ONE TIME, a US Customs official sent a chill through me, and I feel it still. We were returning from a ski trip to Canada. At the border, the official was brusque as he interrogated me. To my horror, I realized that I had neglected to declare a purchase made at the ski resort, and he seemed to sense it. He began a rough search of our car. His rudeness prompted me to say at one point: "You can't treat me like this. I have rights. I am an American." He looked at me coldly. "You're not in America yet, Bub. You don't have rights until I say you do." I felt humiliated, but instructed. A border by definition is the territory of absolute power, and such power by definition demeans. I thought of that encounter last Thursday when I learned that a distinguished leader of the Islamic community in London was refused admittance into the United States at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Zaki Badawi is an Egyptian-born scholar, the principal of the Muslim College in London, which trains imams and Islamic leaders, emphatically preparing them to build bridges with British culture.
Holding a doctorate from the University of London, Badawi has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, has served as an adviser to Tony Blair, and is co-editor of an interfaith magazine with an archbishop and a chief rabbi. He is in his 80s. Badawi was en route to the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where he was to give a major address on the compatibility of Islam and Western culture. But on Wednesday evening, US border officials at JFK detained the elderly scholar for six hours, then put him on a plane back to England. Rejected. As it happened, I was at Chautauqua as part of a program exploring the common roots of the three Abrahamic religions. Those waiting to welcome Badawi included Muslims, Jews, and Christians. All were stunned by news of his banishment. I do not know what, precisely, prompted the border officials' action, but I am certain that the humiliation Badawi suffered will be felt by every British Muslim who learns of it. Power at the border demeans, and in today's context, resentment, too, can be absolute. (MORE)