It’s Not Just About Muslim American Rights: Jews, Christians, and the Visa Waiver Bill
There are, according to some estimates, about 1 million people of Iranian descent living in the United States, less than half of whom are Muslims. Iranian-Americans include 100,000 to 200,000 Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Ba’hais and count among their number the founder of ebay, Andre Agassi, the President of Carnegie Mellon, and NASA’s director of space exploration. Persian Jews represent a quarter of the population of Beverly Hills.
There are also 3.5 million Arab-Americans, 63% of whom are Christian.
The United States has always insisted that foreign countries grant equal travel rights to all American citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
European countries may soon discriminate against at least some American citizens of Iranian and Arab descent, however, if the Congressional bill passed almost unanimously yesterday becomes law. That bill would remove equal and typically reciprocal visa waiver rights for many European citizens of Iranian and Arab descent, among others.
How will the Europeans respond to our discriminatory bill? Will they only target Muslims with Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, or Sudanese parents? All Americans of Iranian or Arab descent?
If the Senate now engages the objections of the Europeans, it then faces quite a bind: should it apply a “religious test” to the bill, applying it only to people of Muslim background? Or will it conclude that there are too few Christian or Jewish Arabs or Iranians with family in the blacklisted countries to worry about politically?
We are treading in dangerous and unprecedented waters. Undoubtedly there are security measures that can and should be taken with respect to those who have traveled to Syria or Iraq recently. (The inclusion of Iran and the exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the blacklisted countries indicates the extent to which politics is at play here.) Those security measures should be taken in a manner that does not target people based on their family or ethnic backgrounds.
The danger with Trumpism is that it makes previously unthinkable proposals like the Visa Waiver Bill not only palatable by comparison, but also seemingly sensible. Americans are being far too quietist with this latest assault to the notion of equal rights that underpins our free society.
Hassanaly Ladha is Assistant Professor in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut and Associate Faculty at Harvard University.