Beliefnet’This is a serious attack on academic freedom,’ says the controversial Swiss scholar.
A few weeks before the singer Cat Stevens, now called Yusuf Islam, was deported by the U.S. government, a similar controversy was also in the works involving a Swiss scholar named Tariq Ramadan. Though Ramadan is not a household name, he is a leading international Islamic thinker; and, as such, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Spiritual Innovators in 2000. He is also controversial: Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic revival movement. Last year, Ramadan accepted a tenured appointment at Notre Dame University and was to start work this semester. But in late July his visa was revoked by the Department of Homeland Security. No explanation has yet been given. Today, the Ramadans remain in Geneva, while their furniture is in Indiana. Beliefnet correspondent Mark LeVine interviewed Ramadan recently.
What is the specific accusation against you by the Department of Homeland Security?
Neither the University of Notre Dame nor I were told the reasons for my visa revocation. We read in the papers that DHS spokespeople say this was done under the provisions in the Patriot Act. But they do not specify how this law applies to me.
The State Department, CIA and National Intelligence Council staffers all have praised you highly. What do you think changed?
In October of last year, I gave a lecture at the State Department attended by various government officials. I have visited the United States over 20 times in the last three and a half years and several times this year. My lineage is known, and the allegations of my detractors as well as my refutations have been in circulation for a long time and had to have been known by the DHS and State Department when my visa was approved in May. Nothing in my life has changed, so I cannot tell you what change has caused this revocation. I do not know who is behind it.
Do you think these charges are working against you among your colleagues or the public?
There will always be people willing to believe the worst, but reasonable people who read my reply to these accusations see them for what they are: a malicious attempt at defamation and attacks against my dignity as a human being. I have received remarkable support from colleagues and the public both in America and around the world. Many in academia have realized the seriousness of this attack on academic freedom. They have issued public statements and written letters to the DHS, State Department and President Bush speaking out against this decision and demanding reinstatement of my visa.
Tell us more about you.
I was born, raised and educated in Switzerland. My parents were devout Muslims who spared no energy in teaching us and showing us by example how to live as Muslims.
While growing up, I visited Egypt many times and my dream was to return to my parents’ birthplace and my “home country.” But I began to feel different in my early twenties, that somehow I did not really belong to Egypt; my attachment was to Islam and its principle, but culturally – in my sensibilities, my tastes, my perspective, and of course my education – I was much more of a European than an Egyptian.
In 1991, I took my wife and children with me to Egypt to further my studies in Islamic sciences; living there for one and a half years confirmed that I belonged somewhere else. I realized that in order to be a European Muslim, I could no longer draw on my Egyptian belonging, but I also had a nagging feeling that something was missing. Many of the people I interacted with in Switzerland and France had also intimated this feeling to me: wanting to remain Muslims, they felt a gap between this desire and their reality. The question they faced was: how can I be a Muslim and European at the same time? It was difficult, especially in places like France, where they were facing challenges and restrictions such as the headscarf ban issue. I realized that there are no quick answers, but the solution must be grounded in a two-fold educational project: a thorough understanding of Islam, and a deeper understanding of the Western environment. I started by examining the Islamic textual sources and began to extract the universal principles. I also needed to be able to explain to myself and to others two things: how was it possible to live these universal principles in the West? And how can I link western philosophy to our universal teaching? In other words, how can we at once preserve these principles and be fully European?
This task was made difficult because Muslims have superficial understanding of Islam; the majority thinks that to remain a Muslim in Europe, one must be an Arab Muslim or a Pakistani Muslim or a North African Muslim or a Turkish Muslim. Overcoming this way of thinking was the first task.
There is a silent revolution taking place, and many of those leading it include women. It is low-key and slow by nature, but is it an intellectual and spiritual revolution nonetheless–and the only way toward respect for ourselves and to be true to our twin heritage of Islam and western citizenship.
My efforts in bridging this twin heritage have earned me critics on both sides. Some Muslims think I’m “westernizing Islam,” and my non-Muslim detractors accuse me of double-talk and dishonesty. Those who like my ideas commend my efforts but tell me I’m alone in this, while those who fear my work warn people that I have a “great following.” In actuality, I’m one of many at the forefront of a process taking place in Europe and North America.
What do you think these charges says about American political culture?
The American public is still suffering from the terrible shock of 9/11, and are understandably afraid of the possibility of other terrorist acts. When people are afraid, their level of suspicion is heightened.
It appears that Islam-bashing is still being tolerated at a time when “politically correct” is the measure of public civility. Of course, Muslims who commit terrorist acts and who behave in contradiction to their faith bear the primary responsibility for misrepresenting Islam. But most people are sensible and fair and would recognize that no faith is represented by the worst of its followers.
This would be how the situation would be seen, but Islam-bashers root the cause of violence in Islam, instead of groups or individual Muslims. Muslims, and especially American Muslims, have a lot of work to do to counteract this. American Muslims have to make their faith visible by being exemplary citizens.
But at the same time, Americans of other faiths have to reject the spreading of fear and must trust Muslims. Mutual trust and respect are what citizens everywhere, of every faith, ought to do. It is the only way out of the current world situation.
Do you think people understand the stakes involved?
Yes. There is also a realization that banning Muslims like me goes against the Administration’s publicly stated objective of public diplomacy to engage moderate Muslims. The decision to ban me, and others like me, from America sends a message to Muslims around the world, and to non-Muslims who know my work, which is in direct contradiction to what the Administration said it wants.
What are you doing this fall?
I hope that this matter will be resolved soon, that I’ll be able to teach at Notre Dame this fall, but I do not know if the decision will be reconsidered in time. I may not be able to be with my students in person in time, but the university is looking into possibly teleconferencing to enable to me to have discussions and interact with my students.
What can people do to challenge this policy ?
We need the public to ask the DHS to reconsider this decision, which has affected not only my family, the university, and the students, but also has serious consequences for academics. People need to be aware how these immigration restrictions are preventing scholars and students from coming to America. The restrictions are affecting the role American academic institutions have traditionally played educating future world leaders and in return benefiting from the resources of foreign students and academics. People should also realize that laws that restrict freedoms and put the liberties of some at risk may seem necessary in the short term, but in the long term they risk the rights of everyone.
If you watch Arabic satellite TV you’ll see their airways filled with a slick, new generation of Muslim preachers with shows reminiscent of Oprah or the Today Show. What is their role?
I think by and large throughout the Muslim majority countries, it is not specifically religious leaders who will lead the march toward change. What we see is a “movement of thought”; it is taking place in most Muslim majority countries, and in Western Muslim communities. The task that lies ahead is how to build connections, foster collaborations that will bring about concrete changes. This task does not have to be the sole responsibility of religious leaders, nor should they assume it.
How would you characterize your relationships with other religious leaders, both Muslims worldwide and from other traditions?
It is a relationship based on mutual respect, learning from one another, enriching one another’s spiritual experience by sharing that which is essential in our respective traditions. This mutual respect demands that we each know not only our respective traditions and but also that we are willing to learn other traditions and engage in critical thinking through it all.
How can people around the world support the growth of non-violent movements working on the principles of Gandhi or King in the Muslim world?
What is often overlooked is that it is easy to promote non-violent movement when one never experiences violence. Those of us living in North America and Europe cannot and should not expect people living with violence to promote non-violent resistance, when those protected from all that cannot bother to go beyond lip-service calls for non-violence. We should be serious about promoting social justice for everyone everywhere; it should be a real transnational movement of people challenging their governments and urging their fellow citizens to uphold human rights and dignity. We in the West should be the voice of the voiceless in the world, and only then can we expect and demand non-violent resistance from those suffering the endless cycle of violence.
Yet I’ve seen increasing evidence that the left is moving toward accepting violence as a natural response to the current situation.
You are right, there is inconsistency there. It is important for anti-globalization advocates to have a consistent strategy for dealing with resistance. These advocates’ accomplishments in promoting economic, social, and political resistance have been significant, but now they need to connect that to ethics. Ethically speaking, it is right to say that oppressed people have the right to resist–but we don’t usually address the ethics of the means of resistance. I think this is really a central question for us. There is a serious lack of debate in this regard.