My personal experience with travel restrictions make me believe that prejudice and desire for more control, not genuine security concerns, are what lie at their heart.
For a few weeks in early 2005, I came under a travel ban imposed by the Syrian military intelligence because of my "unauthorized activities involving contacts with foreign agents and giving lectures at suspect institutions.” This was a reference to my time as a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. when I made a number of public talks and media appearances. I also wrote a number of articles for the Lebanese Daily Star among others that were quite critical of the Assad regime.
With time, the ban was eased and I was officially allowed to travel again, but I was always kept waiting for a special authorization from various security agencies, whether I travelled by air or land. There were times when the permission did not materialize and I was turned back. Theoretically, I was supposed to report to the military and political security branches after each trip, but I never did. When I was finally ordered to leave the country in September 2005 on account of my "rogue” behavior, my wife and stepchildren were processed ahead of me and I had to wait until the last minute before being allowed to board the plane. The security people had to wait for an "OK” from various intelligence branches, or so I was told.
That was in the days before the Syrian Revolution and the international proxy war that it sparked, before the mass incarceration, torture and liquidation, before the mass deportations and ethnic cleaning, before the massacres and barrel bombs, before hundreds and thousands of people like me could be "disappeared" without a trace and often without generating any meaningful protest or condemnation. I was lucky.
I was lucky
I was also lucky to be granted the opportunity to come back to Washington D.C. Despite restrictions imposed on travel from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we were able to obtain a visa, although it was clear that we would be applying for asylum, as we did. The politics of the George W. Bush administration worked in our favor. My wife and I were liberal pro-democracy activists who had advocated democracy and human rights at home, peace with our neighbors and friendly relations with the West. Our occasional criticism of US policy had not turned anyone in Washington against us. Our freedom of speech was considered sacrosanct, it seems, long before we became citizens.
When we eventually did apply for asylum in 2006, it took close to three years before we received the official approval while different security agencies ran the necessary background checks. Meanwhile, we were granted work permits, our kids went to school and on to college, and we were eventually given permits that allowed us to travel abroad. The restrictions imposed after the 9/11 attacks did make our traveling experiences uncomfortable, on some occasions more than others, and I was often selected for "random” checks. But these seemed like minor inconveniences, whose frequency decreased with time, especially after we obtained our green cards. By the time we finally received our citizenship and US passports in the summer of 2016, we were already living and traveling just like ordinary US citizens.
Obama's problematic measures
However, there were foreseeable complications already. No. Not the executive order signed by President Donald Trump banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. I'm referring here toan "anti-terrorism” measure introduced by the Obama administration at the beginning of early 2016 which barred dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan from the US's visa waiver program. This measure was problematic for exactly the same reason that Trump's executive order in both its initial and current iteration is; it singles out people not on the basis of anything controversial that they might have said or done, controversial enough to be considered as posing a potential security risk, but simply on the basis of their background, in this case national, a background that nobody chooses.
The other problem with Obama's measure was the possibility that European countries might adopt similar policies against US dual nationals. There were grumblings for sure, but it took Mr. Trump's far broader measure to actually get the EU parliament to issuea serious threat in this regard. The second iteration of the executive order, while removing certain confusing elements regarding green card holders and dual citizens, remains problematic in the fact that it adopts the same blanket approach towards citizens of certain countries. This approach will divide families, my wider family included, seeing that no-one in Syria can now apply for a US visa and that we cannot visit this war-ravaged country, from which we were exiled. There are certainly thousands like us all over the United States: Syrians, Sudanese, Yemenis and others who now have to deal with this heartache. Moreover, the executive order will reinforce the hostility and misconceptions that many US citizens have regarding people from these countries, as well as Muslims in general. This, at a time when hate crimes against Muslims, or those suspected of being Muslims, such as Hindus or Sikhs, are on the rise.
While the EU seems unwilling to adopt reciprocal measures at this stage, I cannot help but feel that my family and I finally became US citizens just in time for us to be considered second-class citizens – a group that will for long be suspected and unwanted by a significant percentage of their fellow citizens on account of nothing more than background, even though our ideals and actions may reveal greater understanding of and more commitment to US values than that shown by our denigrators.
These are arguably not the best of times for people who hail from "certain” backgrounds. Add to the mix, the isolation that Arab Muslim liberal activists often face even within their own communities, and this conclusion can be restated in even stronger terms. In practical terms, however, this only means one thing: the struggle for equality and justice must go on.
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian-American author and human rights activist. He is founder of the Tharwa Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to democracy promotion, and president of I Am Syria, a media based campaign that seeks to educate the world about the Syrian Conflict. His recent book is "The Irreverent Activist". Follow him on his Blog The Delirica and Twitter: @TheActualAmmar.