Why is the U.S. afraid of Malalai Joya?

March 24, 2011

Khury Petersen-Smith writes about Malalai Joya and her struggle to speak out.

UPDATE: After a pressure campaign mobilized in the U.S. and beyond, Malalai Joya was finally granted a visa to travel to the U.S., after a week's delay. She arrives in the U.S. today.

Joya's first meeting in person will be in Boston, where she will speak alongside Noam Chomsky. Their meeting is on March 25 at 5:30 p.m., at Memorial Church at Harvard University, across from the Harvard Square T-station. Student admission is free, there is a $5 suggested donation, and no one will be turned away.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS activist and former member of Afghanistan's parliament Malalai Joya is fearless. She has stopped at nothing to raise her voice against the dual enemies of freedom and women's equality in her country: the misogyny of Afghan warlords and the brutal U.S./NATO occupation.

She has been suspended from the Afghan parliament after using her position there to campaign for women's rights. Joya's life is threatened because of her work, and she has survived five assassination attempts.

But now that Joya is scheduled to speak about the state of Afghanistan and call for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from her country in a speaking tour across the U.S., there is only one thing stopping her. It's not Afghan warlords, the Taliban or Hamid Karzai's government--it's the Obama administration.

Joya's visa for entry to the U.S. was denied on March 15, a week before her speaking tour was to begin. Officials at the U.S. Embassy claim they turned down Joya's visa because she is "unemployed" and "underground."

Malalai Joya visiting an all-girls school in Farah Province, Afghanistan
Malalai Joya visiting an all-girls school in Farah Province, Afghanistan

That any former member of parliament would be treated with such disrespect is striking. But there is a particular injustice in using such labels against Joya. For what it's worth, Joya is a renowned author whose publisher, Simon and Schuster, is involved with the tour as a means of promoting her book. In other words, Joya is not unemployed.

Moreover, "[t]he reason Joya lives underground is because she faces the constant threat of death for having had the courage to speak up for women's rights," says Sonali Kolhatkar of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based organization that has hosted Joya for speaking tours in the past and is a sponsor of this year's tour. "It's obscene that the U.S. government would deny her entry."

The denial of a visa for Malalai Joya is meant to prevent her views from being heard. Hers is a case of what the American Civil Liberties Union calls "ideological exclusion," the prevention of perspectives that are critical of the U.S. government, from reaching audiences in the U.S.

The hypocrisy of the supposedly liberal Obama administration taking the draconian action of preventing a women's rights activist from Afghanistan from voicing her opinion on the state of women in her country today is not lost on many observers.

"I understand why Afghan rulers--both Taliban and Karzai government leaders--are afraid of Malalai Joya," wrote Boston Globe blogger Carol Rose in a March 20 op-ed. "She is an outspoken and fearless defender of human rights and has been critical of both sides in that civil war. She established and ran secret schools dedicated to educating and empowering girls...But why would Secretary of State Clinton, herself an outspoken defender of women's rights, refuse to let Ms. Joya meet and talk with Americans?"

UNFORTUNATELY, JOYA'S is not the only voice that the Obama administration is trying to silence. "In less than a year we've seen the increasingly inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning, which Obama deemed 'appropriate,'" points out Sarah Macareg of the left-wing publisher Haymarket Books, one of the sponsors of Joya's tour.

Macareg is referring to the U.S. Army soldier accused of leaking classified documents to the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks.

"The FBI raiding homes and issuing subpoenas to Palestine solidarity activists, and three cases of inexplicable visa delays for Palestinian photojournalist Mohammed Omer, BDS leader Omar Barghouti and now Malalai Joya. It's difficult to not view all of this cumulatively, as a policy of attempting to silence these voices and thereby some of our most important forms of solidarity and dissent," said Macareg.

In other words, the government is cracking down on anyone who challenges what the U.S. does abroad--especially those with first-hand experience of U.S. crimes. The squelching of dissent is reminiscent of the Bush years, and in some ways worse.

As Anthony Arnove, an editor for Haymarket, points out, "Joya was able to travel to the U.S. and speak here under President Bush, but now faces ideological exclusion under President Obama, who campaigned on changing Bush-era policies that antagonized the world."

A week after Malalai Joya's visa was denied, the German publication Der Spiegel published damning and disturbing new evidence of U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. The magazine released photos of an Army "kill team" from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division posing with the bodies of Afghans whom they had killed.

In the photos, the soldiers make light of the killings. They face court-martial, not only for desecrating Afghan civilians in their deaths, but also allegedly faking combat situations to justify their actions. A soldier in the unit exposed the crimes.

A spokesperson for the Army called the actions of the soldiers "repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army." But far from being aberrations, the murder of civilians and torture of people the world over are very much in line with the "standards of the United States Army."

Der Spiegel's revelations are the latest in a line of exposes of war crimes throughout the "war on terror." These include the notorious photos of U.S. personnel torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison and the recent waves of WikiLeaks releases.

This reality--that crimes against humanity are part of the daily practices of U.S. imperialism--is exactly what the U.S. government is afraid of people learning domestically.

This is especially the case for the Obama administration right now, as it escalates its war with NATO on Afghanistan, maintains a massive military presence in Iraq despite its rhetoric about withdrawal, bombs Libya in the name of humanitarian intervention and gives U.S.-backed dictatorships like Bahrain the green light to slaughter protesters in order to crush the spirit of revolution sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

But no matter how many visas it denies, the administration can neither silence the truth, nor Malalai Joya. Joya is speaking to American audiences at venues arranged through the tour via Internet video communication. There is a growing audience of people who want to hear her ideas and discuss how to end the U.S. imperial adventures abroad, and those discussions are the urgent ones that we need to have in this country.

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