Why the “Muslim Ban” is inimical to academic freedom and scholarly community, and what the Middle East Studies Association is doing about it
By Beth Baron, former president of MESA, and Judith Tucker, CCAS Professor and current MESA president
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) recognized early on that the “Muslim Ban”—so called for its banning of individuals from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States—posed specific threats to its mission and its commitments to academic freedom, intellectual exchange, and the fostering of scholarly research. As the current and past presidents of MESA, we take great pride in the fact that the association decided to take a clear and active stand against all iterations of this ban.
The impact of the first Muslim ban—an executive order signed by Donald Trump in January 2017 that included a 90-day ban on the entry of all nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and the indefinite suspension of entry of all Syrian refugees—was felt by our community of scholars immediately. At the CUNY Graduate Center, where Beth teaches and directs the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, a returning first-year PhD candidate in political science was barred from the United States in a scene that played out similarly across the country. She had gone home to visit family in Iran over break and attempted to fly back from Tehran via Abu Dhabi, a hub for DOI officials. She was stopped, interrogated, had her student visa confiscated, and was sent back to Tehran after eighteen hours in the airport. Although she eventually was able to return to the U.S., the potential impact of the ban on our students, and American higher education in general, was made quite clear.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the order was that it created chaos and disruption to so many plans, even after the order was blocked by a federal judge and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sustained the judge’s order. It undermined the ability of scholars to travel to conduct research, to recruit students, and to bring in colleagues to attend conferences, give talks, and collaborate on projects. The ban had endangered our ability to exchange ideas and produce knowledge, the very essence of scholarly life. The Scholars at Risk program, for example, was immediately prevented from placing at-risk academics from the proscribed countries in U.S. institutions, cutting American universities off from the valuable contributions these colleagues make to the intellectual life of their host institutions, such as those of our own Professor Mohammad Alahmad, who teaches Arabic literature courses at Georgetown. A second Executive Order was signed in March 2017, and MESA decided to join a case in Maryland, along with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and International Refugee Assistance Project. MESA filed a first declaration outlining the harm the ban caused to the association, fighting both on practicalities and principles.
Credit: Masha George, Public DomainAs scholars of the Middle East region, our mission is to study it, which means traveling there to gather material and exchange information with colleagues in the field. However, our ability to interact with these colleagues has been increasingly compromised, and the list of countries where one can safely conduct research is growing shorter. Furthermore, our capacity to exercise our professional and ethical responsibility to stand up for academic freedom has also been challenged by our diminishing access. We take this responsibility seriously, particularly in light of the fact that American imperial interventions have played no small role in the violence and dispossession racking the Middle East. The Muslim ban affects us abroad and at home.
After the second iteration of the Muslim ban was overturned, yet another version was issued in October 2017. The new ban prevents nationals from eight countries—Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela—from entering the U.S. on visas. On October 6, 2017, MESA’s lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), together with lawyers from the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), filed papers in Maryland for an injunction to stop this third iteration. Our legal team has worked tirelessly to present the strongest counterarguments possible. The MESA membership has been solidly behind our efforts, and information provided by our members has been critical to the preparation of a strong second declaration about the negative impact of the ban. Judge Theodore Chuang heard arguments in the case on October 16, 2017 and signed an order the following day, blocking implementation of the ban. A judge in Hawaii issued a similar ruling in a separate challenge. The government immediately filed an appeal, and the Fourth Circuit then took up the arguments of the case, hearing it on December 7, 2017. In a 9-to-4 ruling issued February 15, 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court ruled against President Trump’s third Muslim ban, noting that the indefinite ban violates the Constitution. At the same time, the Hawaii case has moved forward and will be heard by the Supreme Court on April 25, possibly in conjunction with the Maryland case. MESA plans to continue its efforts to contest the Muslim Ban as fundamentally inimical to the principles and scholarly practices of our organization.
Dr. Judith Tucker is Professor of History at CCAS and President of the Middle East Studies Association. She will continue to serve as MESA President until November, 2019. Dr. Beth Baron is Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, where she also teaches. She served as MESA President from 2015 to 2017.
This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.