The Muslim Ban Reminds Us Exclusion Has Always Been a Fundamental Part of US History

For Muslims, it is imperative to think critically about the narrative around religious freedom, because what is being denied is not simply freedom to practice faith.

[Photo: A young child stands next to a sign, partially out of frame, that reads
This issue goes far beyond what our religious or spiritual beliefs are; it is about being able to simply exist. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire.News

For 241 years, the United States has marked the country’s independence from Great Britain on July 4, celebrating in theory—if not in practice—the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These words have long served as a theoretical framework through which to understand U.S. values, even while numerous eras in the country’s history have brought their hypocrisy to the forefront.

Last week’s 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trump v. Hawaii upholding a ban blocking entrance to people from five Muslim-majority countries, and some people from Venezuela and North Korea, is yet another of such moments. This is the ban’s third iteration; the first came into effect in January 2017, banning those from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Some Muslims are now legally banned from entering the United States. It is past time to examine why our ideals only apply to some and not to all.

The majority opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, written by Justice John Roberts, was that the travel proclamation issued by President Donald Trump was well within the executive’s rights according to section 1182(f) in the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. At the same time, the majority reasoned that religious bias was not a key issue because the ban included non-Muslim-majority countries, and because some Muslim countries included in previous iterations of the ban were removed upon improving security protocols. Further, it reasoned that the proclamation was only directed at a handful of countries, which together only constitute 8 percent of the global Muslim population. In other words, if all Muslims aren’t targeted, than no Muslims are targeted.

To be sure, the Supreme Court decision was a devastating blow to Muslim communities. Prior to the decision, many Muslims seemed to believe that, in spite of its many problematic and violent decisions over the course of history, the nation’s highest Court would see the blatant xenophobia embodied in the proclamation itself as well as in Trump’s Islamophobic remarks made both prior to and after the elections.

But the day of the decision served as yet another point in the long critique of whether equality, justice, and religious freedom are core values extended to all in the United States.

This raises the question of history and whose history we ascribe to. Believing these values are applied universally requires the adoption of a revisionist history that positions exclusion as a deviation rather than preservation of the norm. But exclusion has always been a fundamental aspect of U.S. history. Exclusion of Black people as those deserving of such values is one reason slavery existed during the writing of the Declaration itself. And exclusion from “all” is how indigenous communities could be annihilated while mythical narratives of equality persisted. It’s also how women did not even get a mention in the Declaration itself.

New and insidious ways to criminalize marginalized communities have continued to develop. Still, the narrative of equality has persisted since the Declaration was signed. Though some celebrate July 4 as an affirmation of the values of human equality, others still hope for a future in which those values will actually be realized for all.

The recent decision in Trump v. Hawaii particularly serves to highlight the myth of religious freedom as a cornerstone of U.S. values—not just in terms of the ban itself, but with regard to much of the Muslim experience more generally, from the time Black Muslims were kidnapped and enslaved in the United States to the ongoing “War on Terror.”

As Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American Religious Studies at Yale, notes in the book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, “religious freedom” in the United States privileges certain races, nations, and religions above others. In practical terms, white Protestants leveraged their racial status and attached it to religious superiority. Further claiming religious freedom, Wenger explains, was a means through which non-white groups could diminish the perceived inferiority of being a member of a different race. In other words, religious freedom began as a right for white Protestants, who defined and weaponized whiteness in order to impose a brand of white Christian supremacy that dictated what counted as religion in addition to who would be granted rights.

Rather than being an artifact of the past, this very paradigm was reiterated in the contrast between the Muslim ban decision and another of the Supreme Court’s decisions last month: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. As Sirine Sebaya and Johnathan Smith wrote for HuffPost, “The slightest hint of hostility toward religion is intolerable to the Supreme Court when directed at mainstream Christian beliefs. But years of well-documented, unambiguous animus toward Islam does not hold enough weight to invalidate a policy that has no viable alternative justification.” These two cases, juxtaposed, illustrate how religious freedom, far from becoming a universally applied value, is protecting only those who were thought to be deserving of it in the first place. In other words, the principle of religious freedom does not include Muslims.

The idea that the United States has become “home” for a wide range of religions anchored in the theoretical notion of religious freedom does not fundamentally change the disparate nature of how and to whom such rights are granted. Religious freedom was used in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case to enable a Christian bakery owner to deny service to a gay couple, while in the Muslim ban, religious freedom was claimed as a means to challenge being banned from a country. In these cases, Christians are seeking the right to discriminate against others, while Muslims are seeking the right to be free from state violence in the form of being banned.

Furthermore, in order to situate religious freedom claims in a context that makes them attainable for Muslims, it is important to understand the role of state violence in preserving hierarchies of religious and racial groups.

For Muslims, it is imperative to think critically about the narrative around religious freedom, because what is being denied is not simply freedom to practice faith. It’s the freedom to immigrate, to be free from surveillance, to be free from detention, to be free from torture, and to be free from literally being killed. This issue goes far beyond what our religious or spiritual beliefs are; it is about being able to simply exist.

In the case of the War on Terror specifically, the mistreatment of Muslims is often framed as one superficially related to religious practices rather than to the deep and systemic dehumanization that underlies the abuse of Muslims in the first place. In other words, groups that the system has dehumanized, including Muslims, cannot effectively claim religious freedom. Because it is not the freedom to practice religion that will stop the massive levels of surveillance, profiling, bans, drone attacks, torture, detention, and extrajudicial killing; it is the assertion that Muslims are humans deserving of fundamental rights in the first place. Adherence to the religious doctrine of Islam is important to Muslims, but they can’t truly practice it when they are being droned, tortured, detained, or killed. For example, without understanding the multiple barriers that impede the freedom to practice religion, claiming religious freedom could result in Muslims having the right to pray while being unjustly detained—again, not freedom at all.

If religious freedom is something to be fought for, it should be fought for while dismantling systems of white supremacy, xenophobia, and Islamophobia that exist to justify abuse of Muslims and others. Using the claim of religious freedom—a right often leveraged to oppress those who are not white Christians—only hides deeper systems of oppression. What should therefore be sought is not just religious freedom for adherents of all faiths, but an end to the systems that dehumanize Muslim and other communities.

Progress can only be made through examining the many systems of oppression that serve as a barrier to claiming religious freedom rights. Given that this country takes pride in being founded by those fleeing religious persecution, it is ironic to be perpetuating the same treatment toward Muslims. Perhaps this year’s July 4 will be marked by reflection on how to implement actual justice in this country rather than celebrating a reality that has only existed for some.