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Why every secularist should boycott Trump’s US

The Chair of the African Union Commission, has rightly noted, "The country to which many of our people were taken as slaves decides to ban refugees from some of our countries".

lead Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chair of the African Union Commission. Wikicommons/US Dept. of State. Some rights reserved.Over the past two weeks we have seen ample media attention paid to US President Donald Trump’s disgraceful Executive Order that suspends the admission of new refugees for 120 days, puts an indefinite ban on refugee entry from the war-torn Syria, and blocks nationals from six other countries from a list of Muslim majority nation-states for 90 days – with a risk of further extension. Critics have condemned the barring of refugees and migrants as “Islamophobic”, whilst over six thousands academics and researchers across the world, including one of the authors, have declared that they will boycott attending conferences and academic events in the US, in the hope of putting pressure on the Trump administration. But is this enough to stop a man like Trump who wants only to build walls, divide nations and exclude people?

We call here for a more critical and robust approach, simultaneously deconstructing the troubling and simplistic nature of the critiques and protests undertaken so far. We echo atheist and ex-Muslim feminist, Maryam Namazie, that everyone “Must oppose it” unreservedly – as “a matter of urgency”. But we also suggest that everyone should consider the need for an intersectional prism to appreciate how this ban is more complicated than a straightforward far-right restructuring.

Muslims and heterogeneity

The Sunday Review editorial of the New York Times has correctly noted that Donald Trump is a man who “Sees what he wants to see, and nothing else”. For Trump, Muslims are a homogenous community whilst, in reality, they are not. He and his followers speak about Muslims in this fashion, thereby suggesting that every Muslim is Islamist and most are conservative. What he does not see is that Muslims are heterogeneous. As Rumana’s previous article on Open Democracy argued, and as Tariq Ramadan points out, there are “a bewildering variety of Muslim theological positions, only some of which might be referred to as Islamist.”

In blaming every Muslim from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for the crimes of Islamist terrorists, Trump wants us to believe that all Muslims, including women and children who endure the brutality of terrorism provoked by the west, are responsible for the violence that extremist-Islamist men perpetrate against women and men. Trump’s executive action that blocks ordinary people who, by chance, were born in a different territory and observe traditions which Trump finds hard to control, is both unjust and sadistic.

Anti-Muslim bigotry or intolerance of refugees?

It is important to note that the ban is not only about Muslims. Under the Muslim labelling this executive action is essentially barring all war-affected people – refugees and migrants who are in need of protection. According to the draft published by the Huffington Post, Trump’s travel ban blocks all refugees for 120 days and applies indefinitely to people from certain Muslim-majority countries. But most critics, with an exception of a few secularists, described the suspension of all refugees and war-affected migrants as a ban on “Muslims” only. As if atheists, ex-Muslims and Yazidi refugees from Syria, Yemen or Iran could have entry to Trump’s US whenever they needed it. This, on the contrary, enables the Trump administration to gamble on the politics of religion while getting away with his racism towards refugees.

We object to Muslim labelling which reduces all refugees to Muslims as much as we oppose the notion which does a disservice to the refugee constituency as a whole, by putting Muslim issues above refugee issues. Trump approved the refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which “honours the millions of people killed during World War II, many of whom tried to flee to the US, but were turned away “, reported Huffington Post on 26 January. This suggests a denial of wider humanitarian commitments that sooner or later will put a halt to any refugee resettlement programme.

Meanwhile, a Muslim ban that ultimately bans refugees of certain countries is blatantly in breach  of US legal obligations to protect refugees,  the core principle of the 1951 Act being  non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law. Moreover, the barring of war-affected populations and refugees from countries that the US has had under their control for decades and wanted to control, but without success, is a subtext that cannot be reduced to a “Muslim ban”.  

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a South African politician and chairperson of the African Union Commission, has rightly noted, "The country to which many of our people were taken as slaves decides to ban refugees from some of our countries". This is the point that one needs to grasp, rather than take a narrow approach which advocates for Muslims rights. There is no argument that anti-Muslim bigotry informs the indefinite ban on Muslims from some countries, yet even the  open letter which many of us have signed to boycott academic events in Trump’s US, has placed the refugee suspension under the title of a “Muslim ban” while failing to make it clear that the boycott is on behalf of all those who are affected.

In our view, this is not about religion or “Islamophobia”. Religion is one of many apparatuses for oppression that play out intersectionally in a nexus of political exclusion. It is the intersection of ethnicity, race, religion, and nationality that informs refugee suspension in Trump’s US. Trump sees everyone, other than people of his own community, as “other”.

An exception of Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Is it any surprise therefore that Trump’s disgraceful Executive Order has put a 90-day ban on citizens from seven Muslim majority countries including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, while major Muslim countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, haven’t had a mention. According to New America, of all 9/11 hijackers at least 15 hijackers were Saudi nationals whilst others were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. Trump’s travel ban only blocks those who would be able to contribute to America’s diversity and democracy. He leaves the terrorists of the Saudi regime to conspire with him another day on terror campaigns, while banning those who are most vulnerable and in need of support.

This is a denial of the fundamental rights of the mass of people – let alone free speech. It is against humanity. It must be fought by all humanists and secularists. Humanists and secularists, we believe,  should take a leading role in fighting back against the racist policy of a Trump administration that attempts to silence Muslim migrants and refugees in the same way as Islamist dictators silence atheists and ex-Muslims in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arab. We should boycott all kinds of physical events in US until the block on refugees has been removed.

About the authors

Rumana Hashem is a sociologist and a secular women’s rights activist from Bangladesh who is opposed to prejudice of all kinds. Currently based at the Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging at University of East London, she has a PhD in Gender and Armed Conflict. 

Piya Mayenin is a solicitor, practising Immigration Nationality and Asylum Law and works for asylum seekers and refugees. As a British-Bangladeshi women’s rights campaigner, she works closely with Muslim and minority women experiencing domestic violence in East London. She opposes all forms of bigotry including Islamism.


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