Ideological Exclusion and Malalai Joya

Though the U.S. military has occupied Afghanistan for nearly a decade, we have rarely received the opportunity to hear about the lives of every day Afghans from the mouths of everyday Afghans. On the eve of one such opportunity, the book tour of Afghani activist and politician Malalai Joya, the State Department decided to deny her a visa. In 2007, Joya’s brave criticisms of her warlord-ravaged country led to her expulsion from the Afghan Parliament, an account that the State Department documented in a report on Afghanistan it released last year.

However, Joya has also been critical of the U.S. and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, which has led to speculation that her views may have been the real reason that she was denied the visa. The State Department’s reasons for the rejection seem to be that Joya is “unemployed” and “lives underground” though a report issued by the State Department acknowledges the dangerous conditions in Afghanistan. The State Department’s concern with Joya’s lack of employment is adequately addressed by the fact that the purpose of her trip was a book tour.  These reasons are paranoid, xenophobic or emblematic of bureaucratic stupidity at best, or so incredible that they invite the speculation that the State Department is in fact exercising “ideological exclusion.”

The exclusion of individuals seeking admission to the United States based on their political viewpoints was authorized under the Patriot Act and used during the Bush administration. However, the Obama administration has pledged to change course and “promot[e] a global marketplace of ideas.” Earlier this week, free speech organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, and the PEN American Center, wrote the State Department, reminding it of its own promises:

In a constructive response to that letter, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh wrote in a December 2010 letter that, in assessing whether to recommend a waiver of inadmissibility, the State Department would consider “the recent nature and seriousness of the activity or condition causing the visa inadmissibility, the reasons for the proposed travel, and the positive or negative effects, if any, of the planned travel on U.S. public interests.” Mr. Koh also wrote: “In evaluating the reasons for the proposed travel, the Department will give significant and sympathetic weight to the fact that the primary purpose of the visa applicant’s travel will be to assume a university teaching post, to fulfill speaking engagements, to attend academic conferences, or for similar expressive or educational activities.”

Last week, Joya was finally granted a visa and so will be able to appear in-person for part of her scheduled tour. For those appearances that have already passed, organizers have used internet communication services such as Skype to teleconference her in where possible.  However, the State Department owes the American public a response as to whether it has reneged on its vow not to engage in “ideological exclusion.” The State Department also needs to recognize that “ideological exclusion” by any other name is still exclusion based on ideology, which is nothing but government censorship.

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