WHY IS THE American Academy of Religion, with more than 10,000 members who teach religion in colleges and universities, suing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff? It takes a matter of grave concern for an academy of scholars who study everything from the Bible to Buddhists to join the American Civil Liberties Union in bringing a case against the US government. The concern is this: Our colleague, Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar and theologian, has been barred from entering the United States to participate in the discussion of one of the most important topics of today: contemporary Islam in the West.
For 18 months, the government has withheld his visa on the basis of the ''ideological exclusion" provision of the Patriot Act, interpreted so broadly as to be a danger to the enterprise of debate and exchange in a free society.
At first it seemed an ignorant mistake. Ramadan, a Swiss national of Egyptian ancestry, had previously lectured at universities and attended conferences in the United States. But in August 2004, he suddenly had his visa revoked by the Department of Homeland Security on the eve of his departure to teach at Notre Dame. Those of us who had known and admired his work were astounded. He was at the top of my reading list as an articulate spokesman for Islamic engagement in civil society and in the dialogue of religions. I had met Ramadan that summer at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona. I looked forward to hearing his plenary address at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November 2004. So why would the US government revoke the visa of a scholar whose entire body of work was dedicated to an emergent ''reformist" Islam? Why would the United States deny entry to someone able to contribute constructively to public discussion in Western countries with growing Muslim populations?
That very summer, Rice had spoken at the US Institute of Peace, calling for the United States to dramatically expand ''our efforts to support and encourage the voices of moderation and tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim world." So why would she be party to the exclusion of one of the most prominent of these voices?
The government has invoked a provision of the Patriot Act that allows it to deny a visa to anyone who ''endorses" or ''espouses" terrorism. It is chilling to see that this provision has been interpreted to ban a prominent intellectual who has been a consistent public critic of Islamic extremism and terrorism.
Of course the government has and should have the power to exclude known terrorists. But this provision of the Patriot Act is being used to exclude people whose voices the government does not want us to hear and to block critics of US policies from engaging in public discussion and academic debate.
In November 2004, Ramadan did deliver that keynote address, sitting at a bare table somewhere in Canada, speaking to us on a large-screen video monitor. Ramadan articulated the themes he has long emphasized. He spoke of the ''new reality" of American Muslims and of the importance of being ''fully Muslim and fully American." Without a trace of bitterness, he spoke of the ''ethics of citizenship" and participation as Western Muslims. Western Muslims must be able to say ''This is our country. It is not an alien space in which we forever perceive ourselves as foreigners. It is our home." He spoke of the ''silent revolution" of reformist Islam taking place today. And he spoke of the critical significance of interfaith dialogue, grounded for him in the Muslim doctrine of tawhid, the oneness of God. It was a stirring message by a Muslim theologian of the stature of a Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich, delivered to us from the other side of the walls we ourselves have built. While heartened by his message, I felt saddened, ashamed, and fearful for my country.
The study and analysis of religion is indisputably important in the world in which we live today. Religious and theological studies are integral to the curriculum of more than 2,000 colleges, universities, and seminaries across the country. Our community of colleagues is global. Denying us face-to-face access to scholars and theologians who contribute to critical reflection on the religious currents of our world is an intolerable impoverishment of the academic enterprise.
Diana L. Eck, a professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, is president of the American Academy of Religion.