call to actionNovember 21, 2016
As the nation comes to grips with the election of Donald J. Trump as POTUS, a specter looms over Muslim Americans’ heads—that of the Muslim registry he’s promised. The Trump campaign, and now administration, have touted this as a means to fight terrorism, even as politicians and human rights and Muslim groups have called such a plan nothing short of religious discrimination.
This issue isn’t really about terrorism, and it’s not entirely about religion either. The fact is, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are people of color, and racism is just as much a factor in the targeting of Muslims as religious bigotry. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have people targeting Sikh Americans, mistaking them for Muslims. This is important to note because while Muslims can hide their religion, we cannot hide what we look like. And what we look like is not White.
If we are to stop this bigotry and racism, we must take this issue seriously. Trump repeated his promise to register Muslims almost exactly a year ago; statements now denying it don’t mean much, especially considering continued rhetoric suggesting anti-Muslim regulations are on the table.
The latest plan seems to be to limit the entry of Muslims by restricting immigration from regions of the world where they make up a large share of the population. A recent survey on the Trump-Pence website about what to focus on during the administration’s first 100 days in office included this initiative: “Suspend immigration from regions compromised by terrorism and where vetting cannot safely occur.” And just yesterday, chief of staff Reince Priebus said that residents of certain countries may be barred from entering the U.S.
Meanwhile, Trump’s prominent backers are citing the internment of Japanese-Americans at concentration camps across the United States during World War II as “precedent” for requiring Muslim-Americans to register. And yesterday, Priebus said explicitly of a Muslim registry, “We’re not going to rule anything out.”
President-elect Trump’s recent appointments to his cabinet make it even clearer the kind of policies he will pursue. He’s already appointed Jeff Sessions, a proven racist, as Attorney General. His main strategist Steve Bannon‘s neo-fascist background is well-known. And now he’s asked Retired General Mike Flynn to be his national security advisor. This is what Gen. Flynn had to say about Muslims less than a year ago:
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions… https://t.co/NLIfKFD9lU
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) February 27, 2016
In the face of all this, many non-Muslims have vowed to register with us if Trump’s plan comes to fruition. This is admirable, and Muslims appreciate each and every non-Muslim who has promised to work to ensure our safety. But in all likelihood, this action is not going to fix the problem, as others have astutely pointed out as well.
To understand how a registry could play out, it’s instructive to look at one that’s already existed: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS. This initiative was established after 9/11 to protect non-Muslims from terrorism by requiring nationals of Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria to be registered at the port of entry, fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. It also required around 80,000 non-citizen men and boys—almost all Muslim and/or Arab—to register in person and subsequently be monitored. Of the 25 countries that had their immigrants targeted, only one wasn’t Muslim-majority—North Korea.
In the end, though, as CNN reports, the initiative didn’t result in a single terrorism conviction. And as the American Civil Liberties Union put it, NSEERS “actually made genuine efforts at trying to combat terrorism more difficult by destroying relationships with immigrant communities and actually negatively impacting the ability of the federal government to cooperate with foreign governments in fighting terrorism.”
Rather than combatting terrorism, the initiative just targeted and hurt Muslim communities. In fact, more than 13,000 of those who registered were placed in deportation proceedings.
NSEERS was finally suspended in 2011 by the Obama administration after a decade of legal challenges and outcry from communities of color. However, President Obama didn’t dismantle the program entirely; he only removed the 25 countries from the list. As CNN reports, the structure to carry out NSEERS is still in place and there is every indication that the Trump administration will revive it.
NSEERS doesn’t just offer a precedent for what the government can do to Muslims; it also illustrates how Muslim allies have responded to such measures. There isn’t a record of a single non-Muslim who deliberately signed up for NSEERS. And it’s likely that even if non-Muslims did dilute the numbers by signing up for NSEERs, new programs to target Muslims simply would have been established in its place.
There are also legitimate reasons why it might be difficult for non-Muslims to register for a Trump-era list, even if they’d like to. A registry may, for instance, only target first-generation immigrant Muslims, meaning American-born allies wouldn’t be able sign up (63% of American-Muslims are first generation immigrants).
It’s also possible that an initiative wouldn’t require physical registration at all. The unchecked powers and information-gathering of the NSA and other domestic spy agencies mean it’s possible for the government to use existing digital data to create a registry that might include most of us automatically. The government didn’t ask people to come register for the no-fly list, and yet thousands of Muslim-Americans are on it, including 7-month-old infants.
If a registry is established, in other words, it seems unlikely that non-Muslims will be able to do much to thwart it.
This does not mean that we don’t appreciate or need your support on this. But the way to fight back is not by touting future allyship; it’s by nipping such measures in the bud immediately.
How? We need to pressure representatives and senators from both parties directly to get concrete guarantees from the future administration that such a list would never be created. We can work toward getting a vow from President Trump that a registry will never be put on the table and that the people proposing it (or using the internment of Japanese-Americans as precedent) will not be part of the Trump administration. The president-elect must personally come forward and publicly refute this plan because as many legal experts have pointed out, such a registry won’t be against the law.
Some GOP leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan, have publicly opposed Trump’s bigotry and his proposals to create religion tests and registries in the past year. Our allies would be wise to join us in enlisting the help of elected officials who are crucial to ensuring a Trump administration never put forward a Muslim registry.
If such a guarantee cannot be extracted from Trump, and if we fail to persuade elected officials to get on our side to shelve this plan, our allies must join us in an on-the-ground fight. This point is critical: You must be prepared to show up if need be to take direct action, including participation in protests and sit-ins.
Muslims only make up about 1% of the U.S. population. We’re a tiny minority in this land, and our survival depends on those who support our rights as we support theirs. Many of us come from countries where we’ve witnessed ethnic cleansing (myself included), and what’s happening in the U.S. feels eerily similar.
This measure is another step in the dehumanization of Muslims. The process started years ago; September 11 only accelerated it. Any registry will just contribute to the dangerous perception that Muslims aren’t really American or are dangerous to the nation.
We are painted as lesser beings who are actively engaged in hurting the country. This is how the groundwork for ethnic cleansing and genocide is laid out. You are first dehumanized to the point where your life loses all importance. Then when you are turned into the enemy responsible for everyone’s misery, your neighbors see nothing wrong with murdering you and trampling your body. The same people you called friends won’t flinch when the government places you in concentration camps on your own soil. And in the most extreme cases, you might find yourself in a gas chamber.
If Muslim-Americans and Muslims in America are to stop being terrified and to feel safe in this country, we need all the assistance we can get. If our dehumanization is to cease, then the Muslim registry must never become a reality.
Vowing to register for a potential registry down the road isn’t the ideal solution. But there are ways you can help—and you can start right now.