Why is the State Department Calling My Friend Mohammed a Terrorist?

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Because of the way things are nowadays, let’s call my friend Mohammed, even though that’s not really his name.

I met Mohammed, a pollster, in Iraq in 2004 and worked closely with his company, which provided extremely useful insights about what Iraqis were thinking.  Given that my country had invaded Iraq the year before in order to liberate it, arguably what the Iraqis thought about this and that were quite relevant.

Over the past decade, I’ve stayed in close touch with Mohammed, who had to leave Iraq after being threatened by Al Qaeda because of his work with Americans.  Undeterred, Mohammed continued his research and his company has conducted more than 1 million interviews with Iraqi citizens since he first opened it in 2003.  He is broadly considered one of the best pollsters in the Arab world.

A year and a half ago, I helped Mohammed organize a visit to Washington so he could share his findings on what people in Iraq and Syria thought about Da’esh, more broadly known as ISIS, or the Islamic State.  Many people in America are talking about Da’esh these days, but few of these discussions are actually driven by data.  Mohammed’s trip was timely: a congressman, a White House official, various reporters and think-tanks listened carefully to what he had to say.

But when Mohammed was preparing for a follow-on trip to Washington this fall, the U.S. embassy in the Arab state where he currently is called him in to “look at” his passport.  A consular official than stamped “cancelled” on his valid U.S. visa, with no explanation at all.  Yesterday, a foreign service officer in that same embassy finally gave Mohammed an explanation: he is suspected terrorist, according to information he cannot share with Mohammed.

I know Mohammed well enough to say this is absurd.  For ten years, he helped various entities of the U.S. and other Western governments assess the public mood in the region – at great personal risk to himself.  When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Mohammed – a respected scholar (and a Sunni Muslim, by the way) – could have joined the resistance.  He had after all been a member of the Ba’ath party and was technically an army officer who taught public administration at the Iraqi military college.  But he didn’t.  And despite the path he chose in 2003, someone called him a terrorist, and he can no longer travel to the United States.

When people get angry, they often speculate, and Mohammed’s case makes me angry.  But I will not speculate because it is not helpful.  Rather, I will stick to various facts:

  1. My government currently lacks the depth of knowledge necessary to make well-informed decisions about policy in the Da’esh-controlled region.  Data like that with Mohammed laboriously collects could be quite useful, in fact, it has proven itself so for a decade;
  2. Mohammed has a track record not only as a social scientist, but also as an advocate for greater balance and stability in Iraq.  In 2014, I worked with him to help elect a Sunni leader in Iraq’s parliament.  He has also been critical of some Iraqi government policies, including the reported use of death squads against its opponents; and
  3. A rising tide of hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States has otherwise intelligent people second-guessing themselves, keeping quiet and looking for cover until it all blows over.

One could possibly quibble with facts #1 and #3, or certainly give them the debate they deserve, but there is no quibbling with fact #2.  By denying Mohammed the ability to travel to the United States and meet with policy-makers or policy-implementers, some mindless bureaucrat somewhere has done a great disservice to our country.  And, policy implications aside, it makes me ashamed. 

Maybe we don’t need to know much about Arab opinion to carpet-bomb the region, but for anyone who thinks there is a better solution, Mohammed’s treatment by our government should be embarrassing to you as well.  Let’s fix this.