Abroad but not alone: Religious studies professor Mohsen Kadivar describes being affected by Trump’s executive order

The Chronicle

Mohsen Kadivar—a research professor of religious studies originally from Iran and now a United States permanent resident—was in Berlin, Germany for a fellowship when news broke of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration of foreign nationals from seven countries, Iran included. Kadivar, who is also an Iranian dissident, spoke to The Chronicle about the confusion surrounding the order and his reaction to protests stateside.


The Chronicle: Could you describe the situation that’s going on there and what you’re doing in Germany?


Mohsen Kadivar: The situation changes every hour, every minute… On Friday, it became clear that green card holders are also included in the executive order and I started having discussions with the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin, where I am this semester, for a research fellowship, but at that time the order wasn’t signed yet. I went to sleep, and when I woke up the next day, President Trump had already signed it. The signature had happened overnight while I was sleeping! So when I saw the news, it was midnight in the U.S. It was early morning Saturday in the U.S. eastern time zone that I started the email exchange with Duke.


I emailed the chair of my department [David Morgan] at Duke asking, “What should I do?” In the beginning, he said, “I do not know. This is something new for us, too.” We exchanged many emails, and he contacted the provost and many other people at Duke. Five or six hours later, he said, “It’s better for you to stay for now because the situation is not stable. It is changing every moment and there is no guarantee for your return at the airport. It may be better to postpone your return when we are in a better, more stable situation.” [The fellowship] will end in July, and I hope that by that time things are in better order, and I can return to my office at Duke.


TC: When you originally heard about the order, did you decide you wanted to come back?


MK: No, I did not. When I first heard the news , it was unclear to me what I should do… I was thinking that I’m in an okay situation if I can return in July. The major concern is when I can return. But Duke told me frankly, “we will support you.” In my classes, we talk a lot about American values, and the time for testing those values is this moment, in practice. I highly value the U.S. Constitution, but I think the executive orders of the new president do not fit within the American values. I’m optimistic that public opinion will push the president to move to a better direction.


TC: Before you left, did anyone express concern about the situation and how the new administration might affect your travel plans?


MK: At that time, no one knew this would happen. The news broke out about three, four days ago. It was completely new. I, myself, did not expect this and I don’t think others did either. The first few hours were full of shock because the details were unclear and no one seemed to know what was happening. Because when we have green cards, it means that we are permanent residents of the United States, and that we already went through vetting and the government monitors our records very closely, so I think this is also against the law. The federal judge, I saw in the news, has put a stay on the executive order. I think on Monday we will hear more news. This is good—this is a democratic country. When something goes wrong, the people, the NGOs and human rights organizations will resist the unjust decisions.


TC: Do you have any friends or associates who are affected by the order as well, or family?


MK: The order also affects my family. My wife was planning to join me soon, and [that was] the first thing I asked my colleagues at Duke. After our discussions I asked her to cancel the flight and wait because it’s currently not safe to leave the U.S. And this means I will be alone here, and my family is in U.S. I have some American friends here, and I don’t know if they are American citizens or American permanent residents or hold other status. I will see them tomorrow and hear about their news.


TC: Have you been following the protests that have been happening at the airports here?


MK: I think these protests are powerful. I have been following the news, and I think it was good pushing back against the Trump administration to rethink its position on immigration. And protests are effective.


I’m in the city of Berlin that is known for its wall. The mayor of Berlin sent a message to President Trump, saying, “please rethink building the wall.” The governments of Germany and other nations said they will accept refugees and immigrants, and the president of the United States is saying we won’t. This is not good for refugees going to America. Many Americans, in my understanding, do not agree with this approach. A great number of Americans are immigrants, so how can they say that they would ban the new-arriving immigrants? I think this is problematic. I’m optimistic that this will change.


TC: Do you intend to stay in Berlin for the immediate future if the situation settles down?


MK: Good question. No, I make my decisions in tandem with discussions with Duke Officials Duke officials. If it’s better for me to travel as soon as possible, I will do that. Any decision from me will be made after talking and negotiating with Duke officials.


TC: So you’re essentially doing whatever Duke tells you to do?


MK: Yes, because they help to ensure my safety and they support me, so I do not intend to make any decisions without their approval. I will seek their permission for returning or staying, because I’m a member of Duke. I cannot not make decisions for myself alone.


TC: Once this situation ends and reaches some stability, is that going to affect how you think about international travel and international collaboration, as an academic?


MK: It’s a block. This just stops all our travels, for attending academic conferences and so on. At my first opportunity after the negotiations with Duke, I will return to the U.S. After that, I will not travel out of the U.S. because there is no guarantee for me to return if this executive order is in place. They must change it.


There are at least 500,000 green card holders from the 7 countries listed on the order and it’s interesting that 42 percent of them are Iranian… And none of them were  involved in any terrorist attacks in the U.S. If they want to ban and stop terrorism, they should find who was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Were all of these countries there? No. People from three countries that were responsible for the attacks, are not on this, so the executive order must be criticized.


TC: Is there anything else you would like to add?


MK: Once my colleagues found out about my situation, I received many kind emails from them. To be honest, this Sunday, I spent a lot of time responding to these kind emails. I am here, far away from the U.S. and several colleagues from my department, from my university, wrote me kind words that “we do not agree with this decision of our government, we support you.” This is important, and heartwarming. It gives me a lot of energy here.


I hope the future holds better things than the present situation. Saturday was horrible. Sunday morning was the same, but in the afternoon, things got a bit better. I hope Monday we will hear more good news.


Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5:45 p.m. with additional background information on Kadivar.


By Adam Beyer and Gautam Hathi | Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Chronicle


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