Tariq Ramadan: Banned in the USA
- Why I'm Banned in the USA
By Tariq Ramadan
Sunday, October 1, 2006
For more than two years now, the U.S. government has barred me from
entering the United States to pursue an academic career. The reasons
have changed over time, and have evolved from defamatory to absurd,
but the effect has remained the same: I've been kept out.
First, I was told that I could not enter the country because I had
endorsed terrorism and violated the USA Patriot Act. It took a lawsuit
for the government eventually to abandon this baseless accusation.
Later, I reapplied for a visa, twice, only to hear nothing for more
than a year. Finally, just 10 days ago, after a federal judge forced
the State Department to reconsider my application, U.S. authorities
offered a new rationale for turning me away: Between 1998 and 2002, I
had contributed small sums of money to a French charity supporting
humanitarian work in the Palestinian territories.
I am increasingly convinced that the Bush administration has barred me
for a much simpler reason: It doesn't care for my political views. In
recent years, I have publicly criticized U.S. policy in the Middle
East, the war in Iraq, the use of torture, secret CIA prisons and
other government actions that undermine fundamental civil liberties.
And for many years, through my research and writing and speeches, I
have called upon Muslims to better understand the principles of their
own faith, and have sought to show that one can be Muslim and Western
at the same time.
My experience reveals how U.S. authorities seek to suppress dissenting
voices and -- by excluding people such as me from their country --
manipulate political debate in America. Unfortunately, the U.S.
government's paranoia has evolved far beyond a fear of particular
individuals and taken on a much more insidious form: the fear of ideas.
In January 2004, I was offered a job at the University of Notre Dame,
as a professor of Islamic studies and as Luce professor of religion,
conflict and peace-building. I accepted the tenured position
enthusiastically and looked forward to joining the academic community
in the United States. After the government granted me a work visa, I
rented a home in South Bend, Ind., enrolled my children in school
there and shipped all of my household belongings. Then, in July, the
government notified me that my visa had been revoked. It did not offer
a specific explanation, but pointed to a provision of the Patriot Act
that applies to people who have "endorsed or espoused" terrorist activity.
The revocation shocked me. I had consistently opposed terrorism in all
of its forms, and still do. And, before 2004, I had visited the United
States frequently to lecture, attend conferences and meet with other
scholars. I had been an invited speaker at conferences or lectures
sponsored by Harvard University, Stanford, Princeton and the William
Jefferson Clinton Presidential Foundation. None of these institutions
seemed to consider me a threat to national security.
The U.S. government invited me to apply for a new visa and, with Notre
Dame's help, I did so in October 2004. But after three months passed
without a response, I felt I had little choice but to give up my new
position and resume my life in Europe. Even so, I never abandoned the
effort to clear my name. At the urging of American academic and civic
groups, I reapplied for a visa one last time in September 2005, hoping
that the government would retract its accusation. Once again, I
encountered only silence.
Finally, in January, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American
Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors
and PEN American Center filed a lawsuit on my behalf, challenging the
government's actions. In court, the government's lawyers admitted that
they could establish no connection between me and any terrorist group;
the government had merely taken a "prudential" measure by revoking my
visa. Even then, the government maintained that the process of
reconsidering my visa could take years. The federal court -- which
issued a ruling recognizing that I have been a vocal critic of
terrorism -- rejected the indefinite delay. In June, it ordered the
government to grant me a visa or explain why it would not do so.
On Sept. 21, the long-awaited explanation arrived. The letter from the
U.S. Embassy informed me that my visa application had been denied, and
it put an end to the rumors that had circulated since my original visa
was revoked. After a lengthy investigation, the State Department cited
no evidence of suspicious relationships, no meetings with terrorists,
no encouraging or advocacy of terrorism. Instead, the department cited
my donation of $940 to two humanitarian organizations (a French group
and its Swiss chapter) serving the Palestinian people. I should note
that the investigation did not reveal these contributions. As the
department acknowledges, I had brought this information to their
attention myself, two years earlier, when I had reapplied for a visa.
In its letter, the U.S. Embassy claims that I "reasonably should have
known" that the charities in question provided money to Hamas. But my
donations were made between December 1998 and July 2002, and the
United States did not blacklist the charities until 2003. How should I
reasonably have known of their activities before the U.S. government
itself knew? I donated to these organizations for the same reason that
countless Europeans -- and Americans, for that matter -- donate to
Palestinian causes: not to help fund terrorism, but because I wanted
to provide humanitarian aid to people who desperately need it. Yet
after two years of investigation, this was the only explanation
offered for the denial of my visa. I still find it hard to believe.
What words do I utter and what views do I hold that are dangerous to
American ears, so dangerous, in fact, that I should not be allowed to
express them on U.S. soil?
I have called upon Western societies to be more open toward Muslims
and to regard them as a source of richness, not just of violence or
conflict. I have called upon Muslims in the West to reconcile and
embrace both their Islamic and Western identities. I have called for
the creation of a "New We" based on common citizenship within which
Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and people with no religion can
build a pluralistic society. And yes, I believe we all have a right to
dissent, to criticize governments and protest undemocratic decisions.
It is certainly legitimate for European Muslims and American Muslims
to criticize their governments if they find them unjust -- and I will
continue to do so.
At the same time, I do not stop short of criticizing regimes from
Muslim countries. Indeed, the United States is not the only country
that rejects me; I am also barred from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and even
my native Egypt. Last month, after a few sentences in a speech by Pope
Benedict XVI elicited protests and violence, I published an article
noting how some governments in the Muslim world manipulate these
imagined crises to suit their political agendas. "When the people are
deprived of their basic rights and of their freedom of expression," I
argued, "it costs nothing to allow them to vent their anger over
Danish cartoons or the words of the Pontiff." I was immediately
accused of appeasing the enemies of Islam, of being more Western than
Today, I live and work in London. From my posts at Oxford University
and the Lokahi Foundation, I try to promote cultural understanding and
to prevent radicalization within Muslim communities here. Along with
many British citizens, I have criticized the country's new security
laws and its support for the war in Iraq. Yet I have never been asked
to remain silent as a condition to live or work here. I can express
I fear that the United States has grown fearful of ideas. I have
learned firsthand that the Bush administration reacts to its critics
not by engaging them, but by stigmatizing and excluding them. Will
foreign scholars be permitted to enter the United States only if they
promise to mute their criticisms of U.S. policy? It saddens me to
think of the effect this will have on the free exchange of ideas, on
political debate within America, and on our ability to bridge
differences across cultures.
web @ tariqramadan.com
Tariq Ramadan, a fellow at Oxford University, is author of "Western
Muslims and the Future of Islam."
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