Why I Was Banned in the U.S.A.
by Tariq Ramadan
When the American embassy called in August 2004, I was just nine days away from starting a job at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I had already shipped my possessions from Geneva, Switzerland, where I was living, to Indiana, and enrolled my kids in a school near our new home. Suddenly, however, an embassy official was telling me my visa had been revoked. I was "welcome to reapply," the official said, but no reason was offered for my rejection. Sitting in a barren apartment, I decided the process had become too unpredictable; I didn't want to keep my family in limbo, so I resigned my professorship before it began. I launched a legal battle instead.
It was hardly a fight I had expected. Less than a year earlier, the State Department had invited me to speak in Washington, D.C., and introduced me as a "moderate" Muslim intellectual who denounced terrorism and attacks against civilians. Now it was banning me from U.S. soil under a provision of the Patriot Act that allows for "ideological exclusions." My offense, it seemed, had been to forcefully criticize America's support for Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. accused me of endorsing terrorism through my words and funding it through donations to a Swiss charity with alleged ties to Gaza. Civil-liberties groups challenged my case in court for almost six years until, in late January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped the allegations against me, effectively ending my ban.
In early April I will make my first public appearance in the U.S., at New York City's Cooper Union, participating in a panel discussion about Muslims. While it's a victory of sorts, the fight is not over. Numerous foreign scholars remain banned from U.S. soil. Until the section of the Patriot Act that kept me out of the country is lifted, more people will suffer the same fate. 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.
In my case, criticizing America's Middle East policies cast doubt on my loyalty to Western values and cost me a job. But prejudice may ultimately cost the U.S. more. By creating divisions and disregarding its values, even in the name of security, America tells the world that it is frightened and unstable—above all, vulnerable. In the long term, it also reinforces the religious, cultural, and social isolation of minority groups, encouraging the very kind of disloyalty that these ideological exclusions are meant to prevent.
It's not the first time America has tried to shield itself from dissenting opinions. During the Cold War, dozens of overseas artists, activists, and intellectuals—including British novelist Doris Lessing, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez—were denied visas because of their left-leaning ideas. Today, though, the American concept of the "other" has taken on a relatively new and specific form: the Muslim. America must face the reality that, in the West, many adherents to Islam demonstrate loyalty to democratic values through criticism. While violence must always be condemned, such debate must be encouraged if those values are to last.
Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and author of What I Believe.