The ghosts of McCarthyism must be dancing with delight. Our government has denied a visa to Europe’s leading moderate Muslim intellectual–Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan–thereby preventing him from teaching at the University of Notre Dame. This is not only wrong, but foolish. We cannot win global hearts and minds by being timid and inept on the battlefield of ideas.
After granting Ramadan a visa earlier this year, the government in late July reversed itself, excluding him just as he was about to begin teaching Islamic studies at Notre Dame as Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, a joint tenured appointment with the classics department.
The denial surprised both Notre Dame and Dr. Ramadan, who has been teaching philosophy and Islamic studies at Geneva and Fribourg. No wonder: When Ramadan was granted a U.S. visa in 2002, his lecture tour included presentations in such prestigious venues as the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
If the administration wants to signal to the world that we cower in fear of moderate Muslim intellectuals, it could hardly do better.
Respected by academics worldwide, Ramadan is a best-selling author and lecturer in Europe. A Washington Post commentator described his recent book, “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam,” as “perhaps the most hopeful work of Muslim theology in the past 1,000 years.” In April, Time magazine selected Ramadan as one of the world’s 100 leading thinkers and scientists.
Islam and the West, Ramadan argues, both stand to benefit from a mutual encounter. Freed from cultural overlays such as sexism and hostility toward Jews, he contends, true Islam can flourish in Western democracies. And Westerners who have lost touch with their faith may have much to learn from the spirituality of genuine Islam.
Why exclude such a mind from the American public debate on Islam? Why deny Notre Dame faculty and students the educational bonanza of exchanging ideas with a seminal theorist on one of the most critical issues of our time? The government gives no specifics. The most we have is a statement by a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, quoted by The Washington Post, citing a USA Patriot Act provision authorizing exclusion of foreigners who have used a “position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity.”
But according to experts, Ramadan does not endorse or espouse terrorism. The American Academy of Religion, a leading association of 10,000 religious scholars, together with the Committee on Academic Freedom of the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association of North America, jointly protest his visa denial. “There is absolutely nothing in the public record … or in his scholarly production,” they object, “that would indicate any basis whatsoever for such allegations–and Dr. Ramadan is a scholar very much in the public eye.”
The real culprit here is not Ramadan, but the Patriot Act provision that reinstates the ideological exclusions that bedeviled American immigration law during the Cold War. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act–enacted over President Harry Truman’s veto of its “thought control”–excluded foreigners “who advocate the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of world communism,” or who were members of or affiliated with organizations advocating those doctrines.
This law did little to enhance our national security but much to embarrass us. It led to visa denials or difficulties for such luminaries as Nobel Prize-winning novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, English novelist Graham Greene, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Vienna State Opera Director Joseph Krips, French entertainer Maurice Chevalier and actor Yves Montand, and even former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It made America look afraid to compete in an open marketplace of ideas.
In 1972 the Nixon administration’s denial of a visa to Belgian Marxist economist Ernest Mandel (who had been granted visas by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) led to a Supreme Court challenge. A majority upheld the denial on the grounds that the power to exclude foreign citizens is exercised “exclusively by the political branches of government,” and that Atty. Gen. Richard Kleindienst did no more than exercise power conferred upon him by Congress.
Three justices dissented. Even if foreign citizens abroad had no right to free speech under our Constitution, they argued, Americans had a 1st Amendment right to hear Mandel. The attorney general, objected Justice William Douglas, sought “to bar those whose ideas are not acceptable to him. … Thought control is not within the competence of any branch of government.”
Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan protested that “government has no legitimate interest in stopping the flow of ideas” and “certainly may not selectively pick and choose which ideas it will let into the country.” Blessed by the high court majority, the visa blacklist burgeoned. By the mid-1980s, according to the late immigration expert Arthur Helton (killed in the bombing of the UN offices in Baghdad last year), a quarter of a million foreigners were on an ideological exclusion list.
But as the Red Menace faded, so did congressional patience with ideological exclusions. Many people on the list were allowed in under waivers. Congress suspended the law in 1987 and 1988, and finally repealed it in 1990. The 9/11 attack, however, resurrected it.
In October 2001 the USA Patriot Act authorized exclusion of any foreigner who has used a “position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization.”
Anyone inciting terrorist acts must, of course, be excluded. But the Patriot Act was too broad and too vague. Georgetown University constitutional law expert David Cole soon warned that it “would empower the government to deny entry to any alien who advocated support for the [African National Congress], for the contras during the war against the Sandinistas, or for opposition forces in Iraq and Iran [in 2002].” Cole’s warnings now appear to have become reality.
Far from endorsing terrorism, Tariq Ramadan’s writings consistently condemn violence. While the government has not explained its case, his public detractors make two kinds of points. First, they accuse him of alleged links to terrorists. A Chicago Tribune Op-Ed by Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum recites, for example, that Ramadan was banned from entering France in 1996 on “suspicion” of links with a terrorist; that a terrorist on trial in 2001 claimed to have studied under Ramadan; that intelligence agencies “suspect” Ramadan of coordinating a meeting with Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Geneva; and that there is an “intriguing possibility” that Osama bin Laden studied with Ramadan’s father, “suggesting” that Ramadan and bin Laden “might” have known each other. This is mud-slinging of the rankest sort.
In a reply Ramadan rebuts them all. The French ban was based on mistaken identity and, when challenged, was overturned. The terrorist on trial claimed to have attended in 1994 a course that did not begin until 1997. Swiss intelligence publicly confirmed that Al-Zawahiri had never entered Switzerland.
Detractors also dispute Ramadan’s opinions. For example, they reject his claim that several prominent French Jewish intellectuals supported the war in Iraq because Israel’s Ariel Sharon favored the war. Perhaps Ramadan was wrong about this, but if so, that is grounds for public debate, not for visa denial.
Another critic, who acknowledges that Ramadan “never advocates violence,” nonetheless labels him a “jihadist” because he believes that “Islam is the cure for the malaise wrought by liberal values.”
Again, this is grist for public debate, not grounds to exclude a prominent intellectual from entering our country.
Ramadan may yet get his visa; Notre Dame has asked the government to reconsider. Whatever the outcome, however, this much is clear: the Patriot Act ideological exclusion law should be buried alongside its Cold War predecessor. Of course foreign citizens reasonably suspected of involvement in terrorism must be kept out of our country. But controversial ideas–and those who hold them–should be welcomed, not shunned. American ideals and American history demand no less.
Doug Cassel is director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University’s School of Law.