Days after US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order sharply curtailing immigration and the rights of refugees; concerns about America’s relationship with the Muslim world continue to grow.
The ban targets three groups: refugees from any country, who are blocked from entering the United States for the next 120 days; refugees from Syria, who are barred indefinitely; and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, who are barred from entering the United States for at least 90 days. Those countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The thinking behind the order itself appears muddled. For instance, the 911 attacks are mentioned three times in the opening paragraph in a bid to emphasise the threat that terrorism poses and yet none of those hijackers hailed from the seven countries included in the ban. Indeed, since 2001, no foreign-born citizens from the countries targeted by the order have committed terrorist attacks in the United States.
Trump has claimed that the policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011; stating that “he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months”. However, that is not accurate. President Obama never imposed a six-month ban on Iraqi processing. For several months in 2011, there was a lower level of Iraqi resettlement following the discovery that two Iraqi refugees had been implicated in bomb-making in Iraq.
The execution of the Executive Order has been chaotic. White House office of management and budget, responsible for coordinating executive action with the rest of the government, was told not to put the ban through the normal review process with the justice, state, homeland security and defence departments. The lack of advance warning had homeland security officials struggling to try to put policies in place.
The ban has been met with near universal condemnation. Civil rights advocates, politicians from both sides of the aisle and world leaders; have all expressed dismay at the perceived racial and religious context of the ban. Scores of high ranking former American government figures and military officials have criticised the order in a letter addressed to senior figures in the new administration. They expressed their concern that the order would undermine cooperative efforts to combat terrorism across the Muslim world. "Simply put, this Order will harm our national security," it said. "Partner countries in Europe and the Middle East, on whom we rely for vital counter terrorism co-operation, are already objecting to this action and distancing themselves from the United States, shredding years of effort to bring them closer to us.
One of the strongest arguments against the ban is that it promotes a clash of civilisations concept – the lifeblood of the barbaric ideology of jihadist groups like Islamic State. The Trump administration have tried to downplay the religious aspect; stating that the motivation for the ban was unconnected to the fact that the these are Muslim-majority countries. However, this is contradicted by the President’s later promise that exceptions would be made for Christians from the targeted countries. It must also be seen from the context of Trump’s Presidential campaign promise to ban Muslims. In 2015, when Trump was a candidate for the Republican nomination, he reacted to terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, by calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”. The statement was condemned by politicians across the country including the now vice president Mike Pence, who at the time stated that, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional”. Trump’s team have tried to distance themselves from that statement, but in an interview with Fox News, Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and adviser to the Trump campaign undermined this position. He stated that he had helped modify Trump’s original campaign proposal into the current order as “the right way to do it legally.” The ethno-religious aspect of the ban can also be perceived as a reflection of the worldview of some of Trump’s senior advisors. His national security adviser, General Michael Flynn has previously made controversial statements about Muslims and terrorism. During a speech in Massachusetts last year; he suggested that religious fundamentalism is inherent in all Muslims: "We are facing another 'ism,' just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism," Flynn said. "This is Islamism, it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised."
The promotion of Steve Bannon to the post of chief strategist raised further concerns about the direction the new administration plans to take in relation to America’s response to terrorism. Commentators have suggested that he is the most influential individual within the new administration. Bannon is a former executive of the Breitbart news site which offered itself as a platform for the far right and promoted fake news during the recent US election It was recently announced that Bannon will be a permanent fixture of the “principals committee” of the National Security Council (NSC). This permanency contrasts with the director of national intelligence and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who would only attend if the “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed”. Positioning a political ideologue in the small circle of top officials who decide US national security policy, has sparked alarm among former officials. The Senate armed services committee chairman, John McCain, said Bannon’s appointment was “a radical departure from any National Security Council in history”.
The outrage that the travel ban has produced is not only reflective of the perceived unfairness of the ban itself, but also of the concerns that this is part of a much larger attempt to shift American foreign policy to a far more aggressive and polarising stance. Islamic fundamentalism represents not only a threat to the West, but also to the citizens of Muslim-majority countries. It can only be defeated through co-operation with the Muslim world. The growing influence of individuals like Bannon and Flynn may put that cooperation at risk.