I cannot forget that Monday evening at a rally in Pleasant, South Carolina, on Dec. 7, 2015, when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump stood before his cheering supporters. Reading from a scripted statement, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Sixty three million Americans voted for the candidate who wanted to bar me, and people with names and faces like mine, from entering the United States.
The “Muslim ban” was born.
I happened to be on a visit to the U.K. at the time, filming a show for Al Jazeera English at the Oxford Union when the news alert popped up on my iPhone. For a moment, I froze. A “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — would I be able to get back into America, back to my wife and kids? Would my green card still work at U.S. passport control?
Then I laughed out loud. What was I worried about? Trump was a reality TV star. A carnival barker. A bigot with a bullhorn. He has no power to set U.S. immigration policy, I thought to myself, and he never will.
For the rest of the night, my colleagues and I joked about the depths to which the former host of “The Apprentice” was willing to sink in order to try and stay relevant in a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates. How could anyone suggest banning nearly a quarter of humanity from entering the United States? It was nonsense on stilts.
I even posted a mocking tweet upon my arrival at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., the next day.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Within a year, Trump had vanquished 16 GOP rivals, defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election, and been elected the 45th president of the United States. Sixty three million Americans voted for the candidate who wanted to bar me, and people with names and faces like mine, from entering the United States.
Within a week of his inauguration, Trump had signed Executive Order 13679, banning entry to foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including refugees from war-torn Syria.
How could anyone suggest banning nearly a quarter of humanity from entering the United States? It was nonsense on stilts.
Within six months, and after multiple lower court challenges to the first two versions of Trump’s travel ban, the Supreme Court had signed off on a third iteration of it. “Wow,” exclaimed a jubilant Trump on Twitter. On June 28, 2018, in a 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court decided that Trump’s ban fell “squarely” within the president’s authority, rejecting arguments that the ban was motivated by anti-Muslim animus.
“The [order] is expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices,” Roberts wrote. “The text says nothing about religion.”
My heart sank that morning. This was far from the bigoted bad joke it had seemed more than 18 months earlier at the Oxford Union. This was our new Islamophobic reality, promulgated by a president who had claimed “Islam hates us,” and signed and sealed by the highest court in the land.
It was left to Justice Sonia Sotomayor to offer a clear-eyed dissent. “Based on the evidence in the record, a reasonable observer would conclude that the [Trump executive order] was motivated by anti-Muslim animus,” she wrote. “The majority holds otherwise by ignoring the facts, misconstruing our legal precedent, and turning a blind eye to the pain and suffering the proclamation inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens.”
The Muslim ban showed us America at its worst: nativism, xenophobia, Islamophobia. Hundreds of Muslims detained; thousands denied entry; families torn asunder. The much-touted waivers which the Trump administration had promised, and which Roberts had relied upon for his ruling, never materialized while studies suggested this was, in fact, an explicit attack on Muslim immigrants.
The reaction to the Muslim ban, however, showed us America at its best. Not the Supreme Court decision, of course, which will live in infamy alongside the likes of the Dred Scott and Korematsu decisions. Nor the reaction of the Republican Party, which fell in line behind an anti-Muslim president. But the reaction of ordinary Americans, thousands of whom flooded airports across the nation in order to stand with their Muslim friends, neighbors, colleagues. To stand with my community. It was a sight to behold, including rabbis being arrested outside Trump Tower in New York City.
Over the past four years, since the signing of the initial proclamation by Trump, the likes of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union have worked tirelessly alongside Muslim organizations such as Emgage and Council on American-Islamic Relations to campaign against the ban, to raise public awareness, and to get anti-ban legislation passed in Congress. Activists like Debbie Almontaser organized mass protests, including the shuttering of more than 1,000 Yemeni-owned bodegas in New York CIty; journalists like HuffPost’s Rowaida Abdelaziz highlighted the stories of Muslim American families torn apart by the ban.
Islamophobia is far from the exclusive preserve of Trump and his far-right cronies.
On Wednesday, we saw the much-awaited results of four years of activism and journalism; four years of protesting and lobbying. President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, fulfilled a key campaign pledge by revoking the Muslim ban. Trump’s travel restrictions on people from “primarily Muslim countries,” wrote Biden in his “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to The United States,” were a “stain on our national conscience” and “inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
I cannot overstate what it means to be rid of the Muslim ban. Muslim Americans no longer have to feel less American than their peers; Muslim immigrants no less welcome than the rest. To be clear, Islamophobia in America preceded Trump’s arrival in the White House and will continue to plague this country long after his departure from the seat of government.
The 9/11 attacks kicked off a national fear of terrorism in America, which was conflated with a distrust of Muslims and swiftly sparked a new era of Islamophobia. As Dean Obeidallah recently observed, plenty of anti-Muslim policies were forged during the Obama years. The seven Muslim-majority countries included on the original Trump travel ban, for example, were initially singled out as “countries of concern” of terrorism by the Obama administration.
Islamophobia is far from the exclusive preserve of Trump and his far-right cronies. Going forward, those of us who care about preventing institutionalized discrimination and anti-Muslim bigotry will also have to keep a watchful eye on the Biden administration.
But today is a day to celebrate. Elections have consequences. Voting matters. And the Muslim ban, like Trump, is gone.