February 9, 2006
Religion Scholars Challenge Patriot Act
-- W. Clark Gilpin
On Wednesday, January 25, the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the world's largest association of scholars of religion, joined a lawsuit that challenges a key provision of the USA Patriot Act. Citing the 2004 revocation of a travel visa for noted Swiss scholar of Islam Tariq Ramadan, the suit contends that an "ideological exclusion" provision of the Patriot Act is being used to impede the free circulation of scholars and scholarly debate that are integral to academic freedom. Commenting on the suit, AAR Executive Director Barbara DeConcini stated that "preventing foreign scholars like Professor Ramadan from visiting the U.S. limits not only the ability of scholars here to enhance their own knowledge, but also their ability to inform students, journalists, public policy makers, and other members of the public who rely on scholars' work to acquire a better understanding of critical current issues involving religion."
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on behalf of the AAR and two other major associations of scholars and writers: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and PEN American Center. As quoted in the suit, the Patriot Act includes among the persons ineligible to receive visas those who have 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."
The plaintiffs contend not only that Professor Ramadan has been a consistent critic of terrorism but also that the ideological exclusion provision of the Patriot Act violates their own First Amendment rights to hear a full range of ideas. A press release from the AAUP quoted the reaction of its general secretary, Roger Bowen: "Fearing another's ideas enough to prohibit their expression is perplexing to scholars and troubling to citizens .... The freedom to teach and the freedom to learn are protected freedoms in this nation and the AAUP and its co-plaintiffs must insist that these two freedoms be respected. Now is the time when we should be listening to and learning from Muslim scholars, not trying to silence them."
The specific case of Tariq Ramadan came to the attention of American scholars of religion most forcefully in 2004, when he was offered a tenured faculty position as the Henry R. Luce Professor at the University of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Although Ramadan was initially granted a visa in order to accept the faculty post, this visa was suddenly revoked only days before he and his family were to move to Indiana. Neither he nor the University of Notre Dame received any written explanation of this reversal, and, subsequently, Ramadan has been denied visas to speak at the professional conventions of the AAR and other scholarly organizations in the United States. Ramadan's many writings have focused on the relations of Islam to the West and to modernity, most recently in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.
The study of religion is necessarily international in scope and actively engages scholars from other cultures and nations. At a moment in history when religion is perceived to have exceptionally volatile connections to international politics, it is not surprising that the scholarly exchange of ideas about religion may include political views the government disfavors. It is, however, precisely in such volatile circumstances that sustaining free academic deliberation about the relations among religion, culture, and politics becomes imperative.
W. Clark Gilpin is Margaret E. Burton Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.