Shia Muslim scholars denied entry into US suspect religious bias
by Samira Asma-Sadeque from The Guardian
It took the US consulate seven minutes to reject Nabil Ahmed Shabbir’s visa application.
Shabbir, a British Shia scholar, had applied for his US visa to assist with the birth of his first child. His wife, an American Shia Muslim, wanted to have the birth in the US.
Shabbir hadn’t even left the embassy gate after handing in his visa application when he got a text message saying it had been rejected.
Shabbir, whose work had brought him to the US dozens of times before this rejection in 2020, did not think obtaining a visa would be an issue.
Instead, he had to watch his firstborn’s birth via WhatsApp video.
Shabbir is one of numerous Shia scholars who have been repeatedly – and unexpectedly – denied entry to the US in the past decade, despite their prior travel to the country for work purposes, raising concerns that they are being deliberately excluded because of their religion.
Despite traveling to the US regularly for five years on a valid 10-year visa, Shabbir was stopped at the airport in 2019 and detained for five hours, facing questions about the intent of his visit.
He was traveling with his wife, but was asked why he had invitations from years ago from American organizations – which fed his suspicion that officials had gone through his email.
He was eventually allowed to enter, but once he returned from the US, he received a notification that his visa had been revoked.
This revocation – unceremonious, without a specific reason and out of the blue – fits a pattern that has been experienced by many Shia scholars.
Mohammad Ali Naquvi, cofounder and chair of the American Muslim Bar Association (AMBA), said his organization had documented denials or revocations of more than 50 Shia scholars in the past decade.
Some were denied entry as they were about to board a US-bound flight, some were denied entry after arriving in the country and forced to turn back despite having a valid visa – and some like Shabbir still remain in a limbo of “administrative processing”.
“It has a burden on the religious practice of Shia Muslims in the US, not being able to have the scholars here,” Abed Ayoub, national executive director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said. “Not being able to have your religious events because of immigration enforcement is very problematic.”
The issue has been going on for a long time. Sheikh Jihad Ismail, an Australian Shia scholar, was about to board his flight to Albany from Dubai in 2014 when he was told he couldn’t fly into the US. This threw him off, especially because he had visited the US nearly 20 times since 2002, giving talks and engaging with the Shia community in the country. His visa has been under “administrative processing” for six years. According to Naquvi, there are some “administrative processing” cases that go back nine years.
Both Ismail and Shabbir know numerous other scholars going through similar experiences. Ismail recalled the story of a friend who was recently made to return on the next flight after arriving in the US.
Many of these scholars are from English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia.
There is no solid reason to which anyone in the community can point to explain why so many Shia scholars have been denied entry, but they say they have their suspicions.
Ayoub traces the issue back to the San Bernardino shooting in 2015, in which the shooters had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
This was followed by the Obama administration passing the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, which disqualified the visa waiver for applicants from 40 countries if they had made any trips to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen on a government assignment or military order.
This is tricky because Shia pilgrimages, including the ziyarah, take place in Iran and Iraq.
Nearly all Shia scholars have visited or regularly visit these countries, which automatically puts them under scrutiny under the law.
“Because you’re seeing a big number of individuals coming from visa waiver countries, what we believe is happening is the consular officers at the state department are misreading this law,” Ayoub said.
“What they’re doing, in our opinion, is yes, the individual may not qualify for visa waiver, but they’re holding the same standard in even issuing a visa,” he added.
That still doesn’t explain why Ismail was denied the visa in 2014, before the San Bernardino shooting, feeding further confusion among the scholars. It’s clear that there is a pattern that holds true for all these instances, yet nobody can pinpoint the exact issue that would uniformly justify these cases.
This has a grave impact for Shia Americans, especially the current generation.
For a religion with a rich practice of cultural and knowledge exchange across borders, Shabbir said there is an immense value English-speaking scholars have in reaching the current generation, and these visa denials hamper that education.
If scholars like himself aren’t allowed to teach in the US, the other option for such exchange programs is to invite scholars from countries where they may not understand British or American culture, and the culture gap could become a barrier.
“Those young people then find it very difficult to consolidate their faith and the culture they are living in,” he said.
“They see the western culture as something inherently bad, and if they’re going to be religious that means they have to be against western culture,” he added. “Whereas it’s not the case – but they won’t know that until they are presented with a western scholar who has grown up through the system.”
But there are signs of progress. Ayoub said the Trump administration assisted on some individual cases, and activists are now in talks with Biden administration officials who Ayoub said had been “very receptive”.
Those like Shabbir hope the doors open up soon. For him, beyond giving talks as a religious scholar, he misses the opportunity to visit his in-laws, with whom his wife has been staying for a few months to take care of her mother. This means he has to go months without seeing his wife or child.
“It’s not just the visa rejection,” he said. “There’s just so much more that ends up being attached to it.”