Shutting out a voice for Islam

By Diana L. Eck  |  February 2, 2006

WHY IS THE American Academy of Religion, with more
than 10,000 members who teach religion in colleges and
universities, suing Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael
Chertoff? It takes a matter of grave concern for an
academy of scholars who study everything from the
Bible to Buddhists to join the American Civil
Liberties Union in bringing a case against the US
government. The concern is this: Our colleague, Tariq
Ramadan, an Islamic scholar and theologian, has been
barred from entering the United States to participate
in the discussion of one of the most important topics
of today: contemporary Islam in the West.

For 18 months, the government has withheld his visa on
the basis of the ''ideological exclusion" provision of
the Patriot Act, interpreted so broadly as to be a
danger to the enterprise of debate and exchange in a
free society.

At first it seemed an ignorant mistake. Ramadan, a
Swiss national of Egyptian ancestry, had previously
lectured at universities and attended conferences in
the United States. But in August 2004, he suddenly had
his visa revoked by the Department of Homeland
Security on the eve of his departure to teach at Notre
Dame. Those of us who had known and admired his work
were astounded. He was at the top of my reading list
as an articulate spokesman for Islamic engagement in
civil society and in the dialogue of religions. I had
met Ramadan that summer at the Parliament of the
World's Religions in Barcelona. I looked forward to
hearing his plenary address at the annual meeting of
the American Academy of Religion in November 2004. So
why would the US government revoke the visa of a
scholar whose entire body of work was dedicated to an
emergent ''reformist" Islam? Why would the United
States deny entry to someone able to contribute
constructively to public discussion in Western
countries with growing Muslim populations?

That very summer, Rice had spoken at the US Institute
of Peace, calling for the United States to
dramatically expand ''our efforts to support and
encourage the voices of moderation and tolerance and
pluralism within the Muslim world." So why would she
be party to the exclusion of one of the most prominent
of these voices?

The government has invoked a provision of the Patriot
Act that allows it to deny a visa to anyone who
''endorses" or ''espouses" terrorism. It is chilling
to see that this provision has been interpreted to ban
a prominent intellectual who has been a consistent
public critic of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Of course the government has and should have the power
to exclude known terrorists. But this provision of the
Patriot Act is being used to exclude people whose
voices the government does not want us to hear and to
block critics of US policies from engaging in public
discussion and academic debate.

In November 2004, Ramadan did deliver that keynote
address, sitting at a bare table somewhere in Canada,
speaking to us on a large-screen video monitor.
Ramadan articulated the themes he has long emphasized.
He spoke of the ''new reality" of American Muslims and
of the importance of being ''fully Muslim and fully
American." Without a trace of bitterness, he spoke of
the ''ethics of citizenship" and participation as
Western Muslims. Western Muslims must be able to say
''This is our country. It is not an alien space in
which we forever perceive ourselves as foreigners. It
is our home." He spoke of the ''silent revolution" of
reformist Islam taking place today. And he spoke of
the critical significance of interfaith dialogue,
grounded for him in the Muslim doctrine of tawhid, the
oneness of God. It was a stirring message by a Muslim
theologian of the stature of a Reinhold Niebuhr or
Paul Tillich, delivered to us from the other side of
the walls we ourselves have built. While heartened by
his message, I felt saddened, ashamed, and fearful for
my country.

The study and analysis of religion is indisputably
important in the world in which we live today.
Religious and theological studies are integral to the
curriculum of more than 2,000 colleges, universities,
and seminaries across the country. Our community of
colleagues is global. Denying us face-to-face access
to scholars and theologians who contribute to critical
reflection on the religious currents of our world is
an intolerable impoverishment of the academic

Diana L. Eck, a professor of comparative religion at
Harvard University, is president of the American
Academy of Religion.
 Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.


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