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State Department lifts ban on prominent Muslim scholar

(PEN American Center/IFEX) - New York City, January 20, 2010 - PEN American Center welcomed the news today that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has signed orders effectively ending the exclusion of Swiss Scholar Tariq Ramadan from the United States, calling the move "a step towards restoring the First Amendment right of American citizens to seek a full range of information and ideas."

In a statement released today, PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah commended the Obama administration for granting a visa waiver to Tariq Ramadan, saying the action "sends an important signal about our country's commitment to preserving a free and open exchange of information and ideas with the rest of the world."

"At a time when a number of countries seem intent on limiting the access of their own citizens to the international conversation, it is especially crucial for the United States of America to take a strong and clear stand against censorship at the border," Appiah added in the statement.

The action by Secretary Clinton should resolve a lawsuit that PEN and the ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Academy of Religions filed in January 2006 challenging Ramadan's exclusion from the U.S.

In August 2004, a Department of Homeland Security official cited a Patriot Act provision barring those who "endorse or espouse terrorism" as the basis for revoking Ramadan's visa, a move that effectively stopped him from assuming a tenured position he had been offered at the University of Notre Dame. One of the most prominent scholars of Islam in Europe, Ramadan has consistently condemned terrorism in his public statements and extensive writings, and he traveled to the United States frequently before and after September 11, 2001, even participating in a conference on "Islam and America in a Global World" that former President Bill Clinton hosted in 2002.

PEN and its co-plaintiffs challenged his exclusion and the Patriot Act provision U.S. officials had cited as the grounds for denying his entry, arguing that such exclusions violate the First Amendment rights of Americans to hear international voices and engage and debate with foreign colleagues face to face. In court proceedings, the government quickly abandoned its claim that Ramadan espoused terrorism, insisting instead that it needed more time to process Ramadan's visa application. The court disagreed in June 2006, and ordered the government to issue the visa or give the reason for its refusal within 90 days.

Just before the deadline, Ramadan was informed that his visa application was being denied because he had donated small amounts of money between 1998 and 2002 to French and Swiss organizations that provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians. PEN and its co-plaintiffs challenged this denial as well, and last year a federal appeals court ruled that Ramadan must be permitted to show that he could not have known that the charity, which was placed on the U.S. watch list after he had made the donations and still operates legally in Switzerland, had affiliations with any terrorist organizations. A hearing in the case was to have been held this week.

Instead, on Friday, Secretary Clinton signed an order stating that Ramadan would not be denied a visa on the basis of these donations in the future. She signed a similar order for Adam Habib, a South African scholar who has also been excluded from the U.S. on ideological grounds. Both can now reapply for visas and should be free to travel to the United States soon.

"I am very pleased with the decision to end my exclusion from the United States after almost six years," Tariq Ramadan said today in the U.K. "I want to thank all the institutions and individuals who have supported me and worked to end unconstitutional ideological exclusion over the years. I am very happy and hopeful that I will be able to visit the United States very soon and to once again engage in an open, critical and constructive dialogue with American scholars and intellectuals."

PEN announced it would move quickly to organize such a forum in New York. "Since we first filed this lawsuit, the issues on which Professor Ramadan writes and speaks have only gained urgency," Appiah said in his statement, noting in particular the recent vote in Switzerland to ban minarets and a push to ban speech deemed defamatory to religions. "The tensions behind these developments can only be addressed through engagement and dialogue," Appiah continues. "We look forward to welcoming Professor Ramadan to the United States, and we will move quickly to do what we have not been able to do since he learned in 2004 that his U.S. visa had been cancelled: arrange a public program where he and his American counterparts can discuss these developments and debate some of the many issues of common interest to Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East."

"This is a clear victory for the First Amendment, said Larry Siems, Director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. "We were very troubled to see our government resurrecting the discredited practice of ideological exclusion after 9/11, at time when we clearly needed more, not less, international dialogue and debate. We see the administration's decision to reverse the ban on Tariq Ramadan as a major step in reestablishing our country's leadership in defending the rights of its citizens to engage with the world."

Read the full text of Kwame Anthony Appiah's statement

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