Feb 1st 2017
AMIR AHMAD NASR is about as pro-Western as anyone born deep inside the world of Islam could possibly be. Born to Sudanese parents whose professional lives took them to many countries, he is bilingual in Arabic and American English. He believes passionately in liberal democracy and the free exchange of ideas. He has no patience with those who think that authoritarian systems of government, whether secular or Islamist, are better suited to certain countries. The globe-trotting author and digital activist has recently settled, gratefully, in Canada.
Mr Nasr used his Western freedom to do something that he could not have managed if he were still living in the Islamic heartland. With disarming humour, he described his own spiritual path in a successful book with an almost self-explanatory title, “My Islam: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind and Doubt Freed My Soul”. This recounts how he went through a phase of believing not only in Islam’s literal truth but in the duty to despise people outside the tent of strict Sunni orthodoxy, and then his evolution through many stages into what he calls himself now: a cultural Muslim and spiritual humanist.
Until very recently, this 31-year-old public intellectual had every reason to expect that his home in western Canada would be a good vantage point for lectures and book tours in the United States. But thanks to President Donald Trump’s travel crackdown, that hope has for the foreseeable future been dashed. He feels horribly let down: “I understand there are real security threats facing the US, but this sham of a ban will not do anything to make America safer. It will validate the vile and deceitful narrative peddled by ISIS: that America is waging a war against Islam.”
Elsewhere in the North American commentariat, and especially among those who study and teach Islam (including Islamic law, philosophy, history and so on) for a living, there is a similar level of frustration and disappointment. In campuses across the United States, promising young scholars doing doctoral or post-doctoral work face the prospect of having to interrupt their studies because they come from one of the seven affected countries. Within hours of the travel ban being announced, the Iranian wife of a doctoral student at Ohio State University was detained on arrival in New York, prompting a state senator and the college’s president to protest on her behalf. The American Academy of Religion, a learned society grouping 8,500 members, complained that the travel crackdown “strikes at the heart of its mission” which was to foster excellence in the study of religion and promote public understanding. The ban threatened to “poison...the public’s understanding of Islam in particular and religion in general,” it said in a statement.
As one immediate result, the travel crackdown is forcing the diversion of some academic events from America to the more liberal atmosphere of Canada, which seems not to have been dented by the killings at a mosque in Quebec City. An Ivy League law school is understood to be raising funds to switch a long-planned conference to a Canadian campus.
At least until recently, academia in Anglophone North America was a more-or-less seamless web, with scholars happily dividing their studies and careers between the two places. Certainly the reaction against the shutdown has been a continent-wide phenomenon, according to Mohammad Fadel, an associate law professor at the University of Toronto, whose early life and research were spent in the United States. (He ponders the compatibility of Western political philosophy with Islamic law and thought.) “North American universities have reacted quickly to defend their students and teaching staff who are nationals of the targeted states,” he reports. “Many departments in the United States stand to suffer directly from the exclusion of highly trained graduate students and faculty from those countries, and they will likely discover that their own academic work, such as lectures, workshops and seminars, is impoverished as they are prevented from inviting leading scholars.” Some non-American scholars who are still entitled to travel might boycott the United States, he adds.
However one eminent Sudanese-born scholar of Islamic law who is well-established in the United States said his strongest feeling was one of gratitude for the solidarity he has experienced among fellow members of the American academy, and society as a whole. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im read a statement to his students in Emory University which said in part: “Hard times are our best because our humanity evolves through challenge and hardship, not comfort and convenience. My initial anger...turned to into optimism and pride for the challenge that many Americans are raising against the primordial, primitive executive order. The humane and truly civilised challenge by the American public and professionals [has] confirmed my confidence in the universality of human rights.”