In an interview with CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advised people not to expect President-elect Donald Trump to “maintain all his promises” made during the campaign, or to “give voters exactly what he promised.” Sure enough, The New York Times interview this week saw Trump rethinking his positions, or — in the words of the Times — “retreat” from “some of his extreme campaign positions.” Notably, the president-elect said he changed his mind about “the usefulness of torture,” moved away from his call to “lock her up,” when talking about his opponent Hillary Clinton, and mellowed on climate change.
But most importantly Trump “disavowed” and “condemned” the alt-right, White Nationalist conference that was held in Washington last weekend. In this conference, which was reportedly attended by around 200 people, there were Nazi salutes and “Hail Trump” chants.
What was alarming about this conference is that one block from the White House, where the first African-American president was sitting in the Oval Office, people were listening to, and cheering Richard Spencer, the leader of the “alt-right” or White Nationalist movement, carry a message so alien, we thought, to today’s Washington. He told them “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
The condemnation by President-elect Trump was received with a sigh of relief by those who believe his rhetoric during the campaign was for election purposes, and insisted that we will see a new Trump emerge after he is elected.
But for Muslims there is little comfort, because they are afraid of becoming a soft target. Muslims hope that Trump’s rethinking of the other issues will extend to his views on Muslims after his declaration in an interview early in his campaign in 2015 that he was “open to requiring Muslims in the US to register in a data base.” As on many topics, Trump’s position was confusing. He tweeted after this interview that he did not suggest a data base but rather the “reporter did.”
Registering Muslims reappeared last week when Reuters quoted Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as saying that “Trump’s policy advisers had also discussed drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.”
Kobach said “the immigration policy group could recommend the reinstatement of a national registry of immigrants and visitors who enter the US on visas from countries where extremist organizations are active.” He said the registry will be similar to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) which was enacted during President George Bush’s presidency after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. That registry was seen as targeting Arabs and Muslims. It included fingerprinting and photographing visitors from certain countries, mainly Muslim ones. Those who were already in the US went through “special registration” with periodical checks and interviews with immigration officials.
That program was seen as a “failure,” and CNN said NSEERS “did not result in a single terrorism conviction.” The program was suspended by President Barack Obama in 2011. To reinstate the program, there is reportedly no need for the creation of a new structure; all the new administration has to do is revive it through adding names of countries to the list.
The news of a new Muslim registry was received with outrage among civil rights groups, some members of Congress, and Americans from all walks of life with some people likening it to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Director David Cole considered a Muslim registry by President-elect Trump’s administration “unconstitutional.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to sue the incoming Trump administration if it implements a national registry for Muslims.
Public figures and ordinary people, from political life to university campuses, are vowing that if a registry is created they will go and register themselves as Muslims in solidarity with the Muslims in America.
The Trump transition team denied that there will be a Muslim registry. The future White House chief of staff for President-elect Trump, Reince Priebus, said the Trump team is “not planning to establish a Muslim registry,” but he told NBC news that he is not “going to rule out anything,” and explained: “We are not going to have a registry based on a religion.”
Priebus said that Trump “believes that no faith in and of itself should be judged as a whole. But there are some people in countries abroad that need to be prevented from coming into this country.” Priebus believes this is what the American people want. He said: “I think that is where 99 percent of Americans are at.”
Jason Miller, communications director of the presidential transition team, echoed Priebus, when he said: “President-elect Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals on their religion, and to imply otherwise is completely false.” But he hinted where things might be going when he said: “The national registry of foreign visitors from countries with high terrorism activity, that was in place during the Bush and Obama administrations, gave intelligence and law enforcement communities additional tools to keep our country safe, and the president-elect will release his own vetting policies after he is sworn in.”
ACLU’s Cole described this denial as “semantics.” He said the transition team is reportedly planning just that, only under the guise of focusing on countries that happen to be majority Muslim. But Republican Party leaders seem to be sure it will not happen. One such leader who preferred not to use his name told me: “There will never be a Muslim registry. Impossible, impractical, unlawful. Congress won’t fund it.”
All these assurances are good for now, but Muslims are worried and fearful that in case of any terrorist attacks in the US all bets will be off the table.
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.