By Svend White
Reading the news in my morning paper that Tariq Ramadan-a leading Muslim thinker, activist and voice for interfaith dialogue and Islamic reform from Europe who has, not without cause, been heralded as a Muslim "Martin Luther"-had been suddenly banned from American soil by the Department of Homeland Security only days before he was to begin his much anticipated teaching position at the University of Notre Dame, I found myself imagining conspiracy theories worthy of the "X Files." Yes, I found myself wondering whether my government's decisions weren't issuing from a smoke-filled room in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town. From this super-secret nerve center, an elite cabal of old white men would be carrying out their cunning plan to spread fear and distrust around the globe. Consider it a meeting of the Elders of Zion, Illinois-a bunch of anti-Semites in power suits scheming in the shadows against "the Jews." Yes, anti-Semites (you were expecting something else, perhaps?).
I realize this scenario seems a bit farfetched, but I simply don't know how else to explain a Kafkaesque turn of events such as this one, which is guaranteed to fire up the imaginations of bigots everywhere whose explanation for all the world's ills is the Jews. Are neo-Nazis advising this administration?
I'm kidding, of course. Well, not entirely. While I doubt the Aryan Nation has a hotline to Tom Ridge's office, that doesn't change how careless this administration and its sundry minions in the media and political class have been in repeatedly heightening tensions and prejudices between Muslim and Jew through outrageous statements and irresponsible actions that all but openly invite such offensive lapses into paranoia and prejudice.
How else does one explain President Bush appointing Daniel Pipes-an infamous Muslim-baiter and unblinking defender of seemingly any violence directed against Arabs and Muslims-to the United States Institute of Peace? How does one explain how Bush, for all his hollow declarations that his conflict is not with Islam itself, not only refuses to censure General Boykin-who, like some modern-day Roland, described America's post-9/11 conflicts as a new crusade against Islam and its supposedly false god-but allows him to continue to occupy a senior position in the Iraqi occupation? How else does one explain not only Bush gushing about Ariel Sharon-a reviled war-criminal and virulent hardliner who relentlessly stokes violence between Arab and Jew to new heights-being a "man of peace," but his out-Likud-ing the Likudniks by openly endorsing settlements in the West Bank that even most Israelis oppose? How else does one explain the United States consistently disregarding facts, fairness and international law and shielding Israel from accountability for its actions in international fora such as the International Criminal Court and the United Nations (where the US's blatant abuse of its veto on the Security Council in support of Israel fuels the foulest whisperings around the globe about Jewish domination of American foreign policy). And the list, alas, goes on and on.
And now we have a world-renowned liberal Muslim scholar, reformer and advocate of interfaith dialogue who happens, like most Muslims (and many courageous Jewish activists and other people of conscience around the world), to disapprove of Israel's brutal and illegal treatment of the Palestinian people, suddenly getting banned from the US without any explanation. Tariq Ramadan has never been accused-much less convicted-of any crime or involvement in terrorism, yet he is being treated like some would-be shoe bomber.
If this does not inspire anti-Semites' imaginations, the blatant double standards this sad episode reveal probably could.
According to an Associated Press article, a DHS spokesman subsequently explained that Ramadan was banned because of concerns he would use his "position of prominence...to endorse or espouse terrorist activity." These are charges that need to be backed up with proof, especially in these times of heightened fears. So what are the grievances against Ramadan? Well, our trusty colleagues in the Muslim-bashing industry are constantly churning out additional vague, unproven charges-Daniel Pipes just issued his latest litany of suspicions. I'm starting to wonder if Pipes will eventually be reduced to accusing his Muslim opponents of being born under the same sign as Osama Bin Laden-but the two most objective charges (i.e., the two charges which don't depend on either post-9/11 paranoia or wildly biased misreadings of Ramadan's statements) are:
His denunciations of stoning as a punishment for adultery in Islamic countries have not been loud enough for his critics.
Political opponents have deemed a rather mild posting by him on French foreign policy to an Islamic email list last October to be virulently anti-Semitic (even though it contained an explicit denunciation of anti-Semitism).
Ramadan has been criticized for merely calling for a "moratorium" on stoning, as opposed to banning it outright. While I too would have preferred that he explicitly condemn this harsh medieval-and, many Muslim scholars would argue, un-Islamic- practice as being out of place in modern times, I realize that he is speaking to multiple constituencies and must weigh his words carefully to remain credible to conservative elements of the Muslim community who most need to hear his message. What should matter to those working to protect Muslim women from this gruesome practice is that he is publicly opposing the practice, and from inside the community.
The stoning brouhaha seems an improbable explanation. While this Keystone Cops-run War on Terror often seems unfettered by the dictates of logic, I find it hard to imagine that Tom Ridge is banishing Tariq Ramadan because he's not a true feminist.
Which leaves the infamous email (here's the original posting in French) which his critics make sound like a wild diatribe but which was in actuality a sober and rather cerebral critique of the politics of a rival ideological faction within French policy circles. In it, Ramadan argued that a specific group of mostly Jewish intellectuals-whom he listed by name, along with his reasons for including them under this rubric-had been inconsistent in supporting the US war in Iraq after having passionately opposed the US on principle in so many other recent conflicts. Seems like pretty tame stuff, especially compared to the noxious "commentary" on Islam that one regularly encounters in the mainstream media these days-the patriotism and/or objectivity of Muslims Americans are routinely questioned in American political life today. In fact, the worst epithet that he used-and only in France can these be considered fighting words-was that these individuals-he did not generalize about all Jews-had been "communal" rather than "universal" in advocating Israel's interests in the conflict.
That's it. That's the smoking gun. Tariq Ramadan's offense is that he got into a public debate about Israel in another country (using arguments that are heard from respected Jewish peace activists, to boot). This is a threat to national security?
This is not a pleasant conclusion for me to come to, but given the Administration's refusal to explain this bizarre ban-which a Washington Post columnist mocked, asking rhetorically, "Does it really think that Notre Dame University would hire an anti-Semite and advocate of terrorism?"-it seems inescapable. The Department of Homeland Security seems to be living up to its 1984-esque name by becoming Thought Police. It is sad to see American national security and immigration policy reduced to enforcing petty pro-Israeli political correctness.
Now, I understand why this discussion would make some people uncomfortable. All people must be ever vigilant against efforts to promote hate and prejudice through coded language. As the "support" sometimes professed by rightwing hate groups in America for the Palestinian cause shows, anti-Semites sometimes hide their true colors and vitriol behind dispassionate critiques of Israel. (By the same token, I would argue that many an anti-Semite lurks within the ranks of Israel's newly found Evangelical allies, whose loud championship of Israel in Washington today is belied by their belief in its ultimate demise after the second coming of Jesus Christ. As the best-selling Left Behind novels illustrate, it is widely believed among Evangelical Christians that two thirds of world Jewry will perish during the apocalypse and the remaining third will convert to Christianity. So much for supporting the "Jewish" homeland.)
Nonetheless, is there not a double standard here? Is there suddenly a shortage in the American media of pundits who label Muslim Americans terrorist sympathizers, an unpatriotic Fifth Column, anti-Semites, and/or misogynists at the drop of a hat? Where is Tom Ridge then?
For example, only a week ago, newspapers were filled with revelations that a prominent Kerry critic and supporter of President Bush had a history of posting genuinely offensive diatribes online, such as "Islam is a peaceful religion -- just as long as the women are beaten, the boys buggered and the infidels are killed." Compare that to Ramadan's allegedly "anti-Semitic" email. Similarly, Ann Coulter's suggestion that America should "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity" is now well known, as are those of the radio shock jock Michael Savage, who often rails at, among other things, "non-humans" from "that hell-hole the Middle East". My guess is that these highly public and incendiary slurs against an embattled community that is already the object of widespread fear and prejudice have earned these characters little if any attention from the authorities, even though their rhetoric is far more hurtful than Tariq Ramadan's measured observations.
But the rules are obviously different for Muslims. It appears that any Muslim, even a moderate reformer like Tariq Ramadan, who exercises his or her right to criticize Israeli policies is seen as a threat to national security. I think this all was summed up best by Notre Dame's Jewish Law Students Society, which recently issued a principled and courageous statement objecting to the ban:
Diversity in opinion, particularly in religious and political viewpoints, is essential to the well being of any academic community; Notre Dame is no exception. Although we understand that national security interests may have motivated the revocation of Professor Ramadan's visa, we know of nothing in Professor Ramadan's history indicating that he presents a threat to our country or our university. On the contrary, it is the repression of dissenting opinions and critical thought that, throughout history, has been the greatest danger to a free society.
And to Israel and the cause of peace in the Middle East as well. The hate mongers couldn't ask for more convenient sound bites for their sermons and khutbahs. With such outrageous policies and rank double standards, it's perhaps not that surprising that anti-Semitic prejudice and paranoia about "the Jews" (as illustrated in Mahathir Mohammed outrageous statements last October) is on the rise. With friends like these in Washington, Israel needs no enemies. I'm sure Osama Bin Laden breathed a small sigh of relief at the news that there'd be one less moderate Muslim voice in America.
Svend White is a Muslim activist and board member of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) in Washington, DC. He is an Internet consultant specializing in Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D).
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