Among the parade of unreasonable ideas that Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has put forth is that we should seal our borders and stop granting visas to anyone who is a Muslim. His press release says that he supports “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Set aside if you will the legality of this plan under current immigration and other laws, and assume that he means what he says. But what does it mean, really, to seal our borders against Muslims? There are a number of fascinating operational questions that immediately arise. Let’s have fun and just list the weirdest ones.
1. You are a US citizen, and let’s say that you were born here of parents who were also US citizens. You have decided for good and sufficient personal reasons to embrace the faith of Islam. You have a passport, no criminal record, no pending civil judgements, not so much as even a traffic ticket. You decide to take a vacation to Montreal and go skiing at Mt. Tremblanc. Vacation over, you attempt to come home, only to find that since you are a Muslim, you cannot get back into the country. Your skis make it through customs just fine, however.
So how many people does this affect? No one knows. Estimates of the number of Muslims in America range from two to seven million, but the US Census does not ask about nor record religious preference. Wikipedia cites a number of 3.3 million but with uncertain backup. Most numbers are derived from small sample size surveys of religious preference, then generalized onto the total US population.
Well, damn, we’d better fix that, maybe we need an emergency census to see what this obvious fifth column that’s already here (gasp!) amounts to.
2. You are a US citizen and have patriotically enlisted in and become a member of the US Marine Corps. Your unit deploys to Afghanistan where after eight months of constant combat you are badly wounded defending your comrades. You are medevac’d back to Japan, and then to the military hospital in Ft Sam Houston in Texas. Only they don’t let you off the plane and instead send you back to Sendai, since Muslims aren’t allowed into the country.
How many of there are you in the armed forces of the US? No one really knows. When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 32 others at Fort Hood, Texas in a 2009 shooting rampage, this became a more interesting question. It was noted that when he enlisted he did not list his religion. In 2008 this number was reported as 3409. But since personnel are free to list “no preference” on their enlistment forms, as did Maj Nidal, there is no good way to validate these numbers.
3. You’re a famous basketball player turned TV commentator. Your network assigns you to cover a game of the Toronto Raptors, being played in Toronto. You go where you’re told, and watch the Raptors handily beat the Washington Wizards. When your private jet comes back to Los Angeles, you are escorted into a holding area and sent back to Toronto. You are a Muslim and your name is Shaquille O’Neil.
4. The President sponsors a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organization, an international annual gathering of the most important twenty one nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. It is to be held in Washington, and to focus on fighting terrorism. Only three of the countries cannot be invited–Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, as their prime ministers are all Muslims.
5. You are a consular official in Turkey, a staunch US ally in the war against terror and a bulwark since cold war days against Russian encroachment. Your job is to process visa requests. These come to you in a two page form, DS-156, easily available on line. The form could be considered to be something of either an intelligence test or an English language test. One of the questions you must answer–yes or no only–is the following:
Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide? Have you ever participated in, ordered, or engaged in genocide, torture, or extrajudicial killings?
It would be a pretty good idea to answer this with a “no,” one suspects, although if you were a Nazi you would be pretty old by now and have more than a little trouble travelling. However, there is no place on the form where it asks you for your religion. This is clearly an oversight that will have to be corrected.
It is also interesting to note that there is no place on a California driver’s license to list the driver’s religion, nor is there a place on a standard US passport for religious affiliation or preference. I checked, although I was pretty sure I knew that answer already.
All this is very amusing and maybe it can be easily corrected, at least over time. But now we move on the really difficult part of administering this Muslim ban.
Perhaps a little history of religious persecution is in order. There is quite a large amount of it to survey, it is sad to report, but let us take only In this small portion. In the four hundred years beginning in about 1470 the Spanish indulged in a less than charming process called the Inquisition. In this case it was the Catholics in Spain deciding to get rid of everyone else, especially Jews. They had finally driven out the Muslims who ruled most of Spain for about five huindred years – 711 to 1492 to be precise – and now they were going for ISO 9000 quality religious purity.
If you were Jewish and got swept up in this, you had three bad choices: (1) say you were Jewish and get burned at the stake; (2) move to somewhere else before they caught you, but Israel didn’t exist at the time and there weren’t any airplanes so this was not so easy; or (3) convert to Catholicism. Sure, choose Option 3, but not so fast there. How did the clerics know that your conversion was real?
The fear of sham conversions bedeviled the religious hierarchy for some time. Sure, you could go to mass and eat pork and take communion and have your kids baptized, but what if when you got home you still in secret celebrated Passover and other important Jewish holidays / rituals. I guess you didn’t invite your neighbors to the Seder, but otherwise how was anyone to know?
The converts from Judaism were known as “conversos” and along with the remnants of Islam were the continuing target of the ebb and flow of the Inquisition. Some managed to be convincing, and probably a fair number decided, “what the heck, this religion is just as good as any other,” but it was a problem never really solved. And how could it have been? Measuring the degree of authenticity of a religious conversion is not a scientific matter.
Here is another historical example of how easy it is to determine empirically or from the outside just what an individual’s religious faith is. Northern Ireland is a part of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” not a province or colony of the UK. It was not joined to the Republic of Ireland when that country gained its independence, largely because the south was Catholic and the north was Protestant. There was real concern that a religious bloodbath could be the result if the entire island were to become independent. Instead what resulted was a smaller bloodbath confined to the north.
Since nothing is ever perfect, it turned out that once the split was effected in 1922 there were, astonishingly, some Catholics found in Northern Ireland as well as a bunch of Protestants. They were not entirely pleased to be left in place but unlike the migration of the Catholics from North Vietnam in 1954, they stayed put. And eventually “the Troubles” ensued.
It was sporadic trouble with flare-ups of more or less difficulty that began in the late 1960’s, ending finally in 1998. Over time casualties mounted to around 3500. The existing NI government did whatever it could to assure that the Protestant majority did not discriminate against the Catholic minority. My company learned about all this in 1989 when the UK auctioned off some power assets in Northern Ireland, and we ended up as the proud owners and operators of two coal fired plants, Kilroot and Belfast West, both in the Belfast area.
One important rule that had evolved required that an employer maintain a fairly rigid proportional balance between Catholic and Protestant employees. “OK with us,” we said brightly, “we’re Americans and we’re used to not discriminating.” Then we had the next obvious thought: how do we tell?
The solution in Northern Ireland was simple: Where a person went to grade school, verifiable from school records, determined whether he or she counted as Protestant or Catholic. The neighborhoods were so rigidly separated by religion that this allegedly was a fair and equitable way to make this determination. It didn’t matter if you had subsequently moved, if you had shaved your head and gone off with George Harrison and the other Beatles to an Ashram in India to become a Sikh. We knew where you came from and that was that. No provision for religious conversion, loss of faith, being overcome by an ecstatic vision, sudden manifestation of the ability to perform miracles, rolling on the floor and speaking in tongues, none of it mattered. Two choices, and you’re stuck with one of them forever.
And so back to form DS-156. The new form as revised by Mr. Trump will have a box for religion, or maybe just a yes/no question: Are you a Muslim?
And then, how will you prove that you aren’t, even if you answer “no,” if some narrow minded person asks why your name is Mohammed bin Mohammed? And why you have listed your address as downtown Mecca. If called in for a personal interview at the US Embassy in Riyadh, I recommend not falling to your knees and praying right there in the office of the consul, and you might want to ditch the beard and have your wife forget the head scarf. If you’re a member of the Saudi royal family, content yourself with visiting London and Paris and forget New York. It’s a lovely city but the world is full of places where you’ll be welcome, just not Donald Trump’s US.
So the claiming not to be a Muslim is easy, sort of the opposite of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s just impossible in any reasonable way, in any way that could stand up to even the smallest legal test or the shakiest determination of a reasonable person, to tell who is telling the truth.
But there is a second part of the Trump policy, the “figure out what is going on” part. This has never been very well articulated so we can only speculate on what it means. Better reference checks, better background checks, better intelligence on who is and who is not a terrorist? Perhaps. It takes 18 to 24 months for a Syrian refugee to be admitted into the US, and as of January of this year only 2647 had made it out of an estimated 4.5 million created by the Syrian conflict. We do not know if they are all Muslims or not, but this does not seem to imply a flood. Maybe “what is going on” is that nobody, relatively speaking, is getting in. Certainly not anybody from Syria, Muslim or not. If you’re an ISIS sleeper agent, it’s way easier to change your name, get a false passport and walk across the border as Joe Smith from Cleveland.
We can reluctantly give Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was grabbing for some sort of way to say that he was concerned about terrorism and that he did not believe that the country is as safe from terrorist attacks as it should be. But equating all terrorists with Muslims who are trying to get into the country is brainless foolishness. It’s also counterproductive to serious counter-terrorism security efforts, which to be effective will have to involve our allies, some of whom are Muslims.
Anyway, it seems that rather than attempting to keep out the roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, we should focus on the potential terrorists who are already here. Muslim or not. Anybody remember Oklahoma City?
For more from R.F. Hemphill, enjoy his new book, Stories from the Middle Seat: The Four-Million-Mile Journey to Building a Billion Dollar International Business.