bradford to the Bois de Boulogne.

The State Department’s denial of Ramadan’s visa will only reinforce a worrying trend that students and scholars from the Muslim world do not feel welcome in the United States. The Association of American Universities reported that lengthy security checks kept at least 60 Muslim scholars from meeting their academic start dates in the fall of 2003; of the more than 400 foreign scholars who were delayed from entering the United States, one-third simply went elsewhere.

It is bogus for Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge to assert that Ramadan represents a terrorist threat. In January 2004, American ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats, a close ally of President Bush, co-sponsored a Berlin conference on reform in the Arab world which featured Ramadan as keynote speaker. Last fall, the former French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy — an outspoken friend of Israel and of the Jewish community in France — debated Ramadan live on prime time television, and then-European Commission president Romano Prodi named Ramadan as a consultant on Islam in Europe.

One may disagree with Ramadan’s opinions—Sarkozy did so publicly to great effect—but it should be made clear that the Muslim scholar is not an ally of terrorists. The aggressive French anti-terrorist authorities have investigated Ramadan’s alleged connections to terrorists—he was briefly banished from French territory between November 1995 and May 1996—but have turned up empty-handed. A Lyon magazine was even forced to pay indemnities after it labeled him an “Islamist,” a charge he successfully refuted in a French court.
Some of Ramadan’s defenders acknowledge that his rhetoric may be nuanced to a fault. But there is no public record of his having “endorsed or espoused terrorist activity.” He has called suicide bombing “contextually explainable,” but always prefaces this remark with a condemnation of the practice “because it kills innocent people.” In response to rumors in the Muslim world that Israel or the CIA was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ramadan told a Malaysian audience: “We know the attackers were Muslim and we have to admit this. We should say this is not acceptable and is not Islamic, and that those doing these things in the name of Islam are betraying the Islamic teachings.” Finally, he has made it clear that while criticizing Israeli policies, he accepts the existence of the State of Israel: “Muslim conscience must speak out and clearly say that antisemitism is unacceptable and that Sharon, while oppressive, is not Hitler.”

Certainly, Ramadan’s references to Israeli “state terrorism” will not win him many friends in the United States. But his views are nonetheless representative of mainstream Muslim perceptions of an unfair match-up in Gaza and the West Bank. Just hoping that this impression will go away cannot substitute reasoned discussion and explanation of our position on the Israeli policies that we do support.

The Department of Homeland Security has helped fashion a narrative that plays right into anti-American propaganda. If we slam the door in the face of those who are willing to engage in democratic and pluralist dialogue on our turf, then we reduce our options to fighting wars with the anti-democrats. We are denying Ramadan, an important opinion leader for European Muslims, the opportunity to see American society first hand, rather than through the filter of European or Arab media.

Ramadan gave a BBC interview last month in which he reiterated that “Western societies should not be considered in opposition to Islamic teachings.” The interview took place as the British government defended its decision to allow Muslim Brotherhood leader Youssef al-Qaradawi to visit London. A Home Office spokesman said at the time—in the spirit of the first amendment to America’s Constitution—”We do not exclude people solely for their views, however abhorrent they may be to the vast majority of the people of this country.”

Unless the Department of Homeland Security has information on Ramadan’s endorsement of terrorist acts, it should rescind its request to the State Department that the Muslim scholar’s visa be revoked. If this administration is serious about having a dialogue with Muslim moderates, it needs to engage reformist Islamic thinkers like Ramadan. Instead, the denial of his entry is sure to exacerbate a declining image of the United States among Muslims abroad, and will undermine those who seek a more modern Islam in tune with Western societies.