In the game of bridge, when a trump card is played to win a trick, that’s known as a ruff.
In the game of politics, when Donald Trump uses tricks to try to win votes, he plays rough.
Pursuing the Republican nomination for president, the bumptious Trump has been on a roll. His tough-guy rhetoric – topped recently by his outlandish call to bar Muslims from entering the country – has excited his corps of supporters while leaving even many of his fellow Republicans shaking their heads.
Perhaps Trump actually believes that an embargo on Muslim entry would be practical and effective as a way of reducing the risks of terror attacks on U.S. soil. Or perhaps more likely, he’s using the cynical tactics of demagogues down through history who have boosted themselves by stoking voters’ anxieties and fears.
Either way, to have a candidate who’s in the running to be his party’s nominee for the White House advocating such an ill-conceived policy is a troubling sign of troubled times.
Surely Americans have good reason to consider what further measures could and should be taken to prevent more tragedies such as the massacre in San Bernardino, committed by a Muslim husband and wife as an act of terrorism in support of the murderous Islamic State now ravaging Syria and spawning havoc in Europe.
A reflexive response might be to say that all Muslims in this country should get the heave-ho. Or be locked up. Or something equally unworkable and unfair.
But that’s where good leaders must meet the test. A sense of urgency is fine. What’s not fine is a pell-mell rush to trash principles that are fundamental to the American way of life – and also are bound not to make us safer but to make matters worse.
Trump’s no-more-Muslims call also runs smack up against ecumenical ideals of religious tolerance. The N.C. Council of Churches is among the groups that seek to build bridges of understanding among people of different faiths, in the belief that good will and a respect for other traditions are essential in the search for peace. Treating all Muslims as proto-terrorists goes utterly in the wrong direction.
Sorry, wrong profile
Practically speaking, a bar to Muslim entry could not be enforced with any semblance of logic or order. There is no feasible way to screen someone on the basis of religious belief. The screening would boil down to a form of ethnic profiling. Someone from the Middle East with an Arab name would be excluded.
The broad-brush offensiveness of such a tactic would send a message to Muslims everywhere: The United States regards you as a threat based not on something you personally may have said or done, but because of the actions of others in the cultural group to which you belong.
You may abhor those actions. No matter – you’re guilty by association and thus must be barred from the Land of the Free. All that does is fertilize the ground on which grievances and animosities can flourish and grow into full-fledged hatreds – the kind of hatreds that inspire mass shooters, suicide bombers, perhaps even terrorism on par with 9/11.
Of course there have to be careful procedures designed to weed out people from abroad who would come to this country to maim and kill. The United States, working with its allies, has a vast intelligence and law enforcement apparatus that seems to have been up to the task ever since the 9/11 attacks awakened us to the extent of the Islamic terrorist threat.
The San Bernardino shootings could have been an exception, although it’s not clear when the couple’s radical views convinced them to strike. Still, this would be an exception illustrating by contrast the overall effectiveness of U.S. entry screening.
Trump has conceded that his approach would have to be flexible enough to allow entry of Muslim foreign leaders, for example, or athletes. But as a day-to-day process, would someone have to prove he or she was not a Muslim to be allowed entry? And how would that proof be made? Such a system could be gamed up one side and down the other.
Different faiths, one country
From the standpoint of a progressive Christian organization such as the Council, the larger points have to do with vilifying people because they follow another religious creed – one that has many millions of peaceful adherents even if it’s been perverted by a minority of violent radicals.
We are humble enough to acknowledge that horrible acts of violence – domestic terrorism if one wants to call it that – have been committed by Americans with no Muslim ties whatsoever who perhaps even have had Christian backgrounds. Keeping us safe from the Dylann Roofs and Adam Lanzas and James Holmses is by all indications a more vexing problem than protecting us from Muslims so alienated and radicalized that they’d come here to make mayhem. In any case, tighter laws regarding access to guns and ammunition are surely in order.
The spirit of religious pluralism has been central to the American democratic experience from the country’s founding. Yes, there have been threats to that spirit from time to time, led by the intolerant, the fearful, those lusting for power and influence. But we stand by our principles that people should be free to practice the religion of their choosing and that there should be no religious tests for those who would hold public office.
To deny entry into this country to people who were otherwise qualified, simply on the basis of their religious affiliation, would devalue the religion in question and implicitly devalue the citizenship of every American practitioner of that faith.
Donald Trump may make some political hay with his anti-Muslim proposal, at least among the impressionable and anxious voters to whom he appeals. But wiser leaders or would-be leaders realize the dangers in demonizing Muslims in this fashion. And churches can be in the forefront of extending hands of friendship across this religious divide.