off the cuff:

Reversal in the case of Tariq Ramadan

posted by The Editors

Off the cuff is a new feature at The Immanent Frame, in which we pose a question to a handful of leading thinkers and ask for a brief response. Our first question concerns the case of Tariq Ramadan.

<br />As the New York Times reported Friday, a federal appeals court has reversed a lower court ruling that allowed the government to bar Ramadan from entering the United States in 2004. A prominent Muslim scholar, Ramadan was set to take a position as Luce Professor of Religion at the University of Notre Dame when the Bush administration revoked his visa.

In a 2006 complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of Ramadan and other parties, the plaintiffs argued that “the government’s unlawful actions stifle intellectual exchange about Islam and the Muslim world at a time when robust and unfettered intellectual exchange about these subjects is of extraordinary importance to American citizens and others living in the United States.”

In light of the new developments in the case, we asked: what are the potential implications of the Ramadan case for both academic freedom and public discussions of Islam in the United States?

Our panelists:

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

Mohammed Bamyeh, Professor of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh

Richard W. Bulliet, Professor of History, Columbia University

Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council, University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University and Director of its Institute for Public Knowledge

John L. Esposito, University Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Professor of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Mark Juergensmeyer, Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and President of the American Academy of Religion

Arvind Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University


<br />Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

I celebrate this reversal of an outrageous and utterly counterproductive denial of visa for Tariq Ramadan for the obvious benefits of academic freedom and free debate for a better-informed American public opinion and policy regarding Islam and Muslims. What is much more significant in my view is the fact that an American court has ruled against the government of the United States to uphold the right of a foreign national to due process of law.

This level of commitment to the rule of law and independence of the judiciary is not only the essential standard the United States must uphold for itself, but is also the best response to the threat of terrorism at the most practical level. Whatever apprehensions some may have had about what Tariq Ramadan or anyone else might say, it is better to have that presented and debated openly and publicly than suppressed. My point is not about the “good example” the United States should set for the rest of the world, but it is about what is necessary for the survival of the United States itself.

I expect there are those who may wonder about, or even resent, the fact that I am celebrating the persistence of such an elementary level of the rule of law in the United States, as if they are saying: this is only to be expected from American courts. To that way of thinking I say: it is such arrogant complacency that brought the United States to the edge of the abyss we are now hopefully recovering from. The only way we can hope to continue enjoying our fundamental rights is never to take any of them for granted.

It may sound counterintuitive, but I say everyday: God bless the ACLU.

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<br />Mohammed Bamyeh, Professor of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh

The case of Tariq Ramadan was a brazen example of the previous administration’s effort to silence all alternative voices when it came to discussing Islam and Muslims in the US. Whatever we may think of Ramadan, he represents an important dimension of modern Islamic thought, one that is capable of dialogue with alternative views and thus of expanding the repertoire of available conceptions of Islam in the public sphere. With this verdict we are making our way, once more, to some expectation that freedom of thought and the broadening of the range of debate, always necessary, are especially so in times of crises.

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<br />Richard W. Bulliet, Professor of History, Columbia University

The bar on granting a visa to Tariq Ramadan was, from the outset, blatantly in contradiction of American free speech principles. So there are no grounds for quarreling with the new court ruling. The broader question is whether the ruling will set a precedent for such cases. Mr. Ramadan is not the only Muslim with fresh and debatable ideas. It is essential that the United States government not put itself in the position of determining which ideas merit applause and which are undesirable. The same standards that apply to political or religious expression by American-born citizens should apply to Muslims seeking visas to come to this country. The more vigorous the intellectual debates within the Muslim world, the more likely that solutions may arise to some of our current problems of intercultural discord.

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<br />Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council, University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University and Director of its Institute for Public Knowledge

Tariq Ramadan is a distinguished theologian and scholar of religion. He is an important voice within Islam and also in relations between Muslims and others. Born in Switzerland, Ramadan now teaches at Oxford and is very much a European. So why did the US government repeatedly block his application for a visa?

After 9/11 the Bush administration flailed about trying to find a response to a terrorist threat that would recognize its genuine connection to Islam without becoming anti-Islamic. Clearly they failed, but on the way they tried not just pre-emptive wars but actions against everyone who had given to Islamic charities that according to the US government allowed funds to find their way to “terrorist organizations.” Ramadan gave money to Islamic charities that worked to provide care for Palestinians. The charities gave some funding to Hamas, which is condemned as a terrorist organization for the violent form of its resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestine, but which is also the elected government in Gaza and has long been a provider of medical and other services. Ramadan may or may not have known aid went to Hamas.

There is a knotty local question about how to “constructively engage” Hamas in the pursuit of both peace in the Middle East and humanitarian care for suffering Palestinians. There is a broader question about whether it is helpful to condemn as “terrorist” whole organizations with multiple purposes and projects—Hezbollah is another—rather than condemning specifically terrorist actions as such and working to make sure avenues are open for peaceful social change.

Neither of these questions makes sense of blocking visas for the very wide range of peaceful Muslims who make charitable donations to help Palestinians. This sort of action needlessly makes the US appear to be anti-Islamic. It will be a very good thing if the Obama administration puts a stop to the entire policy—now that a court has made clear that due process still applies in Ramadan’s case.

A longer comment appears on Craig Calhoun’s page at the SSRC.

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<br />John L. Esposito, University Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Professor of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

It’s about time. The Tariq Ramadan decision is a hopeful sign for academics and public intellectuals of an end to the McCarthy-like atmosphere in recent years. Strident voices of the hardcore political and Religious Right in the media and on Islamophobic and other hate websites have dominated our public discussion of Islam and threatened academic freedom in order to intimidate, discredit and silence dissent.

The Appeals Court decision in the Tariq Ramadan visa case will be welcomed by all who believe in academic freedom and civil liberties in America. Like other victims of the Bush legacy, Ramadan and his family have suffered personal, financial and professional costs that are irreparable. For America, the costs of the Bush administration’s eight year abuse of power have been documented brilliantly by David Cole, in his book Less Safe, Less Free. The challenge now to the Obama administration is to pursue the president’s stated intention to return America to the principles and values that make us strong. Will the Justice Department and Homeland Security now review similar cases of abuse of power, of Secret Evidence and the Patriot Act, made in the name of national security, such as that of Professor Sami Al-Arian and many others? It is time!

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<br />Mark Juergensmeyer, Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and President of the American Academy of Religion

Tariq Ramadan is finally free to travel to America. Not that he would want to, considering that the previous US administration seemed to go out of its way to insult him and the many scholarly institutions and associations that had invited him to speak in the US. Among them was the American Academy of Religion, the largest association of scholars in religious studies in the world, for which I serve as this year’s president. We joined the ACLU suit and are gratified that after five years sensible minds have finally agreed that giving a few dollars to a Palestinian charity did not make the distinguished European scholar a terrorist. But we got tired of waiting for this decision. Because our annual meeting this year will be in Montreal—which at last check is not in US legal territory—we were able to invite him earlier this year to address a plenary session to speak before thousands of religious studies scholars from North America on the general topic of Islam and modernity. Professor Ramadan generously agreed to do so, promising to be with us in Montreal this coming November, and showing that he is not only a great scholar but a forgiving soul. Now that he will be free to speak anywhere in the United States we can only hope that this is a signal that a new era of civil liberties and protection of basic rights has begun to return to the land of the free.

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<br />Arvind Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University

Most readers of this website will probably applaud the decision of a federal appeals court regarding Tariq Ramadan’s entry to the US, as I do. It is a good thing when the courts check the US government’s failure to provide evidence for its actions, and when they question judgments that sanction such failure. Accused of making donations to an organization with terrorist connections, Ramadan has said to the court in his defense, “I have condemned terrorism at every opportunity,” and his writings, speeches and interviews abundantly confirm it.

Not only was Ramadan expressing his own views, he was also acknowledging the obligation to denounce something that is considered so heinous that it constitutes an exception to American rights to freedom of speech, and justifies reversing customary legal procedure. In Anglo-American law one is innocent until proven guilty, but under the USA Patriot Act, if the suspicion of terrorism alights on anyone, one is guilty until proven innocent. One would have to prove that there is no evidence anywhere in the world connecting one to terrorism, and in an infinite universe, any proof will always be finite and hence inadequate. Therefore one has to rely on the principle of charity, extrapolating from available evidence to allay fears about one’s invisible motives and dispositions, and ask for mercy. This is what Ramadan has to do. He must continue to plead his innocence, and protest the accusations, and he will have to go on doing that in Notre Dame and elsewhere, if he is allowed to enter the US. He is already doing that in Europe of course, so he is no stranger to such treatment, unfortunately.

The US had a similar set of provisions under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, whereby one was obliged to forswear links to Communism or to any Communist Party (which was usually rendered in the singular, as “the Communist Party” since, like the principle of good, evil too was understood to be fundamentally the same everywhere). Across successive legislation, the necessity to disown and denounce Communism remains in effect and even today, naturalization petitions must include it, although the ideological provisions of the Act were formally repealed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

One does not need to be a Communist or a terrorist to notice the problem in this procedure. It is enough to categorize someone as one or the other to taint them. The word category derives from the Greek kategorein, to accuse or assert in a public assembly. Once accused, one is trapped within the limits of the category with no escape, and unless aided by the spirit of charity, deliberative reason cannot, strictly speaking, act as remedy. Am I the only one reminded of witch-hunting, where accusation, deliberation, judgment and sentencing could be rolled into one act? So Ramadan is not a terrorist—unless the lower court finds that he still might be. And then what? As long as witch-hunting is still in season, our applause should be muted.

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4 Responses to “Reversal in the case of Tariq Ramadan”

  1. avatar Darryl Li says:

    The plaintiffs and the ACLU deserve congratulations for their hard-fought victory. But one may wish to inject a note of caution: The Second Circuit decision does not automatically grant Mr. Ramadan a visa. Rather, it instructs the lower court to rehear the case with a new set of instructions for how to interpret the relevant statute. These instructions include two elements that should give all of us pause:

    First, the court confirmed that designations of organizations as “terrorist groups” can have retroactive effect for the purposes of the relevant statute. So the fact that the charity Mr. Ramadan donated to was perfectly legal under Swiss law and not designated by the US as a ‘terrorist’ group until years later is immaterial.

    Second, the court placed the burden on Mr. Ramadan—NOT the government—to show “by clear and convincing evidence” that he did not know “or reasonably should not have known” that the organization he was supporting was involved in “terrorism.” In other words, he has to prove a negative regarding his state of knowledge.

    It may be that Mr. Ramadan can nevertheless prevail under this standard. But as a precedent that will affect other—less famous, less fortunate—individuals, it is entirely consistent with the disturbing exclusionary patterns that have characterized the expanding national security state in recent decades. The present administration has shown little or no inclination to significantly change this state of affairs.

  2. avatar Jytte Klausen says:

    The revocation of Professor Ramadan’s visa was a shameful incident that caused much harm to the United States’ international reputation because of the all too apparent violation of first principles.

    The alleged violation associated with Professor Ramadan’s charitable contribution remains an unchallenged example of ex post facto enforcement of an expanded definition what constitutes a prohibited offense under terrorism legislation.

    We can be happy Professor Ramadan can travel freely, but uncomfortable questions linger about the capacity of our courts to withstand political pressure.

    Jytte Klausen, Brandeis University.

  3. avatar Marian Ronan says:

    With all of your panelists, I welcome the Second Court decision regarding Professor Ramadan. But I am grateful to Darryl Li for pointing out that the decision does not automatically grant him a visa. It seems that we must keep up the pressure so that this state of affairs, shameful for US scholars and society at large, will not be extended.

  4. avatar Keoni Akana says:

    It seems that you want only one point of view expressed here as all of your “leading thinkers” and commenters have done. Some day you might think about allowing alternate points of view as well.

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