President Trump claimed he was countering terrorism, but his chaotic travel ban appeared to view all Muslims as a threat, writes Raymond Whitaker
Donald Trump’s first month as President of the United States was as turbulent and incoherent as anyone could have feared, with his national security adviser fired for lying about his dealings with Russia, a close aide conjuring up an imaginary terrorist attack on American soil and Trump himself making confusing, not to say aggressive, phone calls to leaders of other countries.
But the most disruptive action of all, at least in terms of its impact on ordinary people, came when he had been in office for only a week. On Friday, January 27, Trump signed an executive order which froze all refugee arrivals in the US and barred the entry of citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days. Key sections of the US government had not been consulted or informed in advance, and the result was immediate chaos.
At airports across the US, citizens of the seven countries were refused entry, including some refugees from war and terrorism who had waited years for permission to settle in America. Returning holders of green cards, giving the right to permanent residence in the US, were excluded in some cases, even after the White House clarified that the ban was not intended to apply to them. As protesters swamped airports, a former prime minister of Norway was among those detained and questioned by overwhelmed immigration officials.
Trump took to Facebook to deny that his order was a ‘Muslim ban’, even though he had raised the possibility of an exemption for Christian citizens of the seven countries. While insisting that the target was Islamic State, he tweeted:‘Christians in the Middle East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!’ As critics immediately retorted, by far the largest number of IS’s victims are Muslims.
It did not help that General Michael Flynn, still national security adviser at that point, had once described Islam as ‘a cancer’ and tweeted that ‘fear of Muslims is RATIONAL’, views known to be shared by other members of Trump’s inner circle. The more the administration’s hazy grasp of the facts was exposed in its attempts to justify the order, the more the perception grew that it regarded all Muslims as a threat.
When the President signed the order, he invoked the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington three times. Yet none of the countries from which the 19 hijackers came – 15 from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and one each from Egypt and Lebanon – was included in the ban. It did not take long for opponents to point out that Trump has business interests in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, but not, so far as is known, in the seven countries whose citizens were barred.
The impression of a haphazard choice of targets for the ban was strengthened, said critics, by the fact that Pakistan, another country whose citizens have carried out attacks in the US, was not included on the list, even though Osama bin Laden was eliminated on its soil, and the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured there. Some speculated that this was because Trump sees Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, as among a group of buddies that includes Presidents Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and RecepTayyipErdoganof Turkey.
But unlike some other potentates, Trump soon discovered there were limits to his power. His executive order was suspended by a judge in Washington state –promptly attacked as a ‘bad judge’ by the President – and an appeals court in San Francisco refused to overturnthe decision. Trump’s response was to claim the appeals court was ‘in chaos’ and ‘frankly, in turmoil’ – not the first time the President has used epithets others would apply to him.
‘The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States,’ the three appellate judges said in their ruling.The reaction from the countries themselves ranged from scathing – the Speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, said the US administration was ‘afraid of its own shadow’ – to disappointment. Sudan said its citizens living in the US were ‘known for their good reputation, respect for American laws, and their lack of involvement in radical and criminal acts’.
But the most common response was that the new occupant of the White House was simply encouraging Muslims everywhere to believe that the US was at war with them. The ban ‘supports the terrorists and sows divisions among people’, said Yemen; it was ‘insulting’ and a ‘gift to extremists’, said the Iranian foreign affairs ministry. Not surprisingly, though, the country most dismayed, not to say aggrieved, was Iraq, whose troops are fighting side by side with Americans against Islamic State.
Expressing ‘regret and astonishment’, Iraq’s foreign ministry called on Washington to reverse its ‘wrong decision’, adding: ‘We affirm Iraq’s real desire to strengthen and develop the strategic partnership between the two countries and increase the prospects of co-operation in the counter-terrorism field and economic sphere.’
The most lasting impact of the US administration’s campaign might not be in Muslim nations, however, but in countries where Muslims are in the minority. Trump’s executive order found support with hard right, anti-immigrant politicians in Europe. ‘He was elected to get tough,’ said Britain’s Brexitfigurehead, Nigel Farage. ‘[He said] he would do everything in his power to protect America from infiltration by IS terrorists.’
In the Netherlands Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, which was seeking a place in government in the mid-March election, said: ‘No more immigration from any Islamic country is exactly what we need… Islam and freedom are incompatible [in the Netherlands].’ He also described Moroccan immigrants as ‘scum’. The Front National leader in France, Marine Le Pen, who is expected to reach the final round of the presidential election in May, said most of the criticism of Trump’s order was ‘in bad faith’.
In India too, some find parallels between Trump’s rhetoric and the surge of Hindu nationalism that brought Narendra Modi – who counts the US President among his admirers – to power. At the least, it is feared, Trump and some of his senior acolytes could help to legitimise anti-Muslim sentiment, creating insecurity among one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
After his first month in the White House, the President appeared to have come to terms with reality in one or two respects. Passport holders from his seven target countries were flocking to the US after the judicial brake on his executive order, but instead of rushing to the Supreme Court, the administration promised a narrower order which would pass legal scrutiny. And the new national security adviser, Lt-Gen HR McMaster, who won respect for his counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq in 2005, is no anti-Muslim ideologue, unlike his predecessor.
But with 47 more months of his term to go, Trump is still tweeting, still picking fights with all and sundry. And he has already filed papers for his re-election campaign.