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Why exclude a Muslim voice?

By Diana L. Ecka
The New York Times
September 4, 2004

Two weeks ago on C-Span, I heard Condoleezza Rice say, "We must expand dramatically our efforts to support and encourage the voices of moderation and tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim world." Yet, such a person, Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, slated to teach at Notre Dame this fall, was denied entry to the United States by the Department of Homeland Security.

His visa, issued in February, has been revoked without explanation, except for the statement that it is permissible to bar those who have used a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity."

With 30,000 Muslims gathering in Chicago this weekend for the Isla mic Society of North America, this controversy will be high on the agenda. Ramadan was to speak at the meeting. Muslim Americans deserve to hear something more substantive from our government than accusations levied by the likes of commentator Daniel Pipes.

I write as a scholar who believes Ramadan's progressive voice is critical for all of us Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I have read the books of Ramadan, including "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam," and "Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity," and I heard Ramadan speak at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona in July. He relentlessly espouses the opposite of terrorism -- the hard work of intercultural, interreligious bridge-building. As a scholar who looks for progressive voices that tackle the challenges of religious pluralism, there are few whose voice is clearer and more important than Ramadan's.

Yes, Ramadan's Egyptian grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religio-political organization that has been described as "fundamentalist." Is this reason to bar him from the United States? Ramadan has reflected often about the different contexts of his life and that of the colonial Egypt of his grandfather. And, yes, Ramadan has openly criticized his French intellectual colleagues, many of them Jewish, for not speaking out against the policies of Prime Minister Sharon and the US invasion of Iraq. He was then accused of anti-Semitism, though he has inveighed against every kind of anti-Semitism.

Just what, then, in the work of Ramadan would warrant signaling the entire Muslim world that America is now off-limits to a renowned scholar, so well-known for his reformist vision that he has been called a "Muslim Martin Luther."

Ramadan's voice is distinctive, challenging Muslims in Europe and the United States to claim the universal principles of Islam and yet let go of their defensive minority consciousness and be active citizens of the nations in which they live. It may make some Muslims (and non-Muslims) uneasy to hear Ramadan speak forcefully of the West as "home," to speak not of "us" versus "them," but of all of us.

He writes, "Too few Muslims are able un-self-consciously to take an intellectual position that acknowledges that one is speaking from home, as it were, as an accepted member of a free society, and in full awareness of that with causes and fundamental values that must be respected."

Ramadan also challenges Muslims and non-Muslims to serious dialogue, to the give and take of a real relationship so badly needed in the world. He addresses the problems of religious difference and the potential of interreligious cooperation. He is critical and self-critical, and, of course, he runs the risk of offense.

For example, he bluntly states that intra-communal dialogue among Muslims is "virtually nonexistent," that Muslims deal with their own internal differences by exclusion and insult, and have all but lost the culture of dialogue. The rest of us have not done so well either.

Restoring a culture of dialogue in a world of religious difference is the project to which Ramadan has dedicated his life. Like many Muslims, he cites the Koranic verse, "O people, we have divided you into nations and tribes so that you might know one another."

Ramadan has said, "Knowing the other is a process that is unavoidable if fear of difference is to be overcome and mutual respect is to be attained. So human beings live a test that they can master by making the effort to know and recognize those who are not of their tribe, their country, their race, or their religion. Dialogue, particularly interreligious dialogue, is indispensable."

To bar Ramadan sends a signal of paranoia. The most progressive, engaged, dialogical voices are essential to the robust discussion of issues. How can America encourage "the voices of moderation and tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim world" when, because of fearful ignorance, we insult and exclude them?

Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

Deutsche Muslim-Liga Bonn e.V. - 1425 / 2004