On Jan. 29, a federal court in Boston issued a temporary stay on President Donald J. Trump’s executive order barring travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. For Professor of Religion Ata Anzali and his wife, who were spending his sabbatical in their native Iran, this ruling necessitated an agonizing choice: return immediately to the U.S., abandoning the research projects they had worked on for months, or remain in Iran until June as they had originally planned, with the danger of being denied entry into the U.S. upon their return.
Anzali, his wife, and the elder of his two daughters are all permanent residents of the U.S.; his younger daughter is a U.S. citizen. Unwilling to risk having their family separated, the Anzalis ultimately decided, in consultation with attorneys and College administrators, to return to the U.S., and arrived safely in Boston on Feb. 3. This week, Anzali spoke to Nick Garber, a News Editor for the Campus, about his trip back to Vermont, the impact of Trump’s order in his home country and the type of activism he hopes to see from the Middlebury community.
Nick Garber (NG): What role has the College played in this process?
Ata Anzali (AA): I was in constant conversation with President Patton and the senior administration, including Andi Lloyd, the dean of the faculty. They were really helpful and very proactive, and I’m grateful for the help that I received. Eventually, they strongly urged me to come back as soon as possible, and even though that was a really difficult decision for me to make, I decided that was the best course of action we could take.
I feel fortunate. My case was probably one of the easier ones. I had support, I was a permanent resident, I had a full-time job here at a good institution. But there were all these visa holders and refugees who didn’t know anyone here; sometimes it was their first time coming here. So it’s terrible to think about what they’ve been going through. In many cases like that, you don’t even know what resources you have. When we entered Boston, after we passed [Customs and Border Protection] and went out to the terminal, so many people greeted us right there; there were volunteers and lawyers and stuff on standby. But I knew they were there. If you’re a refugee in a camp in Sudan or Somalia, how do you know there are people who are willing to help you, who you can just call?
NG: Before you left Iran, what kinds of opinions did you encounter towards Trump and the U.S.? Do people consider Trump to be representative of the U.S. as a whole?
AA: Before Trump was elected president, the situation was not much different from here [in the U.S.], in terms of people, by and large, saying, “This is not gonna happen. There’s no way this guy could be the president.” And then this happened. he response was really interesting because of the people that I talked to, overwhelmingly, their first response was, “Oh, this guy is exactly like our past President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” The same kind of bombastic style, being more concerned with what you think rather than what is appropriate process. It was interesting to hear people saying, “Well we had eight years of that disaster and now it’s America’s turn.” But the problem of that is that Ahmadinejad was the president of a country with significant regional influence but not global influence. Now you have a guy who has tremendous influence on world affairs.
The other part was that people I’ve seen do realize that the [American] political system and its people are different. But at the same time, the far right in Iran is taking tremendous advantage of the situation in America. For example, the Supreme Leader, in his latest meeting with some people, said, “I thank this guy who is now the President of the United States because he has revealed the true face of America.” This is what he wanted, he’s basically dancing all over the place. So that’s really disturbing to see how politicians on both sides benefit from more tension and more conflict. Whether it’s the far right in Iran or the far right here, they’re happy.
NG: What do you think is important for Middlebury students to understand about the ban and the people that it’s affecting?
AA: I think it’s a collective responsibility. It’s not just students; it’s us, faculty, everyone in this community. There is no way around the fact that the ban was a thinly disguised plan of religious discrimination. Trump made it clear during the campaign what he wanted to do, and this was probably the least legally troublesome way of doing it: to start with seven countries and then see what happens. So I’m really worried about how the Islamophobic discourse has suddenly jumped to this central, politically powerful place. When I taught my intro to Islam courses, I talked about these people with my students. But these were marginal people, who now have a strong influence in the White House.
The bottom line is that this is about Islam in America. It’s not about Iran, it’s not about any of those issues. It’s about Islam and its relationship to America. I do teach courses on Islam and I have a course on Islam in America, but I feel that I haven’t been doing what I could to reach out to the wider community. For every single one of us, we have to think about how we get out of the bubble that is Middlebury. I’m not saying that everyone in Middlebury thinks the same way or that everybody is enlightened, but I think there’s a huge gap, when you think about [the fact that] almost half of the people that voted in that election voted for Trump, and according to polls they support this ban. I don’t think those numbers are that big at the College, but then in the larger community, it would probably be [closer to the national rate]. So I think both for students and [faculty], we have to come together to think about how we can reach out to the community, how can we find ways to make connections to Muslim-Americans, and seek ways to coordinate our efforts with them. To educate the larger population that sharia law is not a threat to America, or that Islam is not a political ideology.
In my classes for next year, I’m thinking about how to create a syllabus that is more reflective of the wider conversations about Islam in this country, rather than some elitist snobbish subjects that I or my students might like. For instance, I like to teach about Sufism and Islamic mysticism, since that’s where my expertise is. But given the level of discourse in society, and the questions about jihad, about sharia, about violence, about treatment of women in Islam — I think I have to tackle them, and those discussions have to be part of the events that we do in the College. At the same time, we have to make these borders a little more porous. Community members don’t typically attend college events. How can we make connections to be able to have more impact, not just on students and our peers but also on the community? That’s something I don’t have a good answer for, but we have to think about that together.
NG: So you’re envisioning a two-part outreach to the Muslim-American community as well as to some more prejudiced groups?
AA: Yeah. Honestly, I think that many of the students I know, even those who are opposed to this ban, don’t have a Muslim friend. So I think we need to be more conscious about making those connections. There are, I think, questions deep down that we wonder about, but we don’t ask because we’re afraid of being accused of bias. I think there is some sort of political correctness, even among students who would identify as progressive.
So on the one hand, we need to make connections to people who are affected; to minorities, especially Muslim-Americans. And at the same time, if you need to engage the community to correct prejudices, to show them that Islam is not a threat — I don’t think you could do that effectively if you don’t have a Muslim friend. Those human connections make a lot of difference. If you have a Muslim friend then you can invite him or her to a meeting where there are some other opinions. And then when they see a real person in front of them, it makes a lot of difference. They can’t just say in abstract, “This is a threat.” They have to talk about this person.
NG: Sometimes, especially in the discussions of race that take place on campus, there’s a notion that members of a marginalized group should never be responsible for educating others — that that should be a job for people who aren’t being victimized. Do you have thoughts on that? If the idea is that Muslim members of the community should go out to these prejudiced people and educate them, I imagine there could be some pushback.
AA: What I meant wasn’t just for the Muslim students to go out and educate. We have a collective responsibility. But as someone who lives in this community, because I know about these issues, I do think that I have a responsibility to reach out and say, “If you want me to be part of a conversation, I’m here.” I’m not confined to my college classes. I can actually spend some time in a church community and have a conversation with you guys.
So I do think that, of course, the onus is mostly on the people who are not the minority. But I don’t think just sitting passively as a minority and saying, “Well, people are gonna come and reach out to us” — I don’t think that’s a constructive approach. Muslim-Americans need to be more proactive about showing their humanity. “We’re human, we don’t think about subverting American institutions every day.”
Your question reminded me of this conversation we had in my first-year seminar. There was this JusTalks series, an evening meeting once a week that my students attended. The discussions were about race and ethnicity and all the students were white. I think that the students understand that maybe that’s okay, but those conversations need to happen with real people. You can’t just have an abstract conversation about race, about religious discrimination. So that’s what I meant: that all students need to be more proactive about making more connections. There has to be more willingness on both sides to work with each other and reach out to the wider community.