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To resist a ‘Muslim registry’ we need active solidarity not symbolic gestures

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If the government of the United States requires its Muslim citizens to register, I will register as a Muslim.

Almost a year ago, then-candidate Donald Trump first publicly flirted with the idea of forcing American Muslims to register into some kind of ill-defined national database whose nefarious purpose was never articulated save by pointing a fat, small finger at the usual bogeymen: ISIS or terror. When asked follow-up questions about this registry Trump stared at his interlocutors and spread his arms wide open, as if to say: “What?”

Since the election, discussions of the possibility of a Muslim registry and how we would resist it have exploded. Proposals for the registry have come from inside the new administration, and they draw on horrifying historical examples — including the internment of Japanese Americans— as justification. They also revisit, as Ayesha Siddiqi (among others) have pointed out, the ugliest Islamophobic tactics of the Bush administration, during which a post 9/11 de facto registry was put in place.

Both precedent and the administration’s statements suggest that a Muslim registry may be instated. No one — left or right — seems to be denying it. And I’m certainly not the only person or group this week to promise to register as a Muslim if any sort of law requiring Muslim registration is enacted.

But let me say that there may be one crucial difference: I mean it.

A picture book titled "The Yellow Star"

A picture book titled “The Yellow Star”

As stunned reactions to the idea of a registry have spread, I’ve seen a lot of invocations of the King of Denmark. The idea is that the Danes — including their king, Christian X — wore the yellow armband required for Jews by the Nazis. The noble King’s actions, the story goes, inspired enough Danish Gentiles to follow suit and thus rendered pointless the Nazis’ attempt to publicly stigmatize and “other” Denmark’s Jews. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Only problem is that neither the King of Denmark nor any average Dane ever actually did that. In fact, Jews in Denmark were never even ordered by the Nazi occupation to don armbands. (Elsewhere in Europe many Jews were, which might explain the myth’s origin.) The myth has proven persistent over time, however. It has its own Wikipedia page and a entry debunking it. The lesson here seems to be less one in historical examples of collective action against racism, genocide, and religious persecution but in the perils of trusting what people think is a nice thing to put on Facebook.

If we’re interested in historical examples of resistance to state-sanctioned genocidal racism, we might consider what the Danes actually did to collectively resist the rounding up of their Jewish population. This went far beyond symbolic gestures. In October 1943, ordinary Danes — shopkeepers, fisherman, workers, and students — organized the most successful resistance to Nazism seen anywhere during Hitler’s regime. And they did it entirely through word of mouth. Denmark’s Jews were warned of the impending Nazi raids. Thousands of individual Danes ferried Jewish families to Sweden on their personal boats. Denmark’s Jews — 99% of them — survived Hitler’s attempt to exterminate them — not, as is too often misremembered, by the symbolic performance of solidarity by wearing a Star of David armband (or updating your facebook status with platitudes about unity) but by putting themselves at dire risk. That is solidarity lived. That is how we may have to help each other survive. (If you’re interested in an accessible and evocative history of Denmark’s actions during World War 2, I cannot recommend radical preacher/folksinger Fred Small’s song “Denmark 1943” enough. Make sure you have some tissues handy.)

And if Danish history isn’t your cup of tea, there is an American equivalent worth considering: the Underground Railroad. Trump threatens to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, regardless of the vital role they play in every American community. Ask yourself whether you would house an undocumented person or family. Would you ask your parents, your friends, your schools to declare themselves part of an already growing network of municipal, institutional and private sanctuaries for those facing deportation and perhaps death?

Look, if it helps focus your activism against the impending and almost unthinkably pernicious Trump Administration, feel free to invoke the World War 2-era or German fascism. But make sure you query why it may be emotionally safer for you to compare Trump’s racism to the Nazis’ instead of to any one of the innumerable examples of genocidal racism with which US history is replete. And make sure you commit to carrying out the true lesson of Denmark’s saving of the Jews.

Public declarations of solidarity can be inspiring and important. But symbolism will never be a substitute for direct action. Let’s be clear, folks. Your heart can be in the right place, but your heart isn’t the only thing that’s needed. If you need proof that such a pledge, absent a commitment to collective organizing and resistance, is a meaningless gesture, look no further than the quasi-liberal, very racist and fanatically Zionist Anti-Defamation League. The League has advocated, in no uncertain terms, that Jews should pledge to register as Muslim, should a registry come into effect. But everything they have done — as opposed to what they have said — has been on the side of oppression.

By contrast, it’s important that we listen to, take leadership from, and be organized by American Muslims. Fighting Islamophobia and defending the most vulnerable Americans from the serious — fatally serious — threats posed by the Trump administration requires work far beyond symbolic gestures. We must collectively resist and collectively risk perhaps everything we have to protect everyone whose lives were made much more perilous on November 8th. How such collective action will look is unclear, but centering American Muslim leadership so that we can effectively strategize and plan is more important right now than trafficking in sentimental symbolic pledges.

Max Geller

Max Geller is an organizer with the international Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Now, based in New Orleans, Max is building radical community based on resisting Zionism and antiblack racism. Much to his chagrin, Max is most famous for being the catalyst of the Renoir Sucks at Painting Movement.

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4 Responses

  1. Misterioso on November 22, 2016, 10:39 am

    Meanwhile, in Canada:

    Hijab-wearing Journalist Anchors Major Canadian Newscast for 1st Time

  2. Irfan on November 22, 2016, 6:31 pm

    I applaud the sentiment, but not the tactic.

    First, the most likely way of implementing a so-called “Muslim registry” is to implement it as a condition of entry or visa renewal on certain classes of foreign nationals wishing to enter or remain in the US. We already had such a policy in the Bush years under the name of NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System). Though it was much criticized, non-Muslim US citizens could not, even in principle, apply to register for it. If the Trump version resembles the Bush version (as it probably will), the idea of inducing people to register for Trump’s version probably won’t work: they won’t be able to.

    Anyway, even if they could, they wouldn’t. Just try to imagine a mass movement of Americans engaging in civil disobedience to register as Muslims (foreign Muslim nationals from terrorism prone countries!) and you realize that you’re in the realm of science fiction. People who believe that we all went out dancing in the streets of Jersey City after 9/11 are not going to flock to an inconvenient immigration center to declare, implausibly, that they are Muslims–failing the very first question they get in an interrogation on the subject. (Ben Gurion Airport, anyone?) I appreciate the sentiment, but the whole thing is quixotic.

    It is nearly impossible to fight a measure that will be applied to foreign nationals at border entry. It is also very difficult to fight a measure that will be applied to foreign nationals already in the country. We’d have to consult immigration lawyers to know how to strategize there. But consider something simpler and clearer. The constitutionality of a registry imposed on US citizens (or legal residents) is both clear and unclear. It is morally clear that such a registry *would* be deemed unconstitutional by a competent court, if someone with standing brought such a case to court. But it is legally clear that Korematsu (justifying internment, and a fortiori registration) has never actually been overturned.

    Here is my idea. Why not ask or demand pre-emptively that law enforcement take a position as to the constitutionality of a registry? Law enforcement officers are required to take an oath to the Constitution. They are loyal to its principles, not to the person who happens to be president, or to his administration. If so, they should–in advance of any executive order from the president–be able to declare, out loud (meaning: in a binding way, for public consumption), what they think about Korematsu or any policy resembling a registry or pre-emptive detention. And by “law enforcement,” I mean not just police depts (though I mean that), but county prosecutors in every county in every state, etc. If they declare this, then, if an order to registry or detain came down, they would be in the position of rejecting it on grounds of constitutionality. They cannot obey or enforce an unconstitutional order.

    In a way, all of this is a declaration of the obvious that doesn’t really touch the nature of the border or visa policy that is imminently about to come into existence. Unfortunately, I am not sure what we can do about that (or whether anything can be done). That said, a policy of the sort I’m recommending would set a healthy precedent. A declaration of the obvious is actually something we desperately need at this point. The obviousness of what we’re demanding is a point in its favor: who could object to it, unless they had genuinely malign intentions? And citizen cooperation with law enforcement is also something we need. I’ve seen some pretty idiotic suggestions out there (granted, not here) to the effect that we *start* our resistance to the Trump Administration with violence and disruption.

    No. We need both solidarity and symbolic gestures, but we need it to take the right form and come from the right place. My suggestion: a binding declaration by law enforcement not to enforce an unconstitutional registry or detention of citizens and legal residents. Let’s get that first, and take things from there.

  3. Talkback on November 25, 2016, 1:43 pm

    Yep, the Nazis had a register, too. It was called “Judenkartei” (Jews register).

    • Eva Smagacz on November 27, 2016, 11:25 pm

      The repeal of Patriot Act AND Citizen United is needed to prevent country from sliding into fascism. When you compare number of deaths by terrorists with number of deaths caused by forces of law and order you wonder who the real threat is.

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