Thanks to my friend Louise Hung, I’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about the commonalities between the Chinese Exclusion Act — and other anti-Asian sentiment from the 1800s and early 1900s — and the current persecution of refugees in the United States. There are some really disturbing parallels between the two that more people should be talking about, because history is doomed to repeat itself, and so on and so forth.
It was really 11 September that turned the tide in the United States for the Muslim community in some ways. While the fear, hatred, and distrust of ‘the other’ was always a looming issue, particularly after the First Gulf War, this brought upon a vicious, hateful, dark era. Muslims were no longer just outsiders, but the enemy — and as we made war in the Middle East, that was iterated again and again and again.
The very fact that people could whip up a conspiracy suggesting the President of the United States was Muslim and this was supposed to be some kind of black mark against him was a telling testimony to the way Americans view Muslims and Islam. During the 2016 election, as rhetoric ramped up, it got even worse, positioning the Muslim community as a huge target, and nothing since has changed that. The Muslim community is being slowly but steadily demonised, with markers of Muslim identity treated as dangerous red flags — and grounds for persecuting Muslim-Americans.
It comes in the form of bizarre bans on personal electronic devices in the cabin on flights from select Middle Eastern destinations. It comes in a crackdown that keeps desperate refugees out of the United States on the basis of their faith. It comes in an attempt at an immigration ban that very clearly targeted Muslims — so much so that the administration even admitted it, something that proved to be the ban’s downfall in court.
This wasn’t just about keeping Muslims out, but about positioning them as people who need to be kept out. And it reminds me of the rhetoric and tactics of the 1800s, when the United States vehemently pushed back on Asian immigration to the point of passing laws to keep the Chinese community out of the United States. Those moves created legacies that endure today, though some are loath to admit it — anti-Asian racism has even shaped the very industries that people most closely associate with Chinese-Americans, for example. Laundries and restaurants, right?
Our treatment of Muslim-Americans concerns me because it is wrong, because it is intrinsically unjust and ludicrous to turn an entire class of people into a public enemy. It also concerns me because it endangers the Muslim community by creating clear justification and grounds for attacking people because they’re Muslim — or because they ‘look Muslim,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.
It also concerns me because from a national security perspective, it doesn’t make us safer, and this is something we need to talk about. While many people assume that because of my liberal politics I’m not super invested in America as a concept, they’re actually wrong. I care a lot about America, and my patriotic values drive me to continually work to make the United States a better, safer place for everyone. I push my country because I know it can do better and it is worth helping America treat, not because I’ve given up on the republic.
And thus, national security is actually a very important issue to me. An unsafe nation is not and cannot be a strong one, and I have grave concerns about the national security implications of everything from climate change to our immigration policy. The slowly gathering storm that demonises Muslims and turns Islam into something monstrous is a clear and present national security threat.
For one thing, it deprives us of incredibly smart, talented, excellent, lovely people who could be helping fuel the US economy and perhaps in some cases working in the government, including in national security positions. We are missing out on Muslims who would be great translators and who have a broad depth of cultural knowledge that intelligence and security agencies could really use. We are missing out on heroic Muslim servicemembers. We are missing out on Muslim rocket scientists and schoolteachers and future Supreme Court justices. This hurts America from within.
It hurts us from without though too, because the global community has a very clear picture of America right now and it’s not very flattering. Extremist groups like Daesh absolutely love the direction of US policy because it helps them radicalise people — it’s hard to view a welcoming nation that treats everyone with compassion and respect as the enemy. It’s hard to convince people to launch terrorist attacks against a country that unhesitantly values everyone as a vital part of society. It’s challenging to condemn a nation when there’s little to condemn.
But when a country turns you and people like you into enemies, well, that’s a different story. That puts you in the position of having something to hate and organise against. It puts you in the position of being able to turn to others like you to say: ‘Look, what has America done for you? Why do they hate Muslims so much? See, everything they do to crack down on us in the name of anti-terrorism is unthinkably cruel. We should teach them a lesson.’
This is perhaps what enrages me most about the current status quo, that there is a blithe acceptance of practices and policies that endanger the United States, flying in the face of evidence that this is a very bad idea.
Image: Bandung, Indonesia, Haifeez, Flickr