war on the rocks

A Letter to Trump from a Muslim-American, Father, and Professor of Strategy

June 27, 2016

Mr. Trump,

I am writing to you about your statements about the Muslims living in America. I will not comment on your much-debated opinions about banning immigration from certain countries. I am more concerned about your comments that directly speak to the Muslim citizens — and, to an extent, legal residents — of the United States.

Recently, you openly suggested that the Muslim population in the United States should be profiled. Furthermore, you incriminated millions of U.S. citizens (3.3 million, according to Pew) as accessories or accomplices to terrorism and hate crimes by implying that they “know something” (about terrorists and their plans) but keep it to themselves. Put simply, your statements constitute a recipe for disaster. I say this as a Muslim-American, a father, and a professor of strategy who specializes on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

I am a Muslim-American who was naturalized in 2011. I was born and raised in Istanbul and lived there until into my mid-20s. I came to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in political science and became an American citizen right after I earned my degree from the University of Chicago. I spent my life as a member of Turkey’s ultra-secular minority (perhaps around 25 percent of the population), and cannot be called a religious person. But, if we are to follow your advice for profiling, that is irrelevant. I was born in a Muslim-majority country. That would be sufficient for you to profile me as a Muslim.

To be fair to you, Mr. Trump, you would not be first one to think in those terms. When I first arrived in the United States over a decade ago, I used to commute between Chicago and upstate New York almost every weekend. Our train would usually stop in Buffalo for the border patrol to run security checks and approach those they deemed “suspicious.” I would be among the few selected for inquiry, almost every single time. They would not ask about my visa, citizenship, religious beliefs, or even for identification. They would ask a simple question: “Sir, where were you born?”  Once I told them I was born in Turkey, then questions followed. September 11 was still fresh for many. I understood that, in the end, the federal officers were doing their job to make travel safe for everyone. But I also felt the glimpses of the kind of profiling you are now championing.

Being seen as a Muslim does not bother me at all. Even though I myself am not religiously observant, I spent most of my life among practicing Muslims in Turkey. In the United States, some of my good friends proudly identify as Muslims. I am also used people assuming I am a practicing Muslim due to my complexion and name. I never felt embarrassed of my heritage. But what you are suggesting is something else: government-run, systematic profiling. And you are making the case for profiling the Muslims of the United States based on the assumption that every single one of them can be potential terrorists or their accomplices. This kind of profiling would be the most effective way for making sure that the Muslims living in America feel unwelcome, alienated, and under threat.

Therein lies your major contradiction. You often complain that Muslims have failed to assimilate into the general American society. Now, research on the topic suggests that you are simply wrong. But that you got your facts wrong is less important than the potential implications of your proposal.  What you are suggesting will ensure that Muslims living in the United States will never have the opportunity to fully integrate into the American society. In simple terms, the “cure” you propose — that is, nationwide profiling — will create the kind of problem that you complain about. To paraphrase, if generously, none other than yourself, such measures would be “an attack on the right of every single [Muslim] American to live in peace and safety in their own country.”

Once you open the gates for such profiling, where will you and your followers stop? If profiling does not work as well as you suggest, what would be the next step? Asking Muslims to publicly denounce their religion? Concentration camps and mass deportation of the Muslim residents and citizens of the United States may sound unrealistic or controversial at the moment, but the difference between the kind of profiling you promote and such measures is one of degree, not category. Once the United States plunges into mass profiling, the next steps will be much easier. And once that happens, America will never be great again. In fact, it will never be the same America. It will be a place where the government will be categorizing its citizens and residents by asking not only “where they were born,” but also “where their parents were born.”

As a father, that is a question I hope my son never has to face. In fact, Mr. Trump, as a father, I owe him to do whatever I can so that he does not end up in the system that you propose. So, in my own way, writing this letter is prompted partially by the responsibility I feel for taking care of him to my best ability, and writing is the main tool I have as an academic.

Now, my son, who is six, was born in Chicago, which means he can hope to be the president of the United States one day, just like any kid who was born in this country. While we gave him a Turkish name, we raise him as an American, and a proud one. Ask him where he is from, for example, and he will either say “Chicago” or “America.” In the America that you propose, there will be people telling him that he is “not American enough” and therefore not to be trusted. When we talk about the world map and different countries, I tell him that America is the greatest nation in the world and he agrees with me. If you become president and enact these measures, I am not sure if I will be able look him in the eye and say the same thing.

You can respond, Mr. Trump, by telling me that I should have nothing to worry about (if I am being “honest” about my secular leanings, that is) and that the profiling you propose aims to address exactly this issue: to sort out the “good Muslims” from the “bad Muslims.” The question, however, remains: What will millions of kids who will be “classified” as Muslims feel when they understand that their own country is treating them as potential terrorists? As a first generation immigrant, I made a conscious choice to come to the United States and become a citizen. In the meantime, I have developed a tough skin vis-a-vis being labeled this and that, as many first generation immigrants feel compelled to do. But, things are much more different for our children, as they were born here and here is the only home they know of. Telling them they are foreigners and suspects in their home just because they were born into a certain family would only alienate the next generation of Muslim Americans.

Furthermore, what will be your criteria for sorting out good Muslims from the bad ones? There are more than 3 million Muslims in America and we can count only a handful of domestic terrorist attacks carried out in the name of global jihad. Do you think, Mr. Trump, that you have a sufficient understanding of the religion and its practitioners to sort out, via profiling, the elusive one-in-a-million terrorist? You may respond by saying that, once elected, you will assemble the best experts on the topic and let them figure it out. I will say two things to that effect. First, as painful as it might be to admit, our “experts” do not always get it right, especially when religion and religious affiliations are at play.

Second, being more religious does not automatically make someone more likely to end up as a terrorist.  As I wrote above, I call myself secular; but that should not mislead you to think that practicing Muslims are to be suspected. Only a very small, in fact, miniscule, minority of Muslims adhere to the kind of outlook championed by jihadist groups. In fact, domestic jihadist terrorists barely understand not only the religion they claim to profess, but even the ideologies of the terrorist organizations they support. Take the example of the Orlando shooter, whose grasp of the ideologies of different violent groups was so limited and warped that he supported Hezbollah (a Shia militant group) before becoming a “fan” of the Islamic State (a group that aims to eliminate the Shia). Regardless, by claiming allegiance to the Islamic State before the massacre, he single-handedly fueled the notion that he was committing the deed in the name of Islam. The goal is to create the illusion that whoever adheres to Islam may potentially sympathize with the shooter’s deeds.

In fact, jihadist groups want all of us to think on those terms. They want to make Muslims of the world think that the United States hates them just because they are Muslims. I will admit that it does not take a U.S. Naval War College professor who specializes and lectures on these matters to see through jihadist organizations’ strategy: Such groups want the United States to over-react in domestic politics and fuel the sense of alienation and frustration among the Muslim populations, which is their bread and butter.

You, Mr. Trump, want to give them that overreaction, which would directly play to the hands of our enemies.

We are going through trying times. It is likely that the Orlando massacre may inspire further attacks. We must be vigilant, yet also careful. Above all, the United States should avoid measures that will make the challenge even more daunting. You are suggesting a policy that not only does build on existing paranoia and biases, but also one that fuels them. Your proposal is a textbook example of what can be called a counter-productive strategy. I would strongly urge you to reconsider your position on the matter.

 

Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College, where he lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: David Shankbone, CC