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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

U.S. denies visa to prominent scholar


Just as the current academic year was about to begin, Professor Tariq Ramadan received startling news -- that he would not be able to assume his teaching position at the University of Notre Dame because the U.S. government had revoked his visa. His furniture had already arrived in South Bend, Ind., and his children were registered for school there.

A Muslim scholar of world renown, recently named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, Ramadan had accepted the Henry B. Luce Professorship in Religion, Conflict and Peace Building within the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and was to have started teaching this fall. A Swiss citizen, he had traveled freely in the United States as a visitor, but his employment at Notre Dame now made a visa essential.

The reasons for this highly unusual action remain obscure. Apparently the Department of Homeland Security deemed Ramadan to be a person of “prominence” who could be excluded under a statute that denies entry to any person whom the government believes likely to “engage after entry in terrorist activity.” The State Department, responding to such a finding, revoked the visa.

Most voices in the academic community, Notre Dame forcefully among them, condemned this action. The only dissonant scholarly voice seems to have been that of Professor Daniel Pipes, an ardent critic of the pro-Palestinian view, writing in The New York Sun. Pipes ventured that Ramadan was “Islamist royalty” since his grandfather had founded the Muslim Brotherhood, adding that Ramadan’s father and Osama bin Laden may once have studied together.

Most of Pipes’ critique, however, involved numerous published statements and writings that are undeniably unsympathetic to the West and to the United States -- the presumptive basis for TIME’s accolade and Notre Dame’s appointment.

By any measure, the revocation of Ramadan’s visa reflects a judgment at high levels of U.S. government that his views are unacceptable, even on the campus of a university that values debate and diverse perspectives. In the absence of any evidence of terrorist activity or of material support for terrorism, the conclusion is inescapable that a distinguished international scholar is unwelcome here on grounds that go to the heart of academic and intellectual freedom.

Time and again, the academic community and the courts of this country condone and even protect the public expression of views that may deeply offend many, may seem irresponsible and even outrageous, reflecting virulent racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or other abhorrent premises.

Indeed, in the now three years since the terrorist attacks, our universities have occasionally been faulted for harboring on their faculties outspoken critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East and Iraq -- the historian who told his freshman class on the afternoon of Sept. 11, “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote” or the English instructor who charged his Muslim students with being “terrorists” and “Nazis” or the anthropologist who told a teach-in during the Iraq War that he wished for “a million Mogadishus.”

Yet the leaders of these institutions have reminded angry alumni, legislators and ordinary citizens that we insist on tolerating a wide range of views within colleges and universities that seek truth by presenting a broad and often disturbing array of views. Such was clearly the premise of those at Notre Dame who arranged Ramadan’s appointment, keenly aware that his views might upset many people.

Ramadan is not the first visiting scholar to find a less than warm welcome at our borders since Sept. 11. Two years ago a pair of Canadians were badly treated as they sought to enter the United States to continue teaching assignments here. One visitor, of Syrian birth, was deported to Jordan and effectively unable to pursue his teaching assignment, while the other (a Sudanese-born Canadian citizen) was long delayed en route, but was eventually allowed to resume his academic post in western New York.

Then there was a delegation of Cuban scholars, including one who had lectured regularly at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, whose visas were so long delayed they were unable to reach Dallas in time for the International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association.

Thus the treatment of Ramadan may not be wholly unprecedented, though it does seem more egregious than those of other visitors, and more clearly a reprisal for the public expression of unwelcome views. Moreover, the setting -- the Henry Luce chair, the Kroc Institute, the University of Notre Dame -- hardly suggests the radical left fringe of academia, but rather seems very much in the mainstream. The degree of consensus about tolerating dissonant views recently got a boost from none other than Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

When I was asked to defend the “million Mogadishu” anthropologist on “The O’Reilly Factor” some 15 months ago, I was startled to hear my host declare unqualifiedly, “I agree with you. You’ve got to tolerate this kind of speech.”

Now it appears that those who are responsible for revoking Ramadan’s visa would either reject even O’Reilly’s views on academic freedom or find those views inapplicable to a highly esteemed foreign scholar. Either explanation is severely unsettling.

Robert M. O’Neil is a professor of law at the University of Virginia and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. He is chair of the American Association of University Professors Special Committee on Academic Freedom and National Security in Time of Crisis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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