Trump’s ban threatens higher learning
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News came quickly of the impact of President Trump’s Executive Order on our university: by 3 p.m. on Saturday, we had learned that an Iranian student had been detained in Abu Dhabi and, apparently after 18 hours, returned to Tehran.

Pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, she had fallen victim to a political decision that promises terrible consequences not just for America’s diplomatic relations and global standing, but also to our nation’s research universities.

It is not just that banning refugees on the basis of religion—and that’s what the Trump Executive Order amounts to—betrays American ideals. Even if procedures are modified so as to restore the travel rights of those on visas and green cards, we are putting at risk the intellectual capital that Muslims deliver to the U.S.

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About 20 percent of the Graduate Center’s students are foreign nationals, and many come from the Middle East and South Asia. In this respect we are entirely typical: students from ‘predominantly Muslim countries’ make invaluable contributions to research and teaching in every major university in the United States, and one of the many ironies here is that they are disproportionately represented in science, engineering and technology—the very fields in which American competitiveness is questioned. 

Anyone with a passing familiarity with tokens of scientific distinction, such as the Fields Medal, membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the like, will have no doubt about their contributions to science. And anyone who knows the first thing about their role as entrepreneurs, especially in the high tech industry, will have no doubt about their contributions to American industry and prosperity.

No rational calculus of national interest can explain the ban. Religious prejudice, married to the gross political expediency, does.

Islam hates us’, as the then-candidate Trump put it; General Michael Flynn, his National Security Adviser, has infamously confused ‘Islam’ for Islamic radicalism, comparing it to a ‘cancer.’

Regrettably, such views resonate. In 2014, before such ugliness became commonplace, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to place religious groups on a ‘feeling thermometer’. They felt warmest about Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians (63, 62 and 61 degrees, respectively); at the very bottom of the thermometer, where they felt coldest, were Muslims (at 40). 

The more that Americans know Muslims, the more positively they feel. Hungary, where Muslims are few and anti-Muslim feeling is highest in Europe, illustrates where we must not go: a populist and demagogic political culture that leverages ignorance into antipathy.

 As a historian of Islam, I come into contact with ignorance and ill-feeling about Islam as a matter of course. Radio interviewers, for example, are especially fond of asking variations on the ‘Why do they hate us?’ question, one which is actually belied by any number of stubborn facts. 

There are the surveys that document Muslim majorities with positive feelings about America, and diverse views about politics, religion and shari`a; there are the American Muslims who overwhelmingly share the view of other Americans on culture and politics; and then there are the Muslims who come to the U.S. in the thousands every year to study and learn.

 ‘Are you a Muslim?’, I was recently asked on one such radio program. The answer to the question (no) is less revealing than the feelings that lay behind the question, which was put by a Muslim convert. Given the political tone currently being struck, one can scarcely blame him for assuming that being fair-minded about Islam meant being Muslim. 

Much attention has been paid to the President’s words, with good reason. Campaign rhetoric has now become exclusionary policy, with sharp teeth of enforcement. 

We are all diminished as a result.

Chase F. Robinson is President of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Robinson is a historian of the premodern Middle East, is also distinguished professor of History. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Robinson’s extensive publications on Islamic history include Islamic Historiography, Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest, and The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 1. His newest book, Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives (University of California/Thames & Hudson), was published in the fall of 2016.


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