The Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan, only recently discovered in the United States but long controversial in France, should have been teaching at the University of Notre Dame by now. He had found schools for his four children, secured a house, and was just about to make the move when he received word his work visa fell through, despite the university's exhaustive security clearances.
In context, such a decision has far-reaching consequences for the state of academic affairs in the United States, as well as the general relationship between East and West, Islam and secularism. Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, has made a habit of straddling the above poles. In an op-ed titled "What you fear is not who I am," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail, "The very moment you understand that there are no contradictions between being a Muslim and being an American or a European, you enrich your society."
He stands accused by the Department of Homeland Security for using a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity." Under the PATRIOT Act, authorities do not have to justify visa cancellations. In the wake of the decision, newspaper op-eds and polemicists have engaged in a heated and speculative back-and-forth over Ramadan's supposed associations and rhetoric. Editorials in The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune have come to his defense or let him use their back pages as a pulpit.
Universities' right to leave academia open to whatever thought platform, no matter how volatile, remains endangered by "national security" concerns. This right has already been curtailed by the clumsy congressional HR 3077, which calls for government oversight of International Studies centers in order to meet the realities of "a post-9/11 world."
Many federally subsidized Middle East centers have said they'd rather forsake funding than sacrifice academic liberty. Acknowledging this ruling's effect on civil liberties, the State Department, which invited Ramadan to speak in the past, tried to control the damage by recommending he seek out a different kind of visa. The American Association of University Professors interpreted the last-minute ruling as a punishment for un-kosher views on the Iraq war and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Ramadan willfully sets out a fragile and tottering path, with difficult but worthwhile goals. He said in an impassioned New York Times op-ed: "My goal is to foster communities within the Islamic world that are seeking a path between their often bitter experience with some American and European policies on the one hand, and the unacceptable violence of Islamic extremists on the other."
He occupies a special cultural place, realistic only in a European immigrant's context. He opposes France's head-scarf ban on "general human rights grounds rather than because I am a Moslem." He condemns the Beslan atrocities and calls on France "not to submit to the blackmail of the kidnappers" in Iraq. He has responded to charges of fundamentalism by unearthing French hyper-secularism, a deceptively honorable way to align the Islamic community with France's monolithic secular tradition.
Ramadan, who started teaching at age 18, ascended to fame in Europe largely because of his youth appeal. The faces of teenage Muslims, pious and modern, light up at the mention of his name. He advocates for a reconciliation of Islam within secularism—in other words, religious identity as a human right. But does such a position infringe upon the separation between church and state, which guarantees security for religious minorities? Some French journalists like Christophe Ayad have said that "Ramadan does not want to integrate Islam into the Republic; he wants to integrate the Republic into Islam!" confirming fears of Muslim invasion already rampant in Italy. Ramadan does not deny being "fundamentalist," though for him the word means a return to the original, flexible Islam, a progressive movement encouraging personal interpretation.
Philosopher Cynthia Fleury wrote in the French daily Le Monde that Ramadan would make a "grand tele-Koranist" were he ever let into the United States. He has a French wife, who converted to Islam when she married him. The guardians of the secular establishment fear the same fate may befall the precious, white and virginal France.