Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly decided to uphold President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries. When journalists write about the ban and its impacts moving forward, language and context will be key.
AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force (MATF) co-directors discussed the frequently used “Muslim ban” and whether or not media should use this term when reporting on Trump’s travel ban. Take a look at two arguments and email MATF at email@example.com if you’d like to weigh in on the discussion.
Opposition on the Term "Muslim Ban"
By MATF Collaborations Committee Co-Director Waliya Lari
From mass protests at airports to random acts of unity and kindness to unprecedented amounts of political activism, the Trump Administration's various travel bans have united Muslim communities and their allies in ways never seen before. Many of their signs, tweets and pictures included the term Muslim ban. While that may speak to the intent of the President and his administration, it is an inaccurate description of the policy. By using that term, opponents of the policy are unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes about Muslims—the very myths the Muslim American Task Force is working hard to eliminate from news coverage of Muslims.
Myth 1: Muslims and Islam are Foreign. By calling this a Muslim ban, we reinforce the notion that Muslims and Islam are foreign to the United States and something that should be kept out of the country to preserve the true nature of America. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The first Muslims arrived in North America even before the Pilgrims did. These Muslims arrived with Portuguese and Spanish explorers. While they were mostly slaves, they played important roles in these colonial expeditions.
Military rolls from the Revolutionary War, examined by the Smithsonian, show men with Muslim names fought against the British. That’s right, Muslims fought in the war that created this country. Without their contribution there may not be a United States of America—Muslims were a part of the foundation of this country.
Then there’s Thomas Jefferson, who owned a Qur’an, and during the establishment of religious freedom in Virginia argued, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.”
And, of course, millions of Muslims were brought to the U.S. as slaves. Despite harsh attempts to strip them of their identities, many were able to hold on to small parts of their Muslim identity through food, rituals and literacy. These underground communities powered movements to resist slavery and fight for freedom.
America is what it is today because of its past, which is full of contributions by Muslims. So, let’s stop perpetuating the idea that we are a relatively new people in this country.
Myth 2: Muslims are the Middle East and Muslims are Arabs. The five Muslim-majority countries on the travel ban list are either considered part of the Middle East or are Arab nations. Calling these travel restrictions, a Muslim ban implies there’s nowhere else in the world from where Muslims may come into the United States. The combined population of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen is about 148 million, less than 10% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. The Muslim population in India alone is 180 million and in Indonesia, that number is 225 million!
By calling this a Muslim ban, when it impacts a small and relatively homogenous group of Muslims, perpetuates the idea that all Muslims are the same and dismisses the diversity and dominance of Muslims around the world. This skewed portrayal is a disservice to Muslims around the world and to people wanting to learn about the true essence of Islam and its followers.
Myth 3: The government has the power to ban or regulate Muslims in any way. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” That growling declaration during in 2015 laid the foundation for this travel ban. While it lays out his intention, it also incorrectly assumes that the government has the power to ban or regulate an entire group of people based solely on their religion. It. Does. Not.
Calling this a Muslim ban makes it seem like the President has accomplished his goal. He. Has. Not. More than a billion Muslims can still travel to the United States (in some cases contingent on visas) and the 2.3 million Muslims who are American citizens can come and go from this country as they please. Muslims in this country are still free to live their lives and practice their religion.
Muslims are still an essential part of American communities—they are doctors, Uber drivers, teachers, lawyers, neighbors, restaurant owners and more. Most importantly, they are American citizens who have an unalienable right granted by the Constitution (and their creator) and can vote. Calling this a Muslim ban implies there are no Muslims in the United States; that they aren’t in an important and significant part of the electorate. This myth emboldens ignorant politicians to make anti-Muslim remarks without fear of any reprimand or consequence. Let’s avoid anything that makes it easier for them to spread their propaganda.
I do recognize that this travel ban separates some Muslim Americans from their families. Their loved ones, who are suffering in the war-torn regions of Syria and Yemen, cannot come to the safety and comfort of their homes in this country. My intention is not to dismiss their suffering—in some cases, this ban is the difference between life and death. Like much of the Supreme Court, I don’t agree with the policy or think it’s a good one. However, constantly referring to it as a Muslim ban adds to the propaganda machine that is trying to separate Muslims from American society and culture.
While the majority of people impacted by this policy are Muslim, the majority of Muslims aren’t impacted by it. Calling this a Muslim ban would be like calling the border wall a Hispanic barrier. It may feel like it’s true, but it’s really not. We need to let facts and not fear guide our conversations.
Call It What It Is: A Ban on Muslims
By MATF Lead Co-Director Nuran Alteir
If the intention of the travel ban is to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, then journalists should not dawdle in deciding what to call it.
It’s a Muslim ban.
The presidential proclamation imposing a travel ban has changed since federal district courts blocked the first two executive orders, but has the intention changed?
Make no mistake, the Proclamation was written with anti-Muslim sentiment as a primary motivation. Recall that, in January 2017, former New York mayor Rudy W. Giuliani told Fox News host Jeanine Pirro that President Trump wanted a “Muslim ban.”
“He called me up. He said, 'Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally,'" Guiliani said on the program.
Given the text and historical context of the Proclamation, one could reasonably conclude that the intention is to deprecate Islam and its followers by barring them from the country.
The United States Supreme Court’s may have upheld the latest version of the travel ban, but it is not unprecedented for the court to reverse its own decisions.
Let us not forget that the forced internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II remained ambiguously lawful until just last month. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. used the court’s recent decision to uphold President Trump’s travel ban to officially, and finally, overrule Korematsu v. United States.
The relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans came from a willingness to discriminate against an entire group of people in the name of national security. That justification lives on in the travel ban.
Therefore, it is a journalist’s responsibility to go beyond the administration’s vernacular and give context to this landmark decision. To forget and exclude the anti-Muslim attitude behind this Proclamation is a disservice to readers and the American people.
For example, it is important to note that previous versions of the travel ban only listed Muslim-majority countries. The Supreme Court’s majority upheld this latest version of the travel ban based on the government’s process of granting exceptions and for including North Korea and Venezuela in the order. But critics say travel from these two countries is relatively insignificant. The North Korean government permits few citizens to travel to the United States; and, in Venezuela’s case, the ban applies to certain government officials and their families.
The court’s decision to uphold the latest version of the travel ban only suggests that the administration can camouflage its murky intentions with a simple rewrite.
The discriminatory intention of a law or policy tends to persist over time. As such, journalists must continue to shed light on the travel ban’s historical background and the degree of its adverse impact on Muslims immigrating to the United States.
"U.S. Capitol" by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0