Faith and History Demand Better of Us

Thursday, January 26, 2017 - 4:50 pm

Faith and History Demand Better of Us

It’s really happening.

Prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, some were saying that perhaps his posturing during the campaign was a tactic to get elected, and that once he had assumed the office of the president we would see a different, more presidential, Trump. We were told to “give him a chance.”

Less than a week into the Trump presidency, and that naïveté seems vastly unwarranted. Trump has already signed a number of execution orders on topics ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to abortion. And now, we hear about a new executive order that would ban refugees from seven different Muslim majority countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) from entering the United States. 

We in America often fancy ourselves as a nation of immigrants. The truth of the matter is, of course, more complicated, because we are also a nation of indigenous people whose land was occupied and who have been systematically dispossessed. We are also a nation of stolen human beings, enslaved, who came to this country (before we were a country) not as immigrants, but in bondage on thousands of slave ships. But, yes, we are also a nation of immigrants and refugees.

When we betray refugees, we also betray the promise of America.

Here are a few comments on Trump’s executive order on banning Muslim refugees.

It is opposed to Biblical and Qur’anic values of compassion, hospitality, and concern for the weak and vulnerable.

Time and time again, the Bible and the Qur’an tell us to treat strangers and refugees with kindness and tenderness because we ourselves were once strangers.   

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Exodus 23:9

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Deuteronomy 10:19

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13:2

It is righteousness — to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity… — Qur’an 2:177

And let us remember that Muhammad himself was a refugee, fleeing pagan persecution, and that he sent his own followers to Abyssinia as refugees. Let us remember that Jesus and the Virgin were once Middle Eastern refugees, fleeing oppression of an empire.   

The ban on refugees betrays the highest aspiration of the American ideal.

Somewhere we read the promise of America to refugees and immigrants:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We remember that in the poem by Emma Lazarus, Lady Liberty is called “Mother of Exiles”:

“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.”

We know that our liberty is tied to providing care for the Exiles, for refugees. When we betray the refugees, we betray our own ideals of liberty. When we turn our back on refugees, we betray America’s promise.

Lazarus was worried about the condition of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, and we are worried about the refugees fleeing the Middle East. We are worried because we see millions of refugees fleeing lands where their ancestors planted trees and where their grandparents are buried. We know that these refugees are not terrorists — they are the victims of terrorists. And we will not terrorize them again by treating the victims of terrorists as terrorists.  

We remember seeing this promise written onto the foundation of the Statue of Liberty. John F. Kennedy quoted it in his speeches on immigration, as did President Obama.

Yes, we know our history. We know about the white-supremacist attitude that defined full citizenship as belonging to “free white men” in 1790, excluding indigenous people, women, African Americans, and others. This racism was legal, it was law, and it was enforced.

We know the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. We know about the racist laws that barred “undesirables” from Asian backgrounds in the Asiatic Barred Zones Act of 1917. We know about the Immigration Act of 1924 that was designed to preserve the whiteness of America, and we know about us shutting our doors to Jewish refugees in World War II. We know about the history of the structural system of white privilege, and the systematic marginalization of people of color. But somehow we have to become better, wiser, more just, more inclusive.

What else do these seven countries have in common?  Every single one of them has been the victim of violent American interventions, from war to coups.    How cruel for us to bomb them, occupy them, and overthrow their governments—and then insist that the victims of this intervention do not have the right to seek shelter in our county.

How else can we say this more clearly? To shut our doors in the face of someone not on the basis of anything they have done but on the basis of their origin is the very reality of prejudice and discrimination. This is what racism and bigotry look like. This has been the ugliest part of our past, and we have to be better than that today.

The refugee ban does nothing to keep us safer.

Of the few thousand refugees who are taken into America, there is no evidence that they have posed a danger. We in America have faced much greater danger from the white-supremacist, neo-Nazi, KKK type of domestic terrorism than we ever have from jihadists.   

It’s worth reading this paragraph from The Economist that identifies the rigorous process of vetting that refugees already have to go through before entering the United States:

In addition to concerns about the cost of resettling destitute newcomers who speak little English, America is deterred by fears of terrorism. Since the attacks on September 11th 2001 all immigrants and newcomers have been viewed through this lens, says Eva Millona at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. And the much more extensive vetting procedures of refugees introduced after those attacks are expensive.

After refugees are referred by an American embassy or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, they are screened by Department of State Resettlement Service Centers all over the world. They undergo multiple investigations of their biographies; biometric checks of their fingerprints and photographs; in-depth interviews by highly trained Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings as well as investigations by the National Counterterrorism Center and by intelligence agencies. The entire process can take longer than three years. 

No, the Muslim ban is more about bigotry than security, as Juan Cole stated. Indeed, the more dire threat America faces is from right-wing, white-nationalist militants, but Trump is not going to turn against the forces of white privilege that helped him get to office.

The Muslim ban is not even consistent.

When we see draconian, unjust rulings being applied to blocs of humanity on the basis of their ethnicity and nationality, we should oppose them because they are unjust and immoral. It is not our intent to apply unjust laws to more and more people. It’s useful, however, to point out the selective nature and absurdities of these laws.

If the argument is that some of the refugees might have terrorist backgrounds, a legitimate question is why the law is not being applied to Saudis and Egyptians, to people from UAE and Lebanon, given that the terrorists who committed the atrocities of 9/11 came from these backgrounds. Could it be that the United States has puppet regimes in these two countries, with significant oil interests (in Saudi Arabia) and political interests (both in Saudi Arabia and Egypt)?

This is what fear-mongering looks like.

We have to be better. Our faith, our history, and the highest aspirations of our own country demand it.

Let me end with a poem of solidarity from the amazing ally of Muslims, the lovely Christian theologian Larycia Alaine Hawkins:  

You ban Muslims,
I am a hijabi
You block refugees,
I am a sanctuary
You close the borders,
I am a gate
You mock disabled bodies,
I am a ramp
You colonize Native land,
I am a raging river
You militarize my Chicago,
I am a plowshare
You rape the earth,
I am a lily of the field
You deprive the sick,
I am a hospital
You peddle propaganda,
I am a prophet
You play religion,
I am a truth seeker
You color blind,
I am every tribe
You denigrate the world,
I am all nations

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Marie Keegan

    Thank you Omid – you have put so beautifully what I have been reflecting all week. As you point out, all of us are called to be committed to those who experience poverty, marginalisation, those on the margins etc. But to target those who have been so crucified by the ravages of war due to the decisions made by others, is appalling. To think, that this targeting is being orchestrated by the President of the United States… I’m silenced by shock and utter dismay! To all my Muslim sisters and brothers “Cead Mile Failte” – you are welcome; I am in solidarity with you because we are all responsible for all.

  • Leaf Seligman

    Thank you for such a clear, wise calibration of truthfulness and dignity amid the din of untethered fear and bigotry masquerading as public policy.

  • LenMinNJ

    Sixteen countries forbid admission [much less immigration – LM] to Israeli passport holders:

    Saudi Arabia
    United Arab Emirates

    In addition, Iran, Kuwait Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen do not allow entry to people with evidence of travel to Israel, or whose passports have either a used or an unused Israeli visa. As a consequence, many countries will allow for a second passport to be issued to citizens wishing to circumvent this restriction although the Israeli immigration services themselves have now mostly ceased to issue entry or exit stamps to foreign nationals.

    [Source: Wikipedia –

  • valencia

    Today I joined some of my pink hat suburban moms ( we were all on a bus to DC a week ago) to join in the protest at our Detroit international terminal . We had a warm reception by the security staff, we cooperated, and welcomed loudly honking passing cars and parking deck viewers. There were 5 locations at the airport as we chanted against the ban, the wall, and many of the above statements about welcoming the refugee, seeing dignity of the stranger. Welcoming with grace and love is what really makes America great. On my poster was encouragement of some of the same words in Omid’s passage here. I want to also share that the diverse crowd was KIND, polite, and some of the most touching moments when the WE was in congregation, one thanking one of another heritage or creed for standing up and for coming out on a cold day to show that America’s heart is not three times too small.

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