It shouldn’t have taken a new presidency to repeal the Muslim Ban.
Last week, the Muslim Ban ended with a signature and the rightful celebration of the many activists who worked tirelessly to repeal it. Amid the relief and triumph, however, I found myself staring pessimistically at the photos of President Biden at his desk. Activists and lawyers spent four years trying to repeal the ban. From court cases to demonstrations in airports, to countless critiques and analyses about its political futility and racism, civilians, politicians, and global allies fought to prevent the Muslim Ban.
And yet, like Trump’s signature wall, his administration succeeded in erecting the Muslim Ban as a monument to their xenophobia and discrimination. And, like so many of Trump’s policies, it took a new president to end it.
America has never had a strong record on Muslim rights. The rhetoric the Trump administration used to justify the Muslim ban, that Islam is antithetical to the US Constitution, that Islam hates America, that Islam is incompatible with the “West”, is older than the Civil War. From the nineteenth century, the Islamic world has been posed as America’s opponent and rival. When America passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which allowed bounty hunters to kidnap escaped slaves and return them to slavery, the abolitionists cried that America’s new creed was a parody of the Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no God but Slavery and the Compromise; and the Fugitive Slave Law is his Prophet.” In other words, abolitionists gave America’s darkest hour a Muslim face.
Even after Arab Christians won their right to be American citizens, Arab Muslims were denied theirs. In 1942, a Muslim Yemeni immigrant, Ahmad Hassan, lost his citizenship case when the judge ruled: “Apart from the dark skin of the Arabs, it is well known that they are a part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominantly Christian peoples of Europe.” Are we so surprised that less than a hundred years after that, people called President Barack Obama “Arab” and “Muslim” to discredit his Americanness? Are we so surprised that after eight years of “Obama is Muslim” fearmongering, the man partly responsible for starting those rumors about Obama would announce his plans for a Muslim Ban?
For centuries, hatred of Islam has been rhetorically ingrained in the American conscience.
For centuries, hatred of Islam has been rhetorically ingrained in the American conscience. Just as America’s fear of Islam didn’t begin with 9/11, it will not end with the Muslim Ban. The issue that should concern us is not that racist legislation passed against Muslims in this country — from states banning Sharia Law to the 2001 Patriot Act, that is the historical norm rather than the exception — the issue is that it was legitimized and maintained by a conservative minority in power who believe that the fight for civil rights in America is over.
America’s stance on civil and human rights should not shift according to the president in power. Our judiciary and legislature shouldn’t bow to a president’s prejudice, no matter how loudly his mob applauds. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” The tragedy of the Muslim ban was not that we learned there were racists and Islamophobes in the American government — we knew that already. The tragedy was that they had the power push their agenda and our democratic institutions did not stop them, but rather encouraged them. Even as so many took to the streets and to the courts demanding justice, so many others watched silently, approvingly on.
Muslims, both here in America and worldwide, will not forget this institutional silence in the face of uncontested racism and xenophobia. American Muslims, whose civil rights were already threatened by post 9/11 policies which allowed authorities to surveil mosques and gather intelligence from Muslim phone apps, were denied access to family members for four years. Even those relatively unaffected were forced to live with the knowledge that if they’d been born where their parents had, they may not have been allowed to call this country home.
Those of us who believe in the ideals of our constitution, that all people are created equal, that America should be a home for all regardless of race, religion, or creed, should take the ignominious end of the Muslim Ban as a launching point to ensure that even when our politicians are prejudiced, their prejudice must not make it into legislation. We must enshrine in our institutions the values of equality and egalitarianism we preach to the rest of the world. Telling your Congressional representatives to support the No Ban Act, an upcoming immigration bill, is the first step to protecting the rights of immigrants and refugees through legislation.
While legislating civil rights into our democratic institutions can safeguard minority communities from discriminatory policies, we have a far longer, more difficult task of cultural education before us. America must reckon with its history of Islamophobia to fight the fear and prejudice that created the Muslim Ban. Only then can we truly say that the Muslim Ban is behind us.
It shouldn’t have taken a new presidency to repeal the Muslim Ban, and we must make sure that a new presidency doesn’t have the legislative authority, nor the cultural capital, to start another one.
Zaina Ujayli recently graduated as an English MA from the University of Virginia. Her research explores nineteenth and twentieth century literature about and by Arab and Arab Americans, as well as transatlantic and diaspora literature more generally. Currently, she works with a nonprofit documenting human rights violations in Syria.