Its been a rocky ride for many people since Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. Despite the many headline-making tweets and controversial cabinet nominations, it was the executive order that Trump signed on Friday, January 27, that has garnered the most visible opposition.
This order bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen – from entering the United States, even if they hold a second citizenship in any third country. He announced that more countries may be added to the list. The executive order also suspends US refugee arrivals for at least four months, bans Syrian refugees, and will likely prioritize Christian refugees if and when the suspension is listed. Finally, the executive order calls for new, “extreme vetting” of immigrants.
The order may survive the temporary stay ordered by federal judge in Washington state on February 3. However, the popular opposition generated in response to it has been immense – and surprising, given the increasing hostility to Muslims over the past decade. It suggests that there is more support for this tiny American minority community (estimated at 1.0% of the US population in 2015) – and for the more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world (estimated at nearly 24% of the global population, and growing) – than expected.
It also shows how the United States’ Muslim communities have since 2001 successfully developed strategies for coalition building across religious affiliations, and have developed grassroots and national organizations that proactively and effectively engage US media, popular opinion, government entities, and the legal system.
Interreligious and non-Muslim opposition to the executive order actually dates back several years, to several initiatives launched in the wake of the scaremongering about a “Ground Zero Mosque” that incited anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiments. For example, Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith organization launched by forty faith-based organizations, was founded in September 2010 to address Islamophobia by “standing with American Muslims; upholding American values”.
In Fall 2015, when American and foreign Muslims became an increasing target of GOP presidential candidates, Jewish Voice For Peace, a national organization, issued a statement “standing with the Muslim community and … challenging Islamophobia” in October 2015, as part of its Network Against Islamophobia initiative. More recently, Japanese-Americans – including celebrities like George Takei – have spoken against the Muslim registry proposed by the co-chair of a pro-Trump political action committee, arguing that if the United States abandons its national principles in the name of national security, “we are no better than our enemies”.
The Interfaith Immigration Coalition has over 3500 signatories to its statement welcoming refugees of all backgrounds to the United States. These are important initiatives, as they indicate both the willingness of American religious communities to partner together in supporting American and foreign Muslims.
However, what has also been striking over the past year, and particularly since the January 27 executive order, has been the active stance taken by American Muslim organizations and communities. Historically quietist, American Muslims – especially the foreign-born, who have tended to come from unfree countries like Syria or Pakistan – have grown increasingly active in public affairs.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), founded in 1994, has grown from a small-scale advocacy group that tracks hate crimes, to filing a federal lawsuit against the executive order on behalf of 20 individuals. The Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has issued voter guides and promoted civic engagement through civil society and governmental involvement, offers a grassroots #resisttheban guide to supporters while working at the state and federal level to challenge the executive order.
At the local level, here in Denver, several local mosques coordinated to organize a solidarity vigil to coincide with Friday prayers, showing that each mosque “is protected by the flag of its land and the American people”. This kind of legal and civic activism, with the high visibility that it entails, would have been highly unusual in the 1990s or earlier.
At the time of this writing, it is not clear whether the US judicial branch will allow the executive order to stand, whether all or in part. However, what the past twelve days – and the past several years – have shown is both the solidarity shown with American Muslims, by other religious communities, and the coming of age of American Muslim organizations and communities, in actively embracing civic engagement, political activism, and legal advocacy.
Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites. Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.