As an Iraqi national, I recently spent about a week stranded in America: had I left the United States, I would have been unable to return. That gave me a chance to think even harder than usual about what a rational policy on Muslim migration to the United States might look like. To begin, let me offer some background.
On May 7, 2015, I took part in a debate on Islamophobia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The event was produced by BAM, WNYC (New York’s National Public Radio affiliate), and local event-promoter Aaron Louis (not the rock singer). My co-participants were influential Muslim figures such as Linda Sarsour, later an organizer of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington; Wajahat Ali of Al Jazeera America; and Bassem Youssef, considered to be the Jon Stewart of the Middle East.
I was not supposed to be part of the debate. I was a last-minute replacement for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had received death threats. There were added security concerns because just four days before, two homegrown terrorists had attacked a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas. (The two were shot dead by guards; the cartoon that won the contest was reprinted in Free Inquiry, October/November 2015.) So I took Hirsi Ali’s place—I guess I was expendable.
BAM’s announcement on its website made no mention of security issues. It said Hirsi Ali had withdrawn “due to unforeseen circumstances.” The intention, I think, was to avoid instilling fear in the audience and to make everything look normal. But it was not; when I arrived at the venue, most of the surrounding streets were controlled by New York City police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs. During the event, security was so tight that a guard accompanied me each time I went outside to smoke a cigarette.
During my presentation, one of the points I made was that just a few miles away on 49th Street, a Broadway show called The Book of Mormon was making fun of the Mormon religion—yet there wasn’t much security there. Meanwhile, here we were, having a formal discussion about Islam, and security was everywhere. I challenged audience members to go home after the event and draw two cartoons: one of Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism, and one of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam—and see which one would earn them death threats for the rest of their lives and either get them killed or forced into hiding. As far as I know, no one accepted the challenge, and I don’t blame them!
What I was trying to highlight, of course, was the fact that the Muslim world, and Islam in particular, are not the same as other religions at this point in time. Yet the cliché, “We are all the same, and all religions are the same,” is continually repeated by ignoramuses on the left as if it were true.
Another relevant event was the June 18, 2016, conference of ex-Muslims, called “Muslimish”—New York’s first such conference and one in which I played a role in organizing. There had been much discussion of whether it was wise to hold the meeting in midtown Manhattan. I and others feared that members of ISIS or some other terrorist group might try to attack our speakers. Indeed, our keynote speaker, Ali A. Rizvi, author of The Atheist Muslim, had received a death threat before the event.
Was I being paranoid? I don’t think so. Participants in other events that dared to confront the topic of Islam had already been threatened. There was the Garland, Texas, incident, of course. Attacks in other counties had included a fatal shooting on February 14, 2015, at a free-speech event in Copenhagen featuring cartoonist Lars Vilks, known for a 2007 cartoon depicting Muhummad’s head on the body of a dog. One bystander was killed; multiple gunmen escaped.1 Only one week before that had come the grisly attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which twelve died.
Two questions kept running through my mind. The first was, “If we can’t organize an event in New York City with a title such as ‘Analyzing Islam,’ then where can we do it?” My second question was, “Do we want more people in this country who are triggered by a cartoon or a speech critical of Islam and want to kill us?”
My answer to the second question is no, of course. But that doesn’t mean I think we should oppose all immigration from Muslim-dominated countries, which is one of the reasons why I oppose Trump’s blanket ban.
Allow me, then, to propose a more rational alternative.
Muslim refugees and immigrants coming from Muslim-dominated countries are like any other human beings in those countries. We can place them on a spectrum from 0 to 10, 0 meaning that they pose no significant security risk and 10 meaning that they pose a clear danger to public safety. Let’s take them in reverse order.
10 to 9. These are violent Islamists, including members of ISIS and al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and similar groups. Other individuals in this category include radical Salafists and Wahabists who tolerate or encourage violent extremism against nonbelievers, gays, and members of religious minorities.
8 to 7. Here belong Islamists who may not be violent but support the ideals of ISIS and al-Qaeda. They may try to use democracy against itself to promote theocracy and seek to implement Sharia law. Groups associated with this viewpoint include Hizb al Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood, Khomeinists, and other Islamist groups active in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Egypt.
6 to 5. These are conservative Muslims who may not adhere to Islamism and may not seek to implement Sharia law in government but who hold deeply problematic views regarding human rights, especially the rights of homosexuals and women. Individuals in this category may not support the Charlie Hebdo attack, but they sometimes justify it by saying that the cartoonists brought it on themselves or shouldn’t have provoked the Muslim world by publishing caricatures of Prophet Mohammad or criticizing him in print.
4 to 3. These are moderately liberal or progressive Muslims; they oppose theocracy in all its forms, but they adhere to the religion in the theological sense and practice it in their own ways. These individuals should be recognized as enormously valuable people in channeling opposition against both radical Islamism and overly rigid interpretations of the faith.
2 to 0. These are people who identify mostly with the cultural aspects of Islam. They oppose theocracy but also happen not to adhere to the theological aspects of the religion. They may maintain some traditions related to the Islamic faith, such as celebrating Eid, Ramadan, and other festivities. This group includes people of Muslim background who are freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and humanists.
When it comes to refugees, I believe in establishing tiers based on the levels of danger they face in their home countries and what other alternatives might be open to them. For example, the secular Bengali bloggers whom al-Qaeda placed on its death list cannot safely be resettled in other Muslim-dominated countries where the legal penalty for apostasy or blasphemy is death. I hope everyone agrees that these bloggers represent no national security threat to the United States whatsoever and that they should be welcomed here. Their existence is hugely valuable because they are contributing intellectually to the war of ideas against jihadists. The same can be said of many others who fall from 4 to 0 on my spectrum. Examples include other religious minorities such as the Yazidis and others who became victims of terrorism because of their faith. These are valuable opponents of radical Islam. Even individuals who fall as high as 6 or 7 on the spectrum should be assisted to escape when necessary to a safer place where they will not face discrimination and their values will not be at odds with those of their host countries. For these people, those conditions might rule out resettlement in the United States.
Of course, the ideal long-term solution is to remove the need for these persons to leave their home countries by working to make those countries places that will no longer export either terrorism or refugees. Until then, we need sensible policies to decide which individuals of Muslim background will and will not be allowed into the United States.
A blanket ban will harm the very people who are on the forefront in the war of ideas against Islamist terrorism. It ignores all the nuances that need to be understood in order to form a more sensible policy.
1. Josh Sanburn, “Deadly Shooting Kills 1 at Copenhagen Free Speech Event,” Time, February 14, 2015, http://time.com/3710252/denmark-shooting-copenhagen-lars-vilks/, accessed February 8, 2017.