Adam Habib, a prominent South African and Muslim scholar, spoke yesterday at Harvard Law School about ideological exclusion in one of his first speeches in the United States since the Bush administration barred him from entering the country in 2006.
The Obama administration, in an order signed in January by Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, decided to lift the ban on Habib and a number of other scholars who were excluded for similar “national security reasons.” Since receiving his visa in mid-March and making his first return trip to the U.S., Habib has now spoken several times about his allegedly being barred from the country for political reasons.
“We are thrilled today to be able to celebrate a victory,” said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which co-sponsored the event.
In October 2006, Habib traveled to the United States to attend a series of meetings but was detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Habib said he was questioned for over five hours and was asked “have you ever been a terrorist?” to which he answered, “how long have you been doing this job? Has anyone ever answered ‘yes’?”
Habib was eventually sent back to South Africa. His wife’s and children’s visas were also revoked several months later.
Habib was not told why he had been deported, but he said he suspected it was because he had vocally protested the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s policies. The government later denied his reapplication for a visa, citing unspecified alleged “engagement in terrorist activities,” according to Habib.
Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s National Security Program, took on Habib’s case and filed a lawsuit on behalf of the American organizations that had invited Habib to speak. U.S. citizens have a legal right to talk to foreign scholars unless there is a “facially legitimate and bona fide reason” for the scholar to be prohibited from entering the country, according to Goodman.
Though Goodman said it is acceptable for non-citizens to be barred for dangerous or threatening activity, she said they should not be barred for speech nor required to undergo “an ideological litmus test at the border.”
Habib said he pursued legal action with the ACLU in part because he considers the United States a second home. Habib received his Ph.D. from the City University of New York and had visited the United States without incident many times before and after 9/11.
“This is where memories were made,” Habib said. “This is where my son was conceived, and where I played with the ducks in Central Park.”
Habib also said he persisted with the case because he believes that “this is the kind of struggle we will be confronted with in the future.”
“It was a struggle of the future, a struggle to establish a precedent for global engagement,” Habib added.
—Staff writer Zoe A.Y. Weinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.