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Encouraging for the World, Embarrassing for the U.S.

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November 10, 2008

This week, 58 Catholic and Muslim scholars met at the Vatican for talks aimed at bridging divisions between the world’s two largest religions. The gathering, hosted by Pope Benedict XVI, ended with a joint declaration “renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all.”The Pope’s guests included Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born, Oxford-based scholar who, while eminent enough to merit a place at the papal conference table, continues to be persona non grata in the United States.In 2004, Ramadan was preparing to assume a teaching position at Notre Dame when he was told that his visa had been cancelled. At the time, a State Department spokesman said Ramadan was unwelcome in the U.S. under a Patriot Act provision barring those who use a ‘position of prominence’ to ‘endorse or espouse terrorism.’ It was an untenable explanation — Ramadan has consistently denounced terrorism throughout his career — but the U.S. has continued to exclude him from the U.S. through a series of strategic stalls and shifting explanations.When PEN joined the ACLU in challenging his exclusion and the Patriot Act provision, the government retracted its claim that Ramadan endorsed terrorism, but said it needed more time to decide his fate. The judge disagreed, ordering the government either to grant him a visa or give a legitimate reason for excluding him. With the court’s deadline looming, the government then asserted Ramadan was inadmissible because he had provided ‘material support to terrorism.’ It cited donations Ramadan had made to a Palestinian charity in Switzerland in 1999 and 2000 totaling around $1,000, a charity which the U.S. added to its terror watch list in 2003 but which still operates legally in Europe.We went back to court to challenge this new pretext. This time the judge said his hands were tied — that the government had given a reason for the exclusion, and that, even though in 2000 the U.S. itself hadn’t yet concluded that the charity was involved in anything other than relief work, Ramadan hadn’t proved he didn’t know his donation was supporting terrorism. How does a person prove he didn’t know something?We’re now appealing that decision. If it stands, tens of thousands of foreigners could find themselves barred from the United States because they made donations in good faith to organizations the U.S. later alleged have connections to terrorists. Among them there are likely to be many Tariq Ramadans, international writers and scholars who are major participants in some of the most critical conversations of our time, men and women whose exclusion from the United States violates our rights as American citizens to hear these voices face-to-face and engage directly in these conversations.These conversations are happening, whether we’re part of them or not, and this week’s gathering at the Vatican shows how valuable and hopeful they can be. The fact that one of the Pope’s guests cannot visit the U.S., meanwhile, just serves to underscore how out of step and embarrassing this administration’s practice of ideological exclusion has been.

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