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Academic groups suing to stop U.S. from denying visas to scholars based on their political views

WASHINGTON—Three academic groups, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the Bush administration Wednesday to stop it from barring foreign scholars from the United States based on their political views.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn the government's use of the so-called "ideological exclusion" provision of the USA Patriot Act, which the Bush administration cited in revoking a visa for Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Islamic scholar, in August 2004.

Ramadan has sought to reconcile the Islamic and Western worlds and was offered a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. His case has become a symbol for concerns over restrictions on academic freedom.

"If the instance of Ramadan is any indication, we are concerned about scholars ... who may be prevented from coming to speak with us, to meet with us," said Barbara DeConcini, executive director of the Georgia-based American Academy of Religion, which invited him to speak at its annual conference in 2004.

The group, which calls itself the world's largest association of scholars of religion, rarely takes stands on public policy issues. "It was important for us to step up to the plate," DeConcini said.

Megan Gaffney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, said she had no comment on the lawsuit.

It was filed by the ACLU on behalf of the religion group, the American Association of University Professors and the literary group PEN American Center.

Many scholars are expressing concern that security restrictions invoked in the name of fighting terrorism have constricted academic debate on controversial issues.

Knight Ridder reported last month that the State Department has been using ideological litmus tests in a program that sends American experts overseas to represent the United States, weeding out critics of the Iraq war. The department denied it was doing so.

In the last two years, the government also has barred 61 Cuban scholars who were to have attended a 2004 conference, and Dora Maria Tellez, a Nicaraguan scholar and former minister of health.

"The government has resurrected a practice that existed during the Cold War of excluding people because of their views" and is manipulating immigration laws to do so, said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney.

The Bush administration has never fully explained its decision to revoke Ramadan's visa days before he was to come to the United States.

Russ Knocke, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said at the time that the decision was based on "public safety or national security interests."

A provision of the Patriot Act, amended last May, allows the government to exclude a foreigner who's found to "endorse or espouse terrorist activity or persuade others to endorse or espouse terrorist activity or support a terrorist organization," according to the lawsuit. The suit seeks to invalidate that provision.

Ramadan's many defenders say that, although he's been highly critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy, he has condemned terrorism.

Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, was invited by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last year to join a government task force on the sources of extremism in Britain.

Critics, including analyst Daniel Pipes, say Ramadan's been much more equivocal on the issue of terrorism. Pipes called Ramadan "Islamist royalty" in an article because his grandfather, Hassan Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East's oldest Islamist group.

Ramadan reapplied for a U.S. visa but was told last month that it could take almost two years to get an answer, the suit says.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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