Understandably, Donald Trump’s suggestion that non-US Muslims seeking entry into the United States should be barred until we figure out what is going on with Muslims and the United States has caused worldwide consternation and condemnation, but I would like to propose that even such outrageous and profoundly un-American statements could be leveraged to make some progress in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
Even as the rights of Muslim citizens and residents in Europe and America must be vigorously protected against the rising tide of right-wing political movements, we could use this moment to let leaders in the Islamic world know that they need to help us counter the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments by implementing real changes that would reassure the frightened West that Islam is not out to undermine our values. The American republic, we need to tell them, was founded on the separation of church from state, the right of each and every citizen to hold public office, the protection of all religious beliefs, and the freedom of expression. These are the pillars of Americanism, which we share with many West European and other nations around the world.
Unfortunately, no Muslim-majority nation, especially if it is Arab, can claim to share these values. In such societies, a head of state can only be Muslim; non-Muslims are constantly harassed; and there is no freedom of expression. In many of these nations, hard-working immigrants are treated like a sub-human species and the right of citizenship eludes residents, even if they are Muslim and have lived in the host country for generations.
The human rights record of such nations is abysmal, too. Women routinely endure male aggression everywhere they go. Non-conformists are persecuted. While educational systems and a culture of scientific research and inquiry are in depressingly poor states, the religion of Islam acts as the ultimate arbiter of morals, taste, and a good life generally. No Western consumer ever comes across a product invented and manufactured in an Arab or even Muslim nation. Al Jazeera and other Arab-funded television stations may exude a sense of modernity, but they are all show and no substance.
In short, with few exceptions, most Arab and Muslim nations are failed states because they have not built the real foundations for prosperity and stability. Living off oil money is not a long-term strategy for development. The only thing left to Muslims to feel good about is a religion that tells them that they are the best people in the eyes of God and that being a good Muslim is what matters most.
One can now see how things escalate. What makes a good Muslim? Praying for salvation is one way, but so is avenging the honor of the insulted prophet. What’s a good Muslim to do with a sister who has an out-of-wedlock relationship? What is he to think of Jews who are depicted as deceptive and prophet-killers in the Koran? Should homosexuality be criminalized and fornicators persecuted, or even executed? Would such a good Muslim accept that alcohol and pork be sold and consumed in his town or city? Will a good Muslim leader allow people to proclaim their atheism or conversion to other religions in public and write about it?
Muslims lead double lives almost everywhere these days. With feet firmly implanted in modernity, their heads remain enchained by the decrees of a medieval religion and can’t seem to break free from its mighty powers. Religion can be comforting, for sure, but, in the case of Islam, it has become a serious impediment to progress. Its first victims are Muslims themselves, since they know, deep down, that regardless of their constant proclamations about the superiority of their religion and the inferiority of the decadent West, they are hopelessly dependent of the latter’s magical and life-enhancing products. Every now and then, frustrated Muslims embrace extremism to avoid this life of acute contradictions and erase all uncertainties by fighting in the name of God. They escape their maddening lives by seeking martyrdom.
Open-minded Americans and Westerners may find Trump’s proposal repugnant, but Trump is exploiting a gaping hole in our approach to Islam. This is why we need to ask leaders of Muslim-majority nations to open up their societies to free thinkers, protect religious and cultural diversity, give equal rights to women, and change laws to make them consistent with life in the modern world. In other words, it’s up to Muslims to decide how they want the Trumps and the Le Pens of the world to see them.
We can’t help Muslims if they don’t help us.