Part 1 of this article covered the unanticipated, stupid or maybe just amusing consequences of Donald Trump’s proposed ban on letting Muslims enter the US. Some of these problems can perhaps be corrected, at least over time. But now we move on the really difficult part of administering this “Muslim ban.”
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 400 years beginning in about 1470 the Spanish indulged in an unappetizing 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 hundred 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 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.
This 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 of two coal fired plants, Kilroot and Belfast West, both in the Belfast area.
One important government 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 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 the unavoidable question. The new visa application form as revised by Mr. Trump will have a yes/no question: Are you a Muslim?
And then, how will you prove that you aren’t, even if you answer “no?” What 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.
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 too has never been 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 number does not 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?