by Emile Nakhleh
President Trump’s executive order suspending visas to nationals of seven Middle Eastern countries has created much confusion abroad, dissension at home, and a flurry of legal cases challenging the constitutionality of the order. Since all the seven countries named in the executive order have Muslim majorities, the president’s action is viewed by many here and overseas as a vehicle to discriminate against Muslim refugees and prevent them from entering the country. Many former senior national security and current State Department officials and diplomats have already denounced the ban as a threat to America’s national security and warned that America’s relations with the Muslim world would be damaged irreparably.
In providing a deeper context of the ban, this article addresses the ideological underpinnings that gave rise to the order, unmasks President Trump’s view of the country and the world, and questions why he chose those specific seven countries. I have written frequently in recent years that terrorism does not develop in a vacuum. Factors such as radical ideology, a narrow-minded interpretation of religion, repressive regime policies, poor economic and educational conditions, foreign invasions of Muslim lands, and Islamophobia have all contributed to the rise of Islam-driven terrorism. The latest executive order adds a new ingredient to the growing mayhem and divisiveness in U.S. relations with the outside world.
Let’s be clear, the Muslim ban will not eradicate terrorism or make Americans safer at home. Defeating terrorism requires more than an executive order. It demands international cooperation, serious exchange of information with America’s intelligence, military, and diplomatic counterparts in Muslim and other countries, and utilizing the expertise that our intelligence agencies have provided the White House and the National Security Council over the years. Protecting the American people also presupposes a deep knowledge of Muslim societies’ diversity, aspirations, and frustrations and of the differences between mainstream Muslims and extremists and between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Trump’s Dystopian View of America
President Trump’s grim view of American society, as expressed in such words as “carnage” and “anger” to describe the state of the nation and the world, has given rise to anxiety at home and drawn a negative picture of America abroad. It is not a well-thought-out policy prescription or a security shield. In his inaugural address, Trump describes a disintegrated America—socially, culturally, and economically—that is plagued by chaos, joblessness, and racial discord. He seems to ignore the optimistic view of American prosperity, progress, justice, inclusion, compassion, and respect for the law and the Constitution.
At its core, the ban is a manifestation of the ugly Islamophobia and fear-mongering (“fear of Islam is rational”) that has been peddled by the President’s National Security Adviser Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, White House Strategist Steve Bannon, and the special Policy Adviser Stephen Miller. Like their boss, they seem to believe that a healthy America is one composed only of white Christians, as if immigrants—black, brown, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Hispanic, and Jewish—played only a marginal role in the greatness of this country.
Unfortunately, when President Trump looks at “his” America, he sees, crime, rape, decay, fear, terrorism, human misery, squalor, depression, dilapidate neighborhoods, and a threatening kaleidoscope of colors. One is reminded of what Belgium looks like in 2050, as depicted in John Feffer’s novel, Splinterlands.
Beyond the United States, President Trump sees a world of fractured states that are bent on “raping” America’s industry and “stealing” its jobs. Without having deep knowledge of these global dynamics or acquiring strategic intelligence from his agencies, he proceeds to institute new executive orders and pronouncements that would keep “foreigners” at bay and make “America First” the guiding principle. It is in this context of a debilitated America and a world sliding toward war that the immigrant/refugee travel ban begins to make sense.
By contrast, the history of America and the world in the past two centuries is a celebration of this creative diversity and collaboration among nations. Millions of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Arab-Americans (which were all known as “Syrians”), Chinese-Americans, German-Americans, Scottish-Americans, and many others helped build this country into what it is today despite the discrimination that was inflicted on them not so many decades ago. They came in as “foreign nationals,” became “hyphenated Americans,” and slowly but surely integrated in a “melting pot” that has become the defining idea of this uniquely American experiment.
The amalgam of races, colors, and religions on a vast continent endowed with an incredible geography and abundant resources created what the late social historian Daniel J. Boorstin called “The Genius of American Politics.” As an immigrant to this country in the 1880s, President Trump’s grandfather also became a part of these millions of builders and innovators who, despite their cultural, religious, and linguistic differences, were bent on building a new America and living the “American Dream.”
Internationally, the United States has forged friendly relations with other nations through commerce, cultural and educational exchanges, military collaboration, and alliance building, which have contributed to world peace and limited nuclear proliferation. International agreements have been the hallmark of the post-World War II order.
Protecting the Homeland?
If the ban were intended to protect American citizens from terrorism, then why did the administration include the seven countries on the list—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan? Two important facts belie the administration’s claim that people from these countries pose a risk. First, there has been no real intelligence indicating that citizens from these countries pose a specific threat inside the United States. Second, there is no evidence that nationals from the seven countries have ever carried out terrorist attacks in the United States. Furthermore, if “radical Islam” is a threat that must be thwarted or a “cancer” that must be eradicated, such a threat has come over the years from Sunni Islam, not Shia Islam. If this is true, why include Iran and not Saudi Arabia?
The administration’s claim that the ban aims at enhancing the country’s security is specious. Even if President Trump were sincere in using the ban to “protect America and its citizens,” he included countries that have posed a minimal threat to the United States. Because many Muslims perceived the ban as anti-Muslim, American interests and personnel abroad would be exposed to potential attacks. This perception will also feed into the extremist narrative that America is waging a war on Islam. In fact, extremist social media is already “praising” the new ban as another “proof” of America’s enmity toward Islam.
Without defending Iran or ignoring its destabilizing activities in the Middle East region, I’d argue that most, if not all, of the Muslims who committed terrorist acts in the United States have been Sunni Muslims, not Shia Muslims, whose countries of origin are other than Iran.
Although Hezbollah Shia terrorists committed heinous acts against Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s and in Iraq after we invaded that country, in the past three years Hezbollah has been fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria in support of the Assad regime. No Shia or Hezbollah terrorism has been committed in the United States in recent years. Is it possible that the architects of the ban in Trump’s inner circle are promoting Sunni-Shia sectarianism in the region in order to keep Saudi Arabia and Iran in a heightened state of conflict that could benefit the United States? Or is this a tactic to prepare the American public for a war against Iran?
If the ban were truly designed to protect America, then why did it exclude such countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan? Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia; much of the terrorist funding for al-Qaeda and IS comes from the Gulf Arab states; and several Bahraini Sunni jihadists fought and died with IS in Syria. Pakistan and Afghanistan have been the home of the Taliban whose fighters continue to attack and kill Americans. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, comes from Egypt, and several Egyptian jihadists have held senior positions with al-Qaeda and fought with that terrorist organization.
National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is known for his rabid Islamophobia, especially against “Radical Islam,” and more recently against mainstream Islamic political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which he equates with Sunni Islam. So, isn’t it strange that Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of radical Sunni, Wahhabi-Salafi ideology, is not included in the ban? Could it be that other considerations, such as the Trump businesses in the Gulf Arab states, played a role in designating specific countries and not others? Did their exclusion from the travel ban perhaps entice Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and the entire 57-member Conference of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to remain silent about the ban? What has happened to their commitment to the Muslim umma? Did these large Sunni states remain silent because they were told through back channels that the ban basically targets the two largest Shia states—Iran and Iraq—and that the other failing states were thrown in as a smoke screen?
Travel Ban: Threat to National Security
The ban is a bonanza for IS, al-Qaeda, and other radical Sunni groups. They and many other mainstream Muslims will once more cling to the claim that America is yet again waging a war on Islam. Presidents Bush and Obama worked very hard—and successfully—in the past 12 years to disabuse Muslims of this notion, and many of them were persuaded. Regardless of what spin the administration puts on the ban, it will be viewed as a “Muslim” ban. As more and more mainstream and pro-American Muslim leaders and professionals from these countries, who have helped Americans at the risk to themselves and their families, are denied entry to the United States, they will see their religion as the only litmus test preventing them from entering the US.
Muslim professionals in this country—in universities, hospitals, high-tech businesses, law firms, consulting enterprises, and even Hollywood—are worried whether they should pursue a future for themselves and their children in this country or go somewhere else. The other day, a Muslim graduate student at my university who has just received his Ph.D. in computer science, and who has received all kinds of job offers, told his adviser that he was worried by the current political atmosphere and asked whether he should move with his family to Canada rather than stay here. Losing this enormous brainpower is harmful to America’s industrial and innovation prowess, blunts the country’s edge in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), weakens our ability to detect and guard against the rising cyber threat and hacking, and severely undermines the nation’s security.
Aside from the intellectual threat, Americans overseas will be targeted. American diplomatic, military, and business entities in Muslim countries, including in Iraq (one of the seven countries covered by the ban), will need to increase their security and curtail their free movement. Potential terrorists could also put Trump’s hotels, towers, and golf courses in the crosshairs.
Mitigating the destructive impact of the travel/Muslim ban, the administration needs to conduct an immediate re-examination of what groups of travelers and countries were targeted in the first place. The administration didn’t act logically or knowledgeably when it included the seven countries and excluded others. Second, since nationals of these countries have not committed acts of terror in America, either they should be removed from the list or the ban should be rescinded. The ban should cover all countries or none. If the ban were designed to keep Syrian refugees out, it should have said so clearly and unequivocally.
In order to alleviate some of the concerns of large Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, President Trump perhaps should address Muslim countries publicly, much like Presidents Bush and Obama did, and explain that the United States does not target Islam as a religion or specific countries just because they have Muslim majorities. America is engaged in a fight against Muslim terrorists and extremists, not against Islam.