Under Obama, Little “Hope” Left for Intellectual Freedom


Published: April 30, 2009

On March 24, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Jones argued on behalf of the Obama administration to uphold the Bush administration’s decision to deny a visa to leading Swiss Muslim intellectual and Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan. According to Reuters, Jones argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals, “Consular decisions are not subject to litigation.” When asked about the source of the decision in the government, Jones only replied, “upwards in the State Department.”

Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the ACLU, which has been appealing on Ramadan’s behalf since 2004, lamented to Reuters, “It’s disappointing to come here today and hear Obama administration lawyers argue the same sweeping executive power arguments.”

In 2004, the University of Notre Dame appointed Ramadan as professor of religion, conflict and peace building. However, the State Department denied Ramdan’s visa request. Washington gave no initial reason, but following an appeal claimed that Ramadan was in violation of a provision of the Patriot Act for donating money to a French Palestinian charity. While the Department of Homeland Security claims that the charity gave money to Islamic militant group, Hamas, it remains legal and recognized in Europe.

Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He was raised in Geneva and acquired a mastery of Western philosophy and literature as well as Islamic texts. As an academic and public intellectual, Ramadan has emerged as a leading voice among European Muslims, urging them to become politically engaged in their communities and to think critically about their religion, a position summed up by his phrase, “Salafi reformism.”

The implications of Ramadan’s thoughts are clear. Does he want Muslims in the liberal West to become politically engaged as an alternative to extremism or as a means of pushing an illiberal agenda through legitimate channels? As both a social conservative and a critic of neoliberal capitalism and Western militarism, Ramadan has difficulty making friends on either side of the political spectrum.

He is also often accused of catering his tone to his audiences. Professor R. Scott Appleby, who was largely responsible for Ramadan’s appointment at Notre Dame, told Ian Buruma of the New York Times, “He is accused of being Janus-faced. Well, of course… he is trying to bridge a divide and bring together people of diverse backgrounds and worldviews…. The reason we wanted him is precisely because he’s got his ear to the ground of the Muslim world.”

Being a man with a complex cultural background with the potential to bridge the gaps that threaten Western society, one question seems inevitable: Why, of all people, would Barack Obama feel threatened by Ramadan’s presence? This son of a Kenyan Muslim and an American Christian who was raised in the South Pacific partly rode into office based on his perceived ability to have dialogue with the rest of the world, formally because of his multilateral policies and informally because of his multicultural background. It is as if the president is afraid to lose his angle.

In an interview on French television prior to the elections, Ramadan expressed his support for Obama, invoking the word “hope” at several intervals: “It is necessary to turn the page on this dark page of the [Bush] administration and hope….What can one hope for? Clearly, for me, today, he who appears as the promise for this transformation is Obama. And if I was American, clearly, I would vote for him. Not blindly for him, but with the vigilance of a democrat.”

Ramadan rationalized his choice more in terms of Obama’s biography than his concrete policy proposals. “The multiplicity of his identity…One must note that three-fourths of Americans don’t even have a passport. They don’t travel, they don’t know the world. Bush, before arriving at his post, was someone who had practically not traveled. Thus, someone who has roots in Africa, who has this multiple dimension to his identity can only do good in America… It is evident that he is conscious of the complexity of cultural identity, that he is conscious of religious complexity,” he said.

Theories of cosmopolitan envy aside, the administration’s decision to uphold the ban on Ramadan speaks to tendencies within it to maintain the executive privileges it has inherited and to adopt the same Clinton-era approach that sabotaged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and planted the seeds for the current financial crisis. These same tendencies are often ignored because of the optimistic rhetoric that characterized Obama’s presidential campaign.

Ramadan’s voice is an informed and important one. Undermining intellectual freedom is more than a betrayal of campaign rhetoric or even the U.S. Constitution; it’s an assault on modern society. If we must wait for that much in terms of change, then Ramadan’s pre-election comments again seem fitting: “It’s how American politics works. We should not wait for an extraordinary upheaval.”