In late September, I finally received a response to the question I had been asking the Bush administration for more than two years: Why was my work visa revoked in late July 2004, just days before I was to take up a position as a professor of Islamic studies and the Henry Luce chair of religion, conflict, and peace building at the University of Notre Dame? Initially neither I nor the university was told why; officials only made a vague reference to a provision of the U.S. Patriot Act that allows the government to exclude foreign citizens who have “endorsed or espoused terrorism.” Though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security eventually cleared me of all charges of links with terrorist groups, today it points to another reason to keep me out of the country: donations I made totaling approximately $900 to a Swiss Palestinian-support group that is now on the American blacklist. A letter I received from the American Embassy in Switzerland, where I hold citizenship, asserts that I “should reasonably have known” that the group had ties with Hamas.

What American officials do not say is that I myself had brought those donations to their attention, and that the organization in question continues to be officially recognized by the Swiss authorities (my donations were duly registered on my income-tax declaration). More important still is the fact that I contributed to the organization between 1998 and 2002, more than a year before it was blacklisted by the United States. It seems, according to American officials, that I “should reasonably have known” about the organization’s alleged activities before the Homeland Security Department itself knew!

I believe the administration refuses me entry into the United States because of my criticism of its Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel, which has led it to acquiesce in flouting Palestinian rights. And undeniably, some American groups that strongly support Israel and will allow no criticism of American foreign policy toward it have been highly critical of me. But academics, intellectuals, and organizations that have supported me — like the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Academy of Religion (I presented a keynote address to its annual meeting late last year by videoconference, since the administration would not let me enter the country to speak in person), the American Association of University Professors, and the PEN American Center — have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech, and they have continued to lend their weight to my legal appeal of the decision.

I am not the only person concerned. The “fear of ideas” that has taken root in the United States since September 11, 2001, with the refusal to grant visas to a number of academics and intellectuals, most of whom are Muslims, strikes at the very heart of American democracy. The muffling of critical opinion should be of immediate concern to all freethinking individuals. To accept such a state of affairs is to accept that the United States, in the name of the “global war on terror” and national security, requires all citizens to think the same way.

There are some subjects, so it seems, about which an American citizen or permanent resident must now maintain silence. A “moderate” Muslim, in particular, should never discuss the Middle East, the suffering of the Palestinians, or the arrogance of longstanding Israeli policy. To force people to accept such limitations is not only counterproductive, but, more important, it impoverishes the open debate American society so desperately needs. In an atmosphere of perpetual fear, tongues remain tied, while those who do encourage a thoroughgoing debate are simply expelled.

We must recognize that American society, like all Western societies, has changed. The diversity of its population has produced a diversity of political views with which we must come to terms, particularly with regard to the Middle East and to our relations with the countries that have an Islamic majority. Millions of Western citizens of the Muslim faith have brought a new outlook toward the world and toward Western policy. Their presence in our midst is a source of strength.

We in the West have entered a phase of transition, fraught with tension. Just as it is true that our societies must make major adjustments, it is equally essential that Muslims, who have been residing in the West for several generations, respond clearly to the challenges of the modern, secularized societies in which they have chosen to make their homes. For the last 20 years, I have been focusing my efforts on the ways that Muslims can live their lives in the West, becoming Western Muslims: Muslims by religion; American, British, French, German by culture.

To promote that view, I have found it necessary to revisit the Islamic scriptural sources. Some of what we highlight today as core principles of Islam derive from the specific cultures of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; we read our texts mainly against the backdrop of a period, since the 13th century, when Muslims in those areas were struggling against Western aggression. They emphasized withdrawing from the taint of the West and drew a border between two different worlds: “the abode of Islam” and “the abode of war.” That polarized understanding of the world, which relies on a specific reading of only some verses of the Quran and of Prophetic traditions, is outdated. (MORE)

Tariq Ramadan, formerly a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, is a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College and at the Lokahi Foundation for interfaith research and education in London, as well as a visiting professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. He is president of the European Muslim Network, in Brussels. His most recent book is In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons From the Life of Muhammad, published this month by Oxford University Press.


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