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Identity Politics and the Muslim Ban
Biden promised going back to normalcy, but no signs indicate that's about to happen
If you have not read David Brooks’s insightful article in The New York Times, make sure to do so. Brooks argues that the world has moved from individualism to communal identities. Instead of a person endorsing moral values that guide their sense of right and wrong, such concepts are now decided by the group an individual belongs to. Instead of virtue and guilt deciding individual behavior, collective praise and shame decide what is right and what is wrong. However, the collective scale of right and wrong might not match the most common human understanding of ethics and norms, the one often debated by ethicists and academics.
In 2018, Francis Fukuyama took on this debate in his book Identity, and published an abridged version in Foreign Affairs, in which he argued that the politics of “new tribalism” has become the “crisis of democracy.” According to Fukuyama, a few decades ago, individuals sought personal success, even if that meant concealing their identity that might obstruct their rise. In this time and age, individuals are willing to dismiss success in order to mark their collective cultural identity. Honor of the community now trumps interests of the individual.
In identity politics, citizens perceive of themselves — not as individuals with independent mind and enjoying liberty — but as members of a monolithic bloc. Hence citizens stop being citizens who pursue their interests and become monolithic blocs. These blocs are made of rich and poor, and it is near impossible for those in the same bloc to have identical interests, as currently imagined. Donald Trump, who makes his fortune out of his globalized business empire, has convinced his isolationist cult that he protects their interests, often by reverting to identity politics and imagined injustices. And because blocs are fixed and not affected by the performance of the elected government, politics becomes detached from performance and merit of argument and attached to fixed blocs. Democracy thus becomes demography, and hence, Trump’s approval rating has remained steady, regardless of his performance in government.
In America, politicians from both sides are engaged in identity politics. President-elect Joe Biden announced the reversal of several policies, including the “Muslim ban.” This ban has been one of the biggest “smoke and mirror” political tricks used by both sides, Republican and Democrat.
To understand the ban, think that there are 52 countries that are members of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). These countries have either majority or minority Muslim populations. The so-called Muslim ban imposed travel restrictions on only seven of the 52 Muslim countries. But when examining which countries, you will see that the banned countries had already been facing heavy restrictions on receiving US visas, long before Trump came into office. The seven countries were Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Sudan.
The US visa system relies heavily on the ability of US embassies to verify the identity of foreign nationals applying for visas. To do so, US embassies employ a set of tools, including connections with local governments, to verify identities. When the US does not have an embassy in a certain country — such as in the case of five of the seven banned countries — it cannot verify that foreign nationals being issued US visas are not outlaws that will cause trouble once granted entry into the US. The Obama administration refused to take Syrian refugees, despite global shaming, because of its inability to verify identities of Syrian applicants and for fear that some of these Syrians might have been recruited by ISIS before applying for their visas. A few refugees to Europe turned out to have been ISIS fighters and ended up committing acts of terror.
So what does Biden’s reversal of the “Muslim ban” mean? It technically means nothing. It only means that Biden will not call it a ban. In reality, citizens of these seven countries will still face complicated hurdles against being granted entry into the US. The foreign nationals of the seven countries have been facing these hurdles for decades now.
Identity politics hurts the US democracy, and even with Biden — who has proclaimed himself as the leader taking America back to normalcy — there are no signs that such politics will recede.