Scholar's Visa Denial Suit Revived

A federal appeals court has revived the challenge by scholarly and civil liberties groups to the U.S. government's denial of a visa to Tariq Ramadan, an internationally acclaimed scholar, to accept a faculty position at the University of Notre Dame.

July 20, 2009

A federal appeals court has revived the challenge by scholarly and civil liberties groups to the U.S. government's denial of a visa to Tariq Ramadan, an internationally acclaimed scholar, to accept a faculty position at the University of Notre Dame.

The decision, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, does not grant Ramadan a visa. But it orders a lower court's inquiry into the possibility that he was denied the opportunity to show consular officers that there was no legitimate reason to keep him out of the United States. And the appeals court made clear that there are good reasons to believe that is the case.

Aspects of the case might at first glance appear moot. Ramadan quit his position at Notre Dame when he couldn't get there (and is now teaching at the University of Oxford). And many of the key decisions on this case were made during the Bush administration. But the groups suing over the visa denial say the case is an illustration of how the government can use unfair assumptions and pretexts to keep scholars out of the country -- blocking the exchange of ideas and academic freedom. So they say that the case is far more important than just whether Ramadan can get into the United States.

Academic groups -- which charge that Ramadan is being punished for having views that on some issues criticize U.S. policies -- hope the case will be used by the Obama administration to set new standards for such issues.

“Our universities, like our country, are known for ideological inclusion, not exclusion," said a statement from Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. "President Obama campaigned on his willingness to listen to anyone, regardless of ideology. The AAUP hopes that his administration will not further litigate the Ramadan case, and end the practice of ideological exclusion, which compromises academic freedom and the quality of debate in our democracy.”

Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, had visited the United States many times prior to 2004, when he accepted the position to teach at Notre Dame. Ramadan is known as a leading Muslim scholar who advocates peaceful coexistence for Muslims and non-Muslims in ways that preserve Islamic ideals and Western democracy. While he has criticized U.S. policies many times, he has also criticized violence by Muslim groups. In 2004, he was denied a visa to take the Notre Dame job, and he was subsequently blocked from coming to the United States to address the AAUP.

While the government refused for a long time to say why Ramadan was excluded, it eventually cited his donations, between 1998 and 2002, to Association de Secours Palestinien (ASP), a charity that has provided some support to Hamas. While the Bush administration barred support for the charity after the period in which Ramadan donated, the organization was (and is) completely legal in Switzerland. Ramadan has testified that he did not know any of the donation could be used inappropriately, and that he thought he was providing funds to help Palestinian refugees. But in 2007, a federal judge ruled that there were limits on the extent to which he could question the decisions of consular officials and upheld the visa denial.

The appeals court accepted the basic logic of the lower court's decision, with one key exception. The appeals court said that to uphold the visa denial, the government should have produced evidence that it gave Ramadan the chance to show that he didn't know and couldn't reasonably have been expected to know that some ASP funds were reaching terrorist groups.

And the appeals court noted that Ramadan's claim "cannot be dismissed out of hand." That's because when the U.S. government designated ASP as a group that supported terrorism, in 2003, the press release said that the government was acting because "too many innocent donors who intend for their money to be used to provide humanitarian services here or abroad, are unwittingly funding acts of violence when these funds are diverted to terrorist causes.”

Through the American Civil Liberties Union, Ramadan issued a statement praising the appeals court decision. "I am very gratified with the court's decision," said Ramadan. "I am eager to engage once again with Americans in the kinds of face-to-face discussions that are central to academic exchange and crucial to bridging cultural divides."

The suit was brought by the ACLU on behalf of the AAUP and the American Academy of Religion, and the PEN American Center. Among the academic groups that have backed the suit are: the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, the American Studies Association, the Association of American Law Schools, the Association of American University Presses, the College Art Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and the Middle East Studies Association.


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