On Nov. 5, 2017, TEDxTroyUniversity featured speakers from different backgrounds who gave thought-provoking speeches. The speeches have now been published on TEDx’s official YouTube page, which has more than 17 million subscribers. Among them was Dr. Luke Ritter’s TEDx talk on Islam and the immigration crisis in the United States.
Speaking through the lens of history, Ritter, a lecturer of history, draws comparisons between anti-immigrant sentiments in the 19th century against Catholics and present-day anti-Islamic sentiments.
“Most Americans at the time were Protestant Christians, and they were very nervous about the large percentage of Catholic Christians coming to the United States,” Ritter said. “A lot of the rhetoric that they used against these immigrants have striking similarities to the rhetoric used for immigrants from the Middle East today.”
Ritter argues that the main catalyst for such sentiments is the need to preserve the American belief system.
“Americans are always in this process of defining what it means to be an American,” he said. “Like what is national American identity?
“What is it that we are all about? For Americans it has also always been about a certain set of values that Americans share. That’s what unites us, right? It is not race, it is not even necessarily where you were born. It’s what you believe in.”
Anti-immigrant sentiments thus focus on the beliefs of immigrants.
“In the past, they were worried that immigrants of European descent believed in Catholicism and they thought that Catholicism was incompatible with the American democracy,” Ritter said. “(The idea was that) you couldn’t be a good Catholic and a good Democrat at the same time.”
The current immigration climate in the United States carries the same tone. There has been outcry against immigrants in general, particularly Muslim immigrants. The Muslim ban that saw President Donald Trump sign an executive order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States on Jan. 28, 2017 reinforced this sentiment, as well.
The talk sparked interesting debates on YouTube, as well. Some disagreed, arguing that tension and discord between democracy and Islam do exist. One commenter claimed that Islam is not a religion of peace while another argued that while America has gotten over the hatred of Catholics, Islam has not managed to gain as much trust.
However, for a country made of immigrants, according to Ritter it is important for people to be reminded of the bigger historical picture.
“People are getting caught up in a panic because of all this constant media coverage of Islam-related violence,” Ritter said. “This country has proven that it can take on immigrants with unpopular beliefs and that they can fit into this country – especially those who have children, who are born here and grow up here.
“They adopt many American values, and they become just as American as anyone else. This is an immigrant country, and I just think people have a short memory; they forget that. If they knew more about the past, they would be less scared about this particular immigration debate.”
The talk emphasizes the importance of having reasonable discussions on this subject matter since it ultimately affects the lives and livelihood of people who have been born into the Islamic faith, or have chosen to follow this faith in the United States.
Asem Abdelfattah, a junior economics major from Alexandria, Egypt, helped organize the TEDxTroyUniversity.
“Dr. Ritter’s talk offers a much-needed historical perspective on the recently controversial topic of immigrants in the United States,” Abdelfattah said. “I learned a lot from it, and I appreciated the discussion it sparked.”
Ritter is also working on his book, “America’s First Immigration Crisis: The Origins of Nativism in the Antebellum West,” which is set to come out in 2020.
Editors Note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the name of the event as TEDxTroyUniversity instead of TEDx at Troy University.