Abroad but not alone: Religious studies professor Mohsen Kadivar describes being affected by Trump's executive order
UPDATE: Kadivar has returned to North Carolina, confirmed Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. The Religion News Service reported that Kadivar got back Thursday evening, cutting short his fellowship in Germany that would have lasted until July.
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 moment... I heard about it on Friday, and also I had negotiations with the people of [the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin] about it, but at that time, it was not signed. I slept, and when I was up, President Trump had signed it. The signature had happened while I was sleeping! So when I saw it, it was midnight in the U.S. I sent my email after a few hours in the early morning on Saturday in the U.S., and we started the exchange of emails.
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 a lot of emails, and he contacted the provost and many people at Duke. After five or six hours, he said, “It’s better for you to stay because the situation is not stable, every moment is changing and there is no guarantee for your returning at the airport, so maybe the future is better.” [The fellowship] will end in July, so I hope in that time everything is okay, 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. In the beginning, in the first moment, I did not know what I should do… I was thinking that my situation is okay if I can return in July. The major concern is the time of returning. But Duke told me frankly, “we will support you.” In my class, we talk a lot about American values, so the time for testing is in practice. I love the U.S. Constitution, but I think the executive forces of the new president do not fit with the American values. But I’m optimistic that public opinion will push the president to go in a direction to correct it.
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. Something new happened about three days, four days ago. It was completely new. I, myself, did not know anything and also the others did not know. In the first moment, it was something like shock, because we can’t know what’s happening. Because when we have green cards, that means you are permanent residents of the United States, that the government monitors our records very closely, so I think it’s also against American law. I remember that I heard that it will go to the court. The federal judge, I saw in the news, stopped temporarily the executive order. I think on Monday we will hear something more. It’s good—this is a democratic country. When something goes wrong, the NGOs and human right organizations will try and stop this wrong decision.
TC: Do you have any friends or associates who are affected by the order as well, or family?
MK: It affects my family too. My wife planned to join me very soon, so [that was] the first thing I asked my colleagues at Duke. After that I told her, “please cancel the flight,” because it’s not safe to leave the U.S. It 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 residents or something else. I will have meetings with them tomorrow and news tomorrow.
TC: Have you been following the protests that have been happening at the airports here?
MK: I think these protests are so strong. I follow the news and read all of the news about this, and I think it was good pushing back against the Trump administration to correct and revise its position. And protests are effective.
I’m in the city of Berlin where it was famous for its wall. The mayor of Berlin sent a message to President Trump, saying, “please don’t build that wall.” It’s not good to hear that, for example, the governments of Germany and others said we will accept these people, and the president of the United States is saying we won’t accept them. It’s not good for refugees to America. Many Americans, in my understanding, do not agree with this approach. Almost all Americans are immigrants, so how can we say that we as old immigrants prevent the new immigrants? I think it’s meaningless. I’m so optimistic that they will correct that.
TC: Do you intend to stay in Berlin for the immediate future if the situation settles down?
MK: Good question. No, every decision from me will be made with negotiation with 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 negotiation with Duke officials.
TC: So you’re essentially doing whatever Duke tells you to do?
MK: Yes, it’s the better decision, because they need my security and they support me, so I do not want to make any decision without their permission. So I will get permission for returning or staying, because I’m a member of Duke. I do not decide 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 stop. It just stops all our travels, all our conferences. At the first [opportunity] after the negotiations with Duke, I will return to U.S. After that, I will not travel out of the U.S. because there is no guarantee for me to return if we have this executive order. They should change it.
You know, for example, there are at least 500,000 holders of a green card from these countries and it's interesting that 42 percent of them are Iranian... And none of them are involved in any terrorist attack in U.S. Often, in politics, it's not correct. If you want to ban and stop terrorism, we should go and find who was behind the terrorism of Sept. 11 attack in U.S. All these countries were there? No. [People from three countries] were there in the Sept. 11 attacks, you cannot find them in this list of seven countries, so we can criticize this wrong decision.
TC: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MK: After my colleagues knew my situation, I have received a lot of emails. To be honest, this Sunday, I used a lot of my time responding to these kind of emails. This is interesting also, that I am here, far away from the U.S. and a lot of my colleagues from my department, from my university wrote many kind words that “we do not agree with this decision of our government, we support you.” This is so important, so helpful. It gives me a lot of energy here.
I hope the future situation will be better than this situation. Saturday was so horrible. Sunday in the morning was also the same, but in the afternoon, it was a better situation. I hope Monday will be better too.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 5:45 p.m. with additional background information on Kadivar.