With a stroke of the pen on a misdirected and, I believe, malicious Executive Order (EO), President Donald Trump unleashed a dynamic that will, I fear, have consequences as far-reaching and damaging to my country and my community as the Bush Administration’s wrong-headed responses to the 9/11 terror attacks.
What the various provisions of the EO have done is deepen Arab popular anger at the United States, provide ISIS with a public relations gift, fuel Islamophobic fear here at home, while, at the same time, exacerbating sectarian tensions within the Arab community.
Suspending and placing restrictions on immigration and refugees from seven mostly Arab and Muslim-majority countries will not make America safer. The data is clear. Immigrants from the countries on the White House list have not posed a threat to the US. Those who have been excluded are largely either students, family members visiting their kin, or business people. And vulnerable refugees from these same countries who are now being denied admission are among the most rigorously vetted individuals coming to America—insuring that they pose no danger to our country.
What the EO has, in fact, done is cancel the visas of between 60,000 to 100,000 individuals. It has also resulted in a nightmare situation for hundreds of innocents, caught on the cusp of the order’s implementation, who were detained at airports, interrogated for hours, and, in some instances, sent back to their countries of origin. This has produced deeply moving stories of separated families, broken promises, shattered dreams, and personal hurt that have intensified anti-American sentiment across the Middle East.
After 9/11, in stark contrast to the widely held view that “Arabs hated our values,” our polling made clear that Arabs respected our people, our culture, our products, our country’s openness and tolerance, and the promise of our democracy. What they resented was our policy toward them. As one respondent noted—“I love America. I just feel that America doesn’t love me”. Despite our devastating war in Iraq, our anti-Palestinian bias, and our other failed policies across the region, what continued to hold hope for Arabs was that someday America would be true to its stated values. Trump’s Executive Order and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that accompanied it have shattered that hope. ISIS must be pleased.
Administration protests that the EO is not “a Muslim ban” doesn’t pass the smell test. Granted that the freeze only includes seven countries but the rhetoric used to describe the intent of the order has been clearly inspired by the anti-Muslim animus of a White House populated by a group with individuals with a long record of Islamophobia. The language they have used to make the case for the order has been taken directly from the writings of well-known Islamophobes. In any case, this is how Trump’s supporters have been encouraged to understand the EO’s intent. Added to this are stories circulating that the list will soon be expanded to include many more Muslim-majority countries, among them: Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan.
Making matters worse, the Administration has coupled its freeze of the refugee program with the caveat that, in the future, priority status will be given to “persecuted minorities”—by which they have meant Christians. Trump has justified this arguing that during the Obama years it was “very difficult for Christians” to get refugee status to come to America. This is a patently false case that has been frequently made by far-right ideologues. In reality, the number of Christian and Muslim refugees entering the US each year are roughly the same. The percentage of Iraqis admitted in the refugee program already includes a very large number of Iraqi Christians. And while the numbers of Syrian Christians admitted as refugees were, in fact, quite low, it can be shown that this is due to the fact that most Syrian Christians are not refugees. Many, however, have come to America, either as asylees or under other visa programs.
Nevertheless, this Administration’s stated preference for Christians has only served to reinforce the notion that the Executive Order was anti-Muslim, while exacerbating sectarian tensions within the Arab community. Having worked for decades to overcome religious divides, Arab Americans have had to face down multiple challenges to their unity. Recent immigrants still bearing wounds from their countries of origin have been the most vulnerable. In this context, an Administration-led anti-Muslim bias has taken a toll. Added to this, recent news articles quoting some immigrant Syrian Christians and some Arab American Republicans expressing support for President Trump’s Executive Order have been hurtful.
The fallout of this Executive Order will continue to play out. The partisan and sectarian divide it has fostered, the extremism it has fueled, and the damage it has done to America’s image will be with us for a long time. Far from making us safer, this Administration is putting us at greater risk.
ISIS is, no doubt, an evil movement that must be defeated. But, in reality, this group has never posed an existential threat to our country. It could never do as much damage to the very idea of America and to the values to which we aspire as the foolish and dangerous policies put forward by this Administration.
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