News

Scholars Become Targets of the Patriot Act

Bruce Craig, April 2006

Over the last couple of years, several historians and scholars have been either prevented from taking up teaching posts or not allowed to make presentations to scholarly organizations because they have been determined by government officials to be security risks. For example, back in October 2004, the government made a wholesale rejection of visa applications from Cuban scholars and intellectuals invited to attend a national meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (see "AHA Expresses Concern Over Cancellation of Visa Applications from Cuban Scholars," in Perspectives, November 2004). Most recently, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who is a scholar of Islamic theology, and Waskar Ari, a Bolivian historian who recently earned his PhD at an American university, were also denied visas by the government. Several scholarly organizations have now joined together to file formal protests and legal suits targeting aspects of the Patriot Act and other government laws put in place since 9/11 that thwart scholarly exchange.

The most recent suit was filed January 24, 2006, by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Tariq Ramadan, who has written more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on Islamic theology, law, and Islamic democracy. Ramadan, who is currently a visiting fellow at Oxford University's St. Antony's College, was recently invited to speak at several scholarly conventions in the United States, including one sponsored by the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and another by the PEN American Center, but the government denied him an entry visa. Though admittedly a frequent critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the scholar asserts that he has never expressed support for terrorism and certainly no evidence has been presented to suggest anything to the contrary.

While the ACLU suit addresses Ramadan's specific case, it also seeks to strike down provisions of the USA Patriot Act that generically bar foreigners who allegedly endorse terrorism from entering the United States. The ACLU asserts that Section 411, the so-called ideological exclusion clause of the Patriot Act, is illegal as it prevents American citizens from hearing speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

Section 411 of the Patriot Act stipulates that the government may deny a visa to anyone who the government believes has endorsed or espoused terrorist activity or has persuaded others to endorse or espouse terrorist activity. The suit, filed in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks to declare the ideological exclusion unconstitutional.

The AAR, PEN Center, and other scholarly organizations, including the American Association of University Professors (all of which have joined the ACLU suit), maintain that scholars rely on in-person conversation and barring a foreign scholar from the United States thwarts scholarly exchange. According to Barbara DeConcini, executive director of the AAR, preventing foreign scholars like Ramadan from visiting the United States limits not only the ability of scholars here to enhance their own knowledge, but also their ability to inform students, journalists, public policy makers, and other members of the public who rely on scholars' work to acquire a better understanding of critical current issues involving religion.

The Department of Homeland Security, which last year got the State Department to revoke a work visa that had been granted to Ramadan—and thus prevented him from taking up a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame—has declined to provide comment to the press on the current suit or on Ramadan's status.

A second case pertains to historian Waskar Ari, who has been prevented from taking up his post as assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln because his name appears on a list of individuals considered security risks.

Ari earned his PhD in history at Georgetown University in 2004 and shortly thereafter was offered a position at the University of Nebraska. He is a native of Bolivia and a member of the Aymara indigenous people of Bolivia and has served as a spokesperson for that community. In the past he has raised—on behalf of his people—concerns about the policies of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Prior to being offered his position at Nebraska, Ari had been an assistant professor of history at Western Michigan University; he also had a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Texas. Subsequent to hearing of his selection for the position at Nebraska he was informed that there were delays in granting him a work permit pending clearance by all U.S. intelligence agencies. He then learned that all his existing visas were being cancelled. In theory, the government's review of his case could take months if not years, and issuance of his work permit could, under current law and agency practice, be delayed indefinitely. A further irony of Ari's situation is that his graduate studies in the United States were supported by grants from the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), an independent agency of the federal government that aims, among other things, to "strengthen the bonds of friendship and understanding among the peoples of this hemisphere". In fact, the foundation declares on its web site (under the heading of "Kudos") that it is proud to announce that Ari, an IAF fellow, received his PhD (see http://www.iaf.gov/news_events/e_newsletter_text_en.asp?pageLevel=content&nl_id=44&nl_cont_sort_order=6&news_year=2005). The State Department's action in denying a visa to Ari seems to be completely at odds with the declared purposes of the IAF, and at odds too with pronouncements by the secretary of state at the recent two-day conference of U.S. University Presidents on International Education. The conference, sponsored by the State Department and cosponsored by the Department of Education, specifically aimed at discussing, as a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education described it, "how to make American higher education more engaged with the world and counter the perception that the United States no longer welcomes foreign students" (see http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i20/20a04501.htm).

The American Historical Association has officially protested Waskar Ari's situation to the Department of State (see the report in the March Perspectives). In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, AHA President Linda Kerber, President-elect Barbara Weinstein, and Immediate Past President James Sheehan stated, "Dr. Ari is the first scholar from the Aymara community to earn a history PhD in the United States and to win a position in a leading U.S. university. His presence on the Nebraska campus would add significantly to the study of indigenous peoples of the Americas and to the presence of Native Americans in academia." The letter concluded by urging the government to expeditiously consider his case and grant him the work permit requested by the University of Nebraska.

These two cases are but the tip of an iceberg. Scholars from disciplines other than history are also seemingly being victimized by overly restrictive government policies that were hastily put into law with little thought of their ramifications on free speech after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As the Patriot Act reauthorization is considered, one can only hope that members of Congress give more thought to the impact of the law on the cases of individuals such as Ramadan and Ari. While only government officials are privy to the evidence in each individual's security file, their cases suggest that the application of government security rules may well not be advancing national security. Instead they are indicative of racial profiling, perhaps illegally intrude on rights to a citizen's privacy, and negate our nation's history of free speech and expression.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.