Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush told a New Hampshire talk show Tuesday that he continues to believe the U.S. should have a religious test for Syrian refugees and only allow Christians into the United States. He added that it would be simple to determine who is a Christian and who is a Muslim by the last names and birthplaces of the refugees.
“You can tell when someone is a Christian in the Middle East. I can promise you that,” the former Florida governor said. “There are ample means by which to know this.”
But civil rights advocates say it is far from that easy.
“People assume any Arab name is going to be Muslim, because the Koran is written in Arabic,” Whit Cox, a staff attorney at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told ThinkProgress. “But about half of Arab Americans are Christian. For example, the president of our organization is Samer Khalaf, an Orthodox Christian from Syria. Our legal director Abed Ayoub is a Shiite Muslim. I couldn’t guess their religions and I doubt you could either. They both sound Arabic, and if you’re xenophobic, you’re going to think they’re all Muslims or even terrorists. The easiest way to tell is that many Muslims wear the hijab, but many don’t. So any test will just come down to reinforcing stereotypes.”
Other presidential candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), have called for a religious test for refugees that excludes those of the Muslim faith. President Obama, speaking at the G20 Summit in Turkey this week, called this idea “shameful.”
“That’s not American. That’s not who we are,” he said. “We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
Besides the fact that it would be difficult or impossible to screen refugees by their religion, Cox says doing so would violate U.S. law.
“It’s definitely illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion,” he said. “And the latest House bill on refugees, that discriminates on the basis of national origin. It applies more scrutiny to people coming from Iraq and Syria than those coming from somewhere else.”
By voicing support for such policies, Cox says, GOP candidates are encouraging discrimination. Citing the recent uptick in instances of Arab Americans being kicked off of flights or physically threatened when they were speaking Arabic, he says remarks by public figures can have far-reaching and dangerous consequences.
“We don’t think you should be trying to make determinations between Muslims and Christians in the first place,” he said. “But when there is anti-Muslim sentiment, it also affects Christian Arabs.”