Oct. 18, 2006 - A leading member of Britain's Muslim community, headed to New York for an academic conference, was forced to leave his transatlantic flight without explanation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security earlier today.
The removal of Kamal Helbawy, the 80-year-old founder of the Muslim Association of Britain, came just minutes before his American Airlines flight was due to take off from London's Heathrow Airport. The incident is the latest instance in which U.S. security officials have denied prominent Muslim leaders entry to the United States.
The move startled officials at New York University Law School who had invited Helbawy to be a featured speaker at a conference the organization is sponsoring Thursday night on the Muslim Brotherhood movement. "He's a really respected guy," said Paul Cruickshank, a fellow at the law school's Center for Law and Security, which had organized the conference. "He's very influential within the Muslim community in Britain and his name is recognized throughout the world."
Spokesmen for the Homeland Security Department and FBI declined any immediate comment on why Helbawy, a British citizen with a valid passport, was removed from the plane. A senior U.S. government official, who declined to be identified talking about sensitive matters, said he was puzzled by the incident because there appeared to be no intelligence reporting linking Helbawy to terrorism.
Helbawy, an Egyptian-born Islamic scholar, was for years a leading spokesman in Europe for the Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive organization founded in Egypt that some U.S. officials say is dedicated to spreading a radical brand of Islam throughout the world.
While not denying his affiliation with the Brotherhood, Helbawy described himself in a telephone interview today as a moderate who has publicly denounced terrorism "thousands of times." He also noted that he serves on the Muslim Council of Britain—a semiofficial British government advisory committee that works to turn British Muslims away from violence.
As recounted by Helbawy, he had already settled into his seat on American Airlines Flight 105 this morning when he heard his name called on the loudspeaker just a few minutes before the plane was due to take off. After reporting to the front of the aircraft, a member of the flight crew asked him to step off the plane for two minutes. When he did so, he was greeted by a U.S. Homeland Security official who began questioning him about his background, his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and his reasons for attending the conference in New York.
"If you want to ask me any more questions, my solicitor should be here," Helbawy said he then told the Homeland Security agent. The agent replied that if he wanted to go to the United States, he should go to the U.S. Embassy in London and get a visa—an explanation that Helbawy said made no sense because British citizens generally don't need to apply for a visa in advance of a temporary visit to the United States.
"This is stupidity," Helbawy said about the decision to evict him from the plane. "They shouldn't be preventing moderates from talking and discussing. The extremists are going to point to this and say, ‘This is your American administration. Look at what they are doing. You talk about trying to bring peace. This is what is going to happen to you'."
The action against Helbawy comes just a few weeks after the State Department denied a visa to Tariq Ramadan, another prominent Islamic scholar, for the second time. That action provoked widespread criticism from civil-liberties groups who noted that, like Helbawy, Ramadan has publicly disavowed violence.
Both cases, however, may suggest heightened U.S. government sensitivity about the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose precise goals and methods have become a subject of increasingly intense debate. Ramadan, for example, is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Although he no longer serves as the spokesman for the group in Europe, Helbawy said he is still a member of the Brotherhood. Officials familiar with U.S. intelligence estimates say the Brotherhood itself is generally not regarded as a terrorist organization, although factions that have splintered from the group—some of which later became part of Al Qaeda—did later turn to violence.
Karen Greenberg, the executive director of New York University's Center for Law and Security, said that Helbawy was the second Brotherhood member invited to this week's conference who was denied entry to the United States. Abdel Monem Abul ElFotouh, a leading member of the Brotherhood in Egypt, was also denied a visa to enter the United States after already being announced as a speaker at the conference.
Greenberg said the controversy about the Brotherhood, and its ultimate goals, is one of the reasons her organization thought it was so important to have a conference on the subject. Her goal, she said, was to have members of the Brotherhood speaking at the conference rather than simply American or European academics talking about what they think the Brotherhood represents.
"They didn't want to have his conversation to happen in public," said Greenberg about the U.S. government officials who prevented Beldawy from coming to the country. "It looks like they are afraid of the words that are going to come out of somebody's mouth."