The decision of the U.S. government to revoke the visa of Tariq Ramadan, a prominent but controversial European Muslim scholar who was scheduled to teach at the University of Notre Dame, has led to protests that post-September 11 visa restrictions are being used to keep out an intellectual with unpopular ideas.
Mr. Ramadan, 42, a Swiss citizen living in Geneva, had accepted a full-time, tenured position as the Henry R. Luce professor of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Early last month he was informed by the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland that his visa, approved in March, had been revoked at the request of the Homeland Security Department.
No reason has been given. But Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the department, said such a decision is generally made when the department feels there are "public-safety or national-security risks."
In a statement, Notre Dame said it was "deeply disappointed and concerned" by the move. Mr. Ramadan "is a distinguished scholar and a voice for moderation in the Muslim world," the university said.
In a joint statement, the Middle East Studies Association and the American Academy of Religion wrote that "in the absence of any explanation, we fear that pressures were applied to reverse the granting of the visa by people who disagree with Dr. Ramadan's views."
The statement says that unproven allegations in the news media about links between Mr. Ramadan and terrorist groups "smack of a character-assassination campaign designed to suppress Dr. Ramadan's voice at a prominent American university."
The American Association of University Professors said in a statement that the cancellation of Mr. Ramadan's visa was "manifestly at odds with our society's respect for academic freedom."
Father Fled Egypt
Mr. Ramadan was born and raised in French-speaking Geneva after his father, an official of the Muslim Brotherhood, was forced to flee Egypt in the 1950s. His grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, founded the group in 1928. The Muslim Brotherhood is a militant Islamic revivalist group that has spread across the Muslim world.
Mr. Ramadan, who is not an adherent of the group, said in a telephone interview from Paris that it has a positive role to play because it opposes undemocratic Arab governments from a position of fidelity to traditional Islamic values. But he says he is troubled by the group's uncertain commitment to "pluralism, democracy, and the rule of law."
Mr. Ramadan studied philosophy with a concentration on Nietzsche at the University of Geneva, and later went to Egypt for Islamic studies.
Last April Time magazine included Mr. Ramadan in a list of the world's 100 most influential people. His impact has been felt mainly in Europe, where the presence of millions of Muslim immigrants has become a major source of tension. Time called Mr. Ramadan "enormously influential among Muslims throughout Europe. ... He advises Muslims on how they can fully integrate into European societies without betraying the universal laws and values of Islam."
Mr. Ramadan has urged Muslims not to remain outside mainstream European society by, for example, sending their children to separate Muslim schools. "I tell them: Be proud of being a European," he has written. In a recent essay in the Chicago Tribune he stated: "I take pride in my faith as a Muslim and the West as my home. And I make no apologies for taking a critical look at Islam and the West."
Indeed, Mr. Ramadan's willingness to reinterpret the Koran for the needs of modern society -- he supports political democracy and "Islamic feminism" -- have been condemned by some conservative Muslim religious leaders.
Appeal to Young Muslims
Part of what his Western critics appear to find so troubling is that Mr. Ramadan is, in the words of the Kroc institute, "a public intellectual who bridges academics and community." A charismatic and articulate professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, he is the author of 20 books and 700 articles, published in both scholarly journals and in the news media.
At the same time, he has great appeal among young Muslims, including many disaffected youths in immigrant-populated neighborhoods on the outskirts of many French cities. Each year some 50,000 audio cassettes of his talks about Islam and contemporary social questions are sold in France alone.
Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, he has traveled here frequently to speak at universities and associations, including a round table on Muslims in Europe held last year by the U.S. State Department.
Yet controversy has dogged him. In November 1995, Mr. Ramadan was barred, without explanation, from visiting France. He sued, and in April of the following year a French administrative court called the ban unjustified and lifted it.
Last year the French newspaper Le Parisien reported that European intelligence services suspected Mr. Ramadan had been in contact with leaders of Al Qaeda. He strongly denies that allegation and has never been officially accused of any wrongdoing.
Last October Mr. Ramadan set off a wave of angry condemnations when he published a commentary accusing "French Jewish intellectuals" of practicing a sort of "sectarianism" by uncritically supporting Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
He has also criticized Islamists who, merely because they don't like the Israeli government's politics, condemn all Jews. His critics, however, say Mr. Ramadan's public condemnations of anti-Semitism are only a smoke screen.
"What is astonishing is not that Mr. Ramadan is an anti-Semite," André Glucksmann, a well-known French intellectual who was among those denounced, wrote in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur a week after Mr. Ramadan's commentary appeared, "but that he should dare to admit this publicly."
More controversy came last November when Mr. Ramadan and France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, held a televised debate. Mr. Ramadan repeated his call for "a moratorium" on the stoning of women who commit adultery, a punishment imposed several times recently -- but never carried out -- by Islamic courts in northern Nigeria. But he refused to call for the abolition of the punishment.
Mr. Ramadan says that his calls for a moratorium have a better chance of being heard by Muslim religious scholars than would an outright condemnation. "I want to come at this from a discussion within the Islamic world," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Geneva. "It's the only way to be credible."
A Lightning Rod
Notre Dame's announcement earlier this year that it had hired Mr. Ramadan elicited only a few critical reactions. In February the Midwest regional office of the Anti-Defamation League wrote to the Kroc institute to express its concerns that two statements by Mr. Ramadan, including his criticism of the French Jewish intellectuals, could be indicative of anti-Semitism on his part. The group, however, did not say that Mr. Ramadan should not be hired.
But as in France, Mr. Ramadan seems to be a lightning rod here for stronger fears of Islamic extremism. Several newspaper articles and commentaries have described him as a dangerous radical.
In a comment in The New York Sun last month after news of the visa revocation became known, Daniel Pipes, a pro-Israel commentator who was appointed by President Bush last summer to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Congressionally created think tank, charged that Mr. Ramadan had minimized the September 11 and other terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists "to the point of near-endorsement."
Mr. Ramadan rejected the accusation in his essay in the Chicago Tribune a few days later. "I have always condemned the terrorist attacks in New York, Bali, Madrid, and elsewhere in the strongest terms," he wrote.
An article last spring in Vanity Fair stated that Mr. Ramadan "wrote the preface for Asma Lamrabet's book, Musulmane Tout Simplement, which condones, among other things, the stoning of women who commit adultery."
That assertion is patently false, said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc institute. In a message to Notre Dame faculty members he wrote that the article "is a particularly egregious example of the type of treatment Ramadan has been receiving."
"I have obtained a copy of Lamrabet's book and Ramadan's preface," Mr. Appleby continued. "In fact, Lamrabet condemns any form of violence against women as un-Islamic."
Mr. Appleby said that before offering Mr. Ramadan the post, Notre Dame assembled a committee of 10 faculty members who thoroughly analyzed his published writings in French, Arabic, and English and cleared him of allegations of extremism.
He added that the hostility toward Mr. Ramadan appeared to be linked to the deep threat that many people feel from Islamic terrorists. "He's not one of those enemies," said Mr. Appleby. "But we're not very good at making distinctions."