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Banned: Why a South African is Going to Court in the U.S.

The U.S. furnished no reason for the revocation of my visa. Despite repeated inquiries and protests by me, to this day the U.S. has never explained itself.
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Sometime in November 2006, while my wife, Fatima, drove back from work in Pretoria to our home in Johannesburg, South Africa, she received a call from John Webster, an official at the American consulate in Johannesburg. John very apologetically notified Fatima that her visa had been revoked, as had the visas of my children, Irfan, 11, and Zidaan, 8. Irfan had been invited to the U.S. as part of the People to People Ambassador Program for young leaders established by President Dwight Eisenhower to promote understanding among peoples of the world. I had not made up my mind yet about whether to send Irfan. Scared that he might be harassed at U.S. airports, I was conflicted. But now that decision was already made, and by somebody else. The 'sins' of the father had been visited upon the sons.

Our saga began a month earlier when I arrived in New York on October 21, 2006. Having lived there before while earning my Ph.D. from the City University of New York, and having traveled there multiple times thereafter, I expected to be irritated, but nothing more. Even when I was sent to the Homeland Security waiting room in JFK airport, I was not overly concerned. But after five hours, I began to realize that this went beyond the normal harassment. By the time I called the South African Consulate and some U.S. and South African officials, it was too late -- the decision had already been made to revoke my visa and 'deport' me. Soon I was escorted under armed guard to a plane bound for South Africa. But I never lost my cool. Partly, I think, because it was nearing the end of Ramadan, a period in which you are not only supposed to fast, but also to control your temper when daily challenges arise.

The U.S. furnished no reason for the revocation of my visa. Despite repeated inquiries and protests by me, South African officials, and U.S. organizations, to this day the U.S. has never explained itself. There were, however, several guesses. Some suggested that it was racial profiling. But when my wife and children's visas were also revoked, this theory no longer seemed credible. Others, including some high-ranking public officials in South Africa, believe that it had to do with my involvement in anti-Iraq war demonstrations in 2003. Some suggested that photographs were taken of me addressing a rally in South Africa and downloaded into some kind of U.S. database. But there was never any confirmation of this theory from any official or department in the U.S.

Am I critic of the U.S. government? Absolutely. In addition to my active participation in anti-war demonstrations, I have been very critical both in my speeches and in my writing about American foreign policy in Africa and the Middle East. But I have also been equally critical of other governments -- including my own. Is that a rationale for excluding me? I would hope not. Can you imagine if suddenly American academics and citizens were deported from South Africa because they criticized the government's policies on HIV/AIDS? If our governments get in the habit of excluding academics, intellectuals, journalists, and citizens of other countries for ideological reasons, then we are on a slippery slope to the abrogation of all kinds of freedoms. Having lived in apartheid South Africa, I know what this means.

While I remain excluded from the U.S. without explanation, I continue to receive invitations to speak in the United States. Together with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, I decided to re-apply for a visa. I was meant to speak at the American Sociological Association Conference in New York in August 2007, but was notified at the very last minute that my application would not be processed in time. To date I still have not heard anything about my visa application. As a result, with the help of the ACLU, U.S. organizations that have invited me to speak in the U.S. -- the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights -- filed a lawsuit today in federal district court to force the U.S. government to act on my visa and end its effort to block a free exchange of ideas.

Why do I fight to get into a country where its government obviously does not want me? My answer has always been threefold. First, I have said my relationship with the U.S. extends beyond its government. It is established through my relationships with American citizens. It is also constructed by my fond personal memories. My son, Irfan was conceived there. When I came to defend my dissertation at the City University of New York two years later, I remember feeding ducks in Central Park with him. I remember Irfan's love for riding the subway, which would lull him to sleep. I remember snow fights with Zidaan and Irfan in the middle of Manhattan a few years later. And all of us remember visiting Disney World in 2003. This is a country where we have memories and friends. It is part of our world and that should not be taken away by an arbitrary action of a public official.

Second, in my new job as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg, it would obviously be inconvenient for me to be barred from the U.S. It is where we have relationships with scholars, institutions and donors. I routinely collaborate with U.S.-based scholars on academic projects. While my exclusion from the U.S. may not be debilitating, why should I be subjected to these inconveniences without any explanation from the U.S. government?

Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, this case symbolizes a broader struggle in our world. I am concerned, as many others are, at the rise of what I would call 'chauvinistic identities' across the globe. We see these identities in nations like the U.S. and South Africa, where some define being American and South African in narrow racial and cultural terms. We see it in religious communities where some interpret being Muslim as having to hate a Jew and Christian, where to be Hindu must involve hating Christian and Muslim. We see it in linguistic divides where to speak French means to oppress one who speaks Dutch, where to speak Arabic means to reject Farsi. This has also led to increasing conflict between peoples and nations. It leads to bombing, and counter-bombing, wars and counter-wars, each feeding off each other in an ever-vicious cycle. All of this has occurred at a time when structural developments like globalization require collaboration on an unprecedented scale.

And this is what this case represents for me. It was filed on my behalf, a South African, by the ACLU and other U.S. organizations. The lawyers are American, the plaintiffs are Americans. The cause is the right of these Americans to hear and speak with a South African. We are not all of one ideological persuasion. Many of those who have stood up on my behalf, I don't even know. What unites us is that we stand for principle.

And this is the fight of the future. The coming struggles for freedom will be played on the global plane and they would require progressives to build bridges and human solidarity across national, religious and ideological boundaries. Assisting in this struggle is what we can bequeath to our children. Fatima and I can leave Irfan and Zidaan assets, but these can always disappear. Principles will always be with them. At least when they think back in years to come, they can say that their old man and old lady stood up instead of folding, built bridges instead of dividing, stuck to principle instead of capitulating. They can say we were on the right side of their struggle for freedom.

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