* Published in South China Morning Post on 5 February, 2017.
Barely two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, American society seems to have imploded with large protests against a series of executive orders issued by the White House. Among them – and one that riled not only Americans but caused uproar across the world – was the immigration ban against seven Muslim-majority countries.
The ban may be temporary – with the exception of Syria – but its ramifications are extensive and severe. Valid visa and green card holders were turned away from US-bound flights or detained at airports. Refugees fleeing war-zones have been left with no recourse. Although the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, has denied Trump’s executive order constitutes a ‘Muslim ban’, it is clear the primary targets are Muslims – security threats in the minds of the US administration.
Several commentators have suggested this is playing into the hands of the Muslim terrorists Trump is purportedly fighting against. Republican Senator John McCain even warned that “the effect will probably, in some areas, give [Islamic State] more propaganda”. In other words, Trump may have validated the extremist narrative that the United States is the enemy of Muslims and that the West as a whole is ultimately anti-Islam.
Ironically, the extremists’ narrative has much in common with that of their right-wing counterparts in the US that is fuelling much of the Islamophobia in American society. Both offer neat and dichotomous world views of “us versus them”.
This is a closed style of thinking that latches onto stereotypical generalisations of ‘the other’. It eschews nuances and ambiguities of a necessarily complex reality. Trump’s vision of America’s greatness lies in crafting an enemy that is out to harm the nation in the form of Muslims who pose terror threats.
Recent protests, however, provide a sliver of hope. The unprecedented outpouring of Western support for Muslims, particularly from the liberal segment of the American population, is particularly interesting.
First, it complicates the extremist narrative of a monolithic West that is necessarily anti-Islam. While extremists will use Trump’s executive order against the seven Muslim-majority countries as proof of America’s bullying of Muslims, the protests show the willingness of large segments of the American public to defend and protect Muslim fellow citizens affected by the travel ban while calling for hospitable treatment of refugees.
Second, while the election of Trump had been touted as a serious flaw in American democracy, the protests show otherwise: the unveiling of a functioning democracy that goes beyond procedural politics.
Real democracy is not measured by mere electoral process but by the active participation of civil society in the educative process of fellow citizens.
This includes institutional guarantees and support – whether through the Constitution, laws or media – for public expressions of hope and grievances and honest, rigorous debate. The fear, however, is that even these guarantees are at risk of being eroded. The sacking of an openly defiant attorney general, Sally Yates, and Trump’s “war with the media”, may be signs of things to come.
More significantly, the protests hold important lessons for Muslims. The motivations for the protests may be varied, intersecting with various progressive causes such as feminism, anti-racism and LGBT rights. But certainly, they are also a reaction against the long-standing issue of Islamophobia, which is becoming an acute problem not only in the US but in Europe as well. In other words, the protesters are able to transcend single-issue activism to a wider progressive cause of anti-discrimination, pro-equality and freedom of religion.
The solidarity shown to Muslims in the West, therefore, is laudable. But a question remains: will large segments of the Muslim population do the same for other minorities who are suffering discrimination, persecution and the violation of their rights?
The Pew Research Centre’s 2016 report on Trends in Global Restrictions on Religion shows that countries with very high government restrictions on religion are largely Muslim-majority countries. These countries continue to commit grave human rights violations against minorities by state and non-state actors.
But what is missing is the kind of public outcry against the kinds of violations we are currently seeing: non-Muslims coming out in protest against the discrimination and unfair treatment of minority Muslim communities in the West.
Muslim leaders and clerics have made their stance loud and clear in rejecting and condemning spectacular acts of violence, such as terrorist attacks that target non-Muslims in particular. But their voices must also be equally loud and clear in speaking up for minority rights and protections, including those of religious, non-religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.
A deafening silence will only add to the perception that Muslims are paying lip-service to democratic and liberal values when their rights are trampled upon, but not when the rights of others are threatened.
Consistency is key. And hypocrisy should not be allowed to persist – particularly so in today’s world, where our destinies are interlocked. The world is currently divided not along religious lines – whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or anything else – but on ideological strands such as conservative, liberal, traditional, fundamentalist or progressive.
But here’s a denominator that can transcend these ideological divides: commitment to the common good, equal citizenship and social justice. In a pluralistic society, difference is not to be obliterated but to be engaged with robustly, ending with an agreement to disagree, respectfully. The famous dictum attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, may not be far from the Koranic call for Muslims to “stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor: for God can best protect both”.
This is, perhaps, what Muslims can learn from the present protests in solidarity with the Muslim immigrant minority. See this as a pay it forward.