WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump says “Islam hates us.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and now a top National Security Council figure, sees himself as part of a multi-generational “Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.” White House adviser Stephen Miller believes Muslim immigration to the U.S. endangers American women.
Broad antipathy toward Islam ― the 3 million Muslims in the U.S. and the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world ― is a hallmark of the month-old Trump administration. On Monday, it launched a reboot of its controversial “Muslim ban” executive order, once again targeting citizens of Muslim-majority countries for exclusion.
But with less fanfare, the president and his advisers have repeatedly praised a troika of Muslim-led governments, explicitly arguing that working with them will serve some of Trump’s most controversial goals and implicitly using those relationships to suggest that he is tolerant of Islam.
The three regimes — Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — are part of the loose web of traditional U.S. partners, but they stand out for the distinctive characteristics they share. Opaque cliques control the government, and unaccountable security services tightly regulate independent political activity ― particularly that of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement, which frequently calls for free elections ― in the name of patriotic loyalty. With their grip firm at home, these regimes focus on winning popularity abroad, running massive public relations campaigns to shape the global conversation about Islam and present themselves as Western-friendly moderates.
Strange as the idea of Trump and his administration choosing Muslim favorites may seem, these undemocratic governments are actually a perfect fit, and the president’s aides aren’t shy about saying so.
Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s most recent major national security hire and a proponent of the view that Islam’s teachings are fundamentally violent, sees the three countries as pivotal. “Gorka’s core idea is that the United States should partner with a shortlist of Muslim allies — Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt — that he describes as ‘secular’ or willing to separate Islam from the running of the state,” The Washington Post explained last month.
President George W. Bush’s administration obsessed over the idea of Muslim “improvability,” arguing that the Muslim-majority world was ripe for the imposition of American-style capitalist democracy. Under President Barack Obama, Muslim activism, from the 2011 Arab Spring protests to young Malala Yousafzai’s campaign for peace in Pakistan, won official U.S. government celebration.
Trump’s team is taking a different tack. The priority now is Muslim “management” — the idea that Washington’s best bet is empowering its favorite regimes, even if their actions are deplorable and self-defeating, because the Muslim-majority world is inherently savage.
This is not a new belief. For years, Russia has cited it in the course of supporting its favored Middle East strongman, the mass-murdering Syrian President Bashar Assad, and criticized any talk of promoting democracy. But Moscow has always been a smaller player in the Middle East; its views aren’t enough to inspire a region-wide uptick in repression. A shift in Washington’s approach could yield far more dramatic results.
Supporting Sisi’s Suppression
In his most important national security speech on the campaign trail, Trump blasted the idea that democracy could work in Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world. A month later, he lauded Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, a former general, as a “fantastic guy.” When Sisi gained power in 2013, courtesy of a military coup and a crackdown that claimed thousands of lives, “he took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” Trump said.
While Obama and most leading Western politicians condemned Sisi’s campaign, there is a faction of Republicans who have long been fans. Three weeks after Egypt’s military rulers massacred more than 800 civilian protesters in one day, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) traveled to Cairo and released a ringing endorsement of the junta. Any level of brutality seemed acceptable to the GOP lawmakers, because of Sisi’s target: the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had run Egypt’s first democratically elected government for just over a year.
Islamophobic Republican leaders have long used the Brotherhood as their favorite bogeyman. For most Americans, the name conjures the image of a Muslim conspiracy, fueling the perception that Muslims in the U.S. have un-American loyalties and that Muslims abroad are fixated on religion alone.
Anti-Islam members of the GOP often misrepresent the broadly nonviolent Brotherhood, falsely suggesting that the group had played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, has tried to enforce Islamic law in the U.S. and has infiltrated the American government. With the specter of the Brotherhood central to their rhetoric, many Republicans have become cheerleaders for Sisi ― happy to echo his regime’s propaganda and to promote him as the right kind of Muslim, so they can argue that even some within the community want tough measures to deal with the “Muslim problem.”
The general-turned-president has worked to keep the applause coming. Posturing at venues cherry-picked for fawning Western coverage ― churches in Egypt, the World Economic Forum in Davos ― Sisi has presented himself as a leader of reform within Islam.
But observers say the talk of reform has more to do with winning foreign attention and trying to weaken his Islamist opposition than actual progress in Egypt. The Sisi regime has jailed tens of thousands of activists, many of whom have nothing to do with the Brotherhood. It has convicted scores of international rights workers, including some associated with the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. It has held one American aid worker for more than two years. Egypt’s economy is on the brink of collapse, and terrorist groups continue to wreak havoc, seen most recently in a December attack on a church in Cairo.
Sisi’s fixation on punishing any sign of dissent makes it hard for him to focus on specific, targeted counterterrorism efforts, analysts have warned. And his approach seems to guarantee further conflict.
While the Obama administration was willing to criticize Sisi after the coup, calling out his worst excesses, it slowly returned to most norms of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Still, it tried to maintain some distance from the regime’s abuses.
Under Trump, a warmer tone seems inevitable.
“Trump and at least some of those around him are fans of Sisi,” said Michele Dunne, a former State Department official who’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They keep saying that they don’t only think that Islamists who use violence are dangerous, and that’s the argument that Sisi has been making for his own political reasons.” She noted that the Egyptian president plans to soon visit the White House — an honor Obama did not grant him ― and said Egyptian officials seem to expect a Trump visit to Cairo. The Trump administration is also considering an executive order calling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a step Dunne believes would increase the risk of terrorism. And over the past week, Politico revealed White House efforts to prevent the Pentagon from hiring an American diplomat seen as critical of Sisi’s coup, while BuzzFeed News reported that Egypt was ramping up lobbying efforts in D.C.
Photo-ops and positive statements may offer fleeting satisfaction for both sides. But no matter how much Trump wants to use Sisi’s rule as a poster child for the value of brutally dealing with Muslim populations, he cannot force a success story.
“Whatever Trump says doesn’t really bring the tourists back or investment back,” Dunne said. “It will please Sisi. But inside of Egypt, it won’t solve his problems.”
Small Nation, Big Impact
In January, Trump officially asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to become a top adviser on Middle East policy. Weeks later, press reports revealed that Kushner had chosen his own adviser: one of the best-connected Middle Eastern diplomats in Washington, UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba.
Otaiba’s boss, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, was one of the first Muslim leaders Trump contacted after taking office. The two spoke the day Trump issued his ban on entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. A subsequent UAE statement on the policy recognized Trump’s right to impose it and offered little sympathy to the affected nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
And Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr., who have taken over the family business, opened a new club in Dubai on Feb. 18, less than a month after their father was inaugurated. Though not directly linked to the Emirati government, the move was a clear sign of the first family’s comfort with the Arab nation.
It’s nothing new for a U.S. administration to cozy up to the UAE, given the crown prince’s support of American campaigns against the Islamic State, the Taliban and Muslim radicalization in general; his nation’s penchant for buying American weapons; and the Emirates’ successful promotion of itself as a Westernized model for the region.
But unlike previous iterations of the relationship, it appears the Trump version will focus heavily on two of the most controversial opinions the pair share: the idea that Muslims simply cannot handle liberal democracy, and an obsession with crushing the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bin Zayed has long been skeptical of giving his people or others in his region a say in how they are governed. After lecturing American diplomats on the need to talk less about democracy lest they empower Islam-inspired political movements in 2007 (“The Middle East is not California,” the prince said), the Emirati ruler has become increasingly involved in supporting autocrats in his neighborhood. His prediction has been partially borne out: Since 2011, anti-authoritarian uprisings have allowed Islamist politicians to gain greater power and visibility.
Although those Islamists have not pursued the kind of terrorist activity bin Zayed warned of, he has fiercely suppressed them and their liberal allies in the fight for more open societies. Within UAE borders, he has presided over a major crackdown on dissent of all kinds, using torture and indefinite detention, approving arrests over social media postings (including of Americans) and expanding his surveillance state.
Abroad, bin Zayed has spent billions on bolstering the Sisi regime and backing his favored proxy in Libya. And in Washington, Otaiba has cultivated a powerful network ― gaining access to the highest levels of U.S. policymaking ― while distracting attention from his government’s excesses.
Experts believe there is sincere Emirati concern about the Brotherhood. But at the same time, they note that exaggerating that worry and using it to justify broad repression is politically convenient.
The UAE’s statements have more and more frequently linked nonviolent movements with violent organizations like the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State, said Courtner Freer, a London School of Economics researcher who studies the Emirates. It’s a link that presents bin Zayed’s campaign as a gift to the world rather than his own regime.
As in Egypt, there’s troubling evidence that the Emirati approach leaves room open for extremism. Dubai continues to host lectures by influential clerics who have used hate speech encouraging violence against Shiite Muslims, Jews and Christians. Its sprawling financial industry, meanwhile, has gaps in regulation that enable illicit finance like money laundering and efforts by Iran and others to violate international sanctions, said David Weinberg, an expert on the Persian Gulf at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The U.S. response to this UAE strategy has a greater effect than many Americans realize.
“The Emirates are arguably America’s closest and most reliable friend in the Arab world, along with the Jordanians,” Weinberg said. “But if the United States is seen to completely ignore vicious repression of nonviolent dissent and real problems with basic workers’ rights, freedom of speech and basic elements of privacy, it doesn’t look good for the United States.”
Growing closer to the control-obsessed bin Zayed could also affect Trump’s policies stateside, encouraging the president’s own strongman tendencies. The prince has already successfully pressured the British government to target the Brotherhood. There, he used a mix of carrots (new money-making opportunities) and sticks (the threat of cutting existing business ties). With an ideologically aligned White House, the UAE could become more ambitious. Bin Zayed would be happy to see Trump take more dramatic actions against Muslim organizing within the U.S. — not just blacklisting the Brotherhood, a step he and Sisi have already asked Washington to take, but also targeting less controversial civil society organizations, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, which the UAE has previously described as a terrorist group.
“The message the UAE is sending is that people who engage in peaceful political activism will be designated as terrorists. I think that’s a terrible message for the youth,” CAIR spokesman Corey Saylor told The Huffington Post when the UAE announced the terrorist designation. “You want young people to see [that] working within the system pays off.”
Courting The King
The new president’s relationship with Jordan, a strategically located but resource-poor U.S. ally, could be the trickiest.
Trump met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in early February, immediately signaling that he wanted to make that relationship work. He even acknowledged a major concern for the Jordanians in issuing his first slight rebuke of Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands shortly after the meeting. Palestinians are more than half of Jordan’s population; it was no surprise that Abdullah would seek reassurances after Trump tapped a hard-line settlement supporter as his new ambassador to Israel.
Trump frequently calls the king a friend, one who is willing to do what’s best for the U.S. And Abdullah’s policy of tightly managing his citizens and strategically projecting “moderate Islam,” complete with a glamorous queen, appeals to the president’s ideological instincts.
But Trump’s bombastic style and dramatic promises — notably on the Brotherhood and on Israel — are already at odds with Jordan’s approach to the region.
The “smart authoritarianism” Abdullah employs involves strategic bargains, said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch. The king has been unwilling to ban the Brotherhood movement, for instance, despite pressure from important donor governments like the UAE. Instead, his government keeps close tabs on dissenters and takes direct, but not violent, action to keep them in check ― making it harder for them to compete in elections, for instance, while assuring them that they will retain their place in society.
“There’s certainly real deficits in terms of freedom of association, expression, but it’s nowhere on the scale of the surrounding countries,” Coogle said. “Jordan doesn’t try to be provocative. They want people to be calm.”
Trump could threaten that balance by demanding more repressive steps from Jordan in return for the massive annual U.S. aid package that runs Abdullah’s economy. Doing so would empower hard-liners in the Jordanian regime who already want greater state power. Those factions support policies like reining in civil society organizations; arresting citizens over peaceful anti-corruption organizing and social media postings; slow-rolling court reform; and permitting abuse, including torture and beatings, in government facilities. Incremental efforts at progress — many of which cite the rosy vision of Jordan that Abdullah presents to the world — could be nipped in the bud.
Greater conflict between the regime and its citizens is a scary prospect, given that Jordan is already under massive strain due to growing extremist power, the refugee influx from neighboring Syria and government austerity measures that have provoked protests.
“There’s a little bit of concern [around] the stability of the state, whether things here are as strong as people had thought,” Coogle said.
The Fourth ‘Friend’
Saudi Arabia, the controversial cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, is excluded from this club of Trump favorites. That’s not to say the president will back away from the kingdom. Trump and the Saudis agree on Iran, and Riyadh has the resources to help Trump in his quest to make companies hire within the U.S. (SoftBank, a Japanese company that Trump has praised for its plan to invest stateside, is closely linked to Saudi Arabia.)
But Saudi Arabia is also a country the president has long criticized ― not just the way he has blasted other traditional American partners, but in a way that seems ideological. He has falsely represented the country as employing ISIS tactics, promoted the conspiracy theory that Saudi rulers were behind 9/11 and loudly supported legislation that would permit 9/11 families to sue the Saudi government. It appears that in Trump’s eyes, Saudi Arabia looks suspect ― inextricably linked to radical Islam and not fully trustworthy.
Many of Trump’s top aides aren’t fond of the Saudis either. For Islamophobes, Saudi Arabia has been something of a gateway drug.
Because of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law, the kingdom engages in practices that are undeniably heinous, from draconian restrictions on women to brutal punishments including beheading and amputation. But rather than criticizing these practices as examples of an autocracy run amok, Islamophobes cite Saudi Arabia as an easy example to justify views like “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” The Saudis’ close ties to Washington’s elite help their case, too: Insidious Muslims really do have undue influence over the U.S. government.
Steve Bannon’s former website, Breitbart News, frequently promotes stories about Saudi excesses to suggest that societies claiming to be run on Islamic principles are inherently troubled. This has also become a popular line of argument in the white nationalist movement around Trump. Many who attacked Trump’s rival in the presidential race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called her a hypocrite for interacting with a kingdom that mistreated women.
So while cooperation seems certain, Saudis probably can’t expect the kind of snuggling-up that Egypt, Jordan and the UAE will enjoy.
The New ‘Muslim Management’
The Trump administration is still young, and its policies do not appear set in stone. The departure of retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn and the arrival of a new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has already reduced the number of top officials who believe that the U.S. should be managing and harshly controlling Muslims, rather than trying to engage them.
But the influence of that faction persists. The prospect of an executive order on the Muslim Brotherhood, legally dubious as it would be, has not been ruled out. And Politico and The Guardian have reported that Trump aides are already pushing back against McMaster’s insistence that the administration avoid treating all of Islam as an enemy.
On Tuesday morning, Politico revealed that McMaster had urged Trump to remove the word “Islamic” from one of his favorite phrases, “radical Islamic terrorism.” Just the small tweak to “radical Islamist terrorism” would help, he argued, to show that the president believed terrorism was linked to the political ideology of Islamism, which is followed by some Muslims, rather than the religion itself and all its adherents.
But Miller, the speechwriter and frequent Islam-basher, thought differently.
Come Tuesday night, Trump told Congress: “We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism... We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”
This story has been updated to be more specific about ways in which the UAE permits Islamist militancy.