Migrant Crisis: America's Moral Issue
Hoping to fulfill one of his most onerous campaign promises, President Donald Trump recently engineered a shutdown of the federal government in a bold attempt to force congressional funding of his “beautiful” border wall. While politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum chime in on this latest manufactured White House crisis, members of the faith community have emerged as some of the most vociferous critics of Trump’s campaign against migrants, immigration, and refugees. Indeed, in recent months, images of Imams, Priests, Rabbis kneeling and linking arms in opposition to the President’s mistreatment of desperate migrants fleeing turmoil in Central America have become near ubiquitous in the mainstream press.
Perhaps no issue in recent memory has sparked public outcry, spurring organized demonstrations and campaigns of civil disobedience, and united as many people of different backgrounds, as the treatment of vulnerable migrants along the United States/ Mexico border. For American Muslims and their allies in the larger faith community, the unleashing of border patrol agents against helpless women and children asylum-seekers, along with Trump’s cynical “Muslim ban” and the broader campaign against non-white/ non-Christian immigration, signal a dark descent into the politics of White Nationalism and a repudiation of the values many Americans dearly cherish. Across the globe, people wonder: how can Americans, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, turn their collective backs on those unfortunate souls seeking the same freedom, dignity, and opportunity once yearned for by their own ancestors?
Human Migration: A Religious Legacy
Of course, the story of human migration did not begin with the election of Donald Trump or with the establishment of the United States. The story of migration is as old as the legacy of humanity itself, and the history of religious movements provides ample testimony to this truth.
When framed in historical context, the motivations for religious leaders entering the political fray as advocates on behalf of migrants and refugees becomes clear. Many religions (including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) draw inspiration from historical migrations of communities of believers or from the immigration of key religious figures. Moreover, the twin topics of immigration and sanctuary resonate deeply among members of faith communities because they draw on core principles of compassion and love, caring for the indigent, the oppressed, the wayfarer. By any definition, refugees and migrants represent some of the most vulnerable segments of the human population. In the struggle to escape tragedy in their native lands, these groups often confront a series of unimaginable horrors, ranging from deprivation and exploitation to even death.
For Muslims cognizant of our own religious history, there is a direct connection to migration. The Islamic calendar actually begins in 622 of the Common Era with the migration of the community of believers (the Hijra) from Mecca, where they endured withering persecution, to the town of Medina. This early community also represented the first population of Muslim refugees, as the beleaguered Meccans left behind homes and most of their worldly possessions, surviving on the compassion and generosity of the Ansar (the Helpers) of Medina. Even before this famous translocation, Muslim history records that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) sent several score of the most defenseless believers on a journey to Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), where they encountered the benevolent tolerance of a “righteous” King.
At a basic level, the Islamic faith shares with the other Abrahamic traditions the lineage and message of the Patriarch Abraham, himself an immigrant from Mesopotamia. In time, Abraham’s progeny would help shape the religious, moral, and legal landscape of not just the Near East, but the entire globe.
The Twelfth Surah of the Quran, entitled Yusuf (Joseph), narrates the saga of Prophet Yusuf’s rise to the royal Egyptian court and the subsequent establishment of the family of Jacob in the land of Egypt. Believers are reminded by this beautiful tale, revealed in the late Meccan period, that the descendants of Prophet Isaac were at one time also immigrants, fleeing famine and deprivation in the Holy Land. This revelation helped ground the nascent community of Muslims in the historic nature of the struggle of light against darkness and the necessity of patience, likely preparing the believers for their own impending migration to Medina.
Similarly, the Quran relates the story of the Israelite Prophet Musa (Moses), who fled Egypt of the tyrannical Pharaoh, finding solace and even kinship among a family of Midianites (Arabs). In another section, the Quran continues the tale of Moses, drawing on his return to Egypt, where he secures the release of his persecuted brethren. With the Pharaoh in hot pursuit, the Israelites depart Egypt en masse on a harrowing escape across the Red Sea (thereby executing perhaps the most dramatic migration in religious history).
Ultimately, Muslims share with their monotheistic brethren the belief that all of humanity descends from a single set of parents, Adam and Hawa (Eve). The Quranic account of our origins shares the broad outlines of the biblical story - the unique creation of Adam, the Garden of Paradise, the forbidden tree - though with some noteworthy differences. For example, the biblical concept of Original Sin is alien to Quranic exegesis, negating the need for a sacrificial atonement for mankind. In Islam, both Adam and Eve share equal responsibility for disobedience to God, and women are not singled out for divine opprobrium. Perhaps most importantly, the journey to Earth by our celestial parents represents the fulfillment of God’s original plan to establish mankind as vicegerents on the Earth, not merely a haphazard response to an impulsive act of human sin.
According to the Quran, despite their momentary weakness, both Adam and Eve sincerely repent, and God turns to them lovingly and with forgiveness. Indeed, the Quran describes how God provides them words of comfort, ensuring the frightened couple that although they would endure hardship, they would also find provision and comfort on the Earth.
Historic Relevance of Modern Migration Crisis
Why is this ancient tale important, and what does the Quranic story of Adam and Eve say about humankind, about the modern controversy over migrants and the global refugee crisis?
When viewed through the intimate lens of scripture, it becomes apparent that all mankind are in actuality the children of immigrant parents, if not the progeny of refugees, on the planet we call our home. Our original parents, Adam and Eve, left the abode of Paradise, not by choice, and not under ideal circumstances, yet they found their Creator’s welcome on Earth. Indeed, God’s compassion in dealing with Adam and his spouse provides a salient blueprint for humanity in resolving all refugee and migrant crises.
For believers, the primordial immigration, the descent of Adam and Eve, paved the way for all future migrations. Since our arrival, humans have continued to move from one part of the planet to another, wave after wave, an endless sea of people seeking sanctuary, greener pastures, and hope for a better future, and we will likely continue to do so until the end of our existence. On Earth, despite our common ancestry, we remain strangers to one another, yet we can still appreciate all the wonder, beauty, and bounty of this beautiful planet. Even our differences serve a Divine Purpose, as the Quran (49:13) states: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”
This realization, this shared legacy, ought to provide comfort to believers and serenity in the face of difficulty. It should also prompt discussion of our mutual obligations as citizens of the world we share and reinforce our commitment to the pursuit of justice on behalf of the vulnerable and marginalized. American Muslims can and should speak out: the ruthless efforts of President Trump and his allies to block refugees and asylum-seekers from our borders demand our attention, deserves our opposition, both as believers, and as the children of the first immigrants, our original parents, Adam and Eve.