Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, a columnist for Al-Monitor and the director of the Community Media Network in Amman, Jordan.
My role model was ruined this week.
For years I have believed, lived and taught people in the Middle East about some of the important virtues of life in the United States of America and what America stood for. Now the United States I am witnessing under President Trump is falling far short of that shining example.
When I was 14, my parents emigrated from the Palestinian town of Bethlehem to New Jersey. I graduated from Snyder High School in Jersey City and got my bachelor’s degree from Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
After a few years of work, I decided to return to my homeland and began working in journalism. I wanted to apply the concept of independent journalism — and succeeded in my efforts, even though speaking truth to power at times landed me in hot water.
Whenever I had a chance, I passed on the concepts that made America great. The First Amendment, independent journalism, investigative reporting, public service broadcasting and community-owned, listener-supported media were American models I tried to emulate in the Middle East.
At one point, my attempts at C-Span-like broadcasts of the legislative branch in Palestine and Jordan got me in trouble with autocratic regimes with little respect for having the people know what their representatives and government are doing.
The Arab Spring offered the media a chance to give voice to the voiceless. Even after it turned into an ice-cold winter, our efforts have left a mark in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia and among Syrians opposed to the Assad regime.
The failure of the Arab Spring ushered in an era of sectarian conflict in which America’s principle of the separation of religion from politics has been an important and inspirational theme. I encouraged enlightened thinkers in Jordan to write a daily column for the independent website AmmanNet with ideas that favored secularism and citizenship irrespective of religious or tribal affiliation.
In the battle for hearts and minds, I and others have been educating citizens and encouraging concepts like the rule of law, equality of citizens irrespective of gender, disabilities, religion or national origin. We produced public-service announcements that are broadcast on radio and television with messages about equality, tolerance and accepting “the other.”
All these concepts and role models have been shattered in the short time since Trump took office. Independent journalism is being assaulted, with a senior White House official instructing the media to “keep its mouth shut.”
But perhaps the biggest problem for me has been the violation of America’s bedrock principle of the separation of church and state. The new executive order on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries destroyed centuries of an American moral vision based on not discriminating against human beings based on religion.
This problem is personal for me as an Arab-American Christian living in the Middle East. By creating an ill-advised exception to the refugee ban for individuals from “minority religions,” Trump has actually made life much more difficult and dangerous for me and my family.
Gone are the days when we could tell the world that America is different from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon or Israel in terms of granting different rights to citizens based on the religion that they are born to. It was easy to assert that the United States does not discriminate based on religion after Barack Obama, the son of a Muslim father, was twice elected president. Not any more.
By creating a waiver that encourages Christians from the Middle East to emigrate to the United States, Trump is helping destroy the diversity in our region that we so badly need to overcome religious fanaticism and tyranny.
When I was imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority on May 20, 1997, for broadcasting a session of the Palestinian legislature dealing with corruption, I could count on senior administration officials in the United States, such as then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and White House press secretary Mike McCurry to stand up for me and for press freedom. Who will stand up for press freedom in the Trump administration?
As to role models, from now on, I can only reference the period before Donald Trump, when America was truly great.