In an online forum forLe Monde this week, Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Islamic scholar, urged readers to show a bit of understanding for Pope Benedict XVI, who had been attacked by political Muslims in early September for citing a 14th-century dialogue critical of Islam. "His quotation was certainly clumsy," wrote Ramadan, "but all he did was revisit the question of Islam's relation to violence, to which Muslims have a duty to respond clearly." Writing in the Swiss daily Le Temps, Mr Ramadan accused undemocratic Muslim governments of having fomented much of the criticism of the Pope. The sympathy is understandable, for the Pope's lecture – with its focus on reason, its insistence on devotion and its fresh look at ancient textual sources – bore a strong stylistic resemblance to a Tariq Ramadan speech.
If you had to pick a Muslim intellectual who constituted a security threat to the US, it would not at first glance be Mr Ramadan, who has lately been teaching at Oxford and advising the British government. Yet the US state department announced last week that it would not revisit a 2004 decision to revoke Mr Ramadan's visa. Back then, Mr Ramadan was due to take up a tenured professorship at Notre Dame, a Catholic university in Indiana. In blocking that appointment, officials vaguely cited the USA Patriot Act, which allows the government to ban the entry of those who "endorse or espouse terrorism". Mr Ramadan, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has been accused, in both France and the US, of engaging in a "double discourse" that appeals to hardliners, too.
He is barred from Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – although whether those countries fear him as a liberal moderniser or a religious radical is subject to debate. Mr Ramadan's travails have become a cause for many American intellectuals of the left, who argue that he is being excluded for his ideas, not for any threat he might constitute.
A complex general principle is at stake: to what degree must a country obey its values (and its laws) in its dealings with foreigners? For the American scholars urging that Mr Ramadan be admitted, the visa ban shows that the US is willing to obey the letter, but not the spirit, of the First Amendment right to free speech. Mr Ramadan's detractors say that US rights are irrelevant to Swiss citizens. The laws of a country stop at its borders and a foreigner cannot appeal to them.
In a case brought on Mr Ramadan's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, Paul Crotty, US District Court judge, ruled in June that "the First Amendment rights of American citizens are implicated when the government excludes an alien from the US on the basis of his political views". US authorities who claimed Mr Ramadan posed a threat now had to do more than simply gesture at the Patriot Act. It remains very hard to determine the real reasons for Mr Ramadan's exclusion, since the US has until recently declined to make them public. One story is that he told an embassy official in Bern that resistance in Iraq was justified; by another account, it is the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón's alleged discovery of contacts with an al-Qaeda operative that caused the hitch for Mr Ramadan. A state department spokesman, questioned about Mr Ramadan's status this week, cited Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Naturalisation Act. According to Mr Ramadan himself, the present bone of contention is a 600 ($750) contribution he made to the Committee for Charity and Aid to Palestinians (CBSP), a French-based (and legal) foundation that the US has linked to Hamas.
The Ramadan controversy is coming to resemble arguments that surrounded the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act. Passed at the height of the McCarthy era, that act was put to steady use for four decades by governments of both left and right to bar foreigners whom US authorities considered ideologically undesirable. Until Congress defanged the act in 1990, you could be excluded for following the "economic, international and governmental doctrines of world communism". This criterion was flexible enough to allow for the banning of Gabriel García Márquez, Graham Greene, Pablo Neruda and a considerable number of anti-communist rightwingers, too, from the Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to the Honduran strongman Roberto d'Aubuisson. By the time the McCarran-Walter "watch list" was discontinued, it had 368,000 names on it.
Today, in the name of the US war on terror, such habits of ideological banning are making a comeback. In the wake of the election of the leftist Evo Morales in Bolivia, a Bolivian historian at the University of Nebraska, Waskar Ari, found himself barred from re-entry to the US. Dora Téllez, a Nicaraguan historian who participated in the Sandinista revolution in 1979, was denied a visa to teach at Harvard. Sympathy for excluded academics is likely to be lower today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s because universities have come to be seen – as they were not several decades ago – as nests of government-subsidised political agitation.
That is one reason why it is hard to see a winning argument for eroding the right of governments to ban whomever they want. Another is that, without that right, countries are on a slippery slope. True, US judges have tended to erode distinctions between citizens and non-citizens. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act eliminated discriminatory quotas from immigration law. The 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v Doe held that children of illegal immigrants had the same right to public education as US citizens. But there is a limit to this process. Denying foreign intellectuals the rights that are granted to one's own has the look of inconsistency.
But given the hundreds of millions of non-intellectuals around the world who would also like to claim those rights, it is an inconsistency we will probably have to live with.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard