A friend asked me to share the link to the petition seeking the rescinding of US President Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK invitation.
The immediate spur for the petition is President Trump’s banning of nationals from a number of countries for security reasons, and the haste with which the measures were enacted as being because a lot of “bad dudes” would rush into the country had they been given any more notice.
Setting aside the patent nonsense of the reason for there being no notice – they could have been rushing in before – every government would surely want to keep its citizens as safe as possible.
I was interested to see, therefore, that over the ten years since 9/11, one was over five and a half thousand times more likely as an American in America to be killed by a fellow citizen than by an Islamic jihadist immigrant. That’s 2 against 11,737. While those two deaths are deeply regrettable and to the families and friends the more so, are the deaths at the hands of fellow citizens less worthy of action? Indeed, while two people were killed by Islamic jihadist immigrants, 5 were killed by far right wing terrorists. Dealing with this situation of extremists at home could be twice as effective as this ban. Dealing with American gun ownership could be more effective still. In 2015, outside the time frame of the above comparison, there was a shooting in Chattanooga in which five people died at the hands of a man who was, according to FBI Director James Comey, “inspired, motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda” although he added that “it was difficult to determine which specific terrorist group or groups inspired” him. In that same year, to the end of November there were 52 shootings involving armed toddlers. Of the 43 incidents to mid-October, “at least 13 toddlers have inadvertently killed themselves with firearms, 18 more injured themselves, 10 injured other people, and two killed other people.” Once more, armed toddlers were more dangerous than Islamists, if only to themselves. The Chattanooga killer was a naturalised American born in Kuwait and with a temporary Jordanian passport, which leads us to the countries included in this ban.
President Trump’s executive order has placed restrictions on people travelling from Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, a list that does not include the countries associated with the Chattanooga killer, nor Saudi Arabia, the country associated with 9/11. In fact, no terrorist attack in the US has been carried out by a national of any of the seven affected countries. The list also does not include Muslim majority countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia again, in which the President has business interests, but let’s set that aside as coincidence for the moment. The targetting of selected Muslim majority nations, rather tan specific threats within nations, means that this will be seen as an anti-Muslim action, the more so given the President’s anti-Muslim rhetoric during the election campaign. It is, therefore, likely to be a useful recruitment tool for those, like Daesh, whose ill will to western countries is already well known. It is likely also to make it yet more difficult to achieve the necessary support from governments and populations of those predominantly Muslim countries which are at the forefront of the struggle against Daesh or most susceptible to their malign influence. This is not the view of some pinko, hand wringing liberal but of two leading Republicans, namely Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. (That this order was issued without due consultation or forethought is seen in the Senators’ assertion that the president’s order “bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies.”)
Of greatest concern, for many reasons, including the sustenance it may give to the far right in Europe, is the message sent out in this order by the world’s strongest country, and one with a proud (although perhaps like all countries not unblemished) record of welcoming refugees to its shores. Again, I will let those two senior Republicans, both leading figures on national security, speak on this issue: “We should not turn our backs on those refugees who have been shown through extensive vetting to pose no demonstrable threat to our nation, and who have suffered unspeakable horrors, most of them women and children.” Turning America’s back on refugees is exactly what this measure is about. The Executive Order does not target the top seven terrorist producing countries but the top seven for producing refugees given sanctuary in the United States. This is a measure designed to reduce the number of refugees and it is hidden cynically behind a concern for public safety from terrorists.
I am a Christian minister and President Trump identifies himself with the Presbyterian Church, so is there a Christian perspective on this matter? I am drawn to that sentence from Exodus (22:21) “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” The Hebrew people are to remember that they were once themselves sojourners, aliens, exiles, strangers in another land. That remembrance is to inspire them to treat others as they would have wished to be treated. For Christians, there is a spiritual truth here in that we may see ourselves as strangers in this world, grateful recipients of God’s grace, and therefore compelled to reflect that grace to others.
The injunction in Exodus to offer care and hospitality to the stranger clearly underpinned the deeds of the Jesus we say we follow, and who bids us do as he does. Indeed, at the end of Matthew’s gospel the truth of our commitment to Jesus is seen in our adherence to the simple demand to help those in need. We are judged not on the purity of our doctrine, the regularity of our church attendance, but on what we did for the least of our brothers and sisters.
All this said, therefore, I cannot support the President’s Executive Order, his ban of visitors from the seven countries listed, on grounds rational or biblical. What then of the petition to ban President Trump in return and to rescind the invitation to a state visit? I find myself conflicted.
The Chinese President was invited to a State Visit in October of 2015 to what the Financial Times called “pomp and protest.” That there were matters over which it was right to protest was seen in the speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. “In an apparent veiled reference to China’s poor human rights record, Mr Bercow told his guest:
‘“The world will be watching and waiting expectantly on the outcome as the emerging superpower that is China takes its new place in the world.
‘“In this century, no country can exist in isolation. In all matters, from international law to individual liberty, we should all aspire to be seen not merely as a powerful force in the world but as a moral inspiration to it.’” It seems that protests, perhaps more strongly worded, outside parliament were limited by police action and there is no way of telling how strongly human rights and other concerns were conveyed to the Chinese leader by then Prime Minister Cameron and other UK governments members and officials. Others have been entertained in this way including Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Suharto of Indonesia, and Mobuto of Zaire, all with questionable records to say the least.
I would want, normally, to allow and encourage visits of foreign leaders, even if and perhaps particularly because we do not agree with their policies. In any debate, engagement would seem a more productive tactic than estrangement. Even so, a State Visit, when Mr Trump will be entertained by the Queen as the UK’s Head of State, would appear to confer some legitimacy on the visitor, despite anything that may be said behind the scenes. If Trump must come then it should be a visit without the pomp and ceremony of a royal welcome.
The argument for a total ban, however, remains persuasive and the more so this morning when we read that the President has summarily sacked acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, for opposing the Executive Order on grounds of legality and justice. Interestingly, I understand that she was asked, before she was sworn in, to confirm that she would do this by the person scheduled to replace her. This sacking is an attack on the justice which maintains freedom for all against overweening power.
I am left with a sense that this is a moment when, even if President Trump does not see it as such, we might encourage him to pause and reflect. His action with this particular Executive Order is a step too far, is counterproductive, and does not serve the interests of America or the wider world. It is not in keeping with the values of tolerance and equality that are supposed to underpin our two democracies. The peace of the world, the proclamation of humane values of compassion and justice shared by people of all faiths and none depends on the leadership of the strongest nations, those most able to exercise it.
The petition is now heading towards one and three quarter millions but, at the same time, the government’s position is hardening and it looks likely that the visit will go ahead despite any petition. Should it go ahead then we must hope that our politicians engage seriously with the President and apprise him fully of the concerns felt across the political spectrum, that Prince Charles does indeed have opportunity to speak of interfaith relations with the President as some have mooted and that the people of the UK who are concerned at the morality, legality and sanity of the US President’s actions take the opportunity of his presence to protest in the most effective ways.
I end with this quote from FDR shared recently by a fellow minister in the USA: “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”