Representatives from leading Islamic organizations in Arizona and the nation blasted the Department of Homeland Security on Friday, alleging that the government used discrimination, dishonesty and smear tactics to force a prominent Muslim physician out of the country.
The organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and Muslim American Society, demanded that federal authorities allow Dr. Nadeem Hassan to return to Tempe from Pakistan and said that they are seeking meetings with the FBI, Homeland Security and congressional leaders about the treatment of immigrants.
Hassan, a Pakistani who belongs to an Islamic group known as Jamaat al Tabligh, was forced out of the country last week under threat of indefinite detention based in part on a Homeland Security finding that JT is a terrorist organization.
Those moves infuriated Valley Muslims, who say Hassan is a peace-loving physician and Jamaat al Tabligh is a non-violent, apolitical missionary movement.
“We have no problem with fighting terrorism. We’re partners in that,” said Deedra Abboud, executive director for the Muslim American Society. “But we demand that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security meet with us. . . . We want them to reverse their decision.”
Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman in Washington, D.C., said Hassan’s ouster from the United States “is an example of what we mean when we talk about restoring integrity to the immigration system.”
“We’re very clear about our commitment to shutting down vulnerabilities before they can lead to terrorist acts,” he said. “Particularly in a post-9/11 world, immigration benefits are a privilege.”
Hassan had lived in the United States for more than 15 years, and practiced medicine at Maricopa Medical Center under a temporary-work permit. He applied for permanent residence in 2002 and, last year, sued the government for its delayed handling of the green-card request. He and his wife, Amber, also sought visas so they could travel in December to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage known as hajj.
The Hassans were granted visas. Last week, while they were still overseas, Citizenship and Immigration Services, or CIS, denied the green card and revoked their travel authorization, leaving them stranded. When the Hassans returned Jan. 18 to New York, they were held by Customs and Border Protection agents who threatened to jail them unless they voluntarily left the country. They flew to Pakistan.
Hassan has no criminal record and is not charged with terrorism. In an e-mail to The Arizona Republic from Karachi, he vowed to “fight the injustice” and complained that CIS has “no proof of myself being implicated in terrorist activity in any shape and form.”
“I have been living as a peaceful citizen in the U.S. since April 1989,” he said.
Hassan said he was held for 19 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “The customs and border security staff treated us worse than animals,” he said. “Some of the staff were abusive and even physical.”
Hassan’s immigration attorney in Phoenix, Eric Bjotvedt, said he is continuing legal efforts to bring the doctor home. Bjotvedt and Muslim leaders accused Homeland Security of setting up Hassan by allowing international travel, then revoking the green card while he was away so there was no chance for defense in court.
During Friday’s news conference at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Asim Ameer, a board member with the Council on American Islamic Relations, condemned the government’s tactics as “underhanded.” He added that, after Homeland Security accused Hassan of terrorism, he was allowed to fly commercial airliners from the Middle East to New York and back.
“Clearly Dr. Hassan is not a terrorist,” agreed Dr. Nadeem Kazi, president-elect of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent. “Otherwise, he would have been arrested in the United States or upon re-entering the country.”
Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said there was no nefarious plan to revoke Hassan’s green card while he was overseas, especially in a department that handles thousands of cases daily. Knocke also rejected assertions that discrimination was involved.
“We operate on intelligence,” he said. “Intelligence does not discriminate. It simply gives our personnel the specific information they need to target a bad actor.”
In revoking Hassan’s green card, CIS said he committed fraud by failing to declare his leadership in a number of Muslim groups, including JT and a mosque in Mesa. Bjotvedt said that the application form asks about membership in “every political organization, association, fund, (etc.),” and that Hassan didn’t understand religious affiliations were required.
Bjotvedt complained that CIS misrepresented an FBI affidavit that says Jamaat al Tabligh is “vulnerable to being used by Islamic extremists.” That declaration concludes that the bureau “is unable to rule out the possibility that Hassan poses a threat.”
CIS went much further, finding that JT “is a terrorist organization” and that Hassan “engaged in terrorist activity” by working with it. Jamaat al Tabligh is not on the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations.
Deborah McCarley, a Phoenix FBI spokeswoman, said she could not discuss Hassan but emphasized that the bureau investigates prospective immigrants thoroughly on behalf of Homeland Security.
“Since 9/11, the name-check process involves more than just a criminal-records review,” she said. “The FBI is doing its job.”
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he has followed news coverage about the Hassan case but was unaware that Muslim leaders asked for a meeting.
“This wasn’t profiling, as I understand it,” Kyl said. “There is no question that the individual had involvement with the organization. . . . The question is, How directly involved was he and how involved is the organization in the kind of activity that our government wants to target?
“I don’t know the answers to those things. But in a broader sense, two things are true. One, you’ve got to be very vigilant that people who are affiliated with terrorist enterprises and terrorists don’t aid and abet them. Number 2, you’ve got to be very careful that innocent people aren’t caught up in that first activity.”
Reporter Pat Flannery contributed to this article.
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