NEW YORK — The government has rejected a prominent Muslim scholar's application to enter the country, contending that he gave support to a terrorist group, but his attorneys allege the U.S. is using charitable donations he made as a pretext for stifling his views.
Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who teaches at Oxford University, was denied a temporary business and tourism visa Thursday "based solely on his actions, which constituted providing material support to a terrorist organization," said Janelle Hironimus, a State Department spokeswoman.
Hironimus said she could not reveal specifics about Ramadan's case due to confidentiality rules regarding visa applications.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the U.S. government notified Ramadan he was being excluded because he donated $765 to French and Swiss organizations that provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians.
The ACLU said the organizations are legitimate charities in France, but the Bush administration contends the groups gave funds to the Islamic militant group Hamas, and has invoked a law allowing it to exclude individuals whom it believes have supported terrorism.
The ACLU said the decision to bar Ramadan amounts to censorship.
"This case is really about speech," said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer. "The government is using the immigration laws as a means of silencing and stigmatizing a prominent cleric."
Ramadan has said he opposes the U.S. invasion of Iraq and U.S policies in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but that he has no connections to terrorism, opposes Islamic extremism and promotes peaceful solutions.
He said in a statement he was disappointed by the government's decision but was glad that the State Department had abandoned its initial allegation that he endorsed terrorism.
"I think it's clear from the history of this case that the U.S. government's real fear is of my ideas," he said. "I am excluded not because the government truly believes me to be a national security threat, but because of my criticisms of American foreign policies in the Middle East; because of my opposition to the invasion of Iraq; and because of my criticism of some of the Bush administration's policies with respect to civil liberties."
Hironimus defended the government's policies, saying the United States "welcomes the exchange of culture and ideas with the Islamic world." She said that in the past three years more than 450 religious scholars and leaders, the vast majority of them Muslim, had visited the United States as guests of the U.S. government.
Jaffer said the ACLU would decide whether to pursue the issue through the courts once it speaks with organizations it represents that filed a lawsuit challenging the government's exclusion of Ramadan.
Ramadan applied for a visa last year that would allow him to temporarily visit the United States to lecture or attend conferences, as he had prior to 2004 when he had spoken at Harvard University, Stanford University and elsewhere.
When the State Department did not rule on the application, the ACLU brought a lawsuit on behalf of several groups which had invited Ramadan to speak to force it to act.
In June, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty in Manhattan ordered the government to rule on Ramadan's application within three months.