Donald Trump isn’t the first Republican to use demonization of Arabs and Muslims as a campaign tactic. And his Administration isn’t the first to implement policies that have adversely affected these communities. But while we have a century of such behaviors, the Trump era has elevated them to a level so dangerous it is imperative that they now finally be confronted and defeated.
During the 1920s, in the midst of the nativist wave that was sweeping the country, Congress added the Arab East to the list of countries and regions excluded from sending immigrants to the United States. In presenting the legislation, the sponsoring senator said, “we don’t need any more Syrian trash in America.” This ban lasted more than two decades, during which time there was no legal Arab immigration to the United States.
The Nixon Administration launched Operation Boulder—a sweeping COINTELPRO operation designed to surveil, infiltrate, harass, and deport Arab students who were engaged in constitutionally protected activities on college campuses. This program continued until 1975.
The Reagan Administration took advantage of the prevailing anti-Arab and specifically anti-Palestinian mood, using Arabs as the weak link in the civil liberties chain. In two important court cases using Palestinians, the Administration pressed for changes that weakened U.S. extradition law and criminalized support for specified Palestinian groups—even where that support was limited to protected First Amendment activities. They also advanced an ominous initiative to build secret mass detention camps that would house tens of thousands of Arabs in case of a “national emergency.”
The Clinton Administration issued directives designed to further criminalize support for a number of mostly Arab groups, even when this “support” was limited to benign activities such as contributing to a charity or selling a newspaper. It also implemented the practice of subjective profiling at airports. Spotters were assigned to routinely identify “Arab-looking” men and women at check-in counters, pull them out of line, and humiliate them by going through their luggage in full view of other passengers.
Following the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush Administration responded in contradictory ways. On the one hand, the President cautioned Americans against singling out Arabs or Muslims for blame. At the same time, his Department of Justice implemented a number of policies that did exactly that. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Department of Justice launched massive roundups of thousands of recent Arab and Muslim immigrants—many of whom were summarily deported. This was followed by two “call-ins” in which thousands of Arabs and Muslims were contacted by mail and ordered to report for interviews with immigration officials. Some of those who received “invitations” were in fact citizens.
All of these practices were only the prelude to the notorious National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), also known as the “Special Registration” program. This program required 180,000 recent immigrants, students, and visitors (from mostly Arab and Muslim-majority countries) to report for interviews, on specified dates, at local immigration offices. Special Registration was poorly conceived, badly implemented, and arbitrarily administered, resulting in 13,000 people being held for deportation, many on technicalities. It’s important to note that no terrorists were ever apprehended as a result of these programs. All they did was create fear and uncertainty in our communities and foster suspicion of Arabs and Muslims in the broader public. The Bush Administration also made use of informants to entrap young susceptible Muslims, and a special joint operation of the New York Police Department and the CIA used coerced informants to infiltrate businesses, community centers, and places of worship, leaving Arabs and Muslims across the city feeling violated.
Even the Obama Administration proved not to be immune from taking measures that would negatively impact Arabs and Muslims. While the Bush-era NSEERS program was suspended, Obama did not officially terminate it until the end of his final term. After years of internal debate, profiling was “ended,” but with a “national security” loophole that allowed law enforcement free rein to target and humiliate Arabs and Muslims at the border and surveil them in their communities. And while Obama expanded outreach to Muslims, it was all too often done in the name of fighting terrorism, tainting the entire effort. And after a Nigerian man who intended to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight was apprehended, the instinctive response of the Obama Administration was to place special onerous restrictions on passengers coming to the United States from specially designated countries—the overwhelming majority of which were Arab.
Along with these damaging discriminatory policies, it’s important to note the hurtful role played by the long history of scapegoating Arabs in American politics. My organization has documented painful experiences of candidates for local and federal posts baiting their opponents for accepting contributions from Arab Americans, or for having an individual of Arab descent on staff. As a result, some candidates became afraid of accepting the support of Arab Americans.
In 2008, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin stoked anti-Arab and anti-Muslim fires in framing her opposition to the Democratic nominee Barack Obama. This effort of focusing on Obama’s “otherness” resulted in the encounter Senator John McCain, the GOP’s nominee, had at a town hall. When accosted by a questioner who insisted that Obama was an Arab, McCain famously responded “No he’s not, he’s a decent family man.” While heralded by some in the media as a sign of McCain’s nobility, Arab Americans, many of whom were “decent family men,” were less than impressed.
In 2010, we witnessed the first time that specifically Muslim-baiting was used in a national campaign. It was utilized by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who latched onto a local New York City controversy involving plans to build an Islamic Community Center a short distance from Ground Zero. Using the language of anti-Muslim bigots, Gingrich said that Muslims were intending to construct a “Victory Mosque” to mark their conquering America. In that year’s congressional elections, 17 Republican candidates ran ominous TV ads accusing their Democratic opponents of being “soft” in their opposition to the “Victory Mosque.”
While only two of the 17 won their races, the die was cast. Fueled by the nativism and xenophobia Republicans had utilized to build the anti-Obama Tea Party and Birther Movement, they embraced anti-Muslim bigotry as a major theme in their political repertoire. By 2012, during a Republican primary presidential debate, the majority of contenders pledged that they would either refuse to appoint an American Muslim to a post in their administration or, at the very least, would insist they first take a pledge of allegiance to the United States before considering them.
While this view was not shared by the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, Muslim-baiting continued to grow within the GOP, setting the stage for Donald Trump in 2016. During that year’s campaign, Muslims were one of candidate Trump’s favored targets—along with Mexicans, refugees, and immigrants in general. In addition to building a wall to keep out Mexicans, he pledged to stop more Muslims from coming into the country and to keep a close eye on those who were already here.
It was, therefore, no surprise that shortly after his inauguration, President Trump issued an executive order suspending and placing restrictions on immigrants or refugees coming from seven mostly Arab and Muslim-majority countries. It was punitive and not justified. Those excluded were mostly students, visiting family members, or businesspeople. Visas were cancelled for between 60,000 to 100,000 innocents who were detained and interrogated, and many were sent back to their countries of origin.
In reaction to negative court decisions that he was unfairly singling out Muslims, Trump issued new executive orders increasing the countries covered in his ban. Nevertheless, the list remained largely focused on, and adversely affected, Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
In an equally cruel act, Trump reduced the annual number of refugees admitted into the country from Obama-era highs of more than 110,000 to less than 20,000. And while his Administration has made much of its concern for Christians, this severe contraction of refugee slots, coupled with the ban on immigration from targeted countries, has severely impacted Arabs without regard for their faith.
The point to note in all of this is that the rhetoric espoused and the policies pursued by the Trump Administration, in fact, have their foundation in a decades-long effort by the GOP to target Arabs and Muslims—and by the failure of Democrats to vigorously confront and defeat these policies.
The well has been poisoned, and it will not be easy to undo the damage done. The challenge, however, is clear. We must put our immigration policy back on a sound non-discriminatory basis. We must dramatically increase our admission of refugees and asylees to meet the growing world demand. We must close the loopholes that make Arabs and Muslims fair game for Customs and Border Patrol officials. And we must fight xenophobia, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies and base our relationships with these communities on their being fellow Americans and not security concerns.