Some data re Trump’s travel ban order, and related issues

Majority Muslim Countries                                                                                 Feb 9, 2017

I researched some data that might help make sense of what’s happening about Trump’s executive order to stop people from entering the U.S. for 90 days, coming from 7 majority Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – and indefinitely not to accept Syrian refugees.

Popular TV, newspapers and radio broadcasts show this order has caused a furor among politicians, as well as worry, confusion and angry protests, in the U.S. and other parts of the world, and as usual, most of the media (whether right, left, thoughtful or ‘fake’) are busy obsessing and making money over it.

I agree with the idea that Trump’s move intends to fulfill his promises to ‘make the country safe’, which has a high priority among his voters. Clearly, it won’t bring safety, but that’s irrelevant for his politics, so long as people believe it will. More to the point, many governmental agencies, at home and abroad, are needed to bring the executive order about. It can’t be accomplished by a snap decision of a dozen of his advisers, or cabinet members, no matter how insistent they are. The unexpected rush of the moment brought general confusion and uncertainty to embassies, airport customs and border control, and NGO’s. It caused distress and pain in some places where people’s plans were frustrated, including those with green cards, passports or other papers – some of whom had sold their properties and left their places of origin, because they had been promised resettlement. The ACLU and other attorneys filed emergency suits in Federal district courts, and got favorable judgments. With these, much of the uncertainty was settled in a few days, while public and private agencies scrambled to get official answers. But the reactions continue unabated, helped by corporate and social media. I don’t believe they will stop, since many people, in and out of government, are committed to opposing Trump, whatever he does. I think their focus is misguided, however. They are being distracted from the real problems to solve, and how to solve them. Whether his voters keep him in office, with the help of Congress, remains to be seen. But the issues dividing the U.S, didn’t start with Trump, nor will they end when he leaves.

The numbers of people harmed or inconvenienced by this order are not really large, when compared, for example, to the flood of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean in the last 5 years, thousands of whom have lost their lives. And since the start of the Syrian war (after the so-called Arab Spring in 2011), about 11 million Syrians – half the population – is displaced, either internally, or to neighboring countries, or to Europe and other western countries. These latter fugitives and emigrants have faced increasing nationalist reactions, as in Holland, England, France and Germany, even though the numbers going to the West are minuscule compared to those in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Kenya. And the death toll in Syria’s civil war is estimated around 400,000 to 500,000.

I think the countries on Trump’s list are a ‘safe’ choice to satisfy his voters’ wish to feel ‘safe’. Except for Iran, they are all more or less ‘failed states,’ where terrorist activities find breeding grounds. Iran is already on the bad side of hawks favoring militant action (including Israel supporters), who dislike any efforts to make nice to it.

Summarizing the findings (based mainly on 2009 population sources), Libya, Syria and Yemen are only 3 of 19 majority Muslim countries in the Mid-East/ North Africa region, which altogether holds only about 20% of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims. Somalia and Sudan are in Sub-Sahara Africa, which has about 15% of the world’s Muslims. Iraq and Iran are in the Asia/Asia Pacific region which has about 62% of the world’s Muslims. Europe has merely 2.4%. All the Americas have a minuscule 0.3% of the world’s Muslims! In sum, these 7 suspect countries contain about 205 million of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims. There are 50 countries with Muslim majorities. In short, the 7 on the list contain less than 1/8th of the world’s Muslims. By no means do they represent Islam in general. It’s noteworthy that Indonesia has the largest number of Muslims of any country – over 200 million (87% of its population) – but we have many important business connections there. You won’t see bans on travelers from that country.

There is little doubt that in general, U.S. citizens are physically very safe (with the big exception of inner city poverty pockets), and yet much of the population is neurotically fearful. That’s worth studying.

Xenophobia and prejudice are everywhere, and historically, they get worse when large numbers of people are in bad socioeconomic conditions, as is increasingly the case today, around the world. One result is typically scapegoating – finding some ‘outsider’ to blame.

The fear and distrust of the ‘other’ is one theme in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, as he discusses the history of parts of Appalachia where feuds have been notoriously  common, such as the Hatfields and McCoys  in Kentucky, after the Civil War, and many other famous feuds up to the  present, from the time time settlers first arrived there in the late 18th C. They were Celts (or ‘Scots-Irish’), who came originally from the lowlands of Scotland, and parts of northern England, but many came by way of Ulster, in north Ireland, where they had settled temporarily as ‘plantation’ workers.

These “border lands” were rough and harsh areas with little formal law, and little farm land to cultivate. Raising goats or sheep was typical. As sociologists point out, herdsmen are independent, and off by themselves. They must guard their animals and livelihood in ways that farmers need not do. Their social life is in the family, or the extended clan. Family allegiances are total, and outsiders are not to be trusted. These people have always felt compelled to present themselves as strong, brave and unwilling to accept any wrong or effrontery. Theirs was a culture of hard discipline, quick retribution, and ‘honor.’ We find similar values in Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues, and in the gangs of inner cities around the world. Although Gladwell was specifically interested in ‘honor killing,’ I use his ideas here to illustrate attitudes towards outsiders which lead to such behavior. (For my thoughts on honor killing, see the essay link below.)

Gladwell’s book stresses that cultural qualities can last for centuries, unless there is good reason and conscious effort to change them. He refers to various recent experiments in some American university psychology departments which show that even today, students from southern parts of the United States react differently to perceived insults from those raised in northern communities. Having lived in North Carolina and traveled widely in that state and nearby states, I find these generalization to be confirmed.

Researching the history of feuds in the area Gladwell discusses, I looked at Google maps of the terrain. It was an enlightening experience to see how isolating those valleys are. A few years ago, I came across another confirmation of Gladwell’s observations. I noticed on a web page (dated 11 Feb 2012) an Associated Press news item from “Mountain City, Johnson County.”  AP reported that a certain Marvin Potter is charged with murdering a young couple who “unfriended” his daughter on Facebook – i.e. they deleted her from their social network page on the internet. According to Mike Reese, sheriff of Johnson Country, the couple had reported to police that Janelle was harassing them.

“Potter, 60, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder in last week’s slayings of Billy Payne Jr. and his girlfriend, Billie Jean Hayworth. The couple was shot to death in their Mountain City home in the far northeast corner of the state. Their 8-month-old baby was found unharmed in Hayworth’s arms.

‘It’s a senseless thing,’ the sheriff said.

Authorities have been involved [in] other cases where Potter’s daughter, Jenelle Potter, believed she had been slighted by someone. Marvin Potter’s friend, Jamie Curd, has also been charged in the killings. Curd, 38, had romantic feelings for Jenelle Potter, 30, the sheriff said.”

I looked up Mountain City, in Johnson County. It is in the far northeastern tip of Tennessee, where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina come together. It is definitely a ‘borderland’ in the harsh and isolating forested Appalachian region where those feuding families lived about whom Gladwell wrote. I noticed the typical ‘Anglo’ family and given names in the report. In the case of the Turner-Howard feud of the 1930’s that Gladwell decribed, Mrs. Turner told her morally wounded son, “Die like a man, like your brother did.” Similarly here, Janelle Potter was a woman who perpetuated family vengeance rather than reconciliation. Janelle held onto feelings of resentment, reacting aggressively to any perceived hint of being “slighted.” And her father felt justified in avenging the latest insult. The sheriff said it was “senseless,” but I think Gladwell would point out that the whole pitiful episode reflects a deep and abiding belief in the ‘honor culture.’ The sheriff is concerned for what is legal. The actors, however, are concerned for what is “right” – i.e honorable. But their notion of right is not, in my view, equivalent to what is moral; it’s a cultural habit.

Cultures of vengeance don’t change easily. It’s the same with cultures which distrust outsiders. But this distrust of outsiders may have reasonable causes, as in the history and culture of the tribal ‘border lands’. Or it may develop fairly quickly, when people in power wish to motivate their followers to blame some group of outsiders for bad conditions whose causes they don’t understand. The genocide by the Nazis is the prime example. The “ethnic cleansing” wars in the Balkans in the 90’s, after the Soviet Union fell apart are good examples, as are the back and forth genocides of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda and Burundi. The current civil war in South Sudan continues the habit. Power seeking politicians have been advocating xenophobia and nationalism for centuries, here and abroad. So we can see the recent distrust of Muslims, Mexicans and other ‘outsiders’, who are blamed for domestic woes, repeats a very old habit of those who want to curry favor with constituents, who are suffering,  and don’t know the real reasons.

It may be interesting to note, but I don’t believe it is morally relevant, whether such prejudicial communities are nominally Roman Catholics of the Sicilian mafia, unemployed factory workers in Ohio, Southern Baptists in Kentucky, Ultra-orthodox Jews in New York, or Sunni Muslims in Syria. If their members are motivated by what Rene Girard calls “mimetic desire” as it seems they typically are, their behavior does’t rise to the level of morality by any standard, whether the critical observer is inside or outside the community, or whether her viewpoint is absolutist, pluralist or relativist.

Here’s a source of data from The Guardian (most of it from 2009 statistics)

Here’s a link to my essay on ‘honor killing.’

Here’s a link to Rene Girard and “Mimetic Desire”


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