(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration announced earlier this week that it would allow two Muslim scholars into the country – lifting a ban on Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss national and professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, and Adam Habib of South Africa.
But the pro-Palestinian group cited by the U.S. government in denying Tariq Ramadan's visa remains on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of organizations sanctioned for their links to terrorism.
The Paris-based Commite de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (CBSP) and its Swiss-based subsidiary Association de Secours Palestinien (ASP) were added to Treasury's list in August 2003, after the U.S. government identified them as "primary fundraisers" in France and Switzerland for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
"The group has collected large amounts of money from mosques and Islamic centers, which it then transfers to sub-organizations of Hamas," the Treasury Department announced at the time.
Tariq Ramadan's supporters characterized the decision to clear the way for future visits as a victory for civil liberties, and State Department spokesmen said it was consistent with President Obama's outreach to Muslims and desire to encourage debate.
"We want to have the opportunity potentially to have Islamic scholars come to the United States and have dialogue with other faith communities and people here in our country," Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley told reporters.
The stated reason for denying Ramadan a visa was not his ideological views, however, but his donations to the Hamas-linked groups.
Commenting on the administration's decision, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes questioned the fact that officials are presenting it in the context of "pursuing a new relationship with Muslim communities based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
"But it's always been a terrorism case, with no connection to issues of Islam," Pipes wrote on his Web site. "What amateurs."
When the Bush administration first revoked Ramadan's visa – a move that scuttled his plan to take up a position at the University of Notre Dame in 2004 – it cited a Patriot Act provision permitted the barring of foreigners found to have used a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization."
The administration later provided as a reason the fact Ramadan had made donations to CBSP-ASP between 1998 and 2002.
Ramadan has not denied sending a total of 1,670 Swiss francs ($1,603 at today's exchange rate) to ASP, but he did state in legal documents that he was unaware that the recipients were providing funds to Hamas or supporting terrorism.
Throughout, he disputed that the donations were the real reason for the visa denial.
In a statement posted on his Web site from London, Ramadan said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's decision this week confirmed that the U.S. allegations "were nothing more than a pretense to prohibit me from speaking critically about American government policy on American soil."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which together with other organizations championed the Ramadan and Habib cases, charged that the visa denials were part of a campaign of "ideological exclusion" – a pattern of "denying visas to foreign nationals whose political views the government disfavors."
"For several years, the United States government was more interested in stigmatizing and silencing its foreign critics than in engaging them," Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, said in response to this week's policy shift.
Jaffer called the move "a welcome sign that the Obama administration is committed to facilitating, rather than obstructing, the exchange of ideas across international borders."
The State Department has not detailed the reasoning behind the decision, beyond saying that the U.S. does not think that Ramadan "represents a threat to the United States."
The next time he applies for a visa, "he will not be found inadmissible on the basis of the facts that led to denial when [he] last applied," Crowley said.
The Aug. 2003 designation of Hamas fundraising groups came three days after 23 people were killed and 130 others injured in a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem public bus. It was the latest in a wave of deadly bombings claimed by Hamas and targeting Israeli civilians in Jerusalem and other cities.
CBSP (whose name in English is Committee for Palestinian Charity and Aid) has long denied any links to Hamas and, like other groups blacklisted by the U.S. as Hamas fundraisers, says its support for Palestinians is purely humanitarian.
Hamas does run social welfare programs but researchers say charitable work can serve as a cover for more sinister activities.
"Evidence has shown how the charity committees, religious classes, student unions, sport clubs, and other community gatherings convened by Hamas typically serve as opportunities for activists to spot, radicalize, and recruit Palestinian youths for positions in Hamas institutions, for terrorist training courses in Syria or Iran, or for suicide bombings and other attacks," terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, author of Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, wrote in 2007.
CBSP still operates from Paris, with additional offices in three provincial French cities, and according to its Web site continues to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, entering the Hamas-ruled territory at its border with Egypt.
Attempts to contact the organization by phone and email were unsuccessful.
CBSP is an affiliate of the Union of Good, a coalition of charities led by the prominent Sunni cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian regarded as a leading Islamic scholar, but controversial for having called Palestinian suicide bombings against Israelis justifiable "martyrdom operations."
In 2008 the Treasury Department added the Union of Good to the same list it had placed CBSP on five years earlier.
"Funds raised by the Union of Good affiliates have been transferred to Hamas-managed organizations in the West Bank and Gaza," the department said in announcing the designation. "In addition to providing cover for Hamas financial transfers, some of the funds transferred by the Union of Good have compensated Hamas terrorists by providing payments to the families of suicide bombers."
Designation by the Treasury Department aims to disrupt funding to terrorists by prohibiting Americans from engaging in transactions with the listed entities. It also freezes any assets they may have in the U.S.
Israel and Australia have also proscribed CBSP for its Hamas links, although attempts by the U.S. to persuade France to act against it at home have been unsuccessful.
Stuart Levey, the undersecretary in the Treasury Department's office dealing with terrorist financing, told U.S. lawmakers in 2004 that although CBSP was "demonstrably funding Hamas," it continued to operate in its home country, a situation he described as "extremely troubling."
The State Department in subsequent annual terrorism reports attributed France's refusal to act against CBSP to its view that the organization had "no proven links to terrorism."