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The Ban on a Muslim Scholar

By Paul Donnelly
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page A25

Tariq Ramadan, a professor at the College of Geneva and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, is the author of a book that is perhaps the most hopeful work of Muslim theology in the past thousand years. This month he was to come to America to take the position of Luce professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, when suddenly his visa was revoked. Apparently Notre Dame didn't realize what a dangerous man it was getting.

Ramadan's grandfather was Hasan Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ramadan's own views on the role of his faith, published in his book, "To Be a European Muslim," directly confront the alienation of Islam from modernity. Ramadan argues that the "us vs. them" vision of Islam, exponentially exaggerated by Osama bin Laden's demented Wahhabism, derives not from the Koran but from a worldview that is 10 centuries out of date.

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When I interviewed Ramadan not long after Sept. 11, 2001, I asked what alternative he could offer Muslims. The true vision of Islam, he said, is not a snapshot of the world three centuries after the death of the prophet, but rather the unchanging Koran itself: "dar ash-Shahada," the "House of Witness," in which believers and unbelievers alike compete in doing good deeds to prove the truth.

Notre Dame officials insist that they have reviewed every charge against the Swiss scholar and agree with the likes of Scotland Yard and Swiss intelligence, which have found them to be groundless.

Ramadan has been attacked for "anti-Semitism." Why? Because of an article on French communalism that included this sentence: "French Jewish intellectuals whom we had thought of until then as universalist thinkers [have started] to develop analyses increasingly oriented toward a communitarian concern."

Set this statement beside an essay on anti-Semitism by Ramadan, in which he writes the following: "Nothing in Islam can legitimize xenophobia or the rejection of a human being due to his/her religious creed or ethnicity. One must say unequivocally, with force, that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and indefensible."

The official reason for revoking Ramadan's visa is the USA Patriot Act's provisions for those who have prominently espoused or endorsed terrorist activity. Ramadan has been dogged by rumors for years -- that he knew bin Laden as a boy ("no"), that terrorists attend his classes ("I don't know who is listening to me when I give a lecture in front of thousands of people"), that he arranged a meeting with al Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri and convicted terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman in Geneva in 1991 (when, Ramadan notes, he was not even in Switzerland).

And this: that he denies al Qaeda was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Never, never, never," Ramadan says in a determined voice over the phone. "I said to the Muslims after it happened, don't try to say 'we don't know who did this.' I said this from the very beginning, from Sept. 13, just two days later, even though we didn't know then exactly who did it -- but we know. They were some Muslims."

Tariq Ramadan is a Muslim Martin Luther. That's why Notre Dame, an old institution with a modern Catholic dedication to theological scholarship, hired him. Winning the war on terrorism requires theology the way defeating communism required ideology. The Bush administration (which wouldn't do the necessary visa checks to keep real terrorists out of fake flight schools) risks a kind of unilateral disarmament.

Does it really think that Notre Dame University would hire an anti-Semite and advocate of terrorism?

Paul Donnelly, former head of the Immigration Reform Coalition, writes about immigration and citizenship. He can be reached at pauldonnelly@ medialever.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company