Win for Excluded Muslim Scholar

June 26, 2006

A federal judge on Friday gave the U.S. government 90 days to act on the visa application of a renowned Muslim scholar who has been kept out of the United States for two years, much to the distress of academic groups trying to bring him here.

The order by Judge Paul A. Crotty did not address all of the issues raised in a lawsuit by those groups challenging the way the government is deciding who may and may not enter the county. But in forcing the government to make a decision about the scholar, Judge Crotty rejected -- sometimes in mocking tones -- many government arguments that would have given federal officials broad power to exclude people from the United States without giving any reason. Judge Crotty based his decision largely on the First Amendment rights of American scholars to not only express their own views, but to invite others to meet with them and share their views.

The scholar at the center of the controversy is Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who is one of the most prominent European thinkers about Islam. He is known for encouraging Muslims to consider a "third path" between isolating  themselves from Western society or fully assimilating within it. He has repeatedly criticized both Muslim terrorist groups and U.S. policies in the Middle East, and especially the invasion of Iraq.

Ramadan has visited the United States many times -- primarily to participate in scholarly meetings -- and he was poised to move with his family to Indiana two years ago to accept a position at the University of Notre Dame when his visa was revoked just days before his departure. He was told he could apply for another visa and Notre Dame did so on his behalf, only to have that request languish without any explanation. When that visa failed to materialize, Ramadan had to tell Notre Dame that he could not accept the position, prompting the State Department to assert in the legal case that it wasn't denying Ramadan a visa to teach at Notre Dame because he had withdrawn his acceptance of the position there.

Since then, Ramadan has been unable to obtain visas to enter the United States for even short-term talks to scholarly groups. Several of them -- the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors, and the PEN American Center -- joined Ramadan and the American Civil Liberties Union in challenging his exclusion from the United States.

In opposing the suit, the government indicated that there were national security reasons for its action, but never specified them. In 2004, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security told the Los Angeles Times that Ramadan was being excluded for expressing support for terrorist activity. In legal filings, the government disavowed that statement, but didn't offer an alternate explanation.

In his decision, Judge Crotty largely accepted the scholarly groups' views that their rights were being violated and rejected the government's claim that they had no valid First Amendment claim. "The First Amendment includes not only a right to speak, but also a right to receive information and ideas," Judge Crotty wrote.

He acknowledged that the government must sometimes balance rights with legitimate national security concerns, and that the right of non-citizens to enter the United States is "conditional" on a variety of criteria controlled by the government. But despite the wide latitude federal officials have to deny visas, Judge Crotty wrote, "it cannot do so solely because the executive disagrees with the content of the alien's speech and therefore wants to prevent the alien from sharing this speech with a willing American audience."

Further, Judge Crotty wrote: "The First Amendment rights of Americans are implicated when the government excludes an alien from the United States on the basis of his political views, even though the non-resident alien has no constitutionally or statutorily protected right to enter the United States to speak."

Government officials could not be reached for comment.

Civil liberties groups praised the ruling. Jameel Jaffer, deputy director of the ACLU's National Security Program and the lead lawyer in the case, said that the ruling demonstrated that "ideological misuse of immigration laws has significant effects on the freedom of academic and political debate inside the United States."

While Ramadan has been unable to enter the United States, his scholarly career has continued. He is currently a fellow at the University of Oxford. Judge Crotty noted that Britain -- the closest ally of the United States in its efforts to combat terrorism -- found no reason to deny him a visa. Further, the judge noted, he has advised the British government and London police forces about how to deal with extremists.

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