Calls by the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination to ban or severely limit immigration by Muslim refugees are probably counterproductive and maybe even un-American. But they’ve got an appealing logic that can be put to good use politically.
Let’s not mince words: Many brutal atrocities are being committed today in the name of Islam. The great majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims have nothing to do with this violence, but it’s easy to connect them to the faith that vicious zealots proclaim.
In fact, when our passions are aroused, we Americans have difficulty making precise distinctions about the causes. Thus, one of my officers in the Navy told us that on Nov. 22, 1963, a brick was thrown through his windshield because his name was Dallas. Thus, in November 2015 a bookstore in Denver was vandalized for the fourth time because it was named 35 years ago after an Egyptian goddess, Isis.
And thus, because we associate Islam with terrorism, many Americans immediately reject the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq on the basis of their religion. This position isn’t irrational, but it doesn’t give us much credit for our capacity to make judicious decisions about whom we should admit and whom we should not.
The easiest course — and safest, I guess — is to reject them all. But Syrians and Iraqis — many of them desperate women and children — who do not find refuge somewhere will be condemned to miserable, short lives. By comparison with other countries, the U.S. response to the refugee crisis has been modest, and one wonders how well the surrender of the moral high ground on this issue will serve us as we compete for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere.
What Muslims think about us matters. Islam is at a point of crisis. The Sunni/Shia divide is more than a thousand years old, and the United States is unlikely to play any effective role whatsoever in its resolution. But the other, bigger crisis — between modernity and moderation at one pole and rigid fundamentalism at the other — has a long way yet to play out.
I’m betting on modernity and moderation. No one should presume to tell Muslims how to practice their faith, but as human culture becomes more global, the rights, comforts and pleasures of individuals tend to gain ground on the inflexible strictures imposed by traditional institutions. A religion that prohibits entirely the use of alcohol? That requires its practitioners to prostrate themselves humbly five times a day? To fast from sunup until sundown for a full month every year?
If these demanding practices help Muslims find peace and God, no one has a right to gainsay them. But Islam will never make its way into the modern world — or rid itself of the wretched radicals at its fringes — until it raises the status of women and abandons the exclusivity that convinces its adherents that they have a monopoly on spiritual truth.
Other religions are in the transition from inflexible, exclusive, overbearing doctrine to a more tolerant, modern and progressive spiritual perspective, though not all of them have completed the journey. Islam can make this transition, as well, and indeed many Muslims already have.
This is another good reason to admit more Muslims to the U.S.: The Department of Commerce says that about 111,000 Saudis are studying in U.S. colleges and universities. Inside Higher Ed reports that around 10,000 young Iranians are studying in the U.S. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has said that the number of students from Iran should be at least 50,000 more.
It’s a good bet that nearly all of the children of Muslim refugees and nearly all of the students who study in the U.S. will be moved from inflexibility toward tolerance by their experience among free people who value the rights, comforts and pleasures of the individual.
Will this push Islam’s center of gravity toward moderation and modernity? It’s worth a try; it has a better chance than simply bombing more Muslims.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. His email address is email@example.com.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.