State of Denial

Kemal Helbawy is a founding member of the Muslim Association of Britain and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian-based Islamist movement with chapters throughout the Islamic world, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories. It comprises the largest opposition bloc in the Egyptian parliament, with eighty-eight seats, and it administers a network of social services that is far more efficient and responsive than those provided by the state. Brotherhood leaders have been at the vanguard of Egypt’s grassroots push for political reform, consistent with the Bush Administration’s policy of democratizing the Middle East.

But on October 18, Helbawy found out what all that hard work and credibility is worth, at least as far as the White House is concerned. The London-based religious scholar was tightly buckled into his aisle seat on an American Airlines flight bound for New York, where he was to be the lead speaker at a conference on the Muslim Brotherhood. Within minutes after leaving the gate, the flight captain announced a departure delay and the aircraft was towed back. Helbaway was asked to come forward, where he was met by an official of the US Department of Homeland Security and informed he had been rendered inadmissible for entry to the United States without a visa issued by the US embassy in London.

It didn’t matter to the agent that, as a British citizen, the 80-year-old Helbawy did not require a visa, nor that Helbawy had traveled frequently to the United States a decade ago as part of a university lecture series. Orders were orders, and Helbawy was escorted off the plane.

The State Department would not say why Helbawy was barred from the United States. Increasingly, however, the Bush Administration is using broad interpretation of the USA Patriot Act to keep out foreign scholars critical of White House policies. According to State Department documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the act’s “ideological exclusion” provision may apply to anyone who “endorses or espouses” terrorism or who voices “irresponsible expressions of opinions.”

The same provision was used in July to revoke a visa issued to the Swiss Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan after he was offered a job at the University of Notre Dame as a professor of Islamic studies. When Notre Dame officials pressed for an explanation, the State Department initially declared Ramadan a terrorist sympathizer before backing away for lack of evidence. It then accused Ramadan of giving money to charities blacklisted by the United States for funding Hamas. But Ramadan made his donations years before the United States blacklisted the groups; how could he have known of their activities, he and his supporters point out, before the United States itself knew?

Ramadan, a vocal critic of US foreign policy as well as Islamic extremists, is active in ecumenical affairs. He is also a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that alone could be enough to make you persona non grata in post-9/11 America. For years, US diplomats in Egypt were allowed informal contacts with Brotherhood members, a source of valuable information given how intimately twinned the group is with Egyptian society. Since 9/11, however, the State Department has frozen even unofficial relations with the group, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly excludes Brotherhood members from meetings in Cairo with secular–and significantly less influential–leaders of Egypt’s reform movement.

The estrangement calcified early this year after Hamas’s electoral victory in the Palestinian territories and its refusal to recognize the state of Israel. Hard-liners in the White House blame the Muslim Brotherhood for Hamas’s recalcitrance, though the group’s influence over its affiliates is thought to be passive at best. For their part, Helbawy and other Brotherhood members say they would embrace a mutually acceptable conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

“We disagree with US policy,” Helbawy said by telephone from his London home. “But we would be happy to see the issue resolved. And for this I am refused permission to attend a conference in New York?”

In taking on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Bush Administration has aligned itself against the most powerful and authentic political movement in the Arab world. Established in 1928 in opposition to foreign occupation and Zionism, the Brotherhood is the closest thing to an established, centrist party in an Arab world that over the years has shifted rightward on a riptide of outrage. Egyptians are drawn in by the group’s message of moderation and tolerance and by their contempt for US Middle East policy, which includes support of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s brutal, secular president. The group renounced violence decades ago and has condemned Osama bin Laden and his acolytes as apostates. It is not on the US list of terrorist organizations and gets high praise from many Egyptians–secular as well as religious, Christian as well as Muslim–for its civic-mindedness.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood knows how to contest and win elections. While bin Laden and President Bush indulge in existential combat in which the average Muslim has little if any personal stake, the Brotherhood has been winning hearts and minds through assiduous and nonsectarian ward-heeling. While Bushism has wrought war, anarchy, occupation and the specter of the lethal Zionist-Crusader alliance that bin Laden warned of in the run up to 9/11, the Muslim Brotherhood salves some of the deprivations and inequities of ordinary life. It is what makes the group the hardest target yet in Bush’s “war on terror,” and the likely successor to the aging Mubarak.

Attempts to sideline the Muslim Brotherhood by locking its members out of America will only raise the price of dealing with its leaders when there is no one else in Cairo to talk to.

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