Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, November 28, 2004
by Susan Ives

In his 1973 book “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam described how firing most of the State Department’s Far East experts during McCarthy-era witch hunts left a gap in knowledge and experience that inexorably led to the quagmire in Vietnam.

Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief. Now that we understand the implications of cutting ourselves off from the very expertise we need in time of war and crisis, we’ll never be stupid enough to pull that stunt again.

Or will we?

Last Sunday, Dr. Tariq Ramadan was scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. His visa was denied.

The disappointed scholars attending the conference in San Antonio saw him via a live video feed. The moderator told him he got a standing ovation. He was touched.

Ramadan, a Swiss-born Islamic scholar, quit his job as a professor at the University of Fribourg to accept a yearlong visiting professorship at Notre Dame. In August, four days before he, his wife and four children were scheduled to fly to the United States, the State Department rescinded his visa at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security.

He reapplied seven weeks ago and is still awaiting a decision. All the Ramadans’ stuff — from bed linens to his daughter’s toys — is sitting in a warehouse in Indiana.

Neither Ramadan nor Notre Dame has been given an explanation of why his visa was pulled. He’s visited the United States 30 times in the past four years, he said, and in 2000 was named one of Time Magazine’s most important innovators for the 21st century. He considers himself a reformer and has been called the Islamic Martin Luther.

He speculated the visa was rescinded based on incendiary French reports that have erroneously claimed that he has spoken in favor of violence and that terrorists have attended some of his classes.

“I have nothing to do with violence. I have nothing to do with terrorism. I have nothing to do with alleged relationships with these people,” he said in an interview prior to his conference address.

Scholarly groups have petitioned in support of Ramadan. In August, the executive directors of the American Academy of Religion and the Middle East Studies Association of North America wrote, “There is absolutely nothing in the public record regarding Dr. Ramadan, or in his scholarly production, that would indicate any basis whatsoever for such allegations.”

Ramadan maintains it is both possible and desirable to be fully Muslim and fully Western. His two English-language books — “To Be a European Muslim” (1999) and “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” (2004) — expand on this theme.

Ramadan embraces Western culture. He is Swiss. He is European. His undergraduate degree is in French literature, which he claims as his own. He believes Western Muslims will play an important role in importing the Western values of justice, democracy and freedom to the Islamic world.

He sees himself a builder of bridges, not only between Islam and the West but also among Islamic traditions.

Perhaps Ramdan’s most articulate defender is Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy. He wrote, “Few other leaders connect to the disaffected Muslim youth of America, Europe and the Middle East like he does. He offers them hope and a vision for living as Muslims in the 21st century, for being true to their Islamic heritage, culture, and faith while embracing modern, progressive, and democratic values and ideals. If somebody like Tariq Ramadan did not exist, the U.S. would have needed to invent him.”

We don’t have to invent him. We just have to reinstate his visa, allow him his year at Notre Dame and pay attention to his refreshingly contemporary vision of an Islam that is fully integrated with the best of American values.

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