Donald Trump’s position statement last week excluding Muslims from entering the United States generated a round of bipartisan condemnation, as the White House spokesperson asserted that the statement disqualified Trump from the Presidency and Dick Cheney, among others, argued that the position “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” While I certainly agree that Trump’s discriminatory approach should be rejected, the effort to exclude the excluder invites reflection on acts of identification.
Rather than being satisfied with the superficial similarity between exclusionary statements, particular differences between them are significant. Cheney’s opposition to Trump’s policy statement rejected one individual’s direct assertion by constructing a notion of “us” (presumably Americans) that excludes the statement (but not necessarily the individual who made it, as the White House spokesperson’s statement suggested). As Trump also uses the language of American values at times, the struggle over what that label American references is at least implicit within these assertions. In contrast, Trump’s policy proposal to exclude anyone identified as Muslim is a generalized exclusion, not attuned towards a specific, identifiable person’s statements or actions. Drawing on particular stereotyped images of Muslims, it treats everyone identified as Muslim as suspect and hides the significant differences and contestation that abounds among those who identify as Muslim. Those who have extended the critique of Trump to all of Trump’s supporters, even using terms such as racist to identify and exclude them (note the Facebook method of identifying which of your friends have liked Trump’s page), resemble Trump’s approach of broad, generalized exclusion. In my experience, I seldom agree completely with any politician, even when I identify as a supporter. I suspect that some of his supporters similarly may not embrace this policy position.
The operationalization of Trump’s position, or similar positions that posit a religious test, such as limiting refugees admitted to the US to those who are Christian, is even more complicated. Assuming a singular, uncontested religious identification fails to acknowledge the complexity in which people live. When Jeb Bush discussed accepting only Christian refugees from Syria, he became almost speechless when pushed by a skeptical reporter (watch the first 10 seconds).
Reporter: So what does the focus on Christian families actually look like?
Jeb Bush: What, you are a Christian. I mean, you can prove you are a Christian; it’s the . . .
Jeb Bush shrugs.
As many people recognize, who counts as Christian or Muslim is a highly contested issue. Not only can people strategically represent their religious identification, even changing their name and visible practices, but many people also participate in a range of activities that cross boundaries that some assume divide distinct religious identifications. Beyond ISIS’s narrow definition of who is a Muslim, which leads them to attack (as self-proclaimed defenders of Islam) others who also identify as Muslim, many people engage in the festivals and rituals of a range of ostensibly separate religions. Identifying a person’s “true” religious identification is thus problematic and has resulted in events like the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. So, beyond the fact that these policies of exclusion run counter to the understandings that many have of US values and the ideals enshrined in the Constitution, they also rely on the implicit assumption that religious identifications are clear, unchallenged, and obvious to any observer, assumptions that do not match the experiences that many have in the world.
Image credit: “Algodones Sand Dune Fence” by US Border Patrol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons