Aisha Ahmad is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto Scarborough; Minelle Mahtani is an associate professor in the Department of Human Geography and Program in Journalism, University of Toronto Scarborough.
On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his second executive order banning travellers, this time from six (down from seven) Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Over the past month, these radical immigration policies have resulted in mass confusion at airports, political backlash, and fierce legal opposition.
For Canadian academics, attending academic conferences and events in the United States is an important part of our work. As Canadian Muslim scholars, however, this political and legal upheaval south of our border has forced both of us to pull out of our professional conferences. Our withdrawal was not intended as a political protest. The truth is, we were both very excited about attending our conferences. Our flights and hotels were booked, and we were set to make important contributions at these events.
Aisha Ahmad, an international security specialist at the University of Toronto, was set to speak on a panel at the International Studies Association conference, and receive a distinguished prize for her scholarship on the economic origins of modern jihadi groups. Her scholarship, which involves tracking conflict processes in some of roughest war zones on the planet, won the award for best security article of the year. Her scholarship speaks directly to the exact security crises that these faulty immigration bans have falsely claimed to solve.
For Minelle Mahtani, an Iranian-Canadian, award-winning geography professor at the University of Toronto, cancelling her travels meant giving up an opportunity where her book, Mixed Race Amnesia, was to be profiled. She had arranged a roundtable with other scholars at the Critical Mixed Race Studies conference in Los Angeles to speak about what it means to be mixed race in a Trump era. Her research would have provided essential context into the pressing problems of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence that have worsened since the U.S. election.
Neither of us wanted to withdraw. But we felt the situation was out of control. Consider that several ordinary Canadian Muslims, who were not from banned countries, have already been improperly detained and denied entrance by zealous U.S. border agents who clearly didn't understand the parameters of the original immigration order. Muhammad Ali, Jr. – son of the legendary boxer – was detained and questioned early last month about his name and religion. That incident was followed by the detainment of distinguished French historian Henry Rousso, who teaches courses on the Holocaust. Mr. Rousso is an Egyptian-born Jewish scholar (and Egypt is not one of the six targeted countries).
As immigration chaos spirals in the United States and these bizarre episodes escalate, there are serious, long-term consequences. Border officials have an enormous amount of discretion in detaining travellers and denying entrance, and denial of entrance taints a travel record. So, one dysfunctional interaction with an aggressive border official can actually impede a traveller's freedom around the world for years.
As the hysteria over the immigration ban and border-lock continues, it is apparent that U.S. border officials are not clear on how to implement these contested new rules, which continue to be fought in the courts. Under these conditions, it is impossible for any of us to properly calculate the risks of travelling. For academics who are principal investigators in large global projects, this is a very serious cost calculation. One unlucky meeting with a careless border guard can jeopardize the ability of a researcher to complete their fieldwork, and thus risks their commitments made to both funding agencies and global research teams.
As targeted racialized academics, we knew we were being forced to accept loss and indignity. In response to our withdrawal, several of our colleagues have started lobbying for future conferences to be held in more neutral locations. Until then, as we reflect on our own exclusion, we cannot help but think of our colleagues overseas who are explicitly barred from participation, and those like Mr. Rousso, who may not be willing to subject themselves to future humiliations. This is the greatest loss of all.
Research is stifled without freedom, inclusion and equality. Without Somali, Sudanese, Yemeni, Syrian, Libyan and Iranian scholars at the table, we have scant chance of understanding these crucially important parts of the world. Their exclusion from our intellectual communities not only undermines our cherished academic freedoms and offends our deeply held moral principles, but it also blinds us to the world at a time when we are desperate for truth and light. Without them, we are in the dark.