My parents brought me to London when I was two years old, seeking refuge from Somalia’s civil war. To guarantee our safety they left behind a home, friends, family and much of what was familiar in the world. Their siblings were scattered. My grandmother and a few of her daughters found homes together in Canada. Some of my uncles came to the UK before we did. Other relatives went to the United States, settling in Minnesota where today a large Somali community thrives. Had my aunt and other Somali-Americans made that journey today they would have been barred from entering the US twice over – for being refugees and for coming from Somalia.
I have never been to Somalia, but I know the people. During my childhood the noise of long-distance phone calls – my mother shouting down the line as if her voice couldn’t carry across oceans otherwise – was the familiar sound of my family, divided by borders, struggling to keep in contact.
The Trump administration justifies its travel ban on the citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries by claiming that national security stands in the balance. But according to the Cato Institute, ‘foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on US soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.’ Attacks carried out by Muslims account for 0.3 per cent of the murders in the US last year. The ban is unlikely to deter Islamic State and others who threaten America with terror. But even if none of this were true, the ban would still be a racist and pernicious policy.
Anti-Muslim racism tells people like me that we are terroristic, barbaric and incapable of upholding ‘Western values’. It means that whether we practise Islam or not, our names, our countries of birth, our skin tone or the languages we speak make us ‘Muslims’.
I experienced racism before 9/11, but didn’t feel real fear as a Muslim before the war on terror. The anti-Muslim racism that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon brought back to my parents the fear they had felt when they fled Somalia. Trump’s executive order does the same again. He sees fear as a weapon to be deployed against his enemies. When you’re constantly reminded that however moderate, secular or even irreligious you may be, you are still the enemy, it’s difficult to not imagine what comes next: the forced registration, mass detention and expulsion of Muslim Americans all seem dangerously close.
If Muslims are to survive we will need a popular resistance movement, and it’s there, in the form of the airport protests, the spare rooms being offered to people trapped outside the US, the lawyers arguing for human rights and due process. But the movement needs to see anti-Muslim racism for what it is, and to recognise that Trump couldn’t have done what he did if it hadn’t been normalised long ago. The travel ban must be defeated, but a return to ‘normal’ will not be enough.