NEW YORK (RNS) I felt utterly helpless. My student was sobbing and saying he wouldn’t be there for his relative’s final moments.
His family was in Iran, and with President Trump attempting to bar travel from there and several other predominantly Muslim countries, the student feared that he may not be able to return home if he went there to say his final goodbyes. My job was to offer counsel, and while I did my best to console him and offer spiritual guidance, a part of me could not wrap my head around the fact that this young man would not be able to hold his beloved relative’s hand one last time solely because of a bigoted presidential order that singled out people like him.
Although an appeals court ruled against a second iteration of Trump's “Muslim ban” on Thursday (May 25), the administration could still appeal to the Supreme Court, which recently added the Trump-nominated Neil Gorsuch to its bench.
I was born and raised on Long Island. The high school I attended was small, not very diverse and proved a difficult setting for an American Muslim like myself and the handful of students of color in our graduating class. After attending Stony Brook University, I decided the best way that I could make a difference would be by drawing on my faith to increase dialogue and understanding among people of all faiths.
Now an associate chaplain at New York University, I work primarily with young people going through the challenges and difficulties common in college life. I also travel, to churches, mosques and synagogues across the U.S. and internationally, to participate in multifaith engagement.
These days travel is a common issue of concern in the mosques and community gatherings that I attend. And the travel ban has had a severe and repugnant impact on Muslims in the United States as a whole, with special circumstances affecting Shiite Muslims in particular.
Similar to Catholics, we adhere to a hierarchical structure of religious clergy, with the most learned given the highest religious authority. While Shiites can be found all over the world, nearly all of our highest-ranking scholars reside in the nations of Iraq, Iran and Syria – it is, in part, for this reason that I studied in Karbala, Iraq, as part of my post-graduate training.
This issue is highlighted in one of the lawsuits against the Muslim ban, UMAA v. Trump. Filed by Muslim Advocates, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the lawsuit illustrates that the application of this administration’s Muslim ban has meant that Shiite congregations across the United States have not been able to hear from some of our most learned religious scholars because they reside in nations targeted by the ban. Ironically, many of these families initially chose to come to the United States because of our religious liberty.
The greatest effect the Muslim ban has is not on American Muslims who become targets of hate and suspicion — it’s on all Americans and all of us who must navigate a nation further split along racial, ethnic and religious divides. These are the very things I’ve worked my entire adult life to reduce and to overcome.
On Nov. 9, the day after the election, I was approached by a friend who sought guidance. He had a 6-year-old niece in elementary school. She had asked her uncle, “Uncle, who won the election?” When the uncle responded, the young girl broke down crying and when asked why she cried her response was “None of the kids at school will sit with me during lunch.” The young girl clearly felt the result of the election would not help alleviate the situation at the school’s lunchroom.
As heartbreaking as the young father’s story was, it did not compare to the heartache I was about to face. When my friend asked me, “What should I tell her?” I had no words to offer him. “I don’t know,” I said.
Misguided and hateful policies such as the travel ban targeting Muslims have a real and drastic effect, especially on young children. From bullying at school to criminalizing an entire faith, the consequences are traumatizing and the impact on our democracy, on who we are as a nation, is severe.
I have one young daughter, and another a few weeks from entering into this world. In some ways I can be thankful that they are still too young to go to preschool, too young to face the harsh realities, cruel rhetoric and hateful actions being instigated and even encouraged by some of our leaders and their reckless policies.
It is for my daughters, indeed for all families, that I will continue to fight against discriminatory and hurtful policies like the Muslim ban and continue to do my part to build bridges and shift the narrative from one of hate and distrust to one of acceptance, tolerance and respect.
(Faiyaz Jaffer is the associate chaplain and research scholar at the Islamic Center at New York University)