Donald Trump’s ever-shifting call for a discriminatory ‘Muslim registry’ has led to the fitting invocation of Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First They Came”, as well as the misguided creation of Register US, a website whose unidentified authors call on Americans to enter their personal details and pledge to ‘register as Muslim’ should Trump follow through with his proposal to forcefully catalogue Muslims. Filmmaker Michael Moore, and senior writer at Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald, even promised, should Trump’s administration create a Muslim registry, to convert to Islam and “sign up”.
As of publication, there have been at least two vague surveillance program concepts floated by Donald Trump—one which would target Muslim-Americans, and one that would instead focus on Muslim immigrants entering the United States. There have been no specific explanations offered as to how either of these proposals would be implemented, nor has any member of Trump’s administration confirmed who exactly will be cataloged. Nevertheless, the prospects are certainly terrifying, regardless of what Muslim community will be at the mercy of the state’s surveillance apparatus.
Like much of Donald Trump’s platform, the concept of a Muslim registry is borrowed, in this case from The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which was inaugurated in 2002, thanks to the War on Terror. According to a report from Penn State Law, The NSEERS Effect: A Decade of Racial Profiling, Fear, and Secrecy, “the most controversial piece of NSEERS required non-immigrant males who were 16 years of age and older from 25 specific countries to register at local immigration offices for fingerprinting, photographs, and lengthy, invasive interrogations”, and violators were fined and in some cases even deported—but for North Korea, every country on the NSEERS list has a majority Muslim population, most of them Arab. The civil rights organization South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) released a statement in May 2012 calling for the Department of Homeland Security to dismantle the NSEERS after the Obama administration announced that it would not terminate the program. With this in mind, it is more than possible for Trump’s administration to bring NSEERS back to life. CNN received information from “a source familiar with the incoming administration” who claimed that “there will be a database and it’ll be similar to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).”
Open campaign hostility aimed at Muslims has arguably influenced attacks against mosques, women wearing the hijab, and even members of the Sikh community who are associated with Muslims based on their religious dress. In late March, research from a YouGov/HuffPost poll revealed that “most Americans (51%) now support banning Muslims entering the United States.” Imraan Siddiqi, Executive Director of CAIR-Arizona, tells Mondoweiss that he’s “this is a time where we have to channel fear and concern into organizing.” “It’s going to take a multi-faceted effort to stand up against draconian policies that may be coming down the pipeline,” Siddiqi went on to say.
He argues that rather than standing back “we have to strengthen our bonds with allies, engage with our elected officials and continue to support institutions that will challenge these abuses through the legal system.” Siddiqi finds that based on past statements made by Trump and his transition team, there is a legitimate concern regarding heightened surveillance of the Muslim-American community, and Muslim institutions. “We’ve seen this type of policy play out during the Patriot Act, so nothing is out of the realm of possibility. But rather than sitting in fear, we have to ensure that we stand up for our rights—even during the darkest times.” In terms of what allies can do, Siddiqi recommends that non-Muslims lend support to the ACLU, CAIR chapters, and similar organizations. “Interfaith partners can build task forces and coalitions—and educate the public, and apply pressure to elected officials representing large groups of people,” Siddiqi tells Mondoweiss.
Sana Saeed, a journalist based in San Francisco, tells Mondoweiss that the fear she is seeing in her community “is real and devastating.” “Muslims should absolutely be be worried about a so-called Muslim registry while being aware that not only have we had it before in the form of NSEER (and most recently HR-158) but also that the government has been keeping files on countless Muslims, Muslim communities for well over decade,” Saeed says. “Chances are that the Trump registry will resemble NSEER [meaning it would target immigrants] so it can bypass the unconstitutionality of ‘religious tests’. That doesn’t mean citizens should breathe out a sigh of relief and further create a dichotomy between citizen and immigrant.”
Saeed hopes that the Muslim community uses this opportunity to form coalitions with other communities “especially undocumented immigrants who are also facing the threat of deportation, [because both] struggles will, as they have for a long time, overlap.”
Any response to Donald Trump’s registry proposal, if it is to have any impact, should keep in mind the existence of a state surveillance apparatus that has long focused on Muslims, both at home and abroad. We can’t fight against one arm of this apparatus and neglect the system itself. It must all come down.