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A Visa Revoked

Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page A22

IN ITS ESSENCE, the State Department's recent decision to revoke the visa of Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar who was to begin teaching this fall at the University of Notre Dame, resembles visa decisions that the State Department hands out every day. Many of these seem capricious. Those who are refused visas are often not told why or are given explanations so brief as to be meaningless. Not surprisingly, U.S. visa policy evokes resentment around the world.

In Mr. Ramadan's case, however, there are a few important differences. For one, his work visa was revoked under a section of immigration law that refers specifically to terrorist activities. Spokesmen from the State and Homeland Security departments point out that this section refers to people who are a "public safety risk or a national security threat." According to the State Department, the decision to revoke the visa was made abruptly because "new information" came to light about Mr. Ramadan in the past few weeks. DHS, while confirming that Homeland Security officials were the source of at least some information, refuses to say what it was, referring callers to the State Department, which also refuses to "comment on the specifics of this or any other case."

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The case is also different because of who Mr. Ramadan is: a Muslim scholar who has consistently argued for an Islamic "reformation" and a reconciliation of Muslim and Western cultures. Mr. Ramadan, a citizen of Switzerland, has lectured many times in the United States, including at the State Department and, he says, at events organized by former president Bill Clinton. Far from having an extremist or fanatical reputation, he is usually described as a leading moderate -- exactly the sort of person, in other words, with whom dialogue should be encouraged.

It may be, as some have alleged, that Mr. Ramadan has dodgy connections to some who are extremists, in which case the government was within its rights to exclude him. Or it could be, as others have alleged, that his visa was revoked after lobbying by people who dislike his views on U.S. policy in the Middle East. If so, this would not be the first time that "information" about sensitive immigrants was influenced by domestic political concerns. Because we are prevented from knowing anything about it, we can only say that if this is the case, and Mr. Ramadan is not a threat to national security, then a terrible, damaging mistake has occurred: The U.S. government has stated, in effect, that influential people whose views annoy other influential people will not be welcome in this country, no matter how eminent they may be. We hope that is not the case, and we wish we felt more certain that it were not.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company