My Festivus grievances? Muslim ban is un-American; supporting it isn’t racist

This time of year brings countless holidays — some of the ancient vintage and others modern creations. Seinfeld’s Festivus falls firmly in that latter camp, and its traditions are highly relevant to this year’s political season. Presidential candidates, for example, loudly proclaim the “Feats of Strength” they will unleash on their enemies, be they Republicans or terrorists.

Efrain Lugo via Flickr. Available for reuse through Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Efrain Lugo via Flickr. Available for reuse through Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Yet the “Airing of Grievances” seems especially appropriate, so, in the spirit of Festivus, here are mine.

First, to those who are calling for a ban on Muslims, even temporarily. How many criticized the Obama administration over the last few years for its inability to get more Muslims into the United States? I’m referencing the Special Immigrant Visa for those Iraqis and Afghans who served with our military and face danger in their homes because of it. The State Department had failed miserably in processing those applications — in 2011, it issued three; in 2012, 32. The agency’s poor performance was rightly criticized.

The State Department even struggled to process a visa for an interpreter who served with Medal of Honor-recipient Dakota Meyer. In one fateful engagement, “Hafez” picked up a rifle and engaged Taliban militants alongside U.S. Marines. If you talk to those who have gone forward and served closely with local nationals — including yours truly — you will hear similar, albeit less dramatic, stories about their “terps.” I have more trust and confidence in “my” Afghans than I do in some Americans.

So when people call for a ban on all Muslims, they are calling for a ban on those who placed themselves in harm’s way beside American troops. Such a ban is wrong. That doesn’t mean we cannot have a pause on emigres from specific countries, like Jimmy Carter’s Iranian sanctions. Or that we shouldn’t significantly increase security screening based on threat profiles; we should. But judging someone solely on his or her faith — with no room for individuality — is un-American.

Second on the “grievance” list are those who call the first group “racist.” Islam is not a race — that is axiomatic. Incorrectly ascribing things to race is either done by mistake or, worse, intentionally to elicit a visceral reaction. The former can be corrected with education. The latter cheapens legitimate debate by bringing unwarranted connotations into the conversation. Like tools, we need to use the right word for the right job.

That includes using the right words to name our enemy: radicalized jihadist Islam. Statements like “ISIS isn’t Islamic” ignore reality. It is okay to recognize virulent schools of thought within Islam — Wahhabism, Qutbism, Haghani — which teach violence as a means to salvation, or as necessary to bring about the Islamic second coming. These philosophies do not represent the sum total — or even a majority — of Islam, but they are derived from it. Western leaders nonchalantly declaring them “not Islamic” is not effective.

Language is especially powerful in Muslim cultures. Words were their primary form of art due to prohibitions on idolatry; there is a reason the acronym “Daesh” offends ISIS. Part of this war will be fought with words. To succeed, we need to begin accurately describing what we are fighting.

The last group on my Festivus list are those who abandon reason in favor of partisanship. For example, I received an email following last week’s column informing me that my argument against proposals to abrogate the Second Amendment without due process was invalid. Why? Because Donald Trump, vying for the Republican presidential nomination, proposed a temporary ban on Muslims. Therefore, no Republican is credible on the Bill of Rights. Really?

This trend is crazy and, unfortunately, widespread. Democrats’ support of universal health care drops sharply when they hear Trump supports it. Similar shifts occur among Republicans on policies when they think Hillary Clinton supports them. Regardless of which side does it, it is wrong. We have to rate policy proposals on their own merit, not by who supports them. From a conservative perspective, President Obama can simultaneously be wrong on many things and right on the need for criminal justice reform.

And that is really the common theme of this grievance list. Individuals, movements, and policy arguments need to be assessed on their own merits. We shouldn’t ban all Muslims; we should prevent those who present higher risks from coming until adequate information is available. Such proposals are not racist, definitionally, and neither are the individuals proposing them. When identifying terror organizations, we cannot ignore motivating ideology because is is uncomfortable. And statements like “all Muslims are terrorists” and “no Republicans are credible” are equally false.

Fortunately, Maine has generally held fast against this tide. You saw it over this past year. Part of the intra-GOP debate around Gov. Paul LePage’s tax reform proposal stemmed from individuals putting their policy principles before party. Like the proverbial Festivus pole, Mainers have a high strength-to-weight ratio. Let’s hope we can continue to stand firm.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.