Is Donald Trump’s Muslim ban an existential threat to the Iranian-American community, at least in terms of its long term cultural identity? I fear it could be. And I fear we haven’t fully come to terms with its true meaning and impact - particularly if it is the mere first step in a larger plan to end immigration from a select group of Middle Eastern countries.
Let’s first recognize the immediate realities of this ban. This ban will be permanent if it is allowed to stand by the courts and Congress. There is nothing the Iranian government can or will do to meet the Trump administration’s demands in terms of providing information about Iranian visa applicants. Secretary John Kelly admitted as much in testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security. As a result, there will be no more Iranian students coming to study at US universities. Zero. Forget about the victory from 2011, when President Obama okayed multiple entry visas for Iranian students. There will be zero-entry visas now.
Iranian student groups at major US universities - as well as the community in general - will lose a pivotal lifeline: The steady stream of Iranian students that reinvigorate not just Iranian student organizations, but the community as a whole. Indeed, much of the Iranian-American elite today were students on F1 visas only a few decades ago. With the loss of students universities will also lose the best ambassadors of Persian culture and Iranian goodwill. The void the absence of future waves of students will create cannot be fully imagined today.
Moreover, there will be no more uncles and aunts, grandmothers and fathers, or cousins coming to visit. There is no substitute for those much-needed injections of Iranian culture that their visits brought - particularly for our children.
Other communities, with arguably fewer challenges than ours, worry about this endlessly. How to maintain Jewish culture, values and heritage is a constant struggle for the Jewish community in the United States. As Peter Beinart once bemoaned at a NIAC event in New York: How do you maintain your ancient culture in a country that tends to reduce everything to McDonalds?
Yet, the Jewish community has a plethora of Jewish Community Centers, preschools, synagogues, Jewish studies centers at US Universities, and cultural and political organizations. And of course, they can freely travel to and receive visitors from Israel.
Iranian Americans do not have a plethora of religious institutions, cultural centers, preschools, or organizations. Many Iranian Americans can’t travel to Iran, and now the visits of blood relatives here in the US will be cut off.
But it gets worse. We do not have the luxury to assume that the Muslim ban is the Trump administration’s first and only step targeting our community. If there are other measures they are planning, what might those be? Already in 2008, we heard rumors that some Republican lawmakers were toying with the idea of a travel ban to Iran. As part of the effort to sanction Iran, a Cuba-style travel ban on Iran was being considered in order to dry out the flow of Iranian-Americans traveling to and spending American dollars in Iran. For unknown reasons, the idea never took off.
Could the Trump administration revive this idea? It is not inconceivable. The President has without a doubt surrounded himself with a circle of advisors who hate Iran with a passion.
Such a scenario - in which Iranians cannot travel to the US and Iranian-Americans cannot travel to Iran - is in my view an existential threat to our community. Not in the sense that our lives will be at stake, but that our ability to remain bearers of our ancient culture will be at risk. Our Iranian-Americanness, in other words.
The historic track record of Iranians does not give us much hope. Iranians have rarely managed to retain an Iranian identity for more than three generations outside of Iran itself. To begin with, there have been very few instances of mass-exodus from the Iranian plateau in the past three thousand years. And there are no surviving ancient pockets of Iranians outside of Iran's historic boundaries, other than the Zoroastrian communities of India and Pakistan.
Unlike Eastern European Jews and Armenians, who have an impressive track record of retaining their identities in Diaspora despite significant bigotry and discrimination, Iranians are not only bad at it, we had very little experience of Diaspora life until the 1979 revolution. And the only significant example we can point to - the Parsis of India - survived not because of their cultural strength, but because the Indian caste system prevented them from intermarrying. The condition for their permission to settle in Gujarat as they fled the Islamization of Iran was that they would enter the Indian society as a separate people - and keep it that way. Had they settled elsewhere, chances are there would be no traces today of their original cultural and religious identity.
For a rookie Diaspora community such as ours, maintaining a lifeline to Iran is arguably essential for our survival as Iranian-Americans. And even for the small minority within our community that feel indifferent about retaining their Iranian cultural heritage, they still have to answer whether they accept seeing their children grow up as second-class citizens in the United States – always treated as inherent threats to other Americans because of the skin color and birthplace of their parents. There are some in our community who may feel their secular or non-Muslim identities may shield them from these effects. But we must remember that hate does not distinguish.
So what can and should be done about this threat – existential or not? Trump’s Muslim ban must be challenged on three fronts: In the courts, in Congress and within US public opinion. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the ban, and the first iteration was essentially stopped in its tracks through these legal challenges. Four major Iranian-American organizations, IABA, Pars Equality Center, PAAIA and NIAC, also filed a lawsuit through the leadership of Iranian American top lawyer Cyrus Mehri.
The second iteration of the Muslim ban has made these legal challenges a bit trickier, however. This version was deliberately designed to avoid inhumane scenes at the airports and to be less vulnerable to legal challenges. Much now rests on our ability to prove in court that despite the changes to the ban, its unconstitutional intent remains intact.
As the legal path grows more challenging, the Congressional path becomes all the more important. Congress can both rescind and prevent funding for implementation. But due to the hyper partisan atmosphere in Congress, almost all Democrats oppose the ban but no Republican has yet formally opposed it. And since the GOP controls both chambers in Congress, there will be no movement on this issue until either GOP lawmakers are pressured into opposing the ban, or by the Democrats taking over leadership in Congress through the 2018 mid-term elections.
There are currently about two dozen Republican lawmakers whose districts voted for Hillary Clinton. These Republicans are the most likely ones to jump ship and oppose the ban.
Both pressuring GOP leaders to shift sides or shifting Congress to the Democrats are monumental tasks. There is no quick fix or shortcut. These goals can only be achieved through long-term, rigorous, disciplined organizing in our community. A solution may be found within a year, but it can also take eight years.
All major Congressional battles – whether healthcare, educational or immigration reform – have been decades long battles. None of them were predicated on a quick fix or a short cut. In all cases, Americans of all stripes organized for years to advance their cause. And often times, it was the most tenacious side that won.
For Iranian Americans, there is no shortcut in staving off this threat. For our community to defend and retain its cultural identity, we have no choice but to dig in, organize, mobilize, and invest in the organizations fighting this battle with the same commitment we invest in our children’s education.
Anything less will ensure failure.