By Moustafa Bayoumi
Special registration was useful only as a tool to disrupt average Muslim lives and spend a lot of money needlessly. Despite that, it’s probably coming back
Appearing on that most revered of presidential forums (also called YouTube), Donald Trump released a video this week describing his plans to “make America great again for everyone, and I mean everyone”. I’ve learned not to believe Trump’s magnanimous act, but others really want to.
Henry Kissinger told Fareed Zakaria on CNN that we should give Trump “an opportunity to develop the positive objectives that he may have”. And Barack Obama told an audience in Peru that he wants “to be respectful of the office and give the president-elect an opportunity to put forward his platform and his arguments without somebody popping off in every instance”.
Have you lost all sense of judgment? You and Kissinger talk as if we have no idea who Donald Trump is or what he has been saying for months on end. But Trump has made it abundantly clear – momentary, opportunistic words of inclusion notwithstanding – that his administration will be loyal to the far-right fringes of the United States, leaving even the Republican establishment running behind him.
Trump’s announced cabinet choices simply leave no room for imagining a kinder, gentler Donald at the helm of the USA. Those of us concerned about the fate of the undocumented or the environment or reproductive rights see much reason to worry with the selection of Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Mike Pompeo, and General Michael T Flynn to Trump’s inner circle. (This list reads like a roll call to the Dick Cheney fan club.) Among many other troubling things, all these men also share a deep antipathy to Islam.
General Flynn’s anti-Muslim views are as scary and they are well known. Trump’s pick for national security adviser has called Islam a “malignant cancer” and stated that “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind this notion of it being a religion”. (Note that Flynn is not talking about the “radical Islamic terrorists” that Republicans frequently invoke but about Islam itself.) Asked about Flynn’s views, current Republican National Committee chair and Trump’s designated chief of staff Reince Priebus told ABC News that “there are some aspects of the faith that are very problematic.”
I didn’t realize that Preibus was a scholar of Islam or perhaps even a mujaddid, a renewer of the faith who, according to popular Muslim tradition, comes to revive the practice of Islam for following generations. Or maybe he just said an ignorant thing that would sound bigoted if it were about another religion but today sounds like policy.
Preibus’s comments are troubling. Rather than enabling establishment Republicans as a moderating influence on the team, the Trump administration is pulling the traditional GOP down its own far-rightwing foxhole, giving less extreme Republicans about as much voice in this new administration as Clint Eastwood’s chair. Actually it’s worse. At least the chair had the good sense to stay quiet.
My worry extends beyond the realm of what this administration says and reaches into what it will do. Building a wall on the US-Mexico border is a near physical impossibility. The immediate deportation of millions of people is much harder to execute than it sounds. But the Muslim stuff? That can – and most likely will –happen.
Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, another anti-Muslim hardliner who is in the running for homeland security chief, recently met with Trump and wasphotographed holding his “Kobach Strategic Plan for First 365 Days” openly in his hands. (Quick! Nobody give this man the nuclear codes!) Plain for the world to see was the re-establishment of an old, useless program of the Bush administration officially called “NSEERS” and more commonly known as “special registration”.
I remember vividly the panic and confusion among the Muslims of New York City when special registration was first enacted in 2002. This program, which required non-immigrant visa holding men from 24 Muslim-majority countries and North Korea to register with the government, was a massive failure. Even the government’s own auditor found the program to be ineffective and a huge waste of resources. The cost to American taxpayers was more than $10m a year and the program alienated Muslims around the world from the United States. Families were torn apart because of special registration, and the brilliant program netted a grand total of zero terrorism prosecutions.
Special registration was useful only as a tool to disrupt average Muslim lives and to spend a lot of money needlessly. It served no security function. And yet, Trump is considering reviving it. Why? We can assume because it will make this government look like it’s doing something, on the backs of ordinary Muslims.
And then there’s this. Justifying a Muslim registry on Fox News, Trump surrogate Carl Higbie positively invoked Japanese internment as a legal precedent for the program. That heinous comparison led the New York Times to publish an op-ed by a Harvard law professor reassuring us that, even if the legal decision authorizing internment has never been overturned, we shouldn’t be worried because the judiciary now sees the legal justification for internment as “bad constitutional law”.
But that whole exercise is nuts. The question is not about the constitutionality of Japanese internment. The question is why the hell are we talking about Japanese internment anyway? Are we seriously working through the legal likelihood or unlikelihood of holding large numbers of completely innocent people in detention camps?
If racial hysteria led us down that road once before, who’s to say that today’s panic won’t lead us down a similarly treacherous path, with or without a 1944 legal precedent. It’s beginning to feel like we’re one major terrorist attack from martial law in this country, and the new administration hasn’t even taken office yet.
There’s a rightwing fiction in the US that is frequently promoted by the likes of Fox News and that had a major impact on this election. The notion is that in our contemporary, multicultural age, salt-of-the-earth white Americans don’t get theirs while every minority and special interest group gets extra privileges. The idea cultivates a mood of bitterness and suspicion, even if it’s fundamentally untrue. Many Americans honestly believe that Muslims are getting special privileges that some accept will lead to the imposition of Sharia law in this country.
But this is ludicrous. Muslims don’t want special privileges. We just want to be treated the same way that everyone else is treated. Instead, we’re going to get special registration. Hardly a fair trade.
We need more than assurances from Trump that he’s thinking about the whole country when he invokes “everyone”. We need to know that equality under the law will be guaranteed under his administration. In fact, what we really need to be doing is proving to all Americans that everyone deserves to be treated equally while acknowledging all of our differences, and that that’s the kind of equality that makes for a better, stronger society.
But until that day comes, every one of us needs to be popping off while we can, because if we don’t, there may come a time when popping off is not just useless but illegal. Pop everywhere you can, whenever you can. Pop all afternoon and evening. Pop all day and night. Pop with friends and strangers. Pop till you drop, because nothing right now is more important. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (Courtesy: The Guardian)