On Wednesday, Muslims in the United States and across the world witnessed one of their worst nightmares jump out of the imagination and into reality. News outlets reported that Donald Trump, in the next few days, would sign an executive order that would bar the issuing of visas, and in some cases worse, for citizens in countries including Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. The U.S. is bombing five of these countries. The Islamic Monthly spoke with The Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain about this executive order, its precedents and what Muslims can do to fight back.
Interview by Davide Mastracci
TIM: We’ve been hearing a lot of news about this executive order from Trump, but what does it actually mean? There have been a lot of different headlines on the executive order thrown around. Are they a bit sensational?
MH: This is only the first stage of a broader crackdown on immigrants and refugees generally, and in particular Muslims and undocumented people from Latin America. Refugees are very logical initial targets because they’re low-hanging fruit. They cannot defend themselves. They’re not politically organized. They’re the most vulnerable people in society. So, by starting the process of cracking down with [refugees], [the Trump administration] is just taking the first initial step in a broader strategy that they’ve been very open about. What I think we’ll see now is escalated repression and escalated targeting of minorities, Muslims and Latinos in particular.
TIM: What will this first step, the executive order, mean in practice? What will the concrete effects be?
MH: There’s a draft executive order which was leaked [on Wednesday] and is expected to be filed and signed by Trump [on Thursday]. It has a four-month ban on all refugee resettlement in the United States completely, and an indefinite ban on Syrians in particular. It also has a 30-day ban on the issuing of any visas, immigrant or non-immigrant, to a non-disclosed list of countries. If you read the text, it’s clearly referring to Muslim countries. It’s referring, in pretty bigoted language, to “countries where murderous or violent religious edicts are more important than law” or something like that. It’s basically halting all immigration for 30 days, all refugees for four months, and then Syrians forever.
The thing you have to understand is that when he says these day numbers, it sounds sort of moderate. Like, “You know, we’re just going to pause for a while and re-evaluate,” but by doing that, you set the process back years. It can take someone a few years to be cleared as a refugee, and then if you make them wait 120 days after they’ve been cleared, their vetting may expire. It doesn’t last forever. It expires after a certain date. If it expires, you go all the way back to the back of the line. So really what he’s doing is tagging refugee applications for years and years. People who have waited a long time and have already been thoroughly checked out, he’s just tagging their prospects.
Separate to that, he is building a list of Muslims who aren’t going to be allowed here anyways, whether they’re refugees or not. That’s what’s happening right now, and I think we’re just at the beginning of this process.
TIM: This sounds like a way to use technicalities to continuously prevent any refugees from coming to the United States. Is that accurate?
MH: Yeah, exactly. They know the system very well and know how to manipulate it in such a way that they can effectively ban people from the country without saying it explicitly. Refugees are only one aspect of it. They’re only the most vulnerable, and the most visible aspect. You can also see in the verbiage that there will be loopholes created to allow non-Muslim minorities from Muslim-majority countries to come to the United States. This is really a policy to stop Muslims specifically from coming to the United States.
One of the most troubling aspects of this is that it reflects the legal codification of the worldview of anti-Muslim conspiracists. If you read the bill, it’s crazy. It’s talking about people who oppress women, commit violent acts in the name of religion, that they should be banned; in reference to Muslims. This is just elevating the worldview of anti-Muslim groups into official government policy. I think that’s very chilling. This should not be taken lightly because it’s only day three of the administration. This is where they’re starting.
I think that anyone who isn’t alarmed by this is deeply misguided. If, without any pressure, this is what the administration is doing, then imagine what they’re going to do when there is a terrorist attack or a foreign conflict. Imagine what measures they’ll take then when they are pressured. They’ve clearly indicated they’re not hesitant at all about being discriminatory or draconian, and I think that should be chilling for anybody that cares about the status of minorities in America, or American democracy in general.
TIM: What do you think are Trump’s next steps on this path? Do you think he’ll be able to take them once he focuses on people other than refugees?
MH: Absolutely. Look, there’s already a precedent for banning or impacting people’s ability to come to the United States because of the passports they hold and their country of origin. There’s something that the U.S. has with a number of countries in Europe called the visa-waiver program, so basically visa reciprocity. Say you’re a French citizen; you don’t need to get a visa to come to the United States, you can just come.
What they did last year is change that program to impact people based on country of origin. Let’s say you’re born and raised in France, but your father was Iranian. In Iran, and in many countries around the world, your citizen is hereditary. So whether you have a passport or not, or even if you’ve never been to Iran, you are still considered an Iranian citizen. As an Iranian, it’s very hard to come to the United States, nearly impossible. And now, under the new regime, it’s literally impossible. You will be banned from the United States.
That just shows you that starting with refugees and people who are citizens of those countries, you just tweak a few things and it could be extremely broad. Country of origin impacts a lot of people. I’m of Pakistani origin, so if they tweak the rules to say, “Well, it’s based on your country of origin now,” then I would effectively be treated as a Pakistani citizen would for purposes of entering the country.
TIM: How much of the executive order has precedent? How much of it is already being done in practical terms? Some people say a lot of this is already being done in the U.S. even if it’s not labeled as such. Would you say that’s accurate, or is this turning a new page?
MH: Everyone knows the U.S. already had, in many ways, a very harsh and problematic immigration policy. The thing is, it can all get worse. It’s going to get broader, it’s going to get harsher, it’s going to get much less humane, it’s going to impact a larger number of people in worse ways. But you’re also legislating bigotry into the law of the country. It has toxic social effects.
When you start setting precedent that way, someone can rightly say “Well, the government is racist.” Average people and local sub governments have a license to go even further. So I argue it legitimizes bigotry at the federal level, and state level, and local level. Anyone who thinks that the government taking this line is the same as business as usual is not being very responsible.
TIM: Will this enable further Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. because it normalizes the hatred that we’ve seen before at the fringes?
MH: Absolutely. The people who were at the fringes not long ago are now literally in the White House. There’s a Muslim Brotherhood law that is being proposed right now that is going to legitimize a future witch hunt against Muslim organizations. A lot of people are probably going to go to jail, a lot of offices are going to be shut down. A lot of people are going to be targeted and drummed outside of public life. Anyone who thinks this is business as usual is really, really, really not paying attention. I have many criticisms of the Obama administration. They made many errors and omissions. But this is totally not in the same ballpark at all. Hillary would have been bad too if she came to power, but is it the same, or comparable? No, it’s not.
TIM: What form should resistance take? How can the average American respond to these executive orders?
MH: First things first, people who are actually being affected, and I’ve spoken to a number of people, they have to come forward in the media. The whole reason some people think nothing is going on is because they are unable to point to specific cases of abuse. With more laws being passed, we need more people to come forward. I understand that people are scared because they [don’t] want to try to stir things up and impact their personal situation, but the only way things can get fixed is if people come forward with evidence of abuses.
Second, you need people to be vocal, and you need to protest, and you need to build bridges with other communities and groups that are also protesting. There was a huge march in D.C. and other cities last weekend, and it was extremely effective. You have to get ready to fight for the next four years, because the stakes are very high right now.
*Photo was cropped from original image: Flickr/Karl-Ludwig Poggemann