Here’s ‘What’s Going On’ With Muslims
Six answers to the question behind Donald Trump’s immigration ban
Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration to America has come in all shapes and sizes. First, shortly after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, it was a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” with the “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.” Trump hinted at the indefinite nature of the prohibition by premising his plan on the need for comprehension—“Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine”—even as he lamented that “the hatred is beyond comprehension.” Then it gradually became a temporary ban with exceptions, a “suggestion” really.
On Monday, following the Orlando terrorist attack, Trump at once narrowed and vastly expanded the ban. He specified that he would “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies.” But when you stop and think about that line, you realize it’s an even more sweeping statement than keeping most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims from America’s shores. Does that mean, for instance, that the ban would apply to everyone from France as well? How about Belgians?
Trump also broadened the mission from solving the riddle of Muslim anti-Americanism to finding ways to “perfectly screen” Muslim immigrants for adherence to “Western values,” the Western value of pluralism be damned. In a testament to how difficult this task would be, he suggested that his system would have prevented the parents of Omar Mateen, the Orlando assassin, from immigrating to the U.S. from Afghanistan since Mateen’s father has expressed support for the Taliban—even though the Mateens moved to America before the Islamic fundamentalist group was formed.
Through it all, Trump has remained consistent about one thing: His ban would be in place “until we”—a “we” that, judging by his rhetoric, doesn’t seem to include Muslims—“figure out what is going on.”
So what is going on, exactly? Trump once said that, as president, he might ask former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to come up with an answer. But why wait until the findings of the Great Giuliani Commission of 2019?
I put the question to six Muslim commentators and scholars who spend a lot of time thinking about Islam in the United States and around the world. They sent back responses, which I’ve edited and included below.
If Donald Trump is really interested in understanding the roots of anti-Americanism, there’s a solution: to read the hundreds of books and articles written on why, exactly, “Muslims” might not be particularly enthused about American policy in the Middle East (there’s little evidence to suggest that large numbers of Muslims have any particular antipathy toward Americans as people).
But it’s possible that Trump is just being imprecise. Perhaps what he really wants to say is not that Muslims “hate” Americans, but rather that they may be ambivalent about or even opposed to certain liberal values that are associated with being American. Obviously, it is impossible to generalize about an entire religious group, but polling does suggest that majorities in Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan, as well as non-Arab countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, aren’t quite classical liberals when it comes to issues like apostasy, religiously derived criminal punishments, gender equality, or the relevance of religious law in public life more generally.
If this happens to be Trump’s argument, it would be ironic, since Trump himself cannot be considered a liberal in the classical sense. In fact, he fits the definition of an “illiberal democrat” quite well, as I argued in a recent essay here in The Atlantic. That said, I have to admit that I’m concerned about anti-Muslim bigots misconstruing my own arguments around “Islamic exceptionalism”—that Islam has been and will continue to be resistant to secularization—after the attacks in Orlando. It’s undoubtedly true that large numbers of Muslims in both the West and the Middle East consider homosexual activity to be religiously unlawful, or haram, but let us be careful in drawing a link between such illiberalism (which many Christian evangelicals and Republican politicians share) and the desire to kill. That’s not the way radicalization works. We would never argue, for instance, that Senators Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio are “at risk” individuals who may, if we don’t keep a close eye on them, commit mass murder against gay Americans.
In any case, conservative Muslims, orthodox Jews, Christian evangelicals (or for that matter Trump supporters residing in Poland who want to emigrate to the U.S. if Trump wins) have the right to be “illiberal” as long as they express their illiberalism through legal, democratic means. These are rights that are protected by the American constitution, enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Perhaps Trump is thinking specifically about violence perpetrated by Muslims, as he suggested in comments after the Orlando attacks. The interesting thing though—and something that is rarely acknowledged by U.S. politicians—is that the preponderance of Middle Eastern violence in recent decades has been perpetrated not by Islamists but by secular autocrats against Islamists, in the name of national security. These, as it happens, are the very strongmen that Trump seems to have such a soft spot for.
Ultimately, Trump cannot, through the force of arms or his genuinely frightening anti-Muslim rhetoric, compel the many conservative Muslims in the Middle East to be something they’re not, or would rather not be. To suggest that Muslims need to be secular or irreligious (by Trump’s own arbitrary standards) is dangerous. The message there is one that ISIS would find appealing for its own divisive purposes: that an increasingly populist and bigoted West has no interest in respecting or accommodating Islam’s role in public life, even when expressed legally and peacefully. The sad fact of the matter, though, is simple enough: Trump has less respect for the American constitution than the vast majority of American Muslims, many of whom, like me, are the children of immigrants. In Trump’s America, it so happens, my parents would have been banned from ever entering in the first place.
What is going on? What’s going on is that Donald Trump’s suggested “Muslim ban” is simply standard White American racism, 21st-century edition. How do I know this? Because black Muslims have been contending with such racism since 1776. Part of my inheritance, as a black Muslim citizen of the United States, is knowing how to spot this phenomenon, which is as durable as it is elastic.
As President Obama noted in a speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, “Islam has always been part of America.” Scholars estimate that up to 30 percent of Africans enslaved in the United States were Muslim. Perhaps these enslaved African American Muslims would have endorsed a “Muslim ban”—as a means of protecting them from bondage. The institution of American slavery sought to dehumanize the enslaved by systematically stripping them of names, family ties, culture, and religion. Yet historical accounts of the enslaved reveal valiant efforts to hold onto and pass on their traditions; Muslim women in the Georgia Sea Islands, for example, are thought to have maintained the Islamic tradition of sadaqa. They endeavored to live dignified lives as Muslims despite the indignity of their situation—a condition perpetuated by those who called themselves Christians. The racism at the time, as in our time, taught white supremacy, namely that humans existed in a hierarchy with whites at the top, Native Americans, as “noble savage,” somewhere in the middle, and blacks—who were considered barely human, lacking the mental and moral capacity that whites allegedly had in spades—at the bottom.
Many Americans don’t realize that Muslims were part of early U.S. history. Many Americans see Muslims as recent arrivals—neither white nor black, but brown and “foreign,” and thus threatening, with a proclivity to violence that renders them barely human, lacking in mental and moral capacity. As has been the case with the awful killings of LGBTQ Americans in Orlando, violence perpetrated by a Muslim is characterized as uniquely abhorrent, thereby justifying a “Muslim ban.”
The long story of Muslims in America indicates that Muslims are not the Other, but Americans whose history begins with the history of the country itself—with slavery and racism. And Muslims, whether in America or elsewhere in the world, hardly have a monopoly on violence.
I’ve been taken aback by your comments. I had assumed you surely knew Muslims considering you’ve done business with them for decades and made millions from your Middle East investments. Alas, I was wrong.
Your sweeping generalization about Muslims’ “great hatred” toward Americans—about sizable percentages believing violence against Americans is justified and Muslims in America should have the option of being governed by Sharia law—is based on a discredited poll by the Center for Security Policy, a notorious anti-Muslim think tank.
To be sure, Frank Gaffney, the president of said think tank, is a model of restraint, thorough research, and nuanced observations. He believes President Obama is a Muslim, warns that “radical Islam” has infiltrated the U.S. government, and proposes that the Obama administration deliberately manipulated the redesigned logo of the Missile Defense Agency to incorporate the Islamic crescent. Verily, Gaffney’s conspiratorial imagination should be the bedrock of every nation’s security policy.
Thanks, by the way, for boldly calling out “radical Islamic terrorism,” and for double-daring Hillary Clinton to do the same. Phew. Glad to know we’ve won the “war on terror” by finally naming Voldemort. Surely ISIS is shaking in their radical boots. I’m curious to know what exactly you mean by “Islamism,” but details can wait until after the election and the temporary Muslim ban.
At the risk of sounding disrespectful, I believe you and your advisers might be mistaken about Muslims. As your token cultural ambassador to 1.6 billion Muslims and 1,400 years of Islamic civilization, let me share what’s really going on with my people.
First, American Muslim leaders and national organizations have responded to the Orlando shooting with an outpouring of support for and solidarity with the LGBT community. In fact, a Muslim crowdsourcing platform just launched an initiative to raise funds for the victims’ families.
If we want to talk about polls, let’s cite Gallup’s six-year, 35-country survey of Muslims, which found that Muslims often respect Western freedoms and technology, even as they tend to disapprove of the West’s foreign policies and perceived disrespect of Islam.
In the United States, despite the efforts of absolutist ideologues to pit “Islam” against “The West,” Muslims are surviving and thriving, ironically driven by their shared Islamic and Western values. American Muslims are Olympic fencers and U.S. congressmen, Uber drivers and medical professionals, Daily Show correspondents and NFL stars, New York City judges and Marvel superheroines, successful CEOs and halal-cart entrepreneurs. We also gave you Muhammad Ali, the most beloved and famous icon in modern history, who recently united the world in admiration for a black Muslim man who embodied the best of America’s values and bold swagger.
We’re also a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya who pulled himself up from his bootstraps and created the Chobani yogurt empire. Yes, Mr. Trump, we even make America’s yogurt. Ulukaya recently out-Oprah’d Oprah by giving his employees stock worth around 10 percent of the company. He should be profiled for radical generosity.
Here’s a thought experiment: Maybe you can make America great again by learning something from the millions of Muslims in this country who are making America great every day.
Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with Muslims,” maybe it’s more appropriate to ask, “What’s wrong with Donald Trump?”
Donald Trump’s claims about Muslims are bullshit in the proper sense. They are neither true nor false. They’re phony.
Trump’s demand (echoing many others) that we use the phrase “radical Islam” is theatrics meant to appeal to people for whom this label is redundant. For such people, saying “radical Islam” is like saying “unmarried bachelor.” Note that Trump now capitalizes it: Radical Islam, like Catholic Church.
As an example of how this kind of thing works, let us recall the provocateur behind the anti-Sharia legislation (meant to protect the American constitution from Islamic law!) debated in dozens of U.S. statehouses. He admitted about his model bill:
If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would have not served its purpose. … The purpose was heuristic—to get people asking this question, “What is Shariah?”
What seemed to be a legislative process was actually a national propaganda campaign to generate hostility against Islam and Muslims. In similar fashion, Trump’s call to ban Muslims, and other similar nonsense, is meant to “sell feelings,” not to solve a problem or to answer a question.
What’s amazing about Trump’s nonsense is that it is not meant to manipulate, but to unleash. It’s completely open. He knows it’s bullshit and many of his supporters must know it is.
In common courtesy we say, “How are you?” and, “I’m fine, thanks,” which only works if both of us know that what we are saying is neither true nor false, but meant to communicate something else. Trump and his supporters are playing a similar game for darker purposes.
Indeed Trump is so utterly flippant and vague, and plainly uninterested in learning anything, that people cannot really believe he’s going to “find out what is going on” (as if the facts are unknown) or do anything actually effective (border agents would apparently ask, “Are you Muslim?”).
The presumptive GOP nominee is immune to the blunders that would sink other politicians precisely because he’s not even a liar. Through cheering Trump’s obvious fantasies about Islam, one can embrace bigotry about Muslims without any responsibility to connect one’s assertions with objective reality. Trump’s unrelenting absurdities (like the notion that a ban on Muslim immigration could have stopped an American citizen with a lawfully purchased assault rifle) signal to his supporters that logic and causality can be left at the door. Bigots are left free to indulge their impulses in a glorious solidarity of unreason, without ever having to offer anything resembling an argument to themselves or anyone else.
But Trump is only the most vulgar voice in a larger chorus. He mumbles about a “tremendous hate” in Islam, but mainstream commentators still choose framing questions like “Why do they hate us (when we are so good)?” as if this were real analysis. Muslims are asked why they haven’t condemned this or that, as if the answer were not readily available with a two-word Google search. The query “Does Islam Promote Violence?” is endlessly recycled. These non-questions are varieties of conscious or unconscious bullshit designed to make people assume the best about themselves and the worst about Muslims, serving a myriad of political, ideological, and commercial purposes that have in common a need to demonize and dehumanize an entire religion.
Yes, there’s an outcry across the political spectrum over Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. But that doesn’t mean the policy is unpopular. It’s now supported by 50 percent of likely voters, by one measure, including Republicans, independents, and Democrats.
A quick history lesson reminds us that banning Muslims from U.S. borders and withholding U.S. citizenship based on race and/or religion is neither a new practice nor an exclusively conservative policy. For decades before 1944, U.S. courts denied citizenship to Muslims and Christians with “Muslim ancestry.” Until 1952, having the legal racial status of “white” was a prerequisite for acquiring naturalized citizenship. Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government’s selective enforcement of immigration laws has produced disproportionate increases in deportation rates to some Muslim-majority countries and restricted the immigration and naturalization of Muslims. For example, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 19,000 people from 21 countries with Muslim majority or minority populations have had their U.S. citizenship, permanent residency, or visa applications mysteriously denied or delayed, with little opportunity to investigate or challenge their case. In other words, Trump’s ban is not as novel in its xenophobia as one might think.
While I share the outrage over Trump’s plan, I fear not enough attention has been given to its temporal dimension. Trump has insisted that his ban would be only temporary, “until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses.”
The operative word in Trump’s statement is “until.” The word exposes Trump’s seemingly earnest inquiry for what it truly is: willful incomprehension of the world and its history. The word “until” suggests that ISIS happened because we were simply too busy with other things, and put terrorism too low on our to-do list. Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, can we really pretend that questions about the political instability of the post-colonial “Muslim world” (a place that does not actually exist on a map) have not yet been asked and answered, and asked and answered again, by policymakers and experts? The pressing task is not taking the time to ask the questions and hear the answers. It’s mustering the political will to turn those often-uncomfortable answers into policies that help stabilize these regions politically, economically, and environmentally. This has yet to happen in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia. To take only one example: The war in Yemen could produce the world’s next great refugee crisis. In January, the United Nations reported that Saudi strikes against civilians in Yemen could constitute crimes against humanity. Two months earlier, the Obama administration had approved $1.3 billion in bombs for sale to Saudi Arabia.
Americans have been here before: at a crossroads where we can either immerse ourselves in complex problems and imperfect solutions, or tell ourselves fairytales about good guys and bad terrorists. George W. Bush’s ahistorical non-answer to “Why do they hate us?” was that “they hate our freedoms.” It was the civilizational equivalent of the colloquial tautology “Haters gonna hate.”
Until we Americans see our histories as intertwined with those of others around the world, we will not be able to abandon the false debates about whether terrorist attacks or mass shootings or homophobia are inside jobs or not. Until then, half the country will continue to pretend that this conversation has not already taken place—to fantasize that violence can flow out of our borders in weapons sales and military operations, freely and only in one direction, while inflows of violence can be blocked simply by banning brown and black bodies at the border.
If Donald Trump’s ban had been in effect over the last several decades, America would have missed out on Steve Jobs, whose biological father, Abdulfattah Jandali, hailed from Syria. Also Farooq Kathwari, the CEO of Ethan Allen, Mohamad El-Erian, the former head of the investment company Pimco, and Tariq Farid, the founder of Edible Arrangements. Fazlur Khan, a Bangladeshi American architect and structural engineer who helped develop the technology for skyscrapers, would have never made it to the United States. The same goes for Ayub Khan Ommaya, a Pakistani American doctor who created the Ommaya reservoir, a catheter that drains fluid from the head and spine, and Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian American Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who pioneered the field of “femtochemistry,” which enables the study of chemical reactions in real time. Sabri Ben-Achour of Marketplace recently estimated that banning Muslims could cost the U.S. economy roughly $24 billion.
My parents are immigrants too, from Syria. Like so many people who come to the United States, they love this country for the freedoms it has afforded them. Today, millions of Syrians are looking for new homes, not as immigrants but as refugees fleeing war. These refugees go through the most intensive vetting process of any group allowed into the United States. And opening the country to refugees, rather than closing the borders, could help counter the narrative propagated by extremists that the United States doesn’t care about the Muslim world. It is also these very refugees who will most value the freedom and opportunity to start over again.
Keeping America secure means working with Muslim communities to make them feel like they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. It means seeking a better understanding of why young people are attracted to Islamic extremism and better ways of protecting them from the violent Internet propaganda exported by groups like ISIS. Instead of bans, what’s needed are creative new policies that, for example, incentivize American Muslims to work with law enforcement. A father who wants to report his son’s suspicious activity shouldn’t have to worry that doing so could translate into a 20-year jail term and a criminal record for his child.
Closing borders will not solve the problems at the heart of the massacre in Orlando. The New America Foundation reports that U.S. citizens have been involved in 80 percent of the post-9/11 U.S. terrorism cases that the organization has examined. And Trump’s ban presumably would not prevent the entry of troubled youth from countries like Belgium, the United Kingdom, or France. The country needs broader, bolder solutions that target the disenfranchised and the alienated, and better gun laws that ban military-style assault weapons. And it needs a leader with a vision of America as a place that is open to anybody fleeing persecution, anybody seeking a new start, and anybody with a dream. That is what has long made America great.