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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Trump’s toxic war on Muslims — at home and abroad

This 1924 photo shows the registry room at Ellis Island in New York Harbor.Associated Press

OUR LEADING HISTORICAL illiterate is reanimating our historic xenophobia in novel and dangerous ways.

President Trump’s antecedents shared his primitive credo: Certain groups are too suspect to become Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 banned virtually all immigration from China. The Immigration Act of 1924 targeted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, particularly Jews, Italians, and Slavs, and culminated in barring Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust from entering America. The belief that Japanese-Americans could never be loyal citizens bred internment camps.

Into the 1960s, many Americans believed that Catholics placed the Pope above patriotism. The early-to-mid-20th century featured efforts to repatriate Mexican immigrants. Not until 1965 did Congress abolish quotas based on race and national origin.


This seemed to augur more enlightened times. Strikingly, George W. Bush responded to 9/11 by embracing American Muslims, while distinguishing Al Qaeda from Islam at large.

But now, Trump. His proposed Muslim ban breaks new ground — never before has America barred immigrants because of their religion and, by so doing, endangered itself.

Version 2.0 denies entry to citizens of six Muslim countries, suspends our refugee program worldwide, and cuts our annual quota for refugees from 110,000 to 50,000. In particular, it indefinitely bars refugees from Syria’s chemical slaughterhouse, echoing our rejection of Jews fleeing Hitler — and casting the pitiless light of reality on Trump’s showy situational empathy for Syrian children murdered with sarin gas.

This directive raises important constitutional questions concerning religious discrimination. Trump’s first effort to bar travel from specified Muslim-majority countries was found by two federal appellate courts to impose an unconstitutional religious test. So too, thus far, Trump’s second order. In one ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the second version “in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.”

As supporting evidence, the court cited “candidate Trump’s numerous campaign statements expressing animus toward the Islamic faith.” Pertinent here is Trump’s admission that the second version was rewritten to recast an apparent ban on Muslims as, in the words of his lawyers, “a temporary pause” whose “text and operation are religion-neutral.”


In the service of this claim, Trump’s counsel now argue to the US Supreme Court that the revised order must be read on its face rather than interpreted in the lethal light of Trump’s campaign calls for an outright ban on Muslim immigration. As a matter of law, this is a decent argument. But, as often, Trump undercut himself by tweeting, saying of his latest order that “the lawyers and courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN.”

For good measure, Trump added that the “Justice Department should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down politically correct version they submitted to [the Supreme Court].” Thus, as president, Trump gave his xenophobic campaign rhetoric targeting Muslims fresh relevance — for all the world to see.

Soon enough, the Supreme Court will likely resolve the order’s legality. But that is the least of it. For the implications of Trump’s order far transcend the law.

As counterterrorism, this policy is dumb, dangerous and immoral. It targets “directed attacks” by terrorists dispatched from abroad by groups like ISIS. But there have been no such attacks since 9/11 — by Syrian refugees or anyone else. Indeed, why would ISIS try to thread the needle of our extended vetting process, particularly stringent for Syrians?


The only acts of domestic terrorism have involved radicalized Muslims living in America: “enabled attacks” specifically encouraged by ISIS, or “inspired attacks” by lone-wolf emulators. As the latest attacks in Britain and France reaffirm, this is a threat no responsible president can ignore. Instead, Trump ignores that a critical preventive is the vigilance of America’s overwhelmingly loyal Muslim populace. Trump’s cynical scapegoating escalates risk by prospectively alienating — in the worst case, radicalizing — those we most need, while empowering ISIS’s global narrative of jihad against the West.

Equally damaged is our spirit. It is paramount, surely, for Americans — including American Muslims — to vigorously advocate tolerance and oppose religious absolutism. It is important to identify and reject an extremist interpretation of Islam which contravenes humane values and helps fuel groups like ISIS. And it is imperative that all Americans be alert to specific threats of terrorist violence.

But it is also imperative for our president to help Americans distinguish terrorism and religion — specifically, by utterly rejecting the false narrative that Islam and jihadism are coextensive, an assertion which, in the process, slanders Muslim Americans. By targeting Muslims and shunning Syrians, Trump tramples our tradition of pluralism, and of serving as a refuge for the endangered and oppressed. Already we are experiencing a decline in applications to American colleges by foreign students, who heretofore have seen us as a beacon of openness and who, quite often, have stayed to enrich us with their talents.


Worse, Trump tarnishes us not by inadvertence, but by design.

At the instance of Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House is a magnet for the most disreputable advocates for stigmatizing — indeed dehumanizing — all Muslims as threats to our way of life, inviting Americans to fear and despise fellow Americans. For them, Islam is inevitably a terrorist ideology masquerading as a religion, the very practice of which renders Muslims unfit to be citizens.

Chief is the rabid conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. As Peter Beinart reported in the Atlantic, Gaffney asserts that the Muslim Brotherhood secretly controls most American mosques and Muslim organizations, scheming to replace the US Constitution with a caliphate based on sharia law. Unexplained is how 1 percent of America’s populace — even if unified in a fanciful and fanatic cause all but a handful of them would deplore — could perpetrate a coup.

And yet Bannon calls this erstwhile intellectual pariah “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Another hysteric welcome at the White House is Brigitte Gabriel, whose organization spearheaded last weekend’s anti-Muslim marches decrying the supposed threat of sharia law. Gabriel stridently insists that any “practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America” — and thus, ironically, that Muslims do not deserve the protections granted all Americans by the Constitution.


The influence of these Islamophobic fantatics is pervasive. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and CIA Director Mike Pompeo have close ties to Gaffney, whose ideas permeated Trump’s campaign. Former national security advisor Michael Flynn called Gabriel “a national treasure.” Flynn and Bannon aside, key White House aides Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka personify Islamophobia.

Their goal? This, it seems: to limit further Muslim immigration, and to treat American Muslims as a potential fifth column who, like Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, are unworthy of the rights that Americans enjoy. And, beyond, to popularize a nativist vision of an America rooted in a white Judeo-Christian identity — a place defined not by tolerance and shared ideals, but by tribal loyalties, in which “the other” has no place. Already we discern its face — in schoolyard bullying, desecrated mosques, anti-immigrant slurs, anti-Muslim rallies, and random but deadly shootings and stabbings — most recently in Portland, Ore. — of those who are, or might be, foreign.

The face of Donald Trump’s America.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.