Travel Ban Panel at UF Explores Race, Religion

*Aya Cockram is a graduate student in UF’s Religion Department. Cocrkam contributed this blog post in her personal capacity. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Florida Religion Department, University of Florida’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, or the University of Florida.

The recent Executive Order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has divided and alienated American citizens and immigrants alike, affecting many at the University of Florida, across the country, and around the globe.

In an effort to empower, inform, and create a sense of unity within the community, the Religion Graduate Student Association in conjunction with Emerge USA hosted a town hall style discussion: Travel Bans and Islamophobia in the Current Political Climate, on February 21st in Ulster hall.

The convening panel spoke to, and interacted with, the audience of over sixty students, faculty and Gainesville community members. The panel touched upon the legal and ethical issues surrounding the travel ban while moving through some more unexpected topics. This helped create a multi-layered and intersectional discussion.

The panel included one of the co-founders of Emerge USA, Khurrum Wahid, an accomplished law professional, was moderated by Emerge USA Florida’s executive director, Tamara Ayon, and also featured Dr. Gwendolyn Simmons of the religion department and Professor Nunn from the law school who were recruited from within the faculty, tailoring the panel and discussion to the UF and Gainesville audience.

The differing perspectives of the speakers allowed the event to take on a life of its own, leading to an intriguing debate regarding the role of race in the context of discriminatory legislation. While all the panelists agreed that the underlying issues and fear tactics that form the foundation of the “Muslim ban” are not new, the vehicle attached to this fear was a source of debate. Discourse regarding concerns of the perceived threat on national security grounds and to constitutional rights was argued to be a veil that obscures more sinister and deeply rooted aspects of the American political and cultural milieu.

Prof. Nunn agreed that Islamophobia is an aspect of anti-Muslim sentiment, however he contended that the persistence of white supremacy was the primary, but perhaps less acknowledged, motivation behind the recent executive order. Through a series of past legal cases Prof. Nunn addressed historical race related considerations that were used to strip non-white immigrants of their visas. In this way he shifted the debate, bringing the discussion to bear on racial prejudice in America and whether this ban can be considered to be a religious issue, racial issue, or if we must consider it to be both.

The professional backgrounds of both Dr. Simmons and Prof. Nunn widened and deepened the discussion of the ban showing that race, as Dr. Simmons noted, can often be conflated with Islam, especially pertaining to people of Middle Eastern descent.

These issues of race and religion were also argued to be linked in the American mind to conceptual citizenship and the assumption by many that assimilation of Muslims (and in fact many other people of color) is impossible, that allegiance to their home country, faith or to ideals such as shar’ia will take precedence over loyalties to the United States. Panelists pointed out that this fear, and the election of those who use discriminatory or white supremacist rhetoric, has resulted in a changing attitude in the country that has de-stigmatized discriminatory sentiments. This validation resulted in an increase of hate speech and violence, not only directed at Muslims but also brown people of all faiths and Jewish communities. This augmentation of violence evidences the effectiveness of fear inducing rhetoric and further underlines the entanglement of race and religion.

In the latter half of the evening the discussion transitioned to a more forward looking approach, addressing the upcoming updated version of the ban, changes in immigration policy in general, activism, and allowed for student and community questions.

Mr. Wahid explicated the increasing severity of immigration reform, especially around the border zones and the potential changes in the new incarnation of the ban, providing a sense of what challenges and changes are to come. It is important to note that these zones where roving patrols are sanctioned include the area one hundred miles from any border, encompassing virtually the entire state of Florida.

The panelists seemed to agree that there is much to be hopeful about when looking at the response to the ban and other discriminatory or harmful legislation. Dr. Simmons in particular drew comparisons from her experiences during the Civil Rights movement, arguing that the outrage and action taken by American citizens gives us reason to be optimistic, while conceding that opposing these policies will not be easy. Dr. Simmons also stressed that we must manifest change by opening conversation with our elected officials, constantly reminding them that their job is to represent their constituents, and that we should disempower and cast out these officials if they do not represent us.

These sentiments were echoed by the other panelists who encouraged involvement in resistance at all levels. Additionally, Mr. Wahid promoted the creation of coalitions of diverse voters from varied backgrounds as a positive way to push elected officials into action, as a unified message from people representing many communities is less likely to be dismissed. Mr. Wahid encouraged empathy toward those with whom we disagree, arguing that it was through marginalization of certain groups that we have reached this state of turbulence and discord.

Although this event expressed hope overall, it was also evident through the discussion of the historical roots of the Muslim ban, its connection to white supremacy and the concerns of the audience, that this legislation remains complex and connected to broader issues that we face as a nation. This event served as an opportunity to hear the perspective of experts and professionals regarding the ban and the current political climate, as well as to provide students and community members with a platform to express their concerns and seek answers to their questions. The panelists, from various areas of expertise not only reached a degree of consensus, but also challenged each other, providing both complications, and illumination, of these important issues, in addition to messages of hope and encouragement in a time of political division and unrest.