Banned under Bush, Muslim scholar allowed to return to U.S.


Adam Habib speaks at Harvard Law School

A South African Muslim scholar from the University of Johannesburg, Professor Adam Habib, was welcomed back into the U.S. early this month after a ban on his entry was lifted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January.

Under the Bush administration, Habib was linked to terrorism. The reasons for the link are unclear. A spokesperson for Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, stated that Habib was not a threat to the United States and that the rationale under which his visa was denied could not be repeated in the future. He added that their latest  decision was consistent with President Barack Obama ’91’s outreach to “Muslims around the world” and that “we want to encourage a global debate.”

Speaking at Harvard Law School, Habib took the opportunity to open the dialogue on ideological exclusion in one of his first speaking engagements in the country since the reversal of the ban.

Habib’s story began in October 2006, when he boarded an 18-hour flight from Johannesburg to New York City. At JFK International Airport, he was stopped by a  customs official and asked to undergo further security checks.

“Have you ever been a terrorist?” Habib was asked, to which he replied, “How long have you been doing this job? Has anyone ever answered ‘yes’?”

Five hours of interrogation later, Habib’s visa was “prudentially” revoked and he was deported back to South Africa without any given reason. The visas of his wife and children were also denied.

Speculation into Habib’s forceful removal ranged from racial profiling to his participation in anti-war protests during the 2003 U.S.-led Invasion of Iraq. Habib’s own favorite theory is that the government has a formula: traveler, one point; Muslim background,
one point; critical of American foreign policy, two points, “and I went over a magic  number,” he muses.

The American Civil Liberties Union took on Habib’s case and launched a lawsuit on his behalf. By law, there must be some “facially legitimate and bona fide reason” for a  denial of entry into the U.S., explained ACLU staff attorney Melissa Goodman. The U.S. State Department eventually explained that Habib’s visa application was barred because he was “engaged in terrorist activity”, contrary to a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act. How or why this link was made, they would not say. After doing a background check on Habib’s work and history, Goodman found that there was nothing that could possibly link Habib to terrorism. She felt that his exclusion from the country was either a form of censorship or that the government was “crazy”.

Professor Habib hardly comes off as a terrorist. America is his beloved second home where he pursued his PhD at the City University of New York. For the last 20 years he has come and gone from the U.S. without incident, developing enduring personal and professional relationships along the way. “It’s a place where I have memories”, he
says, “It’s the place where my son was conceived. It’s where I played with him in Central Park trying to feed the ducks … and for me, no government should be able to deny me without any due course that I can [or cannot] visit a place where I have memories.”

More importantly, Habib believes his fight to regain re-entry into the States is a  principled struggle for democracy. Ideological exclusion would deny the legal rights of U.S. citizens to hear diverse views. It goes against everything Habib feels that contemporary America stands for, and, he says, exactly what the terrorists of 9/11 would have wanted all this time.

The lawyers involved in his case may have agreed or disagreed with his beliefs, but that didn’t matter, because on principle, they believed that his views deserved to be heard. “That’s a beautiful thing”, Habib says” “it’s solidarity, action and practice that transcends
national boundaries.”

There are global consequences whenAmerica practices ideological exclusion, according to Habib. It is one thing for Zimbabwe to censor ideas at the border; it is another for the United States to do it. When the most powerful country in the world filters out scholars critical of the government, it weakens the message of democracy across the world and lends credibility to censorship. In that sense, Habib said, the reversal of his ban by the  Secretary of State is therefore a major victory for American democracy and civil liberties.

The professor joins an illustrious list of scholars, politicians and thinkers who have been denied entry into the U.S. on ideological grounds, including South African President Nelson Mandela and Nobel laureates Doris Lessing, Pablo Neruda and  Gabriel García Márquez.

Nevertheless, Habib recognizes that most scholars do not garner media attention or  have organizations litigating their case. “I got lucky,” he says, “there [are] countless  individuals” whose bans are still in place. He warns that this stands at odds against a democratic society where arbitrary political actions should not be made to prevent the exchange of ideas. According to Habib, it is “incumbent on the Obama administration to do something for the voiceless who have not been heard.”

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