Donald Trump repeatedly says he wants a Muslim registry. Except for when he says he doesn’t.
That lack of clarity is certainly confusing enough. And for anyone in the crosshairs of such a suggestion, it is terrifying.
But taking a look at Trump’s proposals against a long history of racial and religious surveillance provides a larger, and even more disturbing landscape. Because, for one, it is shocking to find that this kind of program is nothing new. And, second, programs like the ones he’s suggesting have provided no discernible benefit for the shame of betraying the rights of our neighbors.
In short, it helps to think of the proposed Muslim registry as not so much a Trump invention as him just slapping his name on existing policies, like he does with buildings he didn’t build.
Last month, Carl Higbie, a prominent Trump supporter, made now-infamous remarks about the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans establishing a precedent for the “extreme vetting of Muslims” that candidate Trump promised during the second presidential debate. As tone-deaf as Higbie’s statement was – most of us rightly see the Japanese internment camps as an appalling moment in American history – Higbie’s comparison puts Trump’s ideas in proper context.
Such programs that target people with origins in specific states have consistently appeared in times of conflict. Take a cursory look at the history of curtailing civil liberties in the name of national security in the United States:
After World War I, the U.S. Justice Department created an “anti-radical division,” which compiled over 200,000 cards in a card-filing system that detailed radical organizations, individuals, and case histories across the country. These efforts, collectively known as the “Red Scare,” resulted in the imprisonment or deportation of thousands of supposed radicals and leftists.
In 1942, executive order 9606 issued by Franklin Roosevelt resulted in the internment of Japanese-Americans. More than 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during the war, which was accompanied by federal seizures of property belonging to Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court in the case, Korematsu v. United States, at the time confirmed the constitutionality of the executive order.
In 1980, the INS implemented an Iranian Control Program after the Iranian Revolution and ensuing hostage crisis. This program led to the screening of more than 56,000 Iranian students in the U.S. More than 7000 individuals were ordered into deportation proceedings.
In 2002, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program was designed and implemented as a response to 9/11. NSEERS was a registration program that compelled people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan or Syria, among several other Muslim majority states, to register with the INS. More than 90,000 people were screened by NSEERS, and 14 percent of these screenings led to deportation proceedings. It produced no terrorism-related convictions.
This history is important, because it helps the newly “woke” understand that racialized surveillance is a quintessential part of American history, and combatting it will take much more than donning a safety pin or “volunteering” to be registered first. It’s vital to remember that these positions animated American political discourse before Trump was ever taken seriously as a candidate. A recent post by Elie Mystal at Above the Law summarizes this point well:
When Higbie says “protect America first,” he’s … talking about white Americans, and he’s saying that if Muslims have to suffer in order to protect white people, Korematsu (v. United States) says that’s okay ... America has always allowed her white people to think that this country exists for their benefit. The white people who voted for Trump, they think they’re letting minorities stay here. They act like minorities are squatting on America’s couch.
This is not to suggest that rather than to try to confront these deep-seated racist notions and policies, that we should throw up our hands and do nothing. It means we have more work to do than may be immediately apparent, such as reining in a security and surveillance system that has proliferated since the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
If racialized surveillance is central to Trump’s MAGA mantra, we have to demand answers from those in power: whose sense of vulnerability is being allayed by these laws? Who will shoulder the burdens of those fears? Whose rights are being cast aside in the name of “security?” These questions map onto long-standing debates about race, rights, and belonging in the U.S., and thus possess promising potential to create new strategic coalitions to confront the system of racialized citizenship Trump is promising.
A final thought: the increasing reference to a “Muslim American” community, by allies and antagonists alike, is an oversimplication that contributes to the problem. It is not accurate to reduce a vast diversity of people with different historical experiences, languages, cultural practices, and political worldviews to a religious monolith. Nor does it make for worthwhile political advocacy.
For instance, consider the San Bernadino shooting. The people who perpetrated it – a U.S. citizen and permanent resident of Pakistani origin — had nothing to do with the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese dual nationals (including U.S. citizens) who were targeted with the subsequently passed Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act.
In other words, San Bernardino was branded as an ISIS strike on U.S. soil, but then used to advance existing state interests, such as pressuring the Iranian regime and preempting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.
And then there are people who are targeted by specific counterterrorism laws who are not necessarily religious. For many Americans of Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian descent, being a Muslim is not necessarily at the forefront of their identity-for the simple reason that not all of them are religious, let alone Muslim.
To be sure, the perpetrators of Islamophobic attacks in the U.S. do not make those distinctions — they are indiscriminate in targeting anyone perceived to be a Muslim, so they demand a systematic response. Nevertheless, not all Muslims are targeted by state apparatuses of security, nor are all of those targeted by those apparatuses necessarily Muslim.
Confronting the injustices of racialized surveillance will only come from a nuanced view of our own history and biases, paired with a better understanding of the specific communities too easily covered under blanket labeling today.