Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Ideological Exclusion" Still A Problem

CAIR-Chicago is honored to have Tariq Ramadan as the keynote speaker at our 6th Annual Banquet on April, 10th. Having him speak will be a monumental occasion not only because of his decades of scholarly work, but also because this will be Tariq Ramadan's first time in the United States since being unjustly banned from in 2004 under the Bush Administration.

Despite Mr. Ramadan's outspoken, consistent, and firm condemnation of all forms of terrorism and extremism, his extensive work on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and his critiques of less-than-democratic systems such as in Egypt, his visa was suddenly and inexplicably revoked in August of 2004. He was just days away from beginning his tenured teaching position at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Since the revocation of his visa, Mr. Ramadan was appointed to work on the U.K.'s government task force to examine the roots of extremism in Great Britain, was named one of Time Magazine's "Top 100 Innovators," and was in 2009 ranked one of Foreign Policy Magazine's "Top Global Thinkers" all of which demonstrate his broad-reaching respectability.

Although Mr. Ramadan was initially offered no explanation as to why his visa was revoked, it was later revealed that he was banned under the "ideological exclusions" provision (section 411) of the U.S. Patriot Act which states that any alien who "used their position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization, in a way that the Secretary of State has determined undermines United States efforts to reduce or eliminate terrorist activities."

What this means in that the Secretary of State can decide who is allowed over the border and who isn't based on his or her threat perception, which the actions of individuals have no real bearing, but instead their rhetoric does. Apparently Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice perceived Mr. Ramadan's critical views on the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to somehow threaten American national security. This was allowed to happen, the ACLU asserts, because "the [U.S.] government is using the [ideological exclusions] provision more broadly to deny entry to people whose political views it disfavors" and that "the government's use of the statute to exclude Professor Ramadan is illustrative of the statute's malleability and reach."

With this broad interpretation being used, not only Tariq Ramadan, but dozens of other foreign scholars have been denied access into the U.S. In light of this border censorship, in 2006 the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging this particular section of the Patriot Act charging the provision was "being used to prevent United States citizens and residents from hearing speech that is protected by the First Amendment." Also, in March of 2009 a coalition of 75 civil rights and professional organizations including the ACLU, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Muslim Bar Association of New York, and Feminists for Free Expression wrote to then newly-appointed Secretary of State Clinton stressing their concerns and urging action in regards to "ideological exclusion." Ms. Clinton was asked to re-examine the cases of several prominent scholars whose visas were revoked, and to end the practice of censorship by banning scholars who are critical of U.S. policy.

This January, Secretary of State Clinton signed orders lifting the ban on Tariq Ramadan, as well as University of Johannesburg professor, Adam Habib, allowing them to reapply for visas. Since January, both have successfully obtained 10-year visas and can once again freely travel to the U.S.

Yes, this should be seen as a major success and the Obama administration must be commended for their efforts in commencing the beginning of the end of a dark era of censorship. But we must also remember that this is just the beginning of a process. Though Mr. Ramadan, and Mr. Habib were fortunate enough to be allowed back into the country, many still have not. And even if the bans are lifted on every single scholar, there is no true victory until this section of the Patriot Act is reformed or repealed altogether.

In Tariq Ramadan's own words "although the exclusions are carried out in the name of security and stability, they actually threaten both by closing off the open, critical, and constructive dialogue that once defined this country." Indeed, freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and vivacious debate are all what set this country apart and make it so great. Just as we got through the embarrassing era McCarthyism during the cold war when scholars and artists with dissenting viewpoints had their visas revoked, Secretary of State Clinton has signaled that perhaps the end is near for this new wave of "ideological exclusion" and will thereby make the past several years a mere blemish on the nation's greater history.

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