Systematic racism, dehumanisation and Islamophobia
The destruction and degradation of human life is always insidious and systematic. Once basic values of human life and human rights are eroded by propaganda and falsehoods, society becomes accustomed to performing and entrenching oppression. The voices of anguish and protest are muffled, silenced or destroyed.
My survival as a Kurdish refugee from Iraq depended on not only my family’s willingness to make the difficult decision to leave our dangerous circumstances, but the people and institutions along the way that upheld and believed in our human rights. These notions are intangible but integral in reminding those who take the risk that they have the right to seek safety and hope for stability. They show that this is a broader agreement made with the understanding that conflict will always result in human displacement.
What we are seeing now, however, is an almost global trend of privileged and powerful countries denying safety to those who need it, even though those very same countries have been the instigators and beneficiaries of the warfare that has caused many of those refugees to flee.
Donald Trump’s executive order is the active exoneration of the role that the United States has played in creating dangerous precedents in eroding the civil liberties and human rights of particular sections of society, as well as the responsibility for destabilising a whole region and creating the refugee crisis we see today. This instant memory loss will hurt some of the most vulnerable people in this world, people who have fallen victim to decades of ineffective military strategy.
The details of the order are actually a harsher manifestation and expression of a quiet and respectable force of oppression that people of colour have experienced at the hands of consecutive American administrations. It’s important to treat these policies not as a complete departure from the norm, but rather an acceleration of a standard that has been heavily embedded in the cultural and political psyche. This fact should ultimately inform the various movements that oppose the continuing erasure of basic civil liberties by the Trump government.
The outcome of the immigration ban is also an entrenchment of longstanding racism, dehumanisation and Islamophobia. However, arguing against the policies based on their merits as an effective anti-terrorism tool overlooks the basic fact that they are a dangerous precedent for the way the world will continue to treat those who have been displaced by the conflicts ravaging the Middle East and Africa. It also fails to understand that this is a shock tactic to distract, terrify and consolidate power.
Since 2001, Muslims have been vilified and made responsible for a broad range of tensions. This process of vilification breeds the idea that those who seek safety are opportunists who have chosen to leave their homelands in the search for abundance not security, in deviousness and not in desperation. However, most if not all the refugees to be affected by Trump’s executive order are facing the consequences of destabilising Western-led violence. Their displacement and decision to leave their home and risk everything for safety is actually a painful process of loss, and ultimately fraught with danger.
As the more extreme elements of the policy are being reviewed and reconsidered – entrance permitted for green card holders and exemptions for Canadian and Australian citizens, among them – other troubling aspects remain. Essentially normalised by comparison are these key factors: that for the next 120 days no refugees will be accepted by America; that for the next 90 days anyone from Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya and Somalia will be arbitrarily refused US entry; and that the US will indefinitely refuse entry to anyone carrying a Syrian passport. These policies can be extended at a later date and used to justify the implementation of harsher processes that could quickly resemble a system even worse than the incarceration of asylum seekers and refugees implemented in Australia.
The fact that these circumstances and the violent destruction that is found in these particular seven states have resulted in the largest refugee crisis since World War II is not a quirk of a particular region or culture, but the result of a grossly mismanaged military strategy prosecuted by the US. Time and again the Middle East and Africa have been beholden to the colonial and postcolonial forms of interference that have resulted in the investment and aiding of sectarian violence.
This particular strategy can be traced back to the Cold War era, in which the US aided and armed the birth of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in a proxy war against the Soviet Union. This lineage then informed the way consecutive administrations throughout the past 30 years have continued to implement strategies that intensify conflict and cause unwarranted destruction and deaths of innocent civilians. The most consequential of these strategies include the use of sectarian death squads, the arming of clandestine terrorist organisations throughout Iraq and Syria’s fault lines, the normalisation of extrajudicial murders by drone strike across Yemen, and the creation of power vacuums. As a result of these ill-conceived campaigns, the Middle East has experienced some of the bloodiest violence and deepest fragmentation.
Instead of taking responsibility for the outcomes of this toxic process, the US and its military allies have developed rhetoric that reinforces collective punishment. This language is rooted in demonising minority communities and making them answer to rhetorical dangers.
This was perfectly exemplified when Scott Morrison proclaimed that Australia is “the envy of the world when it comes to strong border protection policies” in response to Trump’s announcement. What this coded language means is that border protection is indefinitely incarcerating innocent people for having the audacity to request assistance and safety – the simple but integral decision that all refugees make in order to survive. Australia’s system of collective punishment is the clear bilateral blueprint of what Trump’s administration is trying to achieve and normalise. To have representatives such as Bill Shorten denouncing these policies while both his party and the Liberal Party maintain a steadfast discriminatory immigration policy is nothing short of hypocritical.
Part of this process of collective punishment is politicising and weaponising immigration as a pantomime of productivity and effectiveness in the face of deeply complex challenges. Instead of understanding the way conflict feeds into migration, and how a country’s military involvement in conflicts exacerbates tensions, governments are willing to entrench the disenfranchisement of already marginalised people. Ultimately none of these policies are effective in preventing violence because the application and understanding of such complexity is simplified and heavily racialised.
Supporters of these policies are mistaking activity for achievement. Balancing democracy and maintaining security is a nuanced and deliberate process and populist policies only serve as a distraction from incompetence and the expansion of executive powers. When politicians profess to have quick fixes that overlook the complexities of terrorism as a tool of violence, they are actually communicating the erosion of basic rights for the short-term benefit that is appeasing the whims of their base.
This is all part of subjugating people based on religion and race. Much like the historical precedents of Japanese internment camps during World War II or the continued oppression of First Nations people, subjugation is a slow process of vilification, socialisation and incremental legal change.
While people have taken to the streets, aghast at the plausibility of such an executive order being put into action, it is important to remember that marginalised groups have been speaking out against dog-whistling, dead cat tactics, scapegoating and debunked strategy. However, many in these very same communities that are suddenly surprised by the viciousness of Trump’s policies have themselves failed to listen and critically engage with the most insidious groundwork. As a result, society has normalised these falsehoods, affirmed toxic frameworks and given credence to such a leader as Trump. All this makes it even harder to examine and criticise policies that seek to destroy human rights.
The only way that we can resolve this initial failure to act is to hold onto the very basic ideals of civil and human rights, identify the shock tactics that aim to normalise extreme violence, and understand how intergenerational decision-making has led us to this point.
As someone who had my humanity upheld and defended, whose heritage is under attack by Trump’s orders, I can’t stand by and watch us make these fatal mistakes.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Behind closed doors".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.