by Emile Nakhleh
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision this past Tuesday to uphold President Trump’s proclamation banning citizens of seven countries from entering the United States yet again affirms Trump’s animus toward Muslims. But for millions of Muslims, who have already seen and heard Donald Trump as a candidate and as president vilify their faith and their countries, the Court’s decision does not plough new ground. It only adds insult to injury.
The legal “vindication” the Court gave Trump regarding Islam and Muslim countries will in the long run harm America’s interests and threaten the safety of American personnel in many Muslim countries. It also signals a foreboding sense of Islamophobia in the Trump world, especially toward Muslim Americans, and deepens the belief among Islamic radicals and mainstream Muslim peoples alike overseas that Trump’s America is an “enemy” of Islam and must be confronted.
Islamic extremism and Trumpism are now two sides of the same coin. They both abhor a dialogue with the “other” and view engagement as an existential and a civilizational threat.
Like previous administrations, President Trump has taken for granted the supportive attitudes of “friendly” Muslim leaders—most of whom are unbridled dictators—and views them as a genuine expression of Islamic views toward the United States. Dictators’ claims that they represent their peoples in no way reflect the worldview of Muslim youth in the “Muslim-Arab Street.” The recent “anti-terrorist” draconian laws that regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have promulgated restricting their people’s access to the social media reveal the huge schism between Arab regimes and their peoples.
As long as Arab Muslim autocrats are excluded from the list of banned countries, and as long as they remain in Trump’s good graces, they’ll keep silent about his frequent anti-Muslim harangues. Nor is it surprising that they have not criticized the latest Court decision banning potentially millions of Muslims from entering the United States.
Let’s be clear, the third iteration of Trump’s three bans, which the Court approved, is nothing more than an attack on selected Muslim countries and a license to prevent adherents of a particular faith (Islam) from coming to America. It codifies an inhumane policy to prevent some of the most vulnerable and destitute Muslims from ever reaching American shores, whether as refugees or asylum seekers. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Court decision “erodes the principles of religious tolerance.” Venezuela and North Korea were included in the proclamation, which the Court ruled to be within the “scope of Presidential authority,” as a ruse to hide Trump’s truly dark intentions to target Muslims and demean them as human beings.
Of the five Muslim majority countries in the ban—Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia—four have Sunni majorities. By including Iran, the largest Shia country in the world, Trump has once more shown, after his abandoning the P5+1 nuclear deal, a visceral hatred for that country and a determination to destroy it and its regime. He, his National Security Advisor John Bolton, his attorney Rudy Giuliani, and his hardline Israeli government supporters, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have already called for regime change in Iran.
Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia are mostly failed states whose citizens are in dire need of a better life in the West. Syria is under the thumb of its butcher Bashar al-Assad. Yemen is witnessing a horrific human tragedy created largely by the Saudi-led and American-supported war. Libya is a territory of armed militias with regional governments, some of them also armed by the United States. Somalia is a conglomeration of armed camps fighting for power and control with no regard for innocent civilians. Some of these camps are also supported by the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of desperate citizens from these four countries are in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Djibouti, other parts of the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. They are waiting for an opportunity to seek better opportunities in other countries, including Europe and America. The Court’s decision, with Trump’s blessing, has dashed their hopes and condemned them to a life of continued misery.
Muslim World Engagement As Antidote to Terrorism
Unlike the two previous administrations, President Trump does not view engaging the millions of mainstream Muslims across the globe as a useful strategy to undermine radicalism and extremism and to drain the swamp of terrorism. Whereas Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama believed that reaching out to mainstream Muslims would undercut the radical message and protect American national security, President Trump came into office brandishing Islamophobia and demonizing Muslims. He seemed to encourage painting all Muslims with a broad brush of terrorism and anti-Americanism.
By invoking the names of radical Salafi clerics and thinkers to justify their campaign against Shia Iran, Trump and other Iranophobes are throwing a lifeline—inadvertently or otherwise—to radical Sunni Islam, which definitely benefits al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Such a dangerous and ill-guided policy is upending the entire American counterterrorism policy since 9/11. By informing the Arab Sunni potentates of the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, that America stands on their side against Shia Iran, Trump in effect has become a partisan in the wars within Islam. If recent history is any guide, he is bound to lose this sectarian war, and American security is bound to suffer.
Following the horrible attacks on 9/11, my government colleagues and I focused heavily on trying to understand the drivers of terrorism and the root causes of radicalization. Among other things, we assessed that generally four broad factors contributed to radicalization and terrorism:
- Radical Sunni Salaf-Wahhabi ideology that goes back to the fourteenth-century Sunni activist Ibn Taymiyya and the eighteenth-century Arabian Peninsula religious thinker Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
- Repression, corruption, and poor economic policies, which autocratic regimes use to maintain their hold on power.
- Perceived anti-Islamic policies—including wars on Muslim countries, Islamophobia, and discrimination against Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries.
- Local grievances and ensuing radicalization and revenge—whether in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, or the Caucuses.
The Pew and Gallup polls in dozens of Muslim countries in the decade following 9/11 have confirmed several of the four broad factors that drove terrorism during that period. These factors in part gave rise to al-Qaeda and IS. Presidents Bush and Obama for the most part accepted the results of these polls and the concurring briefings by government analysts. They both declared that the war on terror was not a war on Islam and put in place robust programs for Muslim world engagement.
President Trump’s Response
Instead of engagement and inclusion, President Trump preached demonization and exclusion. He often declared in policy pronouncements and tweets that democracy, political participation, ideological moderation, and human and civil rights are not worthy goals to pursue in Muslim lands. He deliberately torpedoed his predecessors’ policies of trying to undermine the radical paradigm. He intentionally ignored the ugly historical truth that the Sunni Salafi-Wahhabi radical ideology that spread across the Middle East, East and West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and elsewhere emanated from Saudi Arabia and was funded by many wealthy Sunni individuals, groups, and businesses in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and other Gulf Sunni states.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia. How did they come to the United States and who provided them with assistance and funding? More recently, where did thousands of al-Qaeda and IS “jihadists” come from? If there is any logic to the insanity of the travel ban, Saudi Arabia should have topped the list of banned Muslim countries.
In addition to ignoring these questions, Trump officials and their Israeli friends are invoking the same radical Sunni thinkers, especially Ibn Taymiyya, to justify their campaign against Shia Iran. They will soon discover that Salafi-Wahhabi radical ideology is ineffective in their crusade against Iran. Apart from supporting the radical ideology, Trump has also embraced the repressive and corrupt policies of Arab dictators and has ignored the demands of their peoples. Furthermore, his hateful rhetoric against Muslims during the presidential campaign and since assuming office has alienated Muslim peoples worldwide. The favorability of Trump’s America in most Muslim countries last year was noticeably lower than in previous years, according to the Pew poll of selected Muslim countries. Nor has the Trump administration addressed the simmering conflicts that have given rise to locally radicalized youth—for example, in Palestine, Afghanistan, East Africa, the Sahel countries, and elsewhere.
The Way Forward
The long-term security of the United States and the safety of American diplomatic and military personnel in Muslim countries cannot be achieved by anti-Muslim rhetoric. Relying on pliant Islamic dictators and potentates, kings, and emirs is not a long-term solution. The factors that have contributed to the rise and resilience of terrorism are not difficult to discern. They have been well documented. Trump’s decision to ignore these factors has negative consequences for the United States and could be sowing the seeds for another terrorist organization or a rebranded al-Qaeda or IS.
The recent Supreme Court decision might be legally interesting regarding presidential powers, but it barely received a shrug across the Muslim world. Mainstream Muslims, as well as radicals, did not need to read the Court’s decision to realize Trump’s position on Islam and Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. Mainstream Muslims hope that one day American leaders will empathize with their grievances against their own regimes. Radicals, on the other hand, see in the Court’s decision vindication for their animus toward the United States. Their hostility mirrors the hostility Trump harbors for them and their brethren regardless of the legal cover the Court has given him.