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Why Tariq Ramadan?

Robert Owens Scott,
Director, Trinity Institute
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October 27, 2007

Robert Owens Scott, Director of the Trinity Institute, an education program for clergy and laity, authored this post. Scott joined us at the federal district court hearing of AAR v. Chertoff, the ACLU’s case challenging the government’s exclusion of Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan. To learn more about the case, go to www.aclu.org/exclusion.

“Why don’t you invite somebody else?” That’s the question I’ve heard from several colleagues and friends in the months since Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan accepted an invitation to address Trinity Institute, a continuing theological education program of Trinity Wall Street. For nearly four decades the Institute has presented the world’s great theological voices wresting with pressing social and cultural issues. A year ago, in planning a January 2008 interfaith dialogue on religion and violence, we sought out speakers who were firmly embedded in their faith traditions and at the same time able to do the type of self-critique that can lead to transformation. Our aim was to get beyond the projection of violence as a problem of other people, acknowledge the violence in ourselves, and ask how to heal it. Being an Episcopal church, we turned for advice to the Anglican Communion’s spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, himself a noted scholar. He enthusiastically recommended Professor Ramadan, but warned that we would run into “the visa problem.”

Research confirmed that Ramadan would be ideal. His books and speeches envision an Islam that not only can co-exist peacefully with other religions and cultures, but also can contribute to and learn from them. Most significantly, his reforming instincts come not from a rejection of his tradition, but from his love of it. I believe Mark Lilla got it exactly right in a New York Times Magazine article last August (“The Politics of God”) when he named Ramadan and one other Muslim public intellectual and wrote, “By speaking from within the community of the faithful, they] give believers compelling theological reasons for accepting new ways as authentic reinterpretations of the faith.”

Yet Ramadan had been banned from entering the United States since 2004, when his visa had been revoked. The ACLU was suing to get it back. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer graciously gave me a detailed rundown and explained that the case would likely make it to court in the fall, where there was a chance that the visa would be restored. Seeing hope as a theological virtue, we took the plunge and invited him.

Needless to say, I watched yesterday’s hearing filled with many thoughts and emotions. I won’t pretend to grasp the fine points of the law, but a lot seemed to turn on the government’s argument that it can exclude Ramadan (or any alien) with little proof or accountability. I can acknowledge that persons who aren’t U.S. citizens have no absolute right to come here, any more than I have an absolute right to be welcomed into any other country.

But that seems beside the point. I have a friend – a rabbi – who attended the hearing with me. He said to me, “As a rabbi I don’t think of it as a right to talk with people like that. I’d say it our responsibility…. But that’s not the law.”

It’s true that, if Tariq Ramadan can’t attend our conference, we’ll be able to broadcast his remarks by video. We’ll make sure our audience has access to his ideas and viewpoint. Lost, however, will be the opportunity for us and others to develop real relationships with Tariq Ramadan. Technology cannot replace presence. And in today’s world, developing such relationships may be our deepest responsibility.