MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIX No. 4
March / April 2017
Trump’s Budget Cuts NIH, EPA, and Civilian Programs to Fund Weapons Contracts
and Foreign Wars
On Immigration and Humanist Values
The Long- and Short-Term Budget
Challenges for R&D Support
Listening, Learning and Teaching,
and Outreach; Teaching and Learning Computational Thinking and Algorithmic Reasoning
MIT April 18: Day of Engagement;
Day of Action
Leadership Training in Academia
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Campus Research Expenditures
FY 2007-2016
Campus Research Expenditures
FY 2007 and 2016
Printable Version

On Immigration and Humanist Values

Nasser Rabbat

Immigration (hijra) in the Islamic consciousness is first and foremost an act of liberation. The Prophet Muhammad migrated from his native city, Mecca, to the city of Yathrib (later named Madina) to escape persecution and preserve his faith. So crucial was that journey to the formation of the budding religion that it marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar, which was moreover named after it (First Hegira year = 622 CE).

Immigration remained a valiant undertaking for centuries to come. It animated great movements of oppressed individuals and communities across vast distances to protect their faith and have a chance to live freely as happened after the Spanish Reconquista in the fifteenth centurywhen both Spanish Muslims and Jews immigrated to North African and Ottoman cities, or after the Russian colonial expansion in the Caucasus in the late nineteenth century, which forced countless Circassian Muslims to move to the Middle East. The term hijra survives today in various Islamic languages: a muhajir in Pakistan, for instance, is an individual who had fled India after Partition in 1947 and relocated to the new Islamic country.

The importance of this redemptive act should have resonated within the American psyche, Americans having been reared on the stories of religiously persecuted communities from the old continent, especially Britain, finding refuge in the New World. Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, and Jews were all oppressed faith groups who fled Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries to seek their religious freedom in America. The same could be said about larger groups of nonconformists, including the more numerous English Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, and German and Swedish Lutherans who came to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The lessons of religious discrimination that these immigrants brought with them have inspired some of the most fundamentally humanistic principles expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, namely “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” In this definitive act of separating church and state while respecting freedom of worship, the U.S. set the path for other liberal democracies to follow.

It is thus both perplexing and depressing to witness the confusion caused by President Trump’s executive orders, popularly known as the “Muslim Ban.” The disappointment stems less from the virulent rhetoric used by President Trump and his inner circle of conservative advisors, who never hid their demagogic intentions, against all immigrants. It is rather directed at the American political and intellectual classes who should be much more alert to the dangers the “Muslim Ban” represents to the core values of the American civil system and its Constitutional safeguards.

Both in its first fiasco version and its second supposedly measured one, the Ban pretends to be merely a preventive procedure aimed at plugging holes in the already excessive visa vetting system and protecting the borders of the United States from “Islamist terrorists.” But, besides the false pronouncements it makes about terrorism and the exclusively Islamic identity of its perpetrators, the Ban actually undermines the fundamental principles of equality before the law, freedom of belief, non-discrimination, and separation of state and church, all enshrined in the Constitution, in addition to its contemptuous disregard for the requisite input from the two other branches of government: the legislative and the judiciary.

As expected, reactions to the Ban from academic, cultural, and political institutions on the whole have been critical. Many have condemned it for its legal overreaching or, more often, for its undeniable harm to the proper functioning of their operation, while noticing its overall corrosive effect on liberal American values. This is at least how one can read the slew of statements issued by universities, museums, and academic associations after the Ban’s first iteration (no similar outcry occurred after the second). The letter sent to President Trump on February 3, 2017 by 48 top U.S. university presidents, including President Rafael Reif of MIT, for instance, states that the order “threatens both American higher education and the defining principles of our country.” It continues to assert that the Ban “specifically prevents talented, law-abiding students and scholars from the affected regions from reaching our campuses. American higher education has benefited tremendously from this country’s long history of embracing immigrants from around the world. Their innovations and scholarship have enhanced American learning, added to our prosperity, and enriched our culture.”

All these objections are valid, and all reflect the concerns of these distinguished signatories. But the universities’ letter, and other countless similar ones, misses the big picture. The assault embedded in the “Muslim Ban” is not just directed against students and researchers from specific countries, or Muslims, or even refugees in general. It is a trial balloon in a concerted, ideologically motivated effort aimed at a set of values that together make up the fiber of our American democracy.

This should be clear to anyone watching the unfolding of the Trump administration’s appointments, policies, and public statements. Notwithstanding his smokescreen-like and seemingly impulsive tweets, President Trump is systematically and resolutely implementing all of his campaign promises, no matter how outlandish they might have seemed when first uttered. He is doing that by issuing one executive order after another aimed at dismantling the achievements of his predecessor and by shrewdly placing likeminded people in leading positions, who will help him realize the radical changes in our political system he wants, each in their tried and tested area. Thus, for example, we have an Education Secretary who does not believe in public schools, an Attorney General who is highly critical of the gains in civil rights over the last 50 years, a HUD Secretary who wants to reduce public housing, and an Administrator of the EPA who is skeptical of climate change, and who publicly doubted that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming. We also have clear indications that the Trump administration is planning to drastically reduce funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to totally eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

There is a distinct pattern here that is not to be taken lightly or blamed on the erratic methods of governing that the Trump administration seems to have adopted. The pattern is ideological and it is not just neo-liberal, advancing the private over the public in every domain, as many commentators have observed. In its anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, anti-factual, discriminatory, and isolationist stances, it is anti-humanist to the core.

By anti-humanist, I do not mean the values of European Enlightenment as established around the same time as the drafting of the American Constitution and later much criticized. I mean universal humanism as it has evolved through tremendous struggles all over the world to redress the wrongs wrought on all disenfranchised people everywhere. This is the humanism that was inscribed in a number of international documents, most notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), adopted after the atrocities of World War II, the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), and its updated and enlarged version, The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000), which explicitly takes into account the “changes in society, social progress and scientific and technological developments.”

This is also the humanism that defines the spirit behind all of our federal, scientific, and cultural endowments threatened with funding cuts nowadays, and underlies the mission of American higher education despite recent shifts toward a more entrepreneurial orientation. It is the humanism that we – educators, scholars, researchers, scientists, and intellectuals – ought to relentlessly reaffirm, promote, and defend.

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