My Faith in America
Barely a week into your presidency, in the chaotic wake of your travel ban, a relative of mine called to ask if I had thought of going back to Sierra Leone. I asked her why, and she replied: “well, there is too much hatred for Muslims in America right now. Every day in the news we hear your president and his supporters saying bad things about Muslims and strangers.”
I told my relative America was also my home.
When this country welcomed me in the midst of the civil strife in my country of birth, I was grateful. When it allowed me to stay, I became part of it. When I became a citizen, I swore a sacred oath to it. Now that I have children whose first country is America, my destiny and hers have become forever conjoined. This place is my home, too.
Unquestionably, the 2016 presidential campaign was open season on Muslims, migrants and other minorities in America. And things have not improved since. We continue to be scapegoated by many for the country’s woes. I have never before felt the anxiety of being a minority in America that I feel at this moment.
Yet, I explained to my relative, even in the midst of the Islamophobic hysteria that has gripped this country, and in spite of the daily persecution of Muslims and other minorities, there are few places in the world today where I would rather be. I told her I still had faith in the American people and institutions. In how many places in the world would I write the present piece without being harassed by the state? Certainly not in Saudi Arabia, nor in Equatorial Guinea or Russia. And probably not even in Sierra Leone.
What makes the American system work, and has survived and gotten better in so many ways over the last 200 odd years, is the people and the institutions they have built. In the throes of tremendous challenges — slavery, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Jim Crow, Civil Rights — the forces of good have always prevailed over the forces of darkness.
America is a work in progress. And whenever the Voldemorts, the Death-Eaters and Dementors of our hearts have emerged from Pandemonium to ravage body and soul, the Harrys, Rons, and Hermiones of our better selves have risen, phoenix-like, to the challenge on the wings of love and reason.
You are now the gate-keeper of our beloved Republic. History has taught us that a community’s worst enemy is not necessarily outsiders, barbarians at its gates waiting to infiltrate and destroy it. If the Dark Knight of the Trojan Horse succeeds in steering his steed through the gates of the fortress, it is not only because he is smart or strong. It is also because the locks to the gates will have been tampered with from within. When a presidential candidate invites a hostile nation or group to hack the campaign of his rival (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing…”), and when the president gives agents of an avowed adversary roaming rights in the Oval Office, that is tantamount to sabotaging national security.
Some have dismissed your election as a freak event. Yet we are all a product of our societies and times. So while your victory could indeed be an aberration in American politics, aberrations don’t happen just like that. There always is a build-up to them, whether this is evident to us or not. In short, you are because we are.
Many have questioned your legitimacy. That you fell far short of winning the popular vote has been cited as proof of your illegitimacy. There is certainly something to be said for a system that allows the loser of the popular vote to become president. But the American president is elected by the Electoral College. Thus, to question your legitimacy (without concrete proof to back it up), would be to question the legitimacy of the system that produced all presidents before you. It is not my place to settle such matters.
What matters now is you are here. And you cannot be ignored. We do so to our own detriment. We must engage you as free citizens of this country and of the world.
Qualified or Not; that is the Question!
A good number of your fellow citizens argue you are not qualified to be president, citing three, among many reasons, for this reasoning.
Firstly, that you are like opportunists who, after enriching themselves by dispossessing others, suddenly emerge and proclaim themselves defenders of the poor and the oppressed. Perched atop your opulence — thanks to inherited wealth multiplied manifold on the backs of others — you clearly lack the experience in material hardship and the temperament that would otherwise qualify you to speak for the economically down-trodden.
The second argument regarding your lack of qualification has to do with your inexperience in and complete indifference to matters of governance. It is hard to dismiss the argument that no one should be elected president of any country who doesn’t have a good understanding of the history of the country, who has no respect for or notion of the functioning of governmental institutions (though Paul Ryan, in his generosity, would give you a break for being “new to government”), and who has surrounded himself with advisors and servants with demonstrated disdain for government (“deconstruction of the administrative state,” chants Steve Bannon), the rule of law, for religious and cultural diversity, and the country’s place in the community of nations.
The third and final reason has to do with your lack of humility. He who knows not, and knows he knows not, can be edified. But he who knows naught, and is sure he knows all, can never learn or be reasoned with, and will continue to make the same mistakes.
As he was hurtling down into Perdition from Paradise — having been expelled by God for his obdurate pride and treason — Lucifer was asked by a journalist what he thought of his predicament. “Predicament? What is that?” he asked. “I don’t know about predicament. But I will tell you one thing: This is nothing but a devil-hunt by those losers up there; and I am the victim of it. Mark my words: Heaven and Earth need me, for I am the only one who can stand up to Establishment for the good of the disenfranchised.”
Surely, one of the greatest qualities anyone can possess is the ability not to take oneself too seriously, to recognize and acknowledge one’s weaknesses and faults, to be self-critical (sometimes self-deprecating even). And among all of us, the one who needs and benefits the most from this quality is he who proposes to be leader of people.
But the American people elected you.
Democracy is not without its discontents. And it guarantees no more than it can deliver at a given point in its lifetime. Like a fruit-bearing tree; what it produces is not always to the liking of everyone. It may not even be to the liking of the majority. But this doesn’t mean we should hack the tree down. Or as they say, you cannot throw the baby out with the bath water just because you don’t think the baby is clean enough. The democracy that has given us you is the one that gave us the first black president in the history of this country. There is something to be said for a system that can do that.
After your election, many argued you should be allowed to govern and be judged by your actions as president, and not by your campaign declarations. This was always a specious line of reasoning, especially, when soon after you formed a cabinet populated by many swamp-dwellers from Wall Street and Lobby Alley even though you promised during the campaign to drain the swamp. And this, even after you appointed as energy secretary a man who vowed during the campaign to scrap the department, as head of the EPA a man who mostly denies the science behind climate change, and as education secretary someone who does not believe in public education, being more interested in the business side of schools than in education for the greater good.
It didn’t help that after your electoral victory, you undertook a campaign-style ‘thank you tour,’ a victory lap during which you inveighed against the media, the courts, and opponents, while calling for national unity. As the British put it “you can’t eat your cake and have it.” True, you are answerable to those who voted for you. But your primary obligation is to the nation as a single unit.
Democracy and the Rule of Law
What sets America apart is not that its citizens are superior to other peoples. Far from it! America is a one-of-a-kind nation thanks not only to its large size but also its large democratic institutions, ideals, and its general respect for the rule of law. Similarly, what distinguishes American presidents, including you, from such megalomaniacs as Teodoro Obiang, Vladimir Putin, and the late Saddam Hussein, is the country of which you are president. Otherwise, your personality and leadership style seem eerily reminiscent of theirs: insensitivity to other points of view; willingness to personalize power including the appointment of family members to key national positions even when they lack the requisite qualifications; demanding complete loyalty from all; hypersensitivity to criticism; seeing all criticism as a personal affront; and generally disrespectful of the foundational principles of the democratic polis.
You have consistently praised leaders who have no respect for the rule of law and human dignity; thugs, bandits and despots no democrat should fraternize with. You have called Putin “very smart” and a “strong leader.” You congratulated Recep Erdogan on his victory in a referendum many dismissed as unfair and detrimental to the Turkish secular state and democratic foundations laid by Mustafa Ataturk from the debris of the Ottoman Empire. You praised Rodrigo Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” even though he presides over a state-sanctioned thuggery that continues to destroy lives, the free press, and political opposition. Even IncrediBoy Kim becomes a “pretty smart cookie” in your book for besting his dad and granddad in the art of sanguinary despotism. You labeled Abdel Fattah El-Sisi “A fantastic guy” (loving his shoes, for good measure). An Egyptian friend once told me that between ‘ISIS’ and ‘Sisi’ there is not much daylight; they are mirror images of each other. One is an organization that terrorizes everyone, the other is a head of state that terrorizes his own people.
Since your arrival at the White House, we have seen a constant parade of previously personae non-grata through that hallowed space, tainting its walls with their disregard for decency and basic rights. The president of the United States cannot afford to have a cavalier attitude toward human rights and the tenets of good governance. When Duterte disrespects the rule of law in the Philippines, the impact is mostly local. When Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe, the consequence is at worst regional. But when the president of the most powerful nation on earth does, the fallout is global. That Erdogan could calmly unleash his goons on protesters in the American capital is symptomatic of the rapid bastardization of our core democratic principles even at home!
Your fondness for and paean to despots leave one wondering what your government would look like were America not a democracy. This is not to say that the country’s republican structures are not currently under stress.
In remarks to employees of the Department of State (May 3, 2017), Rex Tillerson outlined a rather crude form of American foreign policy: “I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values… Our values around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated — those are our values. Those are not our policies…If we condition too heavily that others just adopt this value we have come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests our economic interests.” If democracy and the respect for the rule of law and the rights of others is the surest path to long term peace, stability, prosperity, and security, isn’t it logical to maintain those values at home and to actively and honestly promote them abroad?
In your reaction to the tragic passing of Otto Warmbier — the American student detained and inhumanely treated by the North Korean regime — you said “Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.” Strong words indeed! One way to prevent such tragedies from happening is for the American president to use American diplomatic credibility and democratic institutions and values to let “regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency” know that this country will not cozy up to their leaders, and will hold them accountable for their actions.
The World: Downside Up!
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The Falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. (W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
We live in a parallel universe of alternative facts, one in which truth and falsehood share the same wardrobe, throwing erstwhile models of decorum and rules of civic engagement into disarray.
Indeed, we live in a state of mythomania!
One of the articles of the 13th century Mande Charter states that “lies that have survived for 40 years must be accepted as truths.” Today in America, we don’t have to wait that long. We are being asked to accept right away as truths and fact everything that comes out of the White House and its satellites. When asked by Time Magazine (March 23, 2017) if you were concerned about your credibility, you replied: “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not.” It is true that being president bestows lots of privileges; getting a long holiday on the truth and morality shouldn’t be among them. “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Richard Nixon said before he resigned from office in infamy. An important history lesson for the wary!
The current world order seems to be in trouble. As the center falters, anarchy seems once again loosed upon the world. The anxiety in Europe and elsewhere over America’s commitment to the world order it helped build is quite palpable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto new leader of the free world, summed it up thusly: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. We Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands.” So much for American global leadership!
In his praise of your speech in Saudi Arabia, Newt Gingrich (husband of your ambassador nominee to the Vatican) suggested that to find a comparative foreign policy speech, one must look at the 1982 address by President Reagan to the British parliament. In the said address, famous for its “defense of classical liberalism and democracy” (Reagan at Westminster: Foreshadowing the End of the Cold War), Reagan said: “We see totalitarian forces in the world who seek subversion and conflict around the globe to further their barbarous assault on the human spirit. What, then, is our course? Must civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms? Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?”
Gingrich went on to say, suggesting you could even be better than Reagan, that “never before has an American president tried so clearly to unite the civilized world, including the nations of the Middle East and Africa, against the forces of terrorism.”
In a mind-boggling move, otherwise intelligent people like Newt Gingrich (not forgetting Jeffrey Lord and Kellyanne Conway, among many others) bend over backwards, in their effort to put you on the same pedestal as Reagan, the man whom Republicans like to present as the father of modern conservatism and a paragon of national and global leadership. Whereas Reagan spent his two terms strengthening US-European ties and blowing trumpets against walls, you are busy erecting walls and weakening NATO’s very foundation. And whereas Reagan believed “in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” your administration is maligning immigrants and tearing families apart. While your surrogates go around justifying their claim you are Reagan 2.0, you find every opportunity to remind them and anyone who cares to listen that your spiritual father is really the so-called ‘champion-of-the-common man,’ slave-owning, Native-American land-grabbing Andrew Jackson. Sooner or later, the house of cards comes crashing down on the illusionists!
American-European alliance has never been perfect. Far from it. Like all alliances, the Euro-American partnership has experienced its share of challenges. After Reagan and Gorbachev signed the accord on land-based medium- and shorter-range weapons at the end of 1987, some NATO members questioned US commitment to the Alliance. Reagan, unequivocally, reassured them of American commitment to the alliance: ‘’If our common approach to the East over the years has given coherence to our message of peace and world freedom, it has been our unwavering commitment to defend ourselves that has given it credibility… Our first priority is to maintain a strong and healthy partnership between North America and Europe, for this is the foundation on which the cause of freedom so crucially depends.’’
Thirty years later, America finds itself in an eerily similar situation, with a Republican president, once again having to juggle US interests and alliances. A real test of American leadership on the global stage.
“Our friends will never question our support,” you vowed in Riyadh, “and our enemies will never doubt our determination.” Who are the ‘friends,’ and who the ‘enemies’? Democratic nations or autocracies? Terrorists or ideological incubators and sponsors of legalized extremism? It is not easy to tell who’s who or what’s what these days.
Whereas in Saudi Arabia you assured leaders, after dancing with them, that “America is prepared to stand with you — in pursuit of shared interests and common security,” in Europe, you shoved them aside and refused to acknowledge NATO’s Article 5, the guarantee of mutual defense (invoked for the first time in the alliance’s history after the 9/11 attacks against the US). Whereas in Saudi Arabia you said “we are not here to lecture”, at the NATO summit, you scolded and lectured European leaders for not paying up the minimum 2% of their national budgets to the alliance’s security. Contrary to your pledge “to strengthen America’s oldest friendships, and to build new partnerships in pursuit of peace,” it seems you are making new deals on the rubble of old and more reliable relationships.
In The Boss, Melissa McCarthy’s character, Michelle Darnell, offers the following advice to her Brownies: “First rule of business: pretend to negotiate, then take what you want.” Partnerships or friendships are not a zero-sum game. You make it sound like people and other countries are simply freeloading off America. If the US’s relationship with the rest of the world becomes purely transactional, one in which everyone becomes expendable or useless when they fail to pay up for services rendered by the US, our country will auction its moral and strategic worth to the highest bidder. Value doesn’t always come in greenbacks! Your present approach to US and world affairs leads one to think that if you were president at the end of World War II, the Marshall plan would have been considered a very bad deal for America, and would never have seen the light of day.
It is true the current world order has not always lived up to the expectations invested in it. Inequalities and wars continue to plague our world. And as G. John Ikenberry notes in his essay in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2017): “In recent years, Western publics have increasingly come to regard the liberal international order not as a source of stability and solidarity among like-minded states but as a global playground for the rich and powerful.” This level of disenchantment has been made possible by unscrupulous businessmen and unethical politicians who exploit loopholes and public resources and offices for their own parochial gain. But if, since the end of World War II, we have not had another conflict engulfing the entire globe, then the liberal order established in the morrow of the war had a lot to do with that. And if there have been general improvements in the lives of people globally, then the liberal order should be given some credit for it. So, instead of trying to torpedo it entirely, the sensible thing to do is to help fix its blind spots and defects.
America is not an innocent country. Its foreign policy has always been guided by a pragmatic understanding of its economic and security interests (“America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests,” as Henry Kissinger once put it). That said, every now and then, American leaders have in one form or another at least urged their partners to respect the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Rather than regard this tradition as bad for business and national security, you must earnestly maintain it.
Clearly, the ship of the current order seems to be adrift in turbulent waters. As Newt Gingrich lamented in his aforementioned essay, “the president just made a titanic foreign policy shift. The media missed it”! Let’s just hope what happened to the Titanic is not happening to America and the world! And let us pray the media continues to stay vigilant, with its telescopic gaze trained especially on the nebulous zones in our common odyssey.
You, Islam, and Muslims
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between Good and Evil…. The birthplace of civilization is waiting to begin a new renaissance. Just imagine what tomorrow could bring.”
Citing the above from your speech in Saudi Arabia, an acquaintance recently suggested I must be relieved that you have finally reached out to the Muslim world. I must admit, listening to sections of that speech, I was almost tempted to see a conversion experience occasioned perhaps by your direct contact with the birthplace of the prophet of Islam. I thought, if the anti-Christian extremist Paul could find his own road to Damascus, who couldn’t! God, indeed, works in mysterious ways!
The said acquaintance was baffled when I said ‘no’.
It is true that after repeatedly accusing Obama and Clinton of lacking the courage and honesty to use the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism,” you resisted the once in-a-life-time opportunity to do so in the birthplace of the religion you have called a “sickness” and that your former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, called “a malignant cancer.”
On the face of it, for a man who built his political credentials and fortunes by saying Obama was a closet Muslim, and who entertained the idea of closing mosques and creating a database of all Muslims in the US and surveilling them; for a man who called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, who said “Islam hates us,” a man who has surrounded himself with inveterate islamophobes and who still fights to enact his Muslim travel ban, saying Islam is “one of the world’s great faiths” is a vast improvement.
Yet, I am not heartened by what some have called an outreach to Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Yes, you said: “Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred. And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples.” Today in this country, caught between extremism in their own faith and bigotry and hatred from so-called anti-terrorists, Muslim boys and girls, men and women, no longer feel safe. We walk about with your words and policies stuck to our backs and foreheads like crosshairs for all those who now find legitimacy for their hate in your election.
No, I am not consoled!
It helps to see beyond the gleaming palaces, the sword-dancing and the pomp and pageantry surrounding your visit to the kingdom. What happened in Saudi kingdom was indeed an outreach. But it was not an outreach to Muslims. It was carte blanche given to the Saudi royal family and its cohorts to continue business as usual.
As a Muslim, I don’t use the Saudi royal family as my point of reference. The fact that they are ‘custodians’ of holy sites of Islam is one of those accidents of our human existence. Between what that ruling family does and what ISIS or groups of that ilk do, there are not too many degrees of separation. Many organizations, including the US Department of State have over the years agreed that the Saudi regime is one of the most repressive in the world. According to the 2016 Human Rights Watch world report, “through 2015 Saudi authorities continued arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities continued to discriminate against women and religious minorities.” It is yet to be seen how the ascendancy of King Salman and his Crown Prince son will lead to meaningful changes in the lives of ordinary Saudis, especially women and minorities.
Moreover, it is no secret that some of the biggest sponsors of what many call radical Islamic terrorism, financially and ideologically speaking, are citizens of Saudi Arabia, a country your administration has given a free pass in your make-America-safe-again Muslim ban, and in your recent trip there plenty of weapons to use against terrorists and its fellow Muslim neighbors (or even against Israel one day, for all we know).
The Business of National Security
You speak often of your desire to protect American business and security interests. If this is something truly dear to your heart, you should remember it is not in America’s long-term interests to support undemocratic regimes or movements in the name of American businesses and national security. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
The United States was among the nations who supported the Afghan Mujahedeen (a group Osama Bin Laden joined forces with) in their battle against the Soviets from 1979–1989. Ronald Reagan even met with the rebel group in the White House. Around the same time as the Afghan-Soviet war, Iran and Iraq were busy tearing each other apart. Once again, after realizing that Iran — thanks to billions of dollars in American arms channeled through Israel — was gaining the upper hand, Reagan aided Iraq by allowing the sale of American-made arms and a secret sharing of highly classified intelligence with the country. We know how those chickens came home to roost: the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda; the strengthening of Saddam who later invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War; and the worsening of relations with Iran and the concomitant bolstering of the Ayatollahs and the so-called Islamic revolution in Iran; among other consequences.
To be sure, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are run by autocratic regimes who seek to impose on other Muslim nations a version of Islam and politics that squeeze out individual and group rights and freedoms. But building more walls between these two geopolitical rivals is in no one’s interest. What happened at the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh was, at least in part, a deepening of the artificial internecine rift between Shiite and Sunni. By getting you to beat on Iran and its Shia allies, the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia and its partner monarchies in the Gulf got you to do their dirty job for them. These countries oppose the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s rapprochement with the US not because they believe it to be bad per se. It is a no-brainer that improved relations between Iran and the democratic world has a greater chance of encouraging reforms that could catalyze the weakening, if not the demise, of the theocracy of the Ayatollahs. So why waste a good opportunity for a détente between Iran and the democratic world? This, especially at a time when the people of Iran, through their decisive reelection of moderate Hassan Rouhani, have signaled to the rest of the world their desire to turn a new page in their history. Majority, if not all, of the Gulf monarchies are more concerned about preserving their strangle-hold on power (by any means necessary) than about the religion and the rights of their citizens and neighbors.
A Call to Conscience
As I close this missive, I would like to make a special appeal to you to listen to your better angels, as you seem to have done regarding DACA.
Today, you and your party control all the branches of the federal government, and majority of state governments. This is a lot of power concentrated in one party. It is clear we cannot count on the majority of Republican law-makers to protect the constitution and the Republic for which it stands. How could we, when Paul Ryan called your travel ban unconstitutional during the campaign but now says it is the right thing to do? How could we when Jeff Sessions encouraged then acting Attorney General Sally Yates to assert her independence from president Obama but failed to come to her defense when she was fired by you for refusing to enforce your travel ban? How could we when Mitch McConnell has effortlessly gone from being passionate Obama-obstructionist (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”) to becoming unflinching Trump-facilitator? So much for counting on our leaders to serve as role models for our children!
Thanks to your personal wealth, and the power endowed upon you by the American presidency, you have become, at least nominally, the most powerful man in the world. So until you are allowed to complete America’s retreat from the global commons, your words and actions have consequence far beyond the borders of America. To rephrase Klemens von Metternich, when America sneezes, the rest of the world risks catching a cold. Imagine what will happen if America catches a fever!
The question we the people face at this moment is this: Are we going to sit back and watch the country that many built return to a time when it served only a select few, to a past that can only be resuscitated as Panem? Surely, history will judge us by our actions, or lack thereof. So, as we wait for our law-makers to develop the moral backbone needed to put the interest of the country over party, we ask that you leave the judiciary, civil society, and the press alone. As imperfect as they may be, these institutions carry, more than at any other time in recent memory, our hopes for a more compassionate America that will forever defend the creed that all boys and girls, men and women, trans or otherwise, whoever they are and whatever they choose to be, wherever they are from or may be, “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”