Sunday, March 20, 2011

In Defense of Malalai Joya's Visa Application

Almost three years ago to the day, Malalai Joya and I were bundled up in our winter coats walking through Boston Common, discussing Afghanistan. Joya hadn’t been back home in a while—she is always cautious about returning to Afghanistan, afraid she will put her parents’ and siblings’ lives in danger. Not to mention her own. As a vocal women’s rights activist who has since been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Joya has survived five assassination attempts and countless death threats.

But here in Beacon Hill with her slight frame and oversize coat, she was unrecognizable, blending in with the cities’ college kids while carrying a Canadian passport with a 1978 birth date printed inside the maple leaf cover.

As we took pictures in front of the State House, Joya’s smile was hidden by her long, dark hair that the wind swirled around her face. She held my 7-month-old daughter, Isabelle, and returning her to my arms spoke wistfully about how her life on the run would likely never be conducive to motherhood.

She had come to Massachusetts for a few events including the International Women’s Day program we planned: A screening of BEYOND BELIEF and a presentation by Joya.

I remember how uncomfortable it made some people in our audience when Joya gave example upon example of how U.S. policy--no matter how well intentioned--props up warlords and drug dealers and means more suffering and oppression for Afghan women. For years now, she has spoken vehemently against the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and our event was no exception.

It was a memorable night, and I was looking forward to seeing her again sometime this week during her book tour in the U.S. for “Woman Among Warlords.” That book tour was scheduled to start today.

But this time Joya was denied entry to America.

Denied a visa, according to her staff, because she is “unemployed” and “lives underground.” But America has long been a place of refuge and asylum for those fleeing persecution—something we can understand would make it impossible to hold down a job. What separates Joya from others like Iran’s Salman Rushdie or Mexico’s Marisol Valles Garcia is her attack on U.S. foreign policy. She says things that people just don’t want to hear.

Instead, Joya is now in the company of others denied visas –people like Kenya's former police chief Hussein Ali who was kept out of the U.S. last year because he is responsible for gross human rights violations at home. Last January, human rights groups celebrated Ali’s visa denial.

But no human rights groups are celebrating now. It seems clear that Joya’s visa denial is the result of what the ACLU calls “ideological exclusion,” an effort to deny visas to foreign artists, scholars and writers who criticize U.S. policy overseas. This was common during the Bush administration, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent lifting of bans on two prominent academics and a Columbian journalist seemed to signal an end to this racist, discriminatory, anti-free speech policy (one that is aimed at Muslims more than any other group).

In fighting one case of ideological exclusion, the ACLU wrote:
“No legitimate interest is served by the exclusion of foreign nationals on ideological grounds. Ideological exclusion impoverishes intellectual inquiry and debate in the United States, suggests to the world that our country is more interested in silencing than engaging its critics, and undermines our ability to support dissent in politically repressive nations.”

Whether you agree or disagree with what Joya says, the First Amendment protects our right to hear it. It’s a good time to remember President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in which he discussed ways to improve U.S.-Muslim relations through “a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."

That vision cannot be realized if people like Malalai Joya are silenced in America.

(If you’d like to support Joya’s goal of having a book tour in the U.S. click here for practical ways that you can help.)

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