The implementation of a religious test, Trump’s infamous “Muslim ban,” is a declaration of war on American ideals, but it isn’t quite correct to say that it’s “un-American.” Masquerading as a travel ban, last Friday’s executive order dramatizes the perpetual conflict between the essential America and the existential America. Essential America places a premium on justice, peace and freedom, while the existential America practices a politics of exclusion, a heritage of hate and a culture of violence.
The tragic conflation of global terrorism and Islam undermines the founding values of the American project. Freedom of religion anchors the founding assumptions of the myth of American exceptionalism and remains one of the rallying cries of the GOP. Trump’s executive action on refugees and Muslim immigration exemplifies America’s war with itself, not America’s war on terrorism or radical jihadism.
The so-called colorblind and religiously neutral U.S. Constitution has again fallen prey to the logic of whiteness, which renders non-white and non-Christian freedom, creativity, power, protection and decency a national impossibility.
The narrative arc of the American experiment hinges on the mobility and contribution of immigrants and “imports”—black bodies trafficked in as lucrative chattel. One of the earliest encounters with Islam was during the era of slavery. White American evangelicalism’s history of Christian supremacy, a glaring precursor to contemporary Islamophobia, can be traced to the antebellum plantations as scores of African Muslims and practitioners of indigenous religions were enslaved and converted. Many were forced to convert to Christianity during the Second Great Awakening and beyond.
This type of political coercion exists well beyond the founding ideals of our history. Trump’s termination of the acting attorney general and head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement reveals the president’s commitment to autocratic leadership despite how the ban fuels extremist and jihadist agendas, legitimately placing America in danger. (The termination of such a senior official has not happened since Richard Nixon’s administration, which may be a cautionary tale in the American narrative.) As ISIS praises the move, many senior officials of the State and Justice Departments fail to see how this even advantages the existential America.
America benefits from foreign lives artistically, economically, intellectually, religiously and technologically. Ironically, even Lady Liberty herself is a foreign immigrant—an import from France. As Customs and Border Protection personnel detained “dozens and dozens” of people, Lady Liberty was uncrowned of her justice, her guiding torch extinguished, and the liberative tablet shattered. How long can Lady Liberty stand without her righteous regalia, and how will the Liberty Bell ring for freedom with its widening crack?
The so-called colorblind and religiously neutral U.S. Constitution has again fallen prey to the logic of whiteness, which renders non-white and non-Christian freedom, creativity, power, protection and decency a national impossibility. White supremacy is larger than individual acts of violence against non-white bodies. It is too simplistic to reduce white supremacy to the actions and thinking of white people. We all must assess our relationship to white supremacy and its structures and material conditions. White supremacy is a logic that governs our lives, forges ways of thinking and produces frameworks of meaning.
This ban is less about safety and more about security—the security of a myth of national exceptionalism grounded in whiteness and baptized in Christian religion. This ban is less about protecting lives and more about protecting status. Coursing through the national veins of our republic is the poisoned blood flow of white supremacy.
White supremacist logic marginalizes, subjugates, and often defines non-white minds and bodies in America as deficient “others.” With this broad ban, the 109 detained persons, countless others abroad, and all Americans are victims of constitutional violence. It is becoming abundantly clear that this normative gaze of America makes Muslim humanity and its sacredness invisible. White supremacy makes “Muslimness” a reality to be feared and eradicated from the American orbit.
We did not prevent his constitutional election, but we must resist his constitutional endangerment. The very soul of the state depends on our prophetic rage.
Though plausibly operative beneath our national consciousness, we are witnessing and wrestling with the demonic: the bitter memory of black bodies swinging from Southern trees like strange fruit, the effects of warehousing and killing Asian Americans in detention camps, the genocidal removal of Native Americans from the homes they built and the destruction of their relationship with the earth, a prison industrial system that profits the few at the expense of millions of Black and Brown bodies, and mass graves of Mexican migrants on the Southern borders. Something demonic has been at work in the historical arc of America. This Muslim ban is demonic. Using the long history of America as a lens for assessing this ban, it may surely be unconstitutional, but sadly it may not be un-American.
As the Christian Right resigns to a terminal silence and Congress shirks its swift legislative responsibility, the world waits to see if the America written about on the parchment is possible in public. I borrow the challenge of Martin Luther King, Jr., “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” It is our sacred assignment, freedom-loving people of conscience and faith, to redeem the nation from the wages of its sins.
We did not prevent his constitutional election, but we must resist his constitutional endangerment. The very soul of the state depends on our prophetic rage, which refuses to accept injustice as normal and invincible. The American wilderness is crying for voices raised against immoral policies, populist demagogues and selfish interests. Only our loud, demonstrative, consistent, faithful activism committed to transforming paralyzing and predatory policies can save America from itself.