The Urgency of Consistency: Religious Freedom and National Security

Responding to: Immigration Executive Order and National Security

February 21, 2017

The recent decision of the Trump administration to emphasize the perceived security threat posed by immigrants, visa holders, and refugees stands in contradiction to Trump’s stated support for a robust religious freedom policy. Since its foundation, the United States has stood as a refuge for people of faith fleeing persecution, repression, and bigotry. Prioritizing the remote likelihood (one estimate is 1 in 3.64 billion) that terrorists might hide among the vast numbers of individuals seeking a better life in the United States demonstrates its lack of resolve in promoting freedom in spite of any protestations to the contrary.

During the 2016 election campaign, Mr. Trump made clear his intention to introduce a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. At the time, the promise seemed to call for some sort of religious test would be applied to control who would and would not be allowed into the country, eliminating all the “bad” Muslims and welcoming the “good.” However, as a popular 1930s radio vigilante taught us, no one “knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”

The words of the executive order issued on January 27 indicate that “the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.” This would imply the need to engage in some sort of mind-reading of those seeking entry. Refugees and visa applicants already go through an extensive process that investigates their background and past associations. The executive order admits that the expectation of higher-level vetting imposes an “investigative burden” on the relevant agencies that needs to be relieved. For this reason, it targets countries of origin, not radical motivations. The only way that the administration could seek to limit Muslim immigration ultimately is to create a list of Muslim-majority states from which the largest flow of refugees and visa holders come—many of them fleeing the very terrorists the United States seeks to exclude.

A religious test that claims to identify threats to the United States based on the inner beliefs of visa applicants is unrealistic at best. Regardless, a ban on the free movement of people to the United States from select countries is a blunt instrument that achieves neither the problematic aims of a religious test nor the protection of those who have a legitimate fear of persecution. The fact that the vast majority of these affected by the order are either critics of the radical Islamic fringe or its victims erodes the long-term U.S. commitment to freedom as a pillar of foreign security policy.

True, the way in which the executive order opened a back door to religious minorities while closing the front door to the Muslim majority has the appearance of a commitment to religious freedom. Under the provisions of the order, the secretaries of state and homeland security may admit “a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution” as a refugee on a case-by-case basis. Though secularists and dissidents from majority Muslim backgrounds might feasibly fall under the definition of religious minorities, it seems clear that this provision is aimed at extending special privileges of entry to Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslim minorities.

The desire to extend refuge to religious minorities is laudable, and may indeed preserve many of these minorities from extinction. But in effect, this provision undermines the even-handed application of the principle of religious freedom. It thereby makes a mockery of it among the very people we wish to convince of its importance. By promoting the interests of minority populations at the expense of Muslims, U.S. policy encourages Middle Easterners to view it as a power interested only in defending specific groups of people—most notably Christians. At a time when many advocates of these minorities are promoting a safe haven in northern Iraq and their renewed protection in a pluralist state, the United States’ decision to marginalize Muslims who have well-founded claims to equal protection reeks of hypocrisy. In Middle Eastern societies, the appearance of sectarian allegiance speaks volumes—and it will only embolden radicals’ claim that the United States is at war with the Muslim world.

U.S. national security is not divisible from American ideals and interests abroad. The pursuit of freedom for religious and other minority communities in states such as Iraq, Iran, or Syria—and the defeat of America’s enemies in those very states—requires a robust and even-handed commitment to the rebuilding of pluralist and democratic norms, not an embrace of the sectarian politics that led to civil war and chaos in the first place. In seeking to defend U.S. security, the controversial executive order that limits immigration from these key battlegrounds puts the American project at risk both abroad and at home. Instead, the administration should renew its commitment to religious freedom as a central plank in a security policy that promotes liberty abroad while extending refuge to the most vulnerable, regardless of faith or country of origin.

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The Urgency of Consistency: Religious Freedom and National Security