Politifact recently did a “deep dive” asking whether Donald Trump really meant it when he called for a registry of Muslims? Did he intend to include all Muslims or just some? Was it supposed to only apply to Syrian refugees? Or was it, as Trump himself explained, a casual slip?
Their deep dive showed that Trump has truly obfuscated on this question. When pushed on MSNBC, Fox and other media about what he meant with his initial comment about a registry, he diverted to refugees though at the same time not ruling out every Muslim in the US. Politifact concluded that he intended to look at registering refugees first and then maybe expand the scheme.
NPR has reported that a registry wouldn’t be unprecedented. In fact, after 9/11 the Bush administration created a registry vetting people from terror-prone countries. This was called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). Twenty five countries, mainly majority Muslim, were covered by the registry. All those coming in to the US on a short-term visa were to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted.
83,000 people were impacted with about 13,000 removed for various violations. In terms of catching people of interest as potential terrorists, the number was a somewhat more paltry eleven. At a cost of $10m a year, the decision was eventually made that a more forensic targeting approach would be better than blanket surveillance of everybody from a particular country.
It looks like then, as Vox reported recently, that Trump will be reviving NSEERS. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach was involved with NSEERS and has indicated that this is the program that will be brought back as opposed to a new full-blown Muslim database. However, it remains to be seen if this will be good enough for his boss.
According to the Cato Institute – the answer is yes. On what basis? Because Muslims in the United States have opinions on issues like abortion and homosexuality that are more in line with the general population than in Europe.
Cato quotes stats from Pew and Gallup showing that while 58% of Britons find homosexuality morally acceptable, next to no British Muslims do. While in the US, it’s 48% of the US who are fine with gay rights and 27% of American Muslims. So the gap in attitudes between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US seems to be much narrower.
On abortion, 55% of Britons are fine with abortion while only 5% of British Muslims find it morally acceptable. Go to the US and it’s 55% of non-Muslims who think abortion is moral compared to 40% of Muslims. Again, a narrower gap.
Cato then moves on to the labour market. In the US, Muslims are more likely to be in work than non-Muslims. That is reversed in Europe where unemployment rates are alarmingly high – particularly among women. This non-participation in the labour market creates a gulf between Muslims and the rest of society, Cato argues.
Something else is going on that may explain better assimilation in the United States than in Europe. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Muslims who believe in a literal approach to scripture fell eight percentage points from 50% while the non-literalists rose by 10%. Pew has also found that at least 23% of US residents raised in Muslim households had left their religion altogether.
This contrasts with Europe where second and third generation Muslims have often parted company with their parents’ cultural Islam seeking instead a globalised Muslim identity. That can include the hyper-literalism of salafism and in some instances, an adherence to extremist Islamism. But the picture is not all grim. London has a Muslim mayor who is a role model of integration and several Muslims sit in parliament. An increasing number of Muslims are successful in business and the arts but nevertheless, a degree of alienation clearly persists.
In spite of what looks like a rosier picture in the US, this did not stop the 2016 presidential election including a call by the Republican candidate Donald Trump to impose a ban on any more Muslims entering the country. Yet Muslims appear to have been an assimilation success story – especially compared to Europe.
A report released in 2012 by the Pew Research Center estimated that about 9% of the US prison population was Muslim. What made this statistic particularly shocking was that Muslims made up less than 1% of the population in the United States. This huge over-representation continues today – so what is the reason?
Conversion to Islam behind bars plays a big role in bumping up the statistics. Research has shown that 80% of all conversions in US prisons are to Islam. Converts include Hispanics, African-Americans and whites. Approximately 35,000 prisoners convert each year totally about 420,000 new Muslims introduced to the faith behind bars since 9/11.
The question being debated among prison experts in both Europe and the US is whether adopting Islam contributes to the rehabilitation of prisoners or their radicalisation. Some in the system claim the former but examples of radicalised prisoners are not difficult to find. Back in 2005, Kevin James was sentenced to 16 years in prison for plotting to attack Jewish and military facilities. He had formed his terrorist group, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, while behind bars.
In 2014, Alton Nolen beheaded a work colleague just after being suspended from his job. It transpired that he had been converted to Islam during a previous jail term in Oklahoma. His conversion seemed to result in improved behaviour and Nolen was released early. The attack he then went on to commit came at a time when Daesh was beheading hostages on film and releasing the footage on social media. Nolen’s Facebook page had a beheading image as well as a photo of Osama bin Laden.
There is a long tradition of conversion to Islam in US prisons, for example Malcom X and Eldridge Cleaver who came to national prominence in the 1960s as radical African-American political activists. The question is whether those converting today are subscribing to Islam as understood by most of the world’s Muslims or instead to a violent Islamist/salafi-jihadi ideology. It also has to be established who is doing the radicalising. More often than not, it’s assumed to be cellmates but we will investigate in future blog posts whether some chaplains play a role.
On October 27, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center published what it claimed was a “field guide” to the fifteen “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”. A post on the SPLC website website explained:
Ever since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, American Muslims have been under attack. They have been vilified as murderers, accused of conspiring to take over the United States and impose Shariah religious law, described as enemies of women, and subjected to hundreds of violent hate crime attacks.
It went on to allege that a network of anti-Muslim extremists and their “enablers” had been demonising the entire Islamic faith, characterising Muslims as terrorists and determined to undermine the US constitution. The SPLC got together with three other organisations – Media Matters for America, the Center for New Community and ReThink Media – to compile this field guide primarily aimed at journalists.
A stated aim of the guide was to encourage newsrooms not to use these voices as they would spread falsehoods about Islam and encourage hate based violence. The fifteen names included anti-immigrant voices like Ann Corcoran as well as high profile blogger Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both of whom have attempted to forge links to Europe’s Far Right and have been banned from entering the UK. But more contentiously, the field guide listed Majid Nawaaz, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir member who has campaigned in the UK against the Islamist ideology he once adhered to.
Nawaaz works at the Quilliam Foundation, a group that takes a strong position against both Islamist ideology and the salafi-jihadism of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Its anti-Islamism and support for the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy has earned Quilliam the ire of Islamist-inclined groups who reacted very favourably to the field guide and bated Nawaaz with his inclusion in the list of anti-Muslim extremists.
The problem with the field guide is that while Geller and Spencer are undeniably hostile to Islam as a faith, Nawaaz is a practising Muslim. He opposes Islamism as a regressive ideology within Islam as opposed to denigrating his own faith. He wants Islam to be reconciled with liberalism and western values, a far cry from the implied allegation that he seeks to provoke hate crime against his fellow Muslims.
So what was the evidence against Nawaaz from the SPLC?
- Nawaaz reportedly claimed: “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics”. This is an argument about the tactics employed by Islamists but makes no general statement about Muslims as a whole.
- He called for the niqab to be removed in “identity sensitive” areas like airports and banks. Many feminist Muslims would take issue with this intrusion into women’s rights and in light of events in France, where niqab bans have been championed by the Far Right, one hopes Nawaaz would drop this suggestion in future
- He tweeted the infamous Jesus and Mo cartoon, leading to death threats against himself. Here, the SPLC falls into the Islamist trap of defining Islamophobia beyond attacks on Muslims and their property to calling for blasphemy laws, the like of which were scrapped a hundred years ago in Europe and have been viewed as undemocratic and unconstitutional in the United States
- The SPLC mentions his trip to a strip club, reported in April 2015. What relevance this has to being an alleged “anti-Muslim extremist” is anybody’s guess.