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By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.
This opinion originally appeared at Religion News Service.
The judicial system has dealt a third legal defeat to President Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, instituting a temporary restraining order and injunction to block its implementation. The courts brought up the question of intent by noting public statements by then-candidate Trump about a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
The real intent is still as clear today as it was nearly nine months ago when the current administration announced the first travel ban. The everyday Americans who turned out to spontaneous airport protests across our nation knew the ban was wrong. The courts have consistently agreed.
The organization I lead, Islamic Networks Group, has ample experience to show that increased religious literacy at all levels of society can weaken the foundation that supports discriminatory intent before it becomes policy.
Legal proceedings revolve around intent. Intent is the difference between involuntary manslaughter and murder. Intent is the difference between a harmless literacy test and robbing people of the right to vote. Intent matters because intent shows us the naked truth behind what people do and say.
The first executive order in January made its discriminatory intent crystal clear by providing that people from the banned countries could enter the U.S. if they were of “minority religions” — i.e., Christians — in their home country. Only people of the majority religion — Islam — were banned.
But where does this discriminatory intent come from? And why can politicians count on support for such discriminatory policies from a substantial segment of the public?
For the past 25 years, in our work with diverse audiences across the country, we’ve found an answer: ignorance of Muslims and their faith. A 2017 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey found that relatively few Americans regularly interact with Muslims, with 62 percent saying that they seldom or never engage in conversation with Muslims.
We’ve delivered tens of thousands of educational programs about or involving American Muslims, so we’ve seen first-hand how impactful those basic conversations can be in dispelling negative stereotypes.
That same PRRI survey showed that 67 percent of people who talk with Muslims at least occasionally agree that Muslims are an important part of the American religious landscape versus 45 percent of those who have never spoken with a Muslim in the last year. This carries over into the rest of public life.
According to a 2017 Pew Forum poll, while perceptions of all religious groups have improved in recent years, Americans view Muslims most negatively with an average rating of 48 out of 100, compared to: Atheists at 50; Mormons at 54; Hindus at 58; Buddhists at 60; Evangelical Christians at 61; Catholics at 66; and Jews at 67.
Education and positive interaction can turn things around. Our audience surveys show that after 45 minutes of education and engagement about and with Muslims the percentage of those who believe that American Muslims are “Islamists” hostile to the United States falls by 50 percent; the percentage believing that American Muslims are insular and foreign falls by 75 percent.
Our surveys almost always include feedback like, “I had no idea Islam was so closely tied to Judaism and Christianity” or “I used to view Muslims as some kind of foreign group, but they’ve been in America since the Revolutionary War.” All it takes is honest dialogue and exchange.
In 1924, Atlantic magazine wrote that Americans “have convinced ourselves by repeating to each other, that we are still as we were: a liberty-loving people who make no invidious distinctions between men of different race and religion … We still look with the same scorn as formerly upon the poor European countries where anti-Semitism is so great a factor, and Catholic wars upon Protestant.”
But in the late 1930s, as thousands of German Jews fled their homeland for safety abroad, we slammed our gates shut for the same arguments: they could be spies, they carry diseases, they steal jobs from loyal Americans. Those arguments — and the clear intent behind them — are no more viable today.
Now, decades later, we still want to believe that we are better, that we’ve moved past the old divisions and prejudices that so negatively affected our ancestors. The current situation has proven that the demons of religious prejudice and xenophobia still haunt us. It’s up to us to quell their influence.
Fortunately, our Constitution itself speaks out against such discriminatory attitudes, promising us the freedom to exist without fear of government persecution based on how we look or how we choose to pray. Travel bans loosely based on nationality to obscure their true, religiously-hostile intent violate that promise and seek to divide us against our fellow Americans.
We know the intent behind the Muslim bans. What will our intent be? We must commit ourselves to education and engagement with unfamiliar religions and cultures. This would go a long way in dispelling the fears that lead to bad policy like the travel bans.