Back in the U.S., South African Scholar Urges End to Policy That Had Kept Him Out

U. of Johannesburg

Adam Habib, a scholar at South Africa's U. of Johannesburg, was until recently banned from the United States on political grounds.
March 24, 2010

After more than three years of being denied entry to the United States for political reasons, the South African scholar and political commentator Adam Habib seemed delighted on Tuesday to be able to plant his feet on sacred ground for America's civil libertarians: the campus of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Habib, who is in the United States on a 19-day tour that will take him to several college campuses, expressed gratitude for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent reversal of the Bush administration's decision to block him from entering the country. But, Mr. Habib argued, the Obama administration needs to do more than simply grant visas, on a case-by-case basis, to scholars who previously were barred because of their political views or associations. The Obama administration, he said, should put an end to the Bush-administration policy, which kept such scholars out in the first place, known as ideological exclusion.

"It is absolutely incumbent on the Obama administration to follow through on these tentative steps" and "withdraw all of the practices of ideological exclusion that emerged during this period," Mr. Habib said. Noting how President Obama was himself shaped by living abroad as a child, Mr. Habib said, "It would be a failing of his own history, his own awakening, of his own historical roots, for him not to follow through on these tentative steps."

With higher education increasingly becoming globalized in ways that enable scholars around the world to form partnerships and exchange ideas, "ideological exclusions are not simply a political problem—they fundamentally undermine the task of higher education itself," Mr. Habib said.

Mysterious Charges

The South African scholar is in the United States as part of a delegation from the University of Johannesburg, where he serves as deputy vice chancellor of research, innovation, and advancement. Among the institutions he plans to visit over the next several days are the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where earned his doctorate in philosophy, and Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton Universities.

Mr. Habib is one of two prominent Muslim scholars who were allowed to obtain 10-year U.S. visas, after years of exclusion, under an order issued by Secretary Clinton in January. The other, Tariq Ramadan, chairman of the department of contemporary Islamic studies at St. Antony's College of the University of Oxford, is expected to return to the United States for his own tour in early April.

Mr. Habib, a vocal critic of the Iraq war and some U.S. antiterrorism policies, had been told that the Bush administration's decision to bar him had been based on his role in "terrorist activities." He never learned the charges against him or the evidence behind them, however. Secretary Clinton's order did little to clear up the mystery surrounding his exclusion; it said only that he would no longer be excluded for "any or all acts supporting the denial of his 2007 visa application," without stating what those alleged acts were.

The American Association of University Professors, the American Sociological Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union had banded together with other groups in 2007 to file a lawsuit challenging Mr. Habib's exclusion. The publicity surrounding his case appears to have helped him continue to travel around the world, he said on Tuesday, rattling off a long list of nations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central and South America that he visited despite being labeled a terrorist by the United States. Among other scholars who were similarly barred, "I know other people who were not as lucky, who were severely impacted by these labels" and hindered in their travel plans, Mr. Habib said.

In his previous effort to enter the United States, in October 2006, Mr. Habib was stopped by federal agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and put on an airplane home. This time around, he said, he was greeted by federal agents who quickly ushered him and the rest of his delegation through Washington Dulles International Airport, in Virginia.

"We were treated very well," he said. "They were clearly expecting us."