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Saturday, September 30, 2006

You Can't Say That Here

Should the government ban some people from the U.S. because they promote ideas that are too dangerous for us to hear? I think we're losing sight of what freedom means:

Why I'm Banned in the USA, by Tariq Ramadan, Washington Post, London: For more than two years now, the U.S. government has barred me from entering the United States to pursue an academic career. The reasons have changed over time, and have evolved from defamatory to absurd...

I am increasingly convinced that the Bush administration has barred me [because of] my political views. In recent years, I have publicly criticized U.S. policy in the Middle East, the war in Iraq, the use of torture, secret CIA prisons and other government actions that undermine fundamental civil liberties. And for many years, ... I have called upon Muslims to better understand the principles of their own faith, and have sought to show that one can be Muslim and Western at the same time.

My experience reveals how U.S. authorities seek to suppress dissenting voices and -- by excluding people such as me from their country -- manipulate political debate in America. Unfortunately, the U.S. government's paranoia has evolved far beyond a fear of particular individuals and taken on a much more insidious form: the fear of ideas.

In January 2004, I was offered a job at the University of Notre Dame, as a professor of Islamic studies and as Luce professor of religion, conflict and peace-building. I accepted the tenured position enthusiastically... After the government granted me a work visa, I rented a home in South Bend, Ind., enrolled my children in school there and shipped all of my household belongings. Then, in July, the government notified me that my visa had been revoked. It did not offer a specific explanation, but pointed to a provision of the Patriot Act that applies to people who have "endorsed or espoused" terrorist activity.

The revocation shocked me. I had consistently opposed terrorism in all of its forms, and still do. And, before 2004, I had visited the United States frequently to lecture, attend conferences and meet with other scholars. I had been an invited speaker at conferences or lectures sponsored by Harvard University, Stanford, Princeton and the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Foundation. None of these institutions seemed to consider me a threat to national security.

The U.S. government invited me to apply for a new visa and, with Notre Dame's help, I did so in October 2004. But after three months passed without a response, I felt I had little choice but to give up my new position and resume my life in Europe. Even so, I never abandoned the effort to clear my name. At the urging of American academic and civic groups, I reapplied for a visa one last time in September 2005... Once again, I encountered only silence.

Finally, in January, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center filed a lawsuit on my behalf... In court, the government's lawyers admitted that they could establish no connection between me and any terrorist group; the government had merely taken a "prudential" measure by revoking my visa... The federal court -- which issued a ruling recognizing that I have been a vocal critic of terrorism -- ... ordered the government to grant me a visa or explain why it would not do so.

On Sept. 21, the long-awaited explanation arrived. The letter from the U.S. Embassy informed me that my visa application had been denied... After a lengthy investigation, the State Department cited no evidence of suspicious relationships, no meetings with terrorists, no encouraging or advocacy of terrorism. Instead, the department cited my donation of $940 to two humanitarian organizations (a French group and its Swiss chapter) serving the Palestinian people. I should note that the investigation did not reveal these contributions. As the department acknowledges, I had brought this information to their attention myself, two years earlier, when I had reapplied for a visa.

In its letter, the U.S. Embassy claims that I "reasonably should have known" that the charities in question provided money to Hamas. But my donations were made between December 1998 and July 2002, and the United States did not blacklist the charities until 2003. How should I reasonably have known of their activities before the U.S. government itself knew? I donated to these organizations for the same reason that countless Europeans -- and Americans, for that matter -- donate to Palestinian causes: not to help fund terrorism, but because I wanted to provide humanitarian aid to people who desperately need it. Yet after two years of investigation, this was the only explanation offered for the denial of my visa. I still find it hard to believe.

What words do I utter and what views do I hold that are dangerous to American ears, so dangerous, in fact, that I should not be allowed to express them on U.S. soil?

I have called upon Western societies to be more open toward Muslims... At the same time, I do not stop short of criticizing regimes from Muslim countries. Indeed, the United States is not the only country that rejects me; I am also barred from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and even my native Egypt. ...

Today, I live and work in London. From my posts at Oxford University and the Lokahi Foundation, I try to promote cultural understanding and to prevent radicalization within Muslim communities here. Along with many British citizens, I have criticized the country's new security laws and its support for the war in Iraq. Yet I have never been asked to remain silent as a condition to live or work here. I can express myself freely.

I fear that the United States has grown fearful of ideas. I have learned firsthand that the Bush administration reacts to its critics not by engaging them, but by stigmatizing and excluding them. Will foreign scholars be permitted to enter the United States only if they promise to mute their criticisms of U.S. policy? It saddens me to think of the effect this will have on the free exchange of ideas, on political debate within America, and on our ability to bridge differences across cultures.

I can't figure out how I ended up in bizarro world where liberals are upset at government intrusion into the private sector, something that is supported and encouraged by conservatives. Even libertarians are largely silent as the government stomps on the marketplace for ideas and engages in other intrusions. And that's just the tip of the bizarro world iceberg these days. There's torture before we know if people are innocent or guilty, spying on private citizens without warrants, throwing people in jail without the right to contest it in court, all sorts of stuff that could only exist in some alternative up is down, bad is good universe. Seriously, this can't be real. Hopefully, it will be like the good Captain Kirk-evil Captain Kirk Star Trek episodes and things will be back to normal by the end of the episode.

    Posted by on Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 05:23 PM in Economics, Policy, Politics, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (7)

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