Introduction by Noah Salomon, Associate Professor of Religion, Carleton College
The Muslim Ban—in its current iteration as Proclamation 9645 and in its earlier forms—is certainly an egregious attack on the values of our academic communities, but it is not a novel one. Restrictions on scholarship and scholars tied to immigration policy targeting Muslims as threats to national security, as well as to sanctions on Muslim-majority countries uncooperative with US foreign policy interests, have had an enduring presence in recent US history. From interrogations at the United States border faced by Muslim scholars attending workshops and conferences, to outright denials of visas to travel to the United States, to the inordinate amount of red tape at the Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to carry research funds to sanctioned countries, a culture of intimidation has deeply damaged the United States’ place as a forum for free academic inquiry and exchange.
This fact was brought to the surface for me personally three distinct times during the current academic year (and many more, as I heard the harrowing experiences of colleagues whose lives have been interrupted by recent policies). First, a panel for which I was a respondent at the American Academy of Religion entitled, ironically, “Crossing Borders, Transcending Boundaries: The Shifting Contexts of Muslim Politics,” had a panelist from a Muslim Ban country unable to enter the US to deliver her paper (“You have not demonstrated to the consular officer’s satisfaction that denying your entry would cause undue hardship, that your entry would not pose a threat to national security or public safety, and/or that your entry would be in the national interest of the United States,” a letter from the US Embassy stated). A couple weeks later, a panel I was on at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, “Islamic Publics and Counterpublics,” was withdrawn from the program in protest after one panelist was refused a visa and the others acted in solidarity by refusing to attend. Finally, at the end of 2017, trying to log into my email in Khartoum, Sudan, I received the Orwellian message below (see image). This was the first such notice I have received in my fifteen years working in Sudan (and, oddly, at a time when sanctions were said to be in the process of being lifted and Sudan removed from the Muslim Ban roster).
Though this latter instance presented only a minor inconvenience for me, it is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger restriction on information access that people in sanctioned and economically marginalized countries suffer, due not to censorship by their governments, but to their exclusion from the networks of commerce in which information is now so deeply and irreversibly entrenched (a tech-creep that has truly taken over academia and that has mostly been celebrated, with little pause for a reckoning of its cost to our values as teachers and scholars). Indeed, while these three instances pale in comparison to the life and death situations many immigrants are facing today due to US policies, they are testament to the significant patterns of discrimination and restriction academics are facing when entering an international scholarly community unevenly based in the United States, or who live in, or do research in, significant portions of “the Muslim world.”
In February 2018, Jairan Gahan and Khalidah Ali, a recent PhD and a graduate student at the University of Toronto, respectively, organized a “panel in exile” consisting of portions of the withdrawn AAA and AAR panels. Alongside this, they organized another panel discussing the impact of the Muslim Ban on our academic community. The analyses and testimonials presented there were extremely powerful and it seemed crucial they be heard beyond the confines of that conference room. I am delighted that The Immanent Frame has taken the initiative to publish them. I hope they spark conversation about how we as scholars might push-back against this essential challenge to our work, when, as Farzaneh Hemmasi writes in the present forum, what has been banned is not just our dear colleagues and friends, but fundamentally the very process of “knowledge transfer on American soil.” Whether or not the Muslim Ban withstands the challenges posed to it by the judiciary, the issues raised have been with us for a long time and are likely to endure far after. Analyses like these reveal the costs of such policies to our collective endeavor as scholars. It is my hope that they spark us to action.
With thanks to Noah Salomon for this introductory essay and for helping to bring this discussion to The Immanent Frame. —Eds.
The rules of the exception: A Muslim navigates American academia by Jairan Gahan
The idea of the roundtable, the proceedings of which constitute the present forum, initially formed when I was denied a US visa for the first time. This was in October 2017, before Muslim Ban Number 3 had gone into effect. The purpose of my travel was to attend the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference and present in a panel entitled “Islamic Publics and Counterpublics” that I and Khalidah Ali had organized. At the visa office I was interrogated regarding the title of my panel. The suspicious officer gave me a yellow paper which asked for all my social media handles over the past fifteen years, my past addresses, my cellphone numbers, and the names of any living or dead family members whose histories might also come under state scrutiny. Only later did I learn the meaning of the yellow page: even though I had cooperated and supplied the requested information, it indicated my visa application was under “further administrative process” and in effect, indefinitely suspended. We decided to hold the panel at the University of Toronto in protest.
I felt the need to use this opportunity to raise awareness about the weight of invisible immigration politics on the shoulders of affected academics, including graduate students and university professors. Travel restrictions have long impacted academics, but they are rarely discussed because they are seen as temporary inconveniences. The indeterminacy embedded within US immigration policies toward Muslims, however, is effective precisely because it makes restrictions appear as exceptions, while at once normalizing them steadily.
When I applied for PhD programs some six years ago I avoided American universities. Despite the many excellent programs and scholars in the United States, I chose to avoid the predicament of my many Iranian friends studying there who became essentially trapped because of single-entry student visas. Yet despite my efforts to avoid entanglement in American institutionalized discrimination, I still find my professional opportunities impinged by these same politics.
I had my most direct confrontation with US immigration policies in fall 2017 when I defended my PhD dissertation and went on the academic market. Between October and December, I was invited to three campus visits for three tenure track positions. Though I knew my chances of receiving a visa were almost nil, I filed a new application and went to the visa office one last time in early December. The officer informed me that the ambiguous “further administrative process” to which my prior application had been subjected would be carried over to my new visa application, and to any subsequent applications — even if I had a job offer. Once the search committees in question learned of my complicated visa situation, they all dropped my candidacy. Eventually, I stopped applying for any US positions.
But I also realized how much academia is centered around the United States and how difficult it is to find connections and opportunities in Europe if you are trained in North America.
The US discriminatory immigration policies against Muslims have been in the making well before Trump’s administration, and will continue after him. And yet, the power of the Muslim Ban is not in its capacity to be codified. Rather, it lies in the indeterminacy and ambiguity that the immigration system affords the executive body. It is the not knowing what to expect and being subjected to arbitrary and ever-changing policies that has severely affected Muslims for decades in the United States. The question is, how can one begin to respond systematically to an immigration system which makes Muslims the structural and normalized exceptions to its rule?
Who is unaffected by the Muslim Ban? A view from the academy by Farzaneh Hemmasi
The United States is the center of many of the most influential academic societies. For many professional academics at Canadian universities, it takes little thought or advance preparation to travel across the border to these annual conferences. Yet for roughly one thousand University of Toronto faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students from countries targeted by the Muslim Ban, travel to academic meetings in the United States is virtually impossible. The toll on students is particularly hard to track. U of T’s total student population is about 89,000. Students from the affected countries make up only about 0.01% of the student body; graduate students represent an even smaller percentage of this figure. This small number means that many within the academy are unaware of the obstacles to basic professional activities these students face.
One affected doctoral student at my institution is an Iranian national and Canadian permanent resident who I will call “Hassan.” In the spring of 2016, the first year of his doctoral program, Hassan submitted his first abstract to a major academic society meeting and was overjoyed to be accepted. Hassan applied for a visa at an American consulate in Canada, a process that included paying a $160 CAD fee, filling out an extensive form about his background, and attending an in-person interview. At the end of the meeting, the visa officer told Hassan he would be required to submit more background information before a decision could be made. Hassan complied with the request and received an email saying he would be notified when there had been movement on his case.
The conference came and went, with no updates on the visa. Though his name was on the 2016 conference program, Hassan stayed home while the rest of his classmates flew off to the States.
In 2017, Hassan decided to submit another abstract to the same conference; this too was accepted—but he still had no word on his visa application. By this time, Donald Trump had made good on his Muslim Ban and the academic society in question allowed Skype presentations for those affected, like Hassan. In January 2018, a few days before another invited conference presentation Hassan gave via Skype, Hassan finally received an email from the Toronto US Consulate’s Nonimmigrant Visa Unit telling him his visa request had been denied.
There is nothing new or special about Hassan’s inability to travel to the United States. Iranian parents, grandparents, children, students, businesspeople, and tourists have faced difficulties entering the United States since the 1979 dissolution of the two countries’ diplomatic relationship. At least today there are technologies that can allow remote “face-to-face” participation. But an academic paper delivered over Skype is a frustrating experience for all, full of glitches, delays, and mishearing. Remote participation is no substitute for the in-person delivery and reception of academic work, nor for all the other socializing, informal and formal interactions, relationships, job interviews, and life experiences at the conferences.
The relatively low number of affected graduate students and scholars more generally raises the question of whether the response of the unaffected should be proportionally small—as I would argue it has been. When individuals from certain countries cannot attend academic meetings, those who are present cannot learn from those who are absent. What has been banned is knowledge transfer on American soil. If we continue to make United States-based conferences our main sites of intellectual interaction, we are all affected. In addition to moving our meetings beyond the United States, we must rethink the conference’s place in academia and find ways to assist academics in precarious positions—political, economic, or otherwise—to more fully participate in the intellectual exchange that is the lifeblood of our work.
The case of a bureaucratic emergency by Deniz Başar
After the failed military coup attempt of July 15, 2016, a state of emergency was declared in Turkey. The state of emergency almost completely liquefied the legal system and provided the ground floor for the witch-hunt that started later. Because I am one of the Peace Petitioners,1 I now always have some anxiety that my passport might be taken when I am entering my home country, even though I am not in a high-risk group. (Peace Petitioners from Turkish universities were fired with governmental decrees, and their passports and civil rights were taken.)
In August 2016 I had to get a certain travel document in order to return to Canada after the summer break. My department needed to produce a signed document declaring that I was a PhD student and teaching assistant and therefore wanted and needed in a Canadian institution. The Canadian embassy in Turkey gave me forty-eight hours to send this, along with other documents. I could not seem to communicate the emergency of the situation to my department; and one of the professors, who was contacted by the staff to help with the situation, did not even respond at all. I finally managed to find one professor in the department, who comes from an ex-communist country and therefore understood the situation, and she produced the document.
There are two vital problems that these overlapping bureaucratic frameworks can cause in a person’s academic life. The first is that the required visa documents for holders of non-Western passports are generally not readily available in the Western institutions they are working in.2 These Western institutions generally cannot improvise and are regulated by people who lack the experience or understanding of bureaucratic emergency situations. Therefore a non-Western passport holder in a Western institution needs to be resilient, very good at communicating and improvising, and have enough social skills to understand who would help from the higher ranks of an institution in a moment of emergency.
The second, more cynical, problem is that this bureaucratic precariousness pushes the person into self-censorship for the sake of bureaucratic survival. I know that I would be dependent on my department to produce the necessary documents in bureaucratic emergencies, so there is always a fear in the back of my mind when I am calling out something wrong in the department. I know that if the people in the university department that I am working do not “like” me enough, they do not need to do anything in particular to get me out of their eyesight forever; a small disengagement or a lack of attention in a bureaucratic emergency can make it impossible for me to return to Canada to finish my degree. And such a small and seemingly unintentional mistake would never be traced to its racist origin within the institutional framework.
To travel, or not to travel: That is not the question! by Hadi Milanloo
Throughout the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, I tried to avoid any matter, academic or otherwise, that might force me into a US visa application. I even presented my paper for the Society for Ethnomusicology’s conference by Skype. I thought perhaps I could avoid the Muslim Ban and conversations around it. Ironically, however, now I find myself in this moment of sharing and writing about US visa and immigration policies which, once again, reminds me that as a brown man of Middle Eastern descent, of Muslim faith, and of Iranian nationality, I am too precarious, too fragile, to avoid conversations like this. For me, and for others like me, dialogue is one of the only ways out of our everyday struggles. As put so eloquently by M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “[w]e literally have to think ourselves out of these crises.” Unlike for those who occupy the centers of power, struggling and talking about our struggles is a fulltime job with no option for leave or resignation!
While injustice is so clear in Trump’s Executive Order 13769, he is not the first president to impose such an immigration regulation targeting individuals based on nationality and religion. To understand the Muslim Ban fully we must see it as more than an immigration policy that went into effect in 2017.
Iranian students in the United States have long suffered from visa issues which have profoundly limited their mobility. Under previous presidents they had to go through a lengthy visa process, only to obtain a single-entry visa to the United States. If they needed to leave the country for any academic, business, or family purposes, regardless of their country of destination, they had to go through the same process again with no guarantee of being reissued a new visa. Steven Ditto describes how even though President Barack Obama decided to ease the situation for Iranian students toward the end of his first term, more than 75 percent of them still held a single-entry visa in 2012. These students were technically free to leave the country and reapply, but the majority of them never did because of the risk of not obtaining a new visa. Ditto writes that 62.3 percent of students reported that during their time in the United States there had been at least one family emergency requiring their visit but that they could not attend.
Moreover, the Muslim Ban and other visa regulations are not merely immigration policy; rather, they target other strategic areas such as institutions of knowledge. Recently, a few of my Iranian friends, all PhD students or recent graduates in Canada, have been denied visas to enter the United States to attend academic conferences or job interviews. According to the rejection letters they received, the applicant has not satisfied visa officers that their “entry would be in the national interest of the United States.” This sentence shows how through implementing visa regulations, specifically the Muslim Ban, state controls the circulation of knowledge and decides whose knowledge is useful to Americans and whose is not.
In this sense, the Muslim Ban is not only in line with Trump’s infamous US-Mexico wall and his war against DACA, but also aligns with his not-yet-implemented plan to tax graduate student tuition waivers. Considering that many highly-ranked universities are often the most expensive institutions, such a decision would make them almost impossible to attend for students from lower and even middle-class families. The Muslim Ban and this proposed tax plan differently but deliberately target the institutions of knowledge to engineer who, from which religion, class, and consequently ethnicity and/or nationality, may or may not have access to centers of learning and knowledge sharing.