Posted by: Titus Presler | February 8, 2017

Visas & violence, bias & welcome, refugees & persecution, gospel & mission – Weighing in on Trump’s executive order

‘Have been hoping you might weigh in on the Muslim ban,’ a friend wrote to me last week.  The issue has naturally been of intense interest to me, given my background in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country, and I’m grateful to my friend for prodding me to share reflections in this space.

Much of the public response to President Trump’s executive order on immigration has been influenced by his disgraceful campaign rhetoric about banning all Muslims from entering the USA and his over-heated presidential assertions about the threat of terrorist attacks from the seven countries from which immigration, even for refugees, is banned under the executive order: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Widespread protests against the executive order have rightly decried the appearance of anti-Muslim bias, the precipitous and slipshod rollout of a sharply disruptive policy, the blatant fear-mongering that Trump regularly trumpets in support of it, his callous disregard for the plight of refugees worldwide, and his vicious attacks on judges who have challenged the order on the grounds of constitution and law.

As many know, I have my own story of arbitrary and prejudicial visa treatment – as a foreigner serving in higher education in Pakistan.  In one instance, a valid work visa was withdrawn without explanation for a period of months and then reinstated, also without explanation, after many representations by leaders of the Church of Pakistan.  In another instance, renewal of a work visa was delayed for months, without explanation, and then granted only after similar representations.  Finally, agents of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency physically beat me, threatened me with death if I didn’t leave the country, and ripped the work visa out of my US passport.

The reasons for this treatment were religious – a Muslim desire to limit Christian influence in the important sphere of higher education.  The provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa wanted to control Edwardes College, an institution founded, owned and operated by the church, and diminish the church’s role in the college’s planned charter as a university.  Realizing it had no basis for its position in constitution, law or history – after all, Pakistan’s constitution provides that all religious groups shall be free to practice and propagate their religion and manage their own institutions – the government resorted to threats and violence to enforce its will.

So I naturally empathize with people whose legitimate visa status is suddenly questioned and changed.  In the current USAmerican situation, there is no justification for barring people who already hold visas for study or work from returning to the country.  After all, they have already been vetted for security and financial viability, and it is specious to bar them on the pretext of unsubstantiated additional suspicion.

Unlike my case, physical violence does not appear to be a factor in the implementation of Trump’s executive order.  As in my case, however, Trump’s order was promulgated and operationalized abruptly and suddenly.  Far from prompting me to a tit-for-tat response, my experience sharpens my concern when US-visa-holders are subjected to sudden, arbitrary and possibly malicious changes of status.

How Trump’s order conforms to or violates the US constitution and legal code is now being litigated.  I have hunches about that, but I’m no constitutional or legal expert – last evening’s live-streamed hearing before the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed me in that self-assessment!

• In sum, as a matter of policy, suspending the legitimate visas of people who have been working and studying in the USA is unwise and unfair.  Trump’s action appears to be a ploy cynically deployed to satisfy his political base.

The Trump administration’s overall hostility to granting entry to refugees across the board runs counter to gospel imperatives, USAmerican tradition, international law, and human decency. Reasonable people of good will can and will disagree with one another about many details – how many refugees to welcome, at what pace, which places to prioritize, and so on.  What we can and must agree on is a general obligation to provide refuge to people who are fleeing for their lives.

Christian teaching is clear on this obligation.  Last Sunday’s word from God in the Old Testament reading – in the Revised Common Lectionary, used by many Christian denominations – was a case in point:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58)

Here we see a prefiguring of Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.  (Matthew 25)

In Isaiah’s prophecy, when God’s people are faithful in compassion, light goes forth from them, a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus’ words, also from this past Sunday, in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You are the light of the world . . . A city set on a hill cannot be hid’ (Matthew 5).  Isaiah’s prophecy is clearly directed to the nation as a whole and not only to individuals.  While we often hear the Sermon on the Mount in individualistic terms, Jesus’ mention of light from a city on a hill signals political relevance as well.  Compassion, welcome, provision – these shed forth light.  Fear, suspicion, rejection – these spread darkness.

According to Isaiah’s prophecy, from Israel’s outreach of welcome will spring forth their own healing.  Christians in mission often experience their outreach as healing for themselves as well as for others.  On a national basis, fear and suspicion are further wounding our body politic.  In contrast, communities of welcome are finding joy and healing as they welcome others.  Again, numbers, pacing, localities and so on are legitimate subjects of debate, but a door shut tight violates not only international law and the USAmerican ethos but also Christian social ethics.

• In sum, welcoming refugees is a religious mandate, an ethical obligation, and an international duty.  It is unethical to close the door to all refugees, especially given the number of refugees worldwide and the suffering they are undergoing.

One fuzzy aspect of the executive order is whether it qualifies as a ‘Muslim ban.’  This was a point raised by Judge Richard Clifton in last evening’s hearing when he noted that all the residents of the seven countries named constitute no more than 15% of the world’s Muslims.  Oddly, Washington State’s solicitor-general said he had not done the arithmetic to figure that out!

As it happened, earlier in the day I myself had consulted the demographics and found the following: The most populous of the seven is Iran at 81 million inhabitants (I’m rounding all figures), ranking no. 17 among the world’s most populous nations.  Next is Sudan at 42 million (no. 34), then Iraq at 39 million (no. 36).  Yemen has 28 million, Syria 19 million, Somalia 11 million, and Libya 6 million.  The seven total 226 million.  (By comparison, bear in mind that the USA, the world’s third most populous nation, has 326 million inhabitants.)

Worldwide, Muslims number about 1.6 billion (compared with Christians at 2.2 billion), so the inhabitants of the seven named Muslim-majority nations (in each of which non-Muslims are tiny minorities) constitute 14% of all Muslims.  According to the Pew Research Center, there about 50 Muslim-majority nations in the world (49, 50 or 51, depending on varying calculations).  Obviously, the vast majority of Muslim-majority nations, and some very large ones, were not included in the order.  Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation at 264 million (no. 4 worldwide in population), next comes Pakistan at 197 million (no. 6 in the world), then Bangladesh at 165 million (no. 8).  Egypt has 95 million inhabitants (no. 15 in the world), and so on.

As is now well known, the seven seem to have been chosen on the basis of their designations as countries of particular concern by the Obama administration.  The US has designated Iran, Sudan and Syria as ‘state sponsors of terrorism,’ and Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen as ‘terrorist safe havens.’  In December 2015 the US government placed limitations (not any kind of ban) on travel from all these countries, mainly that their residents were no longer eligible for visa waivers.  The term ‘failed state’ may be relevant to several of the nations, and it is possible that a credible case could be made that effective vetting of potential immigrants may be impossible in several of the countries, though not all of them (in my opinion).

On demographic and historical grounds, therefore, it does not appear accurate to term Trump’s executive order a ‘Muslim ban.’  One of the points in contention at last evening’s court hearing was whether the anti-Muslim bias clear in Trump’s campaign and presidential rhetoric – and, for instance, a Trump spokesperson’s account of how Trump was looking for any legal way to exclude Muslims – can be adduced as the motivation of the executive order when the order itself does not mention religion as the basis for the exclusion.  However that narrower point is adjudicated, it is clear that Trump and his minions are fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment.

• In sum, the executive order is not a ‘Muslim ban,’ but it is delegitimized by an administrative environment of anti-Muslim bias that is fanned by Trump and his staff.

On another side, however, the executive order’s provision for special consideration for persecuted religious minorities should be accepted as legitimate.  I was glad to hear Alan Dershowitz’s strenuous argument on CNN that such provision in no way violates the US constitution’s ban on the establishment of religion.  He noted 1940s legislation, for instance, that made special provision for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

My own view is that the USA’s refugee policy should indeed make special provision for a number of especially vulnerable classes of people: Women fleeing rape as a weapon of war, as in Congo, Nigeria and under ISIS.  Children fleeing recruitment as child soldiers, as in various countries in west Africa.  Women, men and children fleeing involuntary servitude and sexual slavery, as in quite a number of countries.  Religious minorities fleeing religious persecution.  This latter category includes Christians fleeing persecution, especially in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; Bahais fleeing persecution, especially in Iran; Yazidis fleeing persecution in Syria and Iraq; and so on.

• In sum, special consideration for persecuted religious minorities and other especially vulnerable classes of people is an ethical obligation that resonates with traditional USAmerican policy.

Again, specific numbers, rates, localities and so on are details of policy that can and should be debated by people of good will.  But our obligations are clear – from our faith, our history, our ethos, our laws, and the good of the world.

(Here’s Politifact’s analysis of the the background to the selection of the seven nations.  Here’s Worldometers’ breakout of national populations for 2017.)


  1. Thank you Titus for so carefully sorting through this issue and all its ramifications. Perhaps we could publish a weekly commentary from you (and others) aimed at holding the Trump administration (and his elected Republican enablers) accountable to the Biblical teaching to which they shamelessly claim allegiance. I would love to help with that effort.

  2. Thanks, Titus.

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