By Heidi Stevens
President-elect Donald Trump's selection of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for national security adviser has added to a growing sense of fear that Trump's administration could implement a database to keep tabs on Muslims in America, a campaign promise made by Trump last fall.
In February, Flynn tweeted a link to a YouTube video with the message: "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: Please forward a link to this video so that people may learn the BASICS of Islam." Coupled with Trump's campaign talk of "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," the selection has many concerned that our nation will abandon some of its core values, including freedom of religion.
George Takei penned a powerful op-ed this week about his family's experience being forced into a Japanese internment camp when he was 5. "'National security' must never again be permitted to justify wholesale denial of constitutional rights and protections," Takei writes. "If it is freedom and our way of life that we fight for, our first obligation is to ensure that our own government adheres to those principles."
But how do we go about ensuring that?
On social media, I frequently see non-Muslims pledging to register themselves on a hypothetical Muslim database in a show of solidarity.
Is that feasible? Is that enough? I called a couple of experts to get their take.
"While the sentiment behind the pledge (to register) is appreciated and welcomed, the unintended effect may be to legitimize the concept of registering Americans of a particular faith," Tabassum Haleem, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago, told me. "If the pushback against these types of nefarious initiatives is part of a larger, united campaign against the erosion of civil liberties of all Americans, it would send a loud and unequivocal message to President-elect Trump that he cannot divide and conquer the American people. That we are, indeed, stronger together."
Corey Saylor is director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Saylor says a Muslim database would most likely mean a reinstatement of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a controversial program launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that collected information, fingerprints and photographs of noncitizens entering the United States from certain (mostly majority Muslim) countries and monitored their status and movement once they arrived. It was canceled in 2011.
If a broader Muslim database is implemented for U.S. citizens, however, Saylor said his group welcomes the idea of non-Muslims adding their names.
"People being willing to register themselves if an all-inclusive Muslim registry comes up is greatly appreciated," Saylor said. "When the constitution is being challenged, it's important that everyone be willing to stand up and not just talk about it with their friends, but do something useful. Registering would be one way to do that."
We don't need to wait for a database to push back against anti-Muslim rhetoric, though.
Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, but Americans of all faiths are welcome to attend open mosque days and educate themselves about the faith and its practitioners.
The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago organizes regional open-mosque days, Haleem said, and churches often hold interfaith events.
"DuPage United, a community organizing group made of churches, mosques and synagogues, started a Solidarity With Muslims campaign earlier this year with standing-room-only events," Haleem said. "The evening of Nov. 17th, nearly 650 people of all faiths gathered at the Islamic Center of Naperville. DuPage United leaders presented the work being done by their member institutions on establishing mental health crises centers, organizing resources for refugees and combating Islamophobia. Police chiefs pledged to continue to protect their citizens, regardless of their race or religion. School districts around the country are affirming policies to protect American Muslim students and other minorities against bullying."
Saylor recommends signing up to receive emails from groups that fight against religious persecution, particularly CAIR, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amnesty International.
"These groups will ask you do things that are usually pretty simple and straightforward," Saylor said. "That takes individuals and merges them into a movement. You want to magnify your own impact by joining an organization."
Monthly donations to one or more of those organizations can help them staff lawyers for an organized pushback in the event that Americans' constitutional rights are being threatened, he said.
"We ask people to find a group that you feel is doing good work and make sure you're supporting them," Saylor said. "Not just by reading the emails, but by contributing, by showing up at meetings, by taking action."