Chicago Tribune: Once barred from U.S., Muslim scholar speaks in Chicago area

Six years after being barred from coming to the U.S. to teach at the University of Notre Dame, the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan spoke Saturday in suburban Oakbrook Terrace, attributing his presence to new “channels for dialogue” between the U.S. and Islamic scholars and telling American Muslims to treat the U.S. as their home.

The Swiss academic was denied a visa to the U.S. in 2004 by the Bush administration, which accused him of supporting terrorist causes. But in January the State Department reversed that decision, saying he did not pose a threat to the U.S.

“It is quite clear (Obama administration officials) don’t want to follow in the footsteps of the Bush administration, especially when it comes to freedom of expression and scholars coming,” Ramadan said. “They want to open new channels for dialogue.”

Now a professor at Oxford University, Ramadan spoke to the Tribune on Saturday in Chicago before giving the keynote address in Oakbrook Terrace at an annual fundraising dinner for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It was part of a six-day speaking tour in the U.S., his first since being allowed in.

Ramadan, who has written extensively about Western Muslims, told the largely Muslim audience at the CAIR-Chicago event to contribute to American society and uphold Americans’ right to criticize their own government. He said American Muslims should change society through promoting ethics and justice — not by proselytizing and converting the masses, a controversial idea for some Muslims.

“You are at home in this country,” Ramadan said. “This is your home. And the American people are your people. And anyone who is going to the mosque, speaking about Americans by saying, ‘Them who are not us,’ is nurturing something, which is the starting point of the problem, the ‘us versus them.'”

Ramadan was first barred from entering the U.S. under a provision of the Patriot Act that kept out anyone suspected of espousing or endorsing ideas that supported terrorism. The Bush administration later said Ramadan had contributed about $1,000 to a Swiss-based charity that funneled money to the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

Ramadan says he never intended the money to reach Hamas. He says the organization to which he gave the money was not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury Department until a year after he made the donation.

At the dinner Saturday, he asserted that he had been banned from the U.S. because of his views.

“I said and I repeated that the war in Iraq was a mistake. It was illegal, and I criticized the foreign policy of the previous administration,” he said.

In January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed orders ending the exclusion of Ramadan and another Muslim professor from South Africa. U.S. officials said neither was a threat.

So far on his tour, Ramadan has been stirring controversy at every step. Critics dispute he is a moderate Muslim, and some continue to link his thoughts to the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group in Egypt with a violent past. The group was founded by his grandfather Hassan al Banna.

On Thursday in New York, he was questioned by a fellow panel member about his grandfather pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views. But on Saturday, Ramadan denounced violence and denied he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the Tribune interview, he said people have misquoted his grandfather, who actually believed that fascism and Nazism were the “distortion of a wrong understood nationalism.”

Ramadan said the attacks against him are largely from critics worried about “the Muslim presence” in the West and how that might change Western policy to be “more critical of the unilateral support of the (U.S.) toward Israel.”

Former U.S. Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel, a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said he was delighted to see the Muslim scholar in Chicago.

“It was important politically and socially that he not be denied the right to come and speak to us,” Bindenagel said.

M. Cherif Bassiouni, a DePaul University professor emeritus of law, said Ramadan’s talk at times seemed addressed to another audience.

“He was addressing the American authorities,” Bassiouni said. “He was addressing an American public (by saying), ‘You thought I was radical, well, here I am. I’m at the other end of the spectrum, and you didn’t even realize it.'”

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