Forgive me for the length of this post. I hope you will read the whole thing and keep an open mind.
On January 27th, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning virtually all immigration and passport travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, specifically Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Lybia, Somalia, and Yemen. As a result, it affects approximately 12% of the world’s Muslim population of 1.6 billion. These seven countries have generated 17 perpetrators of non-deadly terrorism on U.S. soil (meaning zero fatalities) since 1975 according to the Cato Institute, and the order does not include countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, or Lebanon, all of which have generated deadly jihadist terrorism affecting the United States.
If you have not already heard and read about this executive order and the public outrage it has spurred, then please read all of the details about it HERE. It is important to note that the Obama administration had previously named the same seven countries in an anti-terrorism law, but that the two laws are still very different. I would like to share my thoughts on this immigration ban (which some are calling a “Muslim ban”), but before you read my opinion, please click on the links that I have provided thus far to read the order itself, the PolitiFact assessment, and the Obama anti-terror law (if you have not already read all of these).
In a day and age where people are compelled to comment on issues like this having only read opinion pieces spun by writers on either side of the political spectrum, I would encourage everyone to be as informed as possible and to take the time to read as much about it as you can before forming a strong opinion. Opinion articles are important, but it can be dangerous to only read from one side of the aisle and to forgo reading the actual documents in question. It is frightening how divisive our political landscape is at the moment, and I must admit that even commenting on this radioactive topic has me nervous about how my opinion might be received.
Firstly, I would like to share two opinion articles that I think are worth reading. The first is by Sam Harris, entitled “A Few Thoughts on the ‘Muslim Ban’” and the second is by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, entitled “Trump’s Immigration Ban was Clumsy But He’s Right About Radical Islam”. I do not necessarily agree with everything in either of the two articles, but the reason I think these two articles are important is not just because Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have been important speakers on this topic for a long time, but also because we have examples in them of people with liberal principles who receive death threats regularly because they are prepared and willing to effectively criticize theocrats. Please take the time to read both articles (if you have not already) just to glimpse their unique perspectives on the subject.
There are approximately 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, which means they account for about 1% of the U.S. population. They are a minority in our country who deserve the protections, assurances of safety from discrimination, and opportunities for which our country is known and celebrated. Assault against Muslims, baselessly stereotyping refugees as perpetrators of violence, and singling out Muslims for any kind of judgment on the basis of their religious affiliation is unjust, anti-American, and it goes against the values set forth in our Constitution. I would argue that we are right and responsible to condemn theocracy, violence, and all human rights violations as they occur around the world, but judging anyone purely because of their religious beliefs is simply wrong. Additionally, I would argue that an immigration ban in the United States, which already has a thorough screening process for refugees, is not the way forward in defeating Islamist extremism. It is wrong for the United States to turn its back on refugees and pretend that their suffering is not our concern. We should take pride in offering a safe haven for victims of terror and violence at the hands of theocrats.
However, there is a problem with extremism that needs to be addressed. American Muslims express concern about the rise of Islamist extremism in the United States. I would say that it is obviously not bigoted of them (or anyone, I would argue) to have concerns about assimilation in Western society, especially when you take into account the percentages of surveyed Muslims who support the implementation of Sharia Law in countries like Afghanistan (99%), Iraq (94%), Pakistan (84%), Bangladesh (82%), Palestine (89%), Niger (86%), Morocco (83%), and Egypt (74%). Meanwhile, 81% of Muslims in the U.S. in 2011 said that violence in the name of their religion is never justified and 70% also hold very unfavorable views of al Qaeda. This compares starkly with Palestine, in which 68% of Muslims say that violence (including suicide bombing) is at least sometimes justified. Additionally, an encouraging 39% of American Muslims agree that homosexuality should be accepted by society as of 2011. That number has probably grown since then, and is a clear reminder that groups like ISIS, the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations are obviously an affront to the values and principles that guide most practitioners of Islam. After all, Pew Research says that over the past few years, concerns in Muslim-majority countries about Islamic extremism have grown as well. So, theocrats and paramilitary groups in the Muslim world are not just (or even mostly) a concern of Westerners.
Why then do some of us in the United States seem to get so up in arms when our fellow Americans discuss their fears and concerns about Islamist extremism or the fact that so many of the theocracies of the world (with the exception of Vatican) are Islamic (e.g. Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran)? Why do we have so many leaders who will not admit the link between violence perpetrated in the name of Islam and the interpretations of the sacred texts to which the perpetrators strictly adhere? This issue is discussed brilliantly in a video by Raheel Raza which I encourage you to watch and think on.
Liberals are not shy about criticizing the theocratic tendencies and anti-human-rights tendencies of Western religions. The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), for example, is rightly condemned and mocked, and has even caused anti-WBC groups to form counter-protests against it when it stages its ludicrous funeral protests. Mormonism has a whole play (i.e. Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Book of Mormon) which satirizes it. Scientology has been mercilessly mocked by Bill Maher. All of these criticisms leveled against religions as sets of ideas are valid. The show Family Guy has even satirized Christianity by depicting Jesus Christ in a way most Christians would consider to be rather blasphemous. No one objects too strongly to this type of criticism/satire except, perhaps, the adherents of the respective religions. But even they, by and large, are not trying to deny anyone their right to criticize or satirize their religion. And the dismissal and criticism of groups who do, like the WBC, is important in asserting our values and diminishing the mindset that religious doctrine should, in some form or another, have an influence over our society’s laws.
There will always be individuals, groups, and religions who have beliefs and tendencies that run counter to secular Western values like separation of Church and State, equality for women and minorities including homosexuals, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. But the comparison between fringe groups like the WBC or the KKK and groups like ISIS is a false equivalency. Yes, the WBC and the KKK are evil and their views are incompatible with American values. But they do not have governments or armies that support/reinforce their views and/or have similar views. They get shouted down by Americans who can protest their craziness without having to worry about violent reprisal. Drawing false equivalencies between these organizations seems to let powerful terrorist organizations off the hook by implying that they can easily be ignored (as most of us can ignore the WBC and the KKK), and their impact will not be felt. As much as I wish that were true, I think it is naïve to suggest such a thing. We cannot totally purge our society of extremism, but we all seem to agree about our responsibility to vehemently criticize groups like WBC, and we have no qualms about calling out the roots of their extremism, i.e. the literalist interpretations of their chosen dogma. Why can we not do the exact same thing to groups like ISIS? Why is it taboo to criticize Islamic theocracies for simply being theocratic? Why do some of our media organizations choose to “respectfully” refuse to reprint cartoons that, if they dealt with any other religion, would have been no big deal? Why is it considered a form of bigotry to criticize the IDEA of theocracy, or the IDEA of jihadist terrorism, or the IDEA of Sharia Law? Shouldn’t we be eager to criticize the murder of apostates, the severing of limbs as punishment for crimes, and the subordination of women?
There is a problem. We need to be able to talk about what it is, what its root causes are, and how we can fix it. An immigration ban and an increasingly violent pushback is a morally and intellectually bereft reaction. So is silence and obscurantism about Islamist extremism and Sharia Law. What’s required, I think, is a conversation and a consensus of support for Muslims who support the basic principles that guide our way of life (a la the Constitution) against violent theocrats. We have examples of true Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz who need support and defense in their fight against extremist viewpoints. We should be able to simultaneously protect Muslims from discrimination AND criticize extremism.
I hope that I have been able to articulate my thoughts on this subject clearly and without offense. Please share your thoughts and let me know if my views need amending. I am always open to other perspectives.