Executive Order 13769: Its Character and Implications

Donald Trump has signed an executive order – “Executive Order 13769 “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” – restricting entry into the United States. The policy bars all persons from several states that represent in the administration and others’ estimation national security risks from entering the U.S. for 90 days and all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days, as well as imposes an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. It also reduces the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in 2017.

It has been called a “Muslim ban.” It is not. There are some fifty Muslim-majority countries in the world. The ban covers around 14 percent of them, thus allowing persons from the majority of Muslim-majority counties to opportunity to immigrate to the United States. The countries named in the executive order are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, countries also named in a 2015 law, expanded in 2016, concerning immigration visas as “countries of concern.” It was therefore the Obama administration that passed the congressionally authored Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (this was after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris). Trump’s order also calls for a review of the Visa Interview Waiver Program.

Trump’s order has also been called a “blanket ban.” It is not. It allows a case-by-case review of persons from these countries seeking entry into the United States (some have already been allowed in, in fact). It includes among the reasons for entry status as an oppressed religious minority. (For those unaware, Christians are persecuted in Muslim-majority societies. I actually met with Christians in Jordan who sought me out during my visits there and heard firsthand their plight in one of the more progressive Muslim-majority countries.) Thus, on two counts, the corporate media has distorted Trump’s executive order.

As a civil libertarian, I believe in defending individuals against state tyranny by upholding due process. I am a stalwart defender of freedom of thought and expression. I believe in the right to privacy. I believe people have the right to elect their leaders and to have their collective interests represented in law and policy. Majority rule limited by protection of individual rights is the ideal form of government. I say this not merely to disclaim. For these things to exist – for liberalism and democracy to prevail going forward – the state must preserve secular values and practices, and every person who enjoys the blessings of liberty should dedicate her or himself to ensuring the perpetuation of this state of affairs. A liberal democracy must proceed on the basis of reason.

Ultimately, the power of the state from which the individual must be protected must in turn protect due process and carry out the will of the people. Every person should, if they want to keep their democracy, obligate themselves to staving off the forces of superstition and irrationalism. This is the true meaning of religious liberty: freedom from religious obligation and religious interference in governmental and judicial affairs. To the religious and their apologists on the left and the right who read these words, freedom of religion means neither the right to impose religious beliefs and practices on others nor the toleration of such impositions. Religious-based violence represents a significant threat to the values of liberal democracy, including provoking growth in police and security controls. It is in the interests of the public – and democracy – to restrict and aggressively vet those who seek to enter our country and territories.

The terms of the Trump Administration’s order enjoy considerable popular support. A recent poll by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 50 percent of Americans are in favor of “banning future immigration from regions where there are active terrorist groups.” Not just restricting, but banning. An AP poll found that 53% agreed that fewer Syrian refugees (there are 10,000 currently permitted annually) should be allowed into the country. Only 11% felt that the number of Syrian refugees should be increased. In several news polls, while half of Americans opposed a specific ban on Muslims (which, again, this order does not do), sizable minorities (43%, 41%, and 35% respectively) support temporary bans on Syrian refugees, non-citizen Muslim entry, and Muslim immigration generally. Taking into account that admitting support for a ban on Muslim immigrants amounts to expressing a politically incorrect opinion, it is likely that at least some of those surveyed were less than candid with pollsters. As we saw with the election itself, there is probably more popular support for Trump’s policy than the polls indicate.

Some would characterize the attitudes that inform these opinions as racist. But throwing that label around mischaracterizes the character of the antagonism. Islam is a religion, and therefore an ideology, not a race or ethnicity. This rhetoric distorts the concerns of the public. As does calling this a “Muslim ban.” To be sure, there is much to debate on the legality and motives of the order. However, the strategy of many on the left of denouncing the policy as “Islamophobic” and “racist” functions to silence legitimate concerns about the future of free and democratic societies, while perversely mainstreaming acceptance of a belief system that is the paradigm of hateful and divisive religious ideology. This is not an acceptable strategy for those who wish to resist government overreach while at the same time preserve liberal democracy. Indeed, Americans ought to have a sober and non-partisan conversation about the impact of Muslim immigration on the United States.

This conversation should be grounded in an understanding of the unique problem Islam presents to human freedom, as well as an examination of the European experience with Muslim immigration. The problem that many on the left fail to consider is the corrosive effects of an ideology antithetical to the values and norms of Western society – government, law, politics, and culture – and the need for a policy that deliberately integrates Muslims with these values and norms, as well as promotes these values in the Islamic world. The reaction to Trump’s order is an opportunity to have a broader conversation about Islam and immigration.

Because of the character of its teachings, Islam is among the religions particularly corrosive. In belief and practice, dutiful Islam is incompatible with enlightened values. To be sure, Islam is not monolithic. There are at least three branches and many sub-sects among them. There are many schools of Islamic thought, as well as movements, the most destructive of these are Salafi and Wahhabism. However, the anti-feminism, anti-democratic sentiment, irrationalism, and illiberalism of Islam survive ideological and geographical variation, even among moderate proponents of the faith. Given that Muslims represent 1.6 billion of the earth’s seven billion inhabitants, Islam represents a very real threat to human freedom and already limits the freedom of a substantial proportion of the world’s population, as the reality experienced by people living under Islamic rule testifies to. 

Islamic culture is patriarchal, misogynistic, and heterosexist, often exercising strict controls over human sexuality. In Islamic regions and societies, women are commoditized and subject to modesty rules, which limits where they can travel and with whom and, in many places, finds them covering the head and even dressing in bags and blankets, with slits or grills for eyeholes (something of a portable prison). Muslim women are reduced to objects, their personalities erased. The abuse have been so thoroughgoing that many Muslims believe the imposition of modesty is freely chosen, desirable, and even liberating. Women and men are segregated in public spaces – this is even allowed in non-Muslim majority countries. Islam does not recognize the intrinsic right of women to control their reproductive capacity; it depends on which strain of Islam controls them and the opinion of their husband whether and how they control the size of their families. Extreme sexual control not only restricts the freedom of women. The genitals of male Muslim children are ritually mutilated; every year millions of children are robbed of parts of their organ that bring pleasure during sex (to both male and female). Homosexuals are ruthlessly persecuted in Islamic society. 

Islam is intolerant of diversity of thought, indeed of free thought itself, and its rules sharply restrict creative self-expression. The punishment for leaving Islam (the crime of apostasy) is death. Muslims in large numbers believe utterances critical of Islam (blasphemy) should be punished – even when those utterances are made by non-Muslims. In many Muslims communities, music that is made for entertainment and amusement is forbidden (haram). Only halal music is permissible. Muhammad taught his followers that singing is a sin for which the perpetrator will be made on the day of resurrection eternally blind, deaf, and dumb (without a body, what is left?). Woodwind instruments draw the same eternal punishment. This prohibition is connected to Islamic obsession with sexual relations; intentionally listening to music for joy is an enchantment for adultery and fornication. Even in the United States, Muslim parents send notes to their children’s teachers telling them to keep their children out of any musical activities. Tragically, our schools capitulate to this shameful act of cultural retardation. Muslims also believe dancing is haram. Can you imagine a world without music and dancing? Can you imagine telling children that if they intentionally listen to music for entertainment or amusement that they will exist eternally blind, deaf, and mute? Adultery, fornication, the consumption of alcohol – all these are Hudud, or crimes against the imaginary being (God) Muslims submit their lives to. Punishments range from floggings, stoning, amputations of hands, crucifixion, and beheadings – all carried out in public, in front of children. 

The fact that these punishments are not practiced everywhere merely serves to demonstrate the horror of Islam where it is most closely followed and effectively holds sway over the population (for example in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and by Islamist movements like al Qaeda and ISIS). As humanists, we should strive to see that these atrocities are not practiced nowhere. We are told that other religions are also dangerous when taken to the extreme. But two things must be said about this. First, these views are not extreme in the Islamic world. Hundreds of millions of Muslims subscribe to them and, where they have not been imposed, pine for them. Second, the chance of reforming Islam is remote; Islam teaches that the law (sharia) is fixed and mandated by their god, and failure to submit to god’s will is an unpardonable sin.  

It is this Islamic demand for ideological dedication – where an irrational system of beliefs must be central to one’s identity – and the failure of policymakers, particularly in Europe, to marginalize its power by failing to help Muslims find their way out of delusion that make it so difficult for Muslims to integrate with Western society. God is the final authority, and the Quran is true and perfect – every word of it. These things are true for all who share the umma, that is the religious community. European policymakers do not encourage or even make it easy for Muslims to question their faith. They insist on defining religious liberty in identitarian terms, passing laws that punish the critics of Islam for the offense of “Islamophobia.” Perversely, criticism of a hateful and divisive ideology has become redefined as “bigotry” even “racism.” Political correctness in legislative and administrative form. This is how multiculturalism erodes freedom: the individual is punished for the sake of an ideology to which they do not subscribe.

Islam is corrosive to the necessity of the separation of church and state for a free society. Unlike Christianity, which teaches Christians to submit to civil authority, Islam does not recognize this principle. Unlike the Christian messiah, who was a spiritual figure, Muhammad was a politician and a state builder, in truth a vicious warlord who slaughtered scores of people in conquering territories for Islam. Devoted Muslims can never finally accept the separation of church and state because that means abandoning their god’s plan for humanity as manifest in the actions of his messenger. Islam is the total solution, Muslims are fond of saying, an instruction manual for a complete way of life. In essence, Islam is a totalitarian ideology and thus antithetical to liberalism, the secular basis of Western civilization. Where allowed to dominate, Islam represents an existential threat to freedom and democracy. It is no more bigotry to warn of the problem this ideology presents to human freedom as it is bigotry to warn of the problem of fascism.

The existence of a just US republic depends on making sure that Islam does not gain such a foothold in our culture that it dictates laws, policy, and politics. The Islamic imperative is the inverse of this: for Muslims, just arrangements can only ever ultimately obtain where Islamic law prevails over everything. In the meantime Muslims can only live a relatively clean life by separating themselves from the kafir, the Muslim term for unbelievers and deceivers. The principle of no compulsion in religion notwithstanding, the Quran, Hadith, and Sira, the main works of Islam, are obsessed with addressing the problem of the unbeliever. Because Muhammad despised the kafir, and because it is obligatory on Muslims to hate what god hates and love what god loves, the kafir are despised by Muslims (who are in scripture explicitly permitted to lie about this fact). Therefore, when in the minority, Muslims separate themselves from the majority and other minorities, seeking their own their own systems of governance and justice. Hence their staunch but advocacy of multiculturalism and their human rights. When in the majority, Muslims impose Islamic law and culture on everybody, and the best you can hope for is that the strain of Islam that prevails is less brutal than the other possibilities. For the kafir have no rights under sharia.

I do not argue that all Muslims or Islamic sects are equally dangerous, that with time Muslims cannot become nominal in their identity like most modern Christians, or that Muslims are the only group whose religious beliefs and practices represent a threat to human freedom. There are millions of Muslims who move peacefully in liberal society. However, Islam on the whole, even its moderate forms, which represent the minority of believers, is stricken by totalitarian desire, while Christian extremists are checked by a large number of Christians who do not subscribe to most of the Bible’s obnoxious teachings. We should strive to see most Muslims become nominal rather than devoted. But achieving this means relentless criticism of the ideology in the same way that Christianity was tempered by the rationalists and fascism was driven underground by the democrats. 

The unique problem of Islam does mean that lax immigration policies work against the goals of integration of Muslims with American society and the deliberate marginalization of Islam. The problems of Europe are a clear warning to America. Europe’s policies have undermined democratic and liberal tradition, failed the people, including Muslims citizens and residents, and provoked an ethnonationalist backlash. The combination of neoliberalism and multiculturalism has given rise to right-wing reactionary forces. These policies have overwhelmed Europe’s societal capacity to integrate and liberate persons from culturally backwards regions. Europe should slow immigration in order to provide time for people integrate. The United States should also devise a plan for the orderly immigration of peoples from Islamic countries at a pace that allows for effective integration with American society. 

Social Democrats and the liberal left that should lead this project. A rational person is only obligated to tolerate religious belief on the basis of his commitment to free thought and expression. He is not obligated to accept Islam – or any other hateful or divisive ideology – as a legitimate way of thinking about the world and ordering social life. We tolerate Muslims in the same way that we tolerate racists, fascists, sexists, and other backwards thinking people: condemning their attitudes as unacceptable. This justice-first approach is not needed only for the sake of preserving the US republic, but it is also vital to the needs of Muslims who are, after all, human beings (which a Muslim women are seen as something less of when liberal feminists defend patriarchal oppression under Islam). Why should non-Muslims love Muslims so little as to abandon them to a backwards and punishing way of life? As humanists, we have an obligation to help liberate people from stifling and irrational belief systems. It’s why our criticisms of Christianity are so relentless and have proven highly successful in pushing Christians away from the extremism inherent in their religious texts. We do this because we love Christians and want to help them escape the limitations on their freedom that devotion to doctrine imposes.

Perhaps the reader might have thought that I would prefer Trump’s order to have actually been a ban on Muslims. This would represent a profound misreading of my argument. I do not believe in religious tests of any sort. I believe in a rational immigration policy that integrates persons with the secular traditions of the United States and helps free them from the burden of backwards and irrational ideology. We are only obligated to tolerate an individual’s beliefs and actions when they do not harm us. Toleration does not demand acceptance or silence. The ideals of the enlightenment demand something quite different: they demand we strive to liberate individuals from the authoritarianism of the corporate state and the authoritarianism of organized religion. 

There is another reason why we should pursue this course. Those of us who want to deepen democracy have to think strategically. We live in a capitalist society where a handful of families and individuals control the productive assets of our society, an arrangement that allows them to exploit the creative efforts of tens of millions of working people. Effective class struggle can only proceed on the basis of a politically conscious working class, a unification that is as thwarted by the divisive effect of multiculturalism as it is the divisive effects of racism and other forms of segmentation. A democratic society, over against a majoritarian one, must put central to its politics the protection of individual rights against narrow group identity. Identity politics is one of the main obstacle to the development of popular consciousness necessary for building a political movement to finally realize the democratic ideal. Suggesting that any religious group has a right to be apart from others is to own the alienation that keeps us from establishing democratic socialism.

I am not an advocate of forced assimilation. As free agents, people can believe and act as they want as long as their actions do not harm other people, including harm to those they claim as members of their own group (we can ban circumcision and arranged marriages and the chopping off of hands without violating freedom of conscience). On the other hand, I do not support deep multiculturalism, a species of the politics of separation and the source of the error left-wing opponents of immigration restrictions make. Instead of these extremes, I advocate integration, which I understand as people living under a common law in diverse communities where non-harmful cultural differences are shared or at least tolerated without controversy.

Race, ethnicity, and so forth are social constructions, in many aspects created to divide human populations, that, when pursued as organizing principles of social relations, entrench those divisions. In contrast, integrationists see humans as individuals first. Our primary obligation is to reason, liberty, and democracy, not to race, ethnicity, or other demographic variables. This is the recipe for an inclusive national community that at the same time tolerates (but not necessarily respects) differences.

It is not unreasonable to expect people who come to our country to at the very least accept the secular character of our government and law – the government and law that is charged with defending their civil liberties – and, ideally, seek to become rational beings, using reason and science to guide their actions instead of faith and superstition. We have a lot of homework to do in this regard. Christian fundamentalism presents the reasonable with plenty of problems. We should teach the value of reason to every child, native or immigrant, even over the objections of their parents. Much of the modern left has not merely been lackadaisical in this regard; it often endeavors to paint proponents of reason as bigots. As if reason has a color and a gender.  

The desire I am expressing is not bigotry, but reflects an anti-identitarian standpoint: pluralism is recognized for its contribution to producing a rich common culture; it is not however a justification for the creation and perpetuation of enclaves based on race, ethnicity, religion, or other exclusive categories. Beliefs and actions that undermine secular values and practices are harmful to liberal democratic ends and are therefore justifiably marginalized and, where manifest in action, restricted and even prohibited. My opposition is not to immigration per se but to the balkanization of Western society. That the desire for liberal democracy has become twisted into an expression of bigotry tells us that our understanding of human freedom and reason has become severely warped. The rot of identitarianism runs very deep indeed. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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