THE REVOCATION of Tariq Ramadan’s visa by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came as a surprise to both the Muslim community in America as well as the broader academic establishment. Earlier this summer, Dr. Ramadan was preparing to assume the Henry R. Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding appointment at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana until DHS determined that he represents a security threat to the United States. DHS is not at liberty to divulge specific reasons for prohibiting Ramadan’s entry into the country. However a DHS spokesman, Russ Knocke, later explained that the visa was revoked in accordance with the law that denies entry to aliens who used a “position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” The revocation, Mr. Knocke added, was based on “public safety or national security interests.”

Given the media attention surrounding DHS’s decision and Dr. Ramadan’s high-profile status in Europe, the issue carries important policy implications for the future of Islam in America. Revoking Ramadan’s visa cannot be considered a routine matter. Failure to demonstrate to the public how Ramadan is a security threat intimates ambiguity with regards to the actual reason for the decision. What follows is a discussion that seeks to understand why Ramadan’s critics, including Daniel Pipes, are against his entry into the country and how their voices could motivate U.S. policy makers to revoke Ramadan’s visa. The broader concern revolves around whether policy makers are using national security as a pretext for providing or withholding legitimacy to particular perspectives on Islam. If this is the case, and Ramadan’s visa was revoked because of a particular set of beliefs unrelated to matters of security, then it is necessary to understand any potential strategic reality underlying the decision and realize its implications on the Muslim community in America.

Tariq Ramadan is very popular in Europe, particularly amongst Muslim youth. His high profile image is informed in part by his ideas, and also in part by his lineage. He is the maternal grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. This fact alone is enough for some to label him an extremist. Ramadan’s supporters, which include a wide cross section of academia, argue that he is the subject of character assassination, and poses absolutely no security threat whatsoever. Both the Washington Post and the Chicago Times produced house editorials questioning DHS’s decision in the matter. It remains unclear whether the Swiss scholar will be able to teach at Notre Dame or any other university in the United States in the future.

For his part, Dr. Ramadan explicitly denies any and all accusations leveled against him that could have led to DHS’s decision. His harshest critics, including Daniel Pipes and Fouad Ajami amongst others, contend that Ramadan espouses extremist positions, is anti-Semitic and maintains links with dubious extremist organizations including Al-Qaida. Because DHS never released the details of its decision to revoke the visa, Ramadan’s defense of his reputation is directed towards the critics who argue in support of the decision. As a result, a series of articles published through major daily newspapers in the U.S. detail the arguments back and forth. On August 27th Pipes argued in support of the revocation in an article in the New York Sun. On August 31st, Ramadan responded point by point to all accusations levied by Pipes against him in the Chicago Tribune.

What is lacking in the accusations against Ramadan by his critics is the rigor of solid evidence demonstrating that he is a clear national security threat The facts used by his critics in the media to paint Ramadan as an extremist are selective and removed from their necessary context In Pipes’ article published in the New YorkSunhe argues that Ramadan denies Osama bin Laden was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Evidence for this claim is provided by a web link to a French news interview with Ramadan where he states that: “The probability [of bin Laden’s guilt] is large, but some questions remain unanswered … But whoever they are, bin Laden or others, it is necessary to find them and that they be judged.” The interview was dated September 22nd, 2001, less than two weeks after the attacks. At the time the only evidence available to Ramadan and the rest of the public linking bin Laden to the attacks was general media coverage. In this context, Ramadan’s words hardly demonstrate a denial of bin Laden’s culpability. Much of the evidence brought forth publicly against Ramadan follows this selective pattern of argumentation. Its tenuous nature makes the need for transparency in DHS’s decision making process that much more urgent


The decision to silence Dr. Ramadan in North America highlights an important ideological divide within the academic and policy making community. It will also likely impact the environment surrounding Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the United States. DHS’s decision also reveals the relationships between certain academic voices engaged in “anti-Islamist” rhetoric and the policy makers who incorporate that rhetoric into the U.S. policy making process. Ramadan represents what many Muslims and Americans would consider a perfect blend of east and west, a persona palatable and distinguished enough in both cultures to facilitate the task of rebuilding bridges torn down by the events of September nth. A social scientist by training, Ramadan became a leading figure of Islamic reform in Europe due to his moderate orientation. He is often mislabeled as a modern day Muslim Martin Luther. Ramadan neither attacks Islam as Luther attacked Catholicism, nor does he advocate a wholesale break with classical Islamic tradition. As a scholar and an activist, Ramadan provides an articulate and culturally conversant alternative to the existing conceptions of orthodoxy for Muslims in Europe. Unlike his less tolerant counterparts, he argues for the acceptance of multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and is a strong critic of dictatorial and oppressive regimes across the Muslim world.

What confuses those familiar with Dr. Ramadan’s body of work about the decision is that his moderating influence over Muslim masses could have had a very positive impact on Islam in America. A number of American Muslim organizations remain ideologically wedded to groups founded and perpetuated within the social and political upheaval of the Middle East and South Asia, a criticism that critics like Daniel Pipes often, and at times justifiably, levels against them. Although their influence continues to wane in a post 9/11 environment, these groups operate within religious and political paradigms foreign to North America and the Western world. Dr. Ramadan, probably more so than any other Muslim scholar today, is in a position to address the particular mentality that informs this perspective. As the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, he has the requisite stature and influence to successfully deconstruct these paradigms and encourage Muslims to understand that action must be informed by context. Ramadan takes a hard line stance against suicide bombing, advocates for a moratorium on the implementation of all death sentences for adultery, and encourages dialogue with the western world. What many Muslims hope for is to establish Islam in America as a cooperative, congenial and relevant religion capable of discourse with existing socio-cultural, political, religious and economic paradigms. Many feel that Ramadan’s presence in the U.S. would help facilitate this process.

Since the attacks of 9/11 there is little doubt that combating Islamic extremism is of paramount concern for U.S. policymakers. A critical question that they must answer is how does one go about engaging Islam and the Muslim world so as to prevent its extremist impulse from further threatening the country? The question is obvious; the answer much less so. If Ramadan exudes moderation, and the evidence of his links to or support for extremist organizations is circumstantial at best and entirely unsupported by his writings and speeches, why was he not allowed to bring his message to America? And if policy makers are not interested in associating with academics like Ramadan, then who are they looking to engage? In order to understand why DHS revoked Ramadan’s visa in such dramatic fashion, it is necessary to discern what possible strategies motivated such a policy decision.

A distinguishing attribute of Dr. Ramadan is that he speaks from inside the faith. Although his genealogy generates attention, his words speak from the perspective of a believer. His ability to address the discontent of Muslims and rechannel frustration away from extremism and towards moderation is because Muslims know him to be one of their own. At a basic level, Bamadan shares the beliefs and practices of the common Muslim. It is a position which grants his voice privileged access to the hearts and minds of those he seeks to influence. His approach is in marked contrast to the emergence of self-styled Muslim reformers rapidly gaining attention in the North America. Chief amongst this group is Irshad Manji, a 35 year old Canadian journalist who recently became ubiquitous on talk shows, newspapers, radio shows and at various universities since the release of her book The Trouble with Islam. Manji is in fact more in line with the Martin Luther analogy misdirected at Ramadan. Her approach advocates a wholesale break from orthodoxy. In contrast to Ramadan who speaks from a more traditional vantage point, Manji argues for the removal of verses from the Qur’an that can be misinterpreted by extremists to advocate violence. The implications of her arguments are as dramatic as they are drastic. She understands those Muslims who consider the Qur’an to be infallible to be exhibiting a strain of “extremism.” However, to ask a Muslim to believe otherwise would be no different than asking a Christian to believe that Christ did not die on the cross. The fact that Manji’s voice remains loud and clear in the U.S., while Ramadan’s is essentially silenced, is an important reality in the rapidly developing landscape of Islam in North America. The juxtaposition of these two approaches alludes to what kind of Islamic reformation policy makers are willing to advocate for. The contrast is also important because in an article published in the New York Post in September of 2003 Daniel Pipes refers to Irshad Manji as a “courageous, moderate, modern Muslim.” It is clear that for Pipes, Manji has what Ramadan lacks: a true “moderate” orientation.


Daniel Pipes is an important figure in Washington DC. He is often called upon to give expert testimony on Islam and Islamic extremism on Capitol Hill. As the director of the Middle East Forum and its web based offshoot, CampusWatch.org, he wields a considerable amount of influence. An academic by training, of late Pipes’ occupation can be more accurately described as a columnist or ideologue. Within the past few years his publications almost entirely present a specific, focused viewpoint regarding terrorism, extremism, Islam and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict Although Pipes maintains no official relationship with DHS, his corpus of writings, lectures and expert testimony have significantly influenced the academic and policy environment surrounding Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the United States. Understanding Pipes’ perspective as one of Ramadan’s main detractors may yield some important insights into why a reformer like Ramadan is transformed into a persona non grata. Pipes’ support of Irshad Manji is important in that it reveals Pipes’ threshold for what should be considered a “Moderate Muslim.” Pipes is rather selective when it comes to vocally supporting Muslims of any variety. He casts a wide net with regards to classifying scholars, activists and academic departments as either extremist or apologists for militant Islam. Pipes argues that fundamentalists – or “Islamists” – who politicize Islam represent a threat to America and are antithetical to American values. In a Special Policy Forum Report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in April 2003, Pipes argued that “there is no such thing as a moderate Islamist, for all Islamists share the same long-term goals; they differ only over means. For example, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey is very different from the Taliban in its means, but not so different in its ends, if the party gained full control over Turkey, it could be as dangerous as the Taliban were in Afghanistan.”

Dr. Pipes’ criticism extends directly into the academic realm. The primary function of Campus-Watch.org is to criticize academics involved with Middle Eastern or Islamic studies programs with the expressed aim of improving, or influencing their perspectives. Whosoever is determined to be an Islamist is routinely criticized for mixing politics with academics. The site encourages students to monitor professors who might espouse dangerous, or what Pipes considers Islamist, sentiments. However, in order to better understand Pipes’ criterion for distinguishing between moderate and Islamist it is necessary to investigate his broader understanding of the religion.

An article published in July 2003 by the Religion News Service quotes Pipes’ understanding of Muslim culture: “I have enormous respect for the faith of [Muslims]. I note how deeply rewarding Muslims find Islam as well as the extraordinary inner strength it imbues them with. Having studied the history and civilization of the classical period, I am vividly aware of the great Muslim cultural achievements of roughly a millennium ago.” In fact, Pipes goes on to acknowledge many of the significant cultural achievements attributable to Islam and Islamic civilization. This insight into Pipes’ understanding of Islam serves to further clarify where he believes moderation ends and Islamism begins. It also demonstrates that his criticism of Islam is not indiscriminate. In an interview with Pipes published in the Boston Phoenix in December of 2001, Pipes states that “the enemy is militant Islam, and the policy goal should be to weaken militant Islam and strengthen moderate Islam.”


The impetus for Daniel Pipes’ attacks on Islam and Muslims are strategic and targeted. He is concerned primarily with making the promotion of Islam as a socio-political reality in the West and particularly in America an unacceptable proposition. Pipes is not bothered by religious Muslims who pray, fast and go for pilgrimage. He is concerned with those Muslim academics, intellectuals and activists who advocate for and are capable of empowering Muslims in the West, and ultimately around the world, to actualize their tradition in the sociopolitical realm. Anyone who advocates for this or finds potential for cooperation with Islam’s sociopolitical impulse is identified as a militant Islamist That is to say, for Pipes and others who follow his line of thought, the question is not finding moderate voices within Islam to facilitate dialogue and understanding, it is finding and amplifying voices that separate and secularize Islam from its historical sociopolitical reality to merely a culturally religious one. In this sense, Pipes is not advocating against Tariq Ramadan because he is an extremist, but precisely because he is a moderate. What Ramadan offers is dangerous because it empowers Muslims from within their own tradition. The Islamic reformation often alluded to since 9/11 is already understood by Pipes and policy makers who follow him as the secularization of Islam. Whosoever deviates from this normative understanding of moderate may find him or herself listed on Campus-Watch.org as an “extremist” or “extremist apologist.”

However, Pipes is neither rigorous nor credible enough to accomplish this process on his own. Although Campus-Watch.org and the Middle East Forum serve as important clearing houses for anti-Islamist opinion pieces and articles, credible arguments for a secularized reformation of Islam require academic gravitas the likes of which Pipes can scarcely garner. The need for establishing a theoretical framework to support such a worldview cannot be understated. Along these lines, venerated orientalist and historian Bernard Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Oriental Studies at Princeton University, has published a series of books over the last three years advocating, amongst other things, the need for secularized Islam. In one of these books, titled The Crisis of Islam, he draws on over 50 years of research and writing on the Middle East to argue that the downfall of Islam was due in part to the integration of church and state within the religion. Dr. Lewis skillfully acknowledges the fact that Islam, in all its sociopolitical manifestations, was an integral component of the great civilizational flourishing that took place in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. He recognizes how the religion granted people greater freedoms of thought and expression than ever before. However, Lewis further argues that the bifurcation of religious and secular authority in Europe and North America during the advent of modernity created a context where a religiously based state could no longer progress. Thus, what made Islam great a religio-political public conscience, is what in part led Muslims to their downfall in the modern age. That is to say, Islamic civilization cannot revive itself except through adoption of the dominant secular realities of the modern age. Lewis presents Islam at a civilizational crossroads, with two particular paths garnering widespread support The first path “attributes all evil to the abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam and advocates a return to a real or imagined past The other way is that of secular democracy, best embodied in the Turkish republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.” Lewis provides Muslims with a fork in the road, whereas in reality shades of grey abound between Taliban style regression and Ataturk style secularization. However, the argument set forth underlies the perspective articulated by Pipes and others, its ramifications are also very clear for policy makers dealing with the Middle East: support Ataturk style secularization above all else.

Pipes and Lewis are of course not alone in advocating for the secularization of Islam. A cadre of academics, intellectuals and writers all share similar sentiments. Campus-Watch.org in fact provides a list of professors who are in line with Pipes perspective on Islam and Islamism. However, policy is not executed in universities or think tanks. Ramadan’s visa was not revoked by Daniel Pipes.

In the struggle for the soul of Islam, U.S. policy makers may be hedging their bets on a western style Protestant reformation. In a report released by the Rand Corporation titled “Civil Democratic Islam,” the author, Cheryl Bernard, argues for Islam’s transformation: “It is no easy matter to transform a major world religion. If ‘nationbuilding’ is a daunting task, ‘religion-building’ is immeasurably more perilous and complex.” The report goes on to classify Muslims from secularist to modernist to traditionalist and everything in between. In doing so it details each group’s views on a range of issues including the establishment of an Islamic State, and whether or not it is permissible to beat women. In her recommendations, Bernard selects particular groups within Islam to be supported by policy makers and played against one another in order to achieve the desired transformative balance – a Muslim community that seamlessly blends into the cultural melting pot of America.

It is also important to note that the Rand Corporation is a very influential non-profit think tank that policy makers often rely upon for analysis of national security issues. Its Board of Trustees includes representatives from the media, Wall Street large corporate law firms, leaders from the medical, defense, real estate, and auto industries, think tanks, and university professors. In an article published in April of 2004 on the American Daily website, Pipes expressed his “delight” upon reviewing the Rand report and was especially inspired by Bernard’s recognition of the “awesome ambition required to modernize Islam.”


The fact that Notre Dame, a Catholic Jesuit university, was Dr. Ramadan’s sponsoring institution also likely carries some important symbolism. In 1999 another Jesuit university, Georgetown, was the first university in the U.S. to hire a Muslim chaplain. The Papacy was quite critical of the current administration, particularly over the handling of the war in Iraq, in addition to its overall strategy for the war on terror. An article published in the New York Times on October 6th, 2004 stated that Notre Dame hired Ramadan in part because “[he] is a practicing Muslim and not a detached scholar, giving him greater authority when he talks about the Koran as a ‘living text’ open to contemporary interpretations.” By refusing Notre Dame’s request and subsequent overtures to allow Ramadan to teach this year, the current administration may be further demonstrating its resolve and willingness to promote a focused agenda with regards to addressing the rise of Islamic extremism. By marginalizing existing “Islamists” and preventing new ones from entering the field, policy makers along with “anti-Islamists” are creating a context that is increasingly hostile to moderates like Ramadan, who generate legitimacy and authenticity from within the religion. They are also making it difficult for other academic or civic institutions, like the Jesuit community in America, to reach out to moderate voices like Tariq Ramadan in an effort to engage the Islamic world.

Yet for all the rhetoric and elaborate behind closed doors machinations, a Protestant style Islamic reformation seems no more likely to occur in America or anywhere in the Muslim World now than it did 25 years ago, or 125 years ago for that matter. When not vilifying Islamists, Pipes is extolling the eloquence and courage of a handful of what he considers Islamic moderates. In a September 23rd article published in the New York Post, Pipes identifies a number of these moderates in addition to a handful of moderate organizations. It remains to be seen whether any of these people, which include Irshad Manji, will generate a significant following within the Muslim community in America or abroad. Manji, who seems to be one of Pipes’ favorites, may herself demonstrate why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed. Manji, who professes Islam as her faith, advocates theological positions entirely unacceptable to vast majority of Muslims. Her arguments eschew authenticity and legitimacy from a Muslim perspective in favor of appealing to western sentiments regarding religious reform. The result is a Muslim reformer who is much more popular with nonMuslims than with Muslims. Pipes is aware that his moderate voices are not generating the necessary impact In an article published in the New York Post in September of 2003, he argues that “for [moderates] to be heard over the Islamist din requires help from the outside – celebration by governments, grants from foundations, recognition by the media and attention from the academy.” For Pipes, Ramadan is part and parcel of the “Islamist din” that must be marginalized, whereas Manji is deserving of widespread institutional support. Considering the amount of adoration Manji receives from the media, thus far his wishes have been granted.


What is more likely to happen is that such support will be recognized by the Muslim community in North America as an ill conceived strategic attempt by policy makers to instruct Muslims on how they should understand and practice Islam. A critical assumption made by Pipes and others is that Islam can be reduced to ideology and deconstructed like communism, or Marxism. The depth and breadth of Islam’s 1400 year old historical, political and religious record is far too wide ranging to succumb to such a process. In the Boston Phoenix article published in December of 2001 Pipes states that he envisions a scenario not unlike the Cold War. “I’m happy to be a cold warrior with different clothes,” said Pipes, with a nod to his famous father, Harvard professor and cold warrior Richard Pipes. “The cold warriors were right” he added. Applying lessons learned from the Cold war to the war against “Islamism” will undoubtedly result in miscalculations, and may ultimately create a reaction within the Muslim community that encourages extremism and marginalizes moderation.

Along the same lines, initiating a Protestant style Islamic reformation does neither justice to Islam, nor the original reformation. The excesses of the Church that provoked Luther’s reformation do not share an analogous status with the excesses of extremism in Islam. The Catholic Church is vested with divine power through scriptural and theological mandate. The impetus for Luther’s reforms were structural and found in the abuse of this power by the Church. In Islam, extremists like Osama bin Laden have no scholarly legitimacy or authority. Their fatwas are not binding on anyone and they have no claim to represent any form of orthodoxy. In this sense, Bin Laden and other extremists have no religious authority to abuse, but rather generate support through demagoguery and exploitation of the passions of oppressed and disgruntled masses. Attempting to address the extremism of Bin Laden through structural reform of Islam misunderstands the sources of support for fundamentalism in Muslim world.


On April 10th, 2003, in a Special Policy Forum Report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Daniel Pipes argued that “the United States can promote a modern, moderate, goodneighborly version of Islam, but it cannot on its own ensure the ascendancy of such a version. Only Muslims can do this.” Pipes underscores the fact that for any understanding of Islam to become dominant or influential, it must come from the Muslim community. However, using national security or any other vehicle as a pretext to influence the version of Islam to be accepted by Muslims comes across as disingenuous and short sighted. If policy makers do assume Pipes’ approach in promoting a particular version of Islam, they threaten to make the collective endeavor of rooting out extremism an antagonistic as opposed to cooperative venture. Since 9/11, the Muslim community in America is undergoing a dramatic period of self-evaluation, a process which led to the emergence of a number of different perspectives that address the issue of extremism. Their appearance demonstrates at the very least an organic connection to the communities which they seek to represent. In this sense, Pipes would be better served by engaging Muslim leaders legitimated by their communities as opposed to legitimizing leaders for them. Tariq Ramadan’s case in particular is unique in that his broad based appeal would likely serve to facilitate cooperation amongst these perspectives.

As the nation-building process in Iraq clearly demonstrates, attempting to instruct a people on how they should live is fraught with unforeseeable pitfalls and difficulties. One can only imagine the perils of instructing a people on how they should believe and practice their religion. Pipes and policy makers who follow him must understand that attempting to initiate reform of Islam via ideologies and mechanisms foreign to its theological and historical reality is a dangerous experiment; one that is more likely to galvanize extremists and further marginalize moderate voices. A more congenial alternative is to look to those within the Muslim world that seek to transcend the events of radicalism and fundamentalism. Islamic civilization has an established history of tolerance and cooperation. Policy makers and academics in the West should help Muslims rediscover this tradition. To ask otherwise would be the equivalent of the Muslim world instructing the West on the finer points of progressive liberal democracy.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed