By Nesrine Malik
29 January 2017
Within minutes of Donald Trump signing his executive order banning the entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, the horror stories started coming through. Sudanese friends and relatives, some of whom had lived their entire lives in the United States, some who were in the air as the order was signed, found themselves prevented from entering the country.
Some were turned back from boarding their flights; others were handcuffed in airports, patted down and interrogated on their political beliefs. Mothers, fathers, children, students, employees suddenly found that the unthinkable had happened. They had been banned from returning to their jobs and studies, to their families and homes because they were Muslims.
The thought was almost too evil, too grotesque, to countenance. The hours after the ban felt like living through a chapter of history that we’d left behind. Events unfolded the likes of which we had only ever seen in documentaries, in fragments of newsreels from the archives. Travellers in tears, stern officers “just following orders”, refugees on the cusp of safe harbour wild with despair at the uncertain fate to which they must return, confused children huddled behind their parents as they plead with authorities, their faces speaking of fear, confusion and the sense that something is about to change forever.
And something has. The Islamophobia that we have witnessed rise over the past decade has finally burst its banks. The first thought was that surely common sense would prevail, surely there would be some grace period, surely there would eventually be a challenge from some sensible authority that would stop the madness. None of these things came to pass.
And then there was the personal body blow. I now cannot travel to the US, a country I visit frequently and in which I have work interests, close family and dear friends. It is a curious feeling, a new feeling. One that collapses space-time and connects you to all those before you who have found themselves on the ugly end of a collective insanity. It is a feeling that rocks the very ground on which you thought we all stood.
Suddenly, all certainties look shaky. Residencies, passports, green cards, jobs, mortgages, friends, marriages – all the things you thought fortified you against the mobilisation of state machinery – dissolve. You are only a Muslim. And what does that mean? It is a tag that defies definition, becoming more elusive the more you try to pin it down. I was reminded of a scene from a dramatisation of Roots author Alex Haley’s life, when he, dressed proudly in his US Coast Guard uniform and sporting his medals, confidently asks for a hotel room for the night for him and his wife. When he is refused one for being black, he returns to his car enraged – not at those who denied him but at himself for thinking he was exempt. “All they saw was a monkey.”
The arbitrariness of the ban is brazen. No Sudanese citizen has ever perpetrated an attack in the US. But Sudan is poor and has no strategic importance to Trump. It also has a majority-Muslim population – one that has suffered for years under a dictatorial regime that recklessly landed the country on a terror watch list some 20 years ago. Incidentally, Sudan is also a country that Barack Obama lifted sanctions from before he left office. This wasn’t even a proper Muslims ban. It was a Muslims-we-can-afford-to-cross ban. A ban that throws Muslims to the baying crowds that voted for Trump – but only the most vulnerable ones.
The entire premise of the executive order – that it would facilitate more thorough checks on those entering the US – is a lie. Applying for a US visa from any of the seven countries is already an exercise in extreme vetting. Following a mandatory interview, applications sometimes languish for months in “administrative processing”, a euphemism for an exhaustive investigation of information that extends to your entire academic and professional history. This is often followed up by “secondary processing” at US ports where an unfortunate match on a name or a typo on an application can condemn one to hours in a room that, it seemed to me, is overwhelmingly populated by Muslims.
This did not start with Trump; it’s something that is only reaching its climax. For years, as people warned against the mainstreaming of Islamophobia, they were met with equivocation. “Islam is not a race”, “we are criticising Islam, not Muslims”, “we condemn all religion, not just Islam”. Mosques were attacked, women were spat on and had their Hijabs snatched from their heads. Western media, led by the British tabloid press, established an industry of hysteria against Muslims with fake news. The Niqab and its banning commanded hours of debate in European parliaments.
All the while Muslims repeatedly hit the panic button and were told that they needed to stop overreacting and being so precious. Right-wingers exploited Islamophobia to channel anti-immigration hatred, and liberalism took refuge in intellectual handwringing and posturing over prophet cartoons and freedom of speech and women’s rights, unable to ally itself with what it perceived to be a backward Muslim tradition, and failing to understand that the danger to everything the west stands for is not from Islamic extremism but from the response to it.
“We’re liberals!” boasted the renowned US talk-show host Bill Maher about himself and his partner in muscular atheism, the secularist philosopher Sam Harris. “We’re trying to stand up for the principles of liberalism! And so, y’know, I think we’re just saying we need to identify illiberalism wherever we find it in the world, and not forgive it because it comes from [a group of] people perceive as a minority.” But he was merely setting up the straw man to knock it down. No one was asking for forgiveness, merely an understanding that collective condemnation of a people via attacking their religion meant collective punishment.
And here we are. It unfolded before our eyes and yet many still could not see it coming. It became apparent that people would pay attention only if something terrible happened, and by then it might be too late. Now something terrible has happened, but it can and will get worse. If the past seven days have taught us anything, it is that events that seem to happen overnight are actually the climax of years of complacency.
Yet still we see that complacency in the form of Theresa May – whom we are told can be a restraining influence – literally hand in hand with Trump just before he signed an order that condemned millions to pariah status for nothing other than an accident of birth. Even as it emerged that British passport holders were subject to the ban, May had nothing to say other than that it was a matter for the US to determine. Only when pressed in the face of mounting anger did she state that she did not “agree” with the ban, as if it were a matter of opinion. This appeasement, this stale, morally bankrupt logic of pragmatism is what continues to render the unimaginable possible.
It is heartening to see lawyers, protesters and federal judges move to support and block the ban, but let us not only scramble at the 11th hour to fight the results of bigotry, let us fight the root causes. We now see, in the most graphic of ways, where failure to do that inevitably leads.