A Muslim scholar trying to shape a theologically honest means for Muslims to live at peace in the West can’t get a visa to visit the United States. The State Department may be its own worst enemy.

Tariq Ramadan was one of four prominent scholars to address a January conference “Religion and Violence: Untangling the Roots of Conflict,” at Trinity Church in New York City. Denied a visa, he spoke by video link from London.

Called a Muslim Martin Luther, Ramadan is caught in a political no man’s land. Our government doesn’t trust him, and he has angered the radical wing of the Muslim world. He is trying to shape a philosophical foundation for Muslims to be faithful, embrace the Koran and live peacefully in Western Europe and America. That puts his life at risk from radicals and, apparently, makes him suspect in Washington.

“To apply the Sharia (Muslim law) for Muslim residents in the West means explicitly to respect the legal and constitutional framework of the country of which they are citizens,” he wrote in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Our government would not let him come to New York to say that. To be sure, Ramadan has a scary history. His grandfather founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been fertile ground for Al Qaeda. He’s been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, and he may have given money to a charity that supports Hamas.

Still, he is a Swiss citizen and senior research fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Notre Dame tried to hire him, but, again, no visa. Time named him one of the 100 innovators for the 21st century, and his consistent theme is the future of Islam in a pluralistic society.

Trinity Church is hardly a terrorist center. It has been a respected institution in American life for more than 200 years. Other speakers, James Carroll, Suzanne Heschel, James Cone and the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, bear witness to the high level of scholarship and diversity.

Ramadan said that the highest objective of Islam is peace, and there is no peace without forgiveness.

“Religion teaches us forgiveness. I think the Christian understands exactly what I mean, and the Jew understands exactly what I mean. It’s a universal message. Let us come to this common ground,” he said.

The State Department is apparently so frightened of such speech from a Muslim scholar that it denies him a visa. God help us.


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