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State Department Allows Muslim Scholars to Return to U.S.

Two prominent Muslim scholars once accused of having ties to terrorism can reapply to travel to the United States now that the State Department has concluded they pose no danger to the country, federal spokesmen said Wednesday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has signed orders enabling the re-entry of professors Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University in England and Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg in South Africa once they obtain required admittance documents, department spokesman Darby Holladay said.

Clinton "has chosen to exercise her exemption authority for the benefit of Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib," Holladay said. "We'll let that action speak for itself."

In a prepared statement, Holladay noted the change in U.S. posture since both professors, who are frequently invited to the United States to lecture, were denied admittance after making statements counter to U.S. foreign policy.

"Both the president and the secretary of state have made it clear that the U.S. government is pursuing a new relationship with Muslim communities based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Holladay said. The decision was made after consultations with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, he added.

"We want to encourage a global debate," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington. "As we look at it, we do not think that either one of them represents a threat to the United States."

The American Civil Liberties Union sued in recent years to challenge the exclusion of the professors. It said the State Department's action means the scholars might now get visas within weeks of requesting them.

The orders are "long overdue and tremendously important," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project.

Habib, a well-known South African scholar who has criticized the war in Iraq, was denied a visa by the U.S. government in a letter saying he "engaged in a terrorist activity," an accusation Habib has vigorously denied.

The ACLU of Massachusetts sued in 2007, challenging Habib's exclusion on behalf of the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights.

Ramadan, 47, had his U.S. visa revoked in 2004 as he was about to move to Indiana to take a tenured teaching job at the University of Notre Dame. He has spoken at Harvard and Stanford universities and elsewhere.

Later, his visa applications were denied on the grounds that he had donated $1,336 to a charity that gave money to Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Ramadan has said he has no connections to terrorism, opposes Islamic extremism and promotes peaceful solutions.

Ramadan said in a statement issued by PEN American Center, a human rights group, that he was "very pleased with the decision to end my exclusion from the United States after almost six years."

In a statement on "The American Muslim" Web site, Ramadan wrote that the allegations used to exclude him "were nothing more than a pretense to prohibit me from speaking critically about American government policy on American soil."

He added: "The decision brings to an end a dark period in American politics that saw security considerations invoked to block critical debate through a policy of exclusion and baseless allegation."

He said he was looking forward to visiting the United States soon, and PEN said it planned to organize a forum in New York where he could speak.

ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer said at a court hearing Wednesday that the ACLU planned to submit a new visa application on Ramadan's behalf by next Friday.

In an ACLU statement, Habib said he was thrilled, calling it a victory both personal and "for democracy around the world."

Habib, 44, lived in the United States from 1993-95 while earning a doctorate in political science from the City University of New York. He said he had been excluded since October 2006, when he was questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials about his political views and was asked whether he belonged to or supported any terrorist organizations.

In a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Habib called the U.S. approach to the Iraq war a disaster. He also said: "I'm confident that I can't be linked to things like terrorism. That is not what my politics is about."

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