My parents are Muslims, but open enough in their faith to welcome the idea I might baptize their eight-month old grandson into Christianity. My wife and I hadn’t yet made a final decision, but until this weekend — when President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries when into effect — we thought we were clear enough in our motivations.
Britta, my wife, was raised in her small Catholic German hometown with a religious life never available to me when I was growing up on Long Island, New York, surrounded by mainstays of Iranian culture like the Farsi language and Persian New Year celebrations, but little exposure to any Islamic community. I imagined our son, like my wife during her own childhood, could, by joining a church, have access to a sense of history and solace, and perhaps some wisdom, too. Christian theology always struck me as particularly unintuitive compared to other spiritual alternatives, but I can’t say it seems any less likely to be true.
Britta and I were more reserved, not just with each other, but ourselves, about an additional motive. We had lived in Germany together before, and we figured there might be some chance that our family would live there again. We are also aware that Germany is an avowedly Christian nation: even lesser Christian holy days are national holidays, public schools teach the Bible, the national government collects taxes on behalf of two officially recognized churches, and politicians describe and defend Christianity as the country’s Leitkultur, its leading culture.
Whether one objects or not to these aspects of German life has always been somewhat beside the point. There are historical reasons for them, and while they aren’t immune to change, nor are they artificial impositions. So why not put our son in a position where he wouldn’t potentially be excluded from the majority, and have access to the cultural privileges that entails? There seemed plenty to gain for his future identity and social life, and at little moral cost.
This was, I now realize, an ignorant calculation. Spirituality aside, there are political stakes that Britta and I both, for our own reasons, found difficult to appreciate. This is the ignorance that Trump’s immigrant ban has now exposed, and corrected.
Morality isn’t exempt from a decision to join one side of a social divide when it means leaving the other side. What Trump has done is create a new division for Americans to contemplate and confront. Americans have always inherited, and struggled against, race as our great national rift. With an immigration system that now discriminates against Muslim immigrants, we are now adopting Europe’s lines tradition of officially dividing ourselves along the lines of religion.
Trump has created an American Muslim minority where there was none before.
Of course, Christians have always been the demographic majority of the United States. Perhaps it is inevitable that a president would encourage them to act as a political majority, too. But we can still recognize this shift as new.
As an Iranian-American, I never previously had the sense of a Christian majority jealous of its power, and intent on using the law to enforce its dominance. Which is another way of saying that as a secular Iranian-American, I didn’t often feel Muslim. My religious identity seemed a contribution to difference, not a standing invitation to competition or division. I didn’t feel disadvantaged by the official representatives of my country, much less a potential object of oppression for the sake of Christian self-esteem.
I do now. How could I not? I have countless relatives in Iran whom I’m not sure I will ever see again. I also have two great-aunts — both in their 80s, both holders of green cards — who were fortunate to have arrived at Dulles Airport last week, but may have to make a lifelong choice between seeing their families in Iran, or their children and grandchildren in the United States.
The question of whether America requires defending from my great-aunts’ allegedly Muslim values dissolves into meaninglessness. What values are at issue, exactly? The desire to live with your family? The hope to age without fear of bureaucratic capriciousness upending everything? Depriving countless Muslims of their dream, or their existing reality, of a life in America serves no purpose except as a temporary balm to Trump voters who were issued a promissory note by their candidate, the cashing of which requires a revolution.
There is a burden in being a minority. But majorities suffer their own moral costs, just as minorities have their own moral privilege. It is a privilege of struggle. There is dignity in turning down political advantages one didn’t earn, and in having a lower vantage point from which to observe injustices committed against our peers.
Of course, along any social division, there are many with no choice about the side they to which they are assigned; no choice whether they will be made to experience cruelty and exclusion, or whether they will rather be obliged to reap the rewards of cruelty imposed on others. That is a tragedy, one that Americans have never been spared, however much I always thought our country sought to resist it.
But my wife and I do have a choice for our son, and we’ll make it with the moral dangers of our countries’ rising prejudice and chauvinism in mind. I see that as a blessing, and hope that eventually he will, too.
The baptism would have been this summer in Germany, but it will now be called off for now. My parents, dual citizens of the United States and Iran, will be spared having to ask an immigration lawyer if they would have been able to attend.
By: CAMERON ABADI
In Foreign Policy