The Corner

The Muslim World Contains Multitudes

Yesterday afternoon, The Hill reported that Donald Trump had called for a “shutdown” of Muslim arrivals in the U.S., and on social media elsewhere, the paper claimed that Trump had endorsed barring Muslim Americans traveling abroad from reentering the country. The basis for this claim was the following passage:

Asked by The Hill whether that would include American Muslims currently abroad, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks replied over email: “Mr. Trump says, ‘everyone.’”

It occurred to me that Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks wasn’t necessarily speaking for the candidate (a point that The Hill later clarified, to its credit), and it seems that I was right. On Morning Joe, this morning, Trump clarified his position, which Michael Barbaro and Alan Rapaport of the New York Times summarize as follows:

Mr. Trump sounded increasingly anxious about the prospect of another attack and said the measure he was proposing was necessary to prevent more events like the bringing down of the World Trade Center twin towers in 2001. He offered few details about how his plan would work, other than to say that American Muslims would be able to leave the country and return, but that travelers would be asked if they are Muslim when trying to enter the United States, and those who answered affirmatively would be turned away. He said he hoped it would be a temporary measure until the United States can “figure out what’s going on.”

“We have people in this country that want to blow up our country — you know it and so do I,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re looking at the jihad. They want a jihad.”

Trump is not alone in being increasingly anxious about the prospect of another attack. In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attack, my first instinct, like that of many Americans, was to check in on my family, despite the fact that no one in my family was anywhere close to Paris. Irrational, yes. Understandable, I certainly hope so. The San Bernardino attack raises the possibility that future terror attacks might not be elaborately-staged mass-casualty attacks in the vein of 9/11 but rather low-cost, hard-to-anticipate attacks on “soft targets,” of the kind that have plagued Israel for decades. I’ve often felt that Americans would be more sympathetic to the extreme and pervasive danger that Israelis live with on a daily basis if they were to experience it firsthand, as American visitors to Israel have from time to time. Now it seems the danger has come to us, albeit to a different degree. 

So I understand Trump’s anxiousness, and I share in it. Where we part company is on how the United States ought to treat people who identify as Muslims going forward. I use this awkward locution (“people who identify as Muslims”) advisedly, because the screening mechanism Trump seems to have settled on is to ask travelers if they are Muslim and to turn away those who say yes. There is something almost quaint about this approach, as if we should expect that people who are trying to do us harm will play by the rules Trump has laid out and openly profess their religious beliefs, knowing all the while that it would lead to their exclusion from the country. Granted, there are many Muslims who would never deny their faith, even if it meant that they wouldn’t be allowed into the country. Indeed, I can imagine such professions sparking a social media campaign designed to discredit the exclusion of Muslims, and to celebrate principled resistance to it. The trouble is that terrorists rely on deceit to achieve their objectives, while the kind of people who’d never dream of lying about their religious convictions generally fall in a different category.

As usual, Trump is speaking off the cuff. Perhaps he is not entirely serious about simply asking people if they are Muslims or not, in which case he could rely on country of origin. Shall we exclude travelers from Muslim-majority countries? This approach would exclude Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, and other religious minorities, and it would ignore the Muslim citizens of non-Muslim-majority countries, like India, Britain, or France. We might instead exclude people with Arabic surnames, as this is generally a good marker of Muslim ancestry, though not a perfect one: this approach would exclude some nontrivial number of non-practicing Muslims, converts to other faiths, atheists, and agnostics, not to mention a large number of Muslims who reject Islamism and Islamist violence. 

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who represent 23 percent of the global population. As David French has observed, a large share of the global Muslim population embraces illiberal views of various kinds, many of which are incompatible with liberal democracy, like support for the death penalty for apostates. It is also true, however, that these illiberal views are distributed unevenly across the global Muslim population. There are some Muslim communities, like the tightly-organized Ahmadiyya, who’ve faced intense persecution from other Muslims, and who’ve condemned Islamist violence. To associate them with Muslims who’ve pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State would be a serious mistake. Something similar can be said of the Kurds, virtually all of whom are Muslims, who are fighting and dying to protect their homeland against ISIS encroachments. Indonesia, the world’s most populous majority-Muslim country, has seen a dramatic shift in recent years towards multiracial, multireligious democracy. What did Indonesia get right, and what can other countries lean from its experience? If we are going to combat the Islamist threat, we need to understand these distinctions.  

Though it is important to think through these issues dispassionately, I am an American of Muslim origin, which definitely informs my perspective. Back in September, I briefly addressed Ben Carson’s remarks on whether a Muslim should be allowed to serve as president, and there is a point I raised then that bears repeating. Basically, we are living through a period in which Americans with only a loose attachment to their religious identities are joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Roughly speaking, it seems that the religiously observant are as religiously observant as ever, but those who in previous eras might have maintained some token religious affiliation are falling away entirely. This dynamic is not limited to Christians and Jews. I suspect it applies to U.S. Muslims as well. One of the ironies of the focus on a Muslim threat, as opposed to a more narrowly-conceived Islamist threat, is that it raises the political salience of Muslim identity as opposed to, say, a pan-ethnic Asian-American or African-American identity, or an identity rooted in national origin. Will people think of themselves as well-integrated Indian Americans (who happen to be Muslim) who take pride in the achievements of Indian-American tech entrepreneurs or as marginalized Muslim Americans (who happen to be of Indian ancestry) who are outraged over the (alleged) mistreatment of Ahmed Mohamed, the high schooler with the store-bought clock? Will they see themselves as Pacers fans who favor an assault weapons ban yet who also feel strongly about cutting capital gains taxes or will they see themselves first and foremost as part of a global Islamic community that commands their political allegiance? These various possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive, to be sure, but if we’re trying to build a more cohesive national community, there is value in emphasizing some identities over others.

I understand why people find the argument that “if you don’t embrace our politically correct folk wisdom, you will have a terrible backlash on your hands” infuriating, as it sounds an awful lot like a kidnapper demanding ransom. Yet the way we frame the Muslim integration challenge really can shape how successful we’ll be at meeting it. I would argue that the integration of Muslim immigrants and their children is best understood as a subset of a much larger integration challenge. Our current immigration policy doesn’t lend itself to the economic and civic integration we need to build a more cohesive and peaceful society, whether for Muslim immigrants or non-Muslim immigrants. I would argue that this is the central issue we face, and by focusing narrowly on Muslims, we risk turning a debate that should be about the importance of social cohesion into a debate about religious bigotry. That is not the right ground on which to fight. 


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