Revoking the visa of Swiss-Egyptian scholar Tariq Ramadan is emblematic of a growing tendency here to chill intellectual freedom and to dampen thoughtful discussion of the Middle East and its issues.
The Ramadan decision reflects a changed attitude that has also resulted in slashing the numbers both of foreign students and political refugees seeking to enter America.
Ramadan, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, England, was denied the visa he needed to accept the tenured post of Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace-Building at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Academy of Religion, American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and others sued the government for preventing their members from meeting with Ramadan and hearing constitutionally protected speech.
The lawsuit came after the administration invoked the Patriot Act's "ideological exclusion" provision to bar Ramadan from Notre Dame. The provision hits those who have "endorsed or espoused" terrorism, but government lawyers, the ACLU said, "failed to produce any evidence" showing he had done so.
So the George W. Bush administration came up with the flimsy excuse Ramadan gave $770 to a pro-Palestinian French charity suspected of giving money to Hamas. Ramadan made his humanitarian gift in 2002, a year before the State Department blacklisted the charity.
"Although the US government has found a new pretext for denying Professor Ramadan's visa, the history of this case makes clear that the government's real concern is not with Professor Ramadan but with his ideas," ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer said. "The government is using the immigration laws to silence an articulate critic and to censor political debate inside the United States."
Hardly a terrorist, Ramadan was named by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his task force to combat it! Time magazine dubbed Ramadan one of the 100 "innovators" of the twenty-first century.
"I am deeply distressed by the government's decision to exclude Professor Ramadan, an eminent and respected scholar, from the United States," said Roger Bowen, general secretary of AAUP. "No form of communication substitutes for in-person dialogue. At this time more than ever, it is crucially important that academic discourse remain unfettered, and the government has struck a blow against that fundamental principle."
Ramadan's books have gained him a wide following among young European Muslims. They include, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam and Islam, the West, and the Challenge of Modernity. The works make the case for a large role for religion in Arab-Muslim states and for the assertion of Muslim identity alongside citizenship in Western democracies.
In a lawsuit filed against Homeland Security boss Michael Chertoff and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ramadan said, "I was astonished by the government's decision to revoke my visa. While I have sometimes criticized specific United States' policies I am not anti-American, and I have certainly never endorsed or espoused terrorism."
Ramadan is not the only scholar being kept out. Among others, the ACLU tells of a Bolivian history professor denied a teaching post at the University of Nebraska.
In a related development, American universities are complaining of declining enrollment as State Department consuls make it tougher to get visas. This has cost them thousands of foreign students, impacting what had been a thriving, $4-billion-a-year business.
And obstacles faced by those seeking political asylum, particularly Iranians, are also formidable. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the admissions bar was raised so that only about 40,000 slots have been filled, less than a third of some 130,000 admitted in 1992.
"The larger problem is that terrorism has created an atmosphere in which no official wants to be the one who gives a visa to an Al Qaeda operative, while there is no professional price for barring a professor with unpopular ideas or for making a graduate student miss a semester of school," writes George Packard in the October 16 issue of The New Yorker.
Packard argues the United States should grant Ramadan a visa, "not because he has an inalienable right to one but in the interest of the national good. The continuing effort to keep him out is a strategic mistake, and it shows a depressingly familiar failure on the part of the administration to grasp the nature of the conflict with Islamist radicalism."
Ramadan says it saddens him the United States "has become afraid of ideas and that it reacts to its critics not by engaging them but by suppressing, stigmatizing, and excluding them."
And so it happens that America, long known as an asylum for free-thinkers, academicians, students, and political refugees, is becoming under President George W. Bush an asylum of another sort.
Sherwood Ross is an American reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.