Mathematicians and the Muslim Travel Ban

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As a retired Navy Officer and now a mathematician and a University Professor, I have met many interesting people from all across the globe. Mathematicians don’t pay much attention to their colleagues’ race, religion, or politics. Can this person teach? Do they really know mathematics? Are they committed to keeping up with their field? If the answers are all “yes,” they are welcomed. I was Associate Chair of the Math Department at USNA in the mid-1980’s, and one of our new hires was a young man from Iran, Dr. Reza Malek-Madani. Reza had been a student here in the U.S. when the Shah was overthrown and the Iranian Islamic Republic took shape. He decided to stay here as a mathematician and raise his family. An American citizen for several decades now, he eventually served as the Math Department Chair at Annapolis, and still teaches there.

Most academics subscribe to trade journals; my reading matter includes the monthly issue of “Notices of the American Mathematical Society.” Most non-mathematicians understandably have not the slightest interest in that magazine, but this month’s issue starts off with this article: “The Travel Ban: Affected Mathematicians Tell Their Stories.” Certainly other academic fields are seeing the same effect. Here one can read details about the lives of four mathematicians who are citizens of Iran but are working in the U.S. – two men and two women. They all reminded me of the young Reza Malek-Madani thirty-five years ago: studying here, not yet sure where they want to pursue their mathematical careers, and strongly affected by sudden changes in the political winds. But this time, the change in winds was in Washington and not in Tehran. These four aspiring scientists can’t go home again, because the U.S. travel ban would prevent their return. None are yet married, but one has a fiancé who went to Iran for a visit and is now stuck there. All are now banned from attending mathematical conferences outside the U.S., because they would likely not be allowed to return. One expressed this sentiment, and all said something similar: “I think we all know the progress of math benefits enormously from bright mathematicians regardless of their race, religion, or nationality. There is no doubt that limiting the access of certain bright minds to some of the elite institutions of mathematics will have a long-term effect [on] the way mathematicians, and science in general, progress.”

The article concludes, “First, talented young foreign mathematicians, who already have to separate from their families and friends and endure an arduous and extreme visa process, might be less willing to do that to face a tenuous future in the United States. And second, foreign mathematicians who are unaffected by the ban might just decide, either out of solidarity or a desire to avoid mistreatment at the border, to avoid scientific travels to the United States.”

You can substitute Engineers or Medical Professionals or Physicists in the last paragraph, to see how foolish it is to institute a broad-based ban on travel by bright young people bent on increasing their own, and by extension, the world’s knowledge of their fields. It not only hurts those individuals, it hurts us all. As both a citizen and a mathematician, I sincerely hope that the “Muslim travel ban” ends soon.