Frontiers of knowledge

Frontiers of knowledge

In a democracy the state has no unfettered right to bar an alien from entering its territory. On any ground, no matter how fanciful. The alien has no right to enter. But the citizen has a right to receive him.

Especially if he is a scholar or artist who can enrich the mind. The fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression includes the right to know.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognises [Article 19 (2)] that the right to freedom of expression ‘shall include freedom to … receive … information and ideals of all kinds, regardless of frontiers’.

Every right is subject to reasonable restrictions. No state is bound to allow a terrorist to enter the country. This is where the state’s power and the citizen’s right meet on common ground. The state’s duty and right to bar an alien who is a threat to its security overrides the citizen’s right. But if this or similar considerations are absent, the refusal becomes an abuse of state power, and now the citizen’s right to meet the alien and learn from the discourse prevails.

The US Congress repealed two decades ago a law used to deny visas to prominent foreign intellectuals, artists and activists because of their left-leaning politics, including the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the British novelist Doris Lessing.

The Bush administration revived the practice. In 2004 it revoked the visa of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss national and Muslim scholar, who was to become a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame. It again denied him a visa in 2006. On July 17, 2009 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan unanimously reversed a lower court ruling allowing the government’s move.

The government alleged that from 1998 to 2002, Mr Ramadan contributed about $1,300 to a Swiss-based charity that the treasury department later categorised as a terrorist organisation. Ramadan said that he believed the group was involved in humanitarian projects, and that he was not aware of any convention between the charity, the Association de Secours Palestinien, and Hamas or terrorism, which he said, he condemns.

As the New York Times remarked ‘the evidence suggests that Mr Ramadan’s strong criticism of United States foreign policy is what really triggered his exclusion’.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of American Publishers and others have asked the Obama administration to reverse its predecessor’s decision. Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hasan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He had visited the US over 30 times between 2001 and 2004 to deliver lectures and participate in conferences. He has a distinct message for Muslims in the US in Europe; namely, reject both assimilation and isolation and enhance your Muslim as well as western identify.

This brings us to the law. In Kleindienst vs Mandel (1972), the US supreme court upheld the attorney general, Richard Kleindienst’s refusal of a visa for Ernest Mandel, a Belgian journalist and Marxist theoretician to participate in an academic conference sponsored by Americans. The court split six-three. The attorney-general refused to grant a waiver under the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1952 — as required for advocates of communist doctrine — to make Ernest Mandel eligible for a visa to the US.

A Belgian citizen, Mandel was a scholar, a professional journalist and an avowed Marxist revolutionary. The government claimed that he had abused opportunities afforded to him during an earlier visit. Mandel and several American academics sued the attorney-general alleging violation of their right to hear him and engage him in a free and open academic exchange.

It turned, however, on the special facts of the case, the attorney general’s charge of past abuse. The majority held this was a bona fide exercise of discretion and did not consider the other issues. Even so Justice Douglas, Marshall and Brennan dissented. More, even the majority rejected the government’s plea that Mandel’s books were available after all. ‘This argument overlooks what may be particular qualities inherent in sustained face-to-face debate, discussion and questioning.’

Justice William Douglas delivered a powerful dissent. ‘The attorney general stands astride our international terminals that bring people here to bar those whose ideas are not acceptable to him. Even assuming … that those on the outside seeking admission have no standing to complain, those who hope to benefit from the traveller’s lectures do. Thought control is not within the competence of any branch of government.’

Better seasoned was Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in which Justice Breman joined. He said; ‘I do not mean to suggest that simply because some Americans wish to hear an alien speak, they can automatically compel even his temporary admission to our country. Government may prohibit aliens from even temporary admission if exclusion is necessary to protect a compelling governmental interest.

‘Actual threats to the national security, public health needs, and genuine requirement of law enforcement are the most apparent interest that would surely be compelling. But in Dr Mandel’s case, the government has, and claims, no such compelling interest. Mandel’s visit was to be temporary. … Without any claim that Mandel ‘live’ is an actual threat to this country, there is no difference between excluding Mandel because of his ideas and keeping his books out because of their ideas. Neither is permitted.

‘Dr Mandel has written about his exclusion, concluding that ‘it demonstrates a lack of confidence’ on the part of our government ‘in the capacity of its supporters to combat Marxism on the battleground of ideas’. … And he wryly notes that ‘in the 19th century the British ruling class, which was sure of itself, permitted Karl Marx to live as an exile in England for almost forty years’.

‘It is undisputed that Dr Mandel’s brief trip would involve nothing but a series of scholarly conferences and lectures. The progress of knowledge is an international venture.’