By now, much ink has been spilled in rightful condemnation of Donald Trump’s call on Monday for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The New York Daily News ran an extraordinary cartoon on its front page showing Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty; preachers and politicians of all stripes have rejected it; and thousands upon thousands of people are tweeting #WeAreBetterThanThis. Indeed, even Dick Cheney has said the proposal “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”
It’s tempting to think of the proposal to exclude Muslims from the United States, and the related bigotry more generally, as an aberration in American policy. But this would be wrong— and a dangerous mistake.
The issue of barring Muslims from entering the country is part of a 200-year continuum of structural racism and repression that runs from subtle discrimination to lethal violence to national policy. As Professor Khaled Beydoun points out, we have been here before. He reminds us that the Nationalization Act, which was on the books from 1790 to 1952, made the citizenship of Muslims illegal because Islam was viewed as being “irreconcilable with whiteness,” which was a precondition for citizenship. And the National Origins Act of 1924 had strict quotas limiting the entry of people from Asian countries that were Muslim majority.
Currently, threats, harassment, vandalism, and violence against Muslim Americans are on the rise. Muslim schoolchildren are now routinely bullied, taunted by classmates who equate them with terrorists. The hate-laced messages that often accompany these acts are wildly popular among more than a few Americans.
The threats and violence against Muslims, however, are also fueled by government policies that rest on the same underlying prejudice, namely that all Muslims are somehow suspect and that it is rational, indeed necessary, to treat them differently.
Beginning in 2002, the NYPD systematically spied on Muslim communities in New York, New Jersey, and beyond. Its Demographic Unit produced not a single lead to terrorist activity in the decade it was in operation. In a lawsuit with Muslim Advocates, we are challenging the NYPD’s program of suspicionless surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey. There is virtually no aspect of community life that the NYPD did not have under surveillance – from mosques and student associations to halal butcher shops, restaurants, and private citizens, and even a grade school for girls.
Is it really any wonder that Muslim schoolgirls are harassed and called terrorists by their classmates when the NYPD surveils them? Is it surprising that mosques get vandalized, or that a presidential candidate calls for closing them, when the police are routinely infiltrating them?
Going back just a few years, in the wake of 9/11, high-level Bush administration officials ordered sweeps of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians. Former Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the INS and FBI to search for individuals with ties to terrorism by, among other means, looking for Muslim-sounding names in the phonebook. Our clients, who the government later determined had no ties to terrorism, ended up detained, abused, and deported based on religious profiling. In a rare win for accountability, this past June, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals allowed our claims against the high-level officials in our case Turkmen v. Ashcroft to go forward, and today, the full circuit rejected the government’s request to have the case reheard en banc.
We cannot separate government policies that treat entire Muslim communities as worthy of suspicion from opportunistic calls for further discrimination against Muslims from any part of the political spectrum; nor can we deny that the popularity of such calls is based in part on the legitimization of Muslim profiling in government policy.
Our case against the NYPD, Hassan v. City of New York, was recently reinstated by a federal appeals court. The court’s opinion should give us pause:
What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight — that “[l]oyalty is a matter of the heart and mind[,] not race, creed, or color.”
It is the fact that we have indeed “been down similar roads before” that should most shake us from any temptation to believe that we are inherently “better than this.” Historically, we have been both better than this and worse than this. And so what we will be in this moment, responding to the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S., depends entirely on us.