With President Donald Trump expected to shortly announce restrictions on Muslim entry into the U.S. over fears of terrorism, critics have rushed to point out that several countries whose nationals have been linked to terror attacks on U.S. soil are not on the reported list of nations whose citizens will no longer be able to visit American shores. They mention Egypt, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and ― especially ― Saudi Arabia.
This gotcha criticism may seem like the way to challenge Trump’s claims that he’s saving America (and to show off some foreign policy smarts).
But when the president’s policy rests on barely veiled religious discrimination, opponents should not be bargaining over the details.
Journalists at a range of news outlets ― from Think Progress and The Intercept to The Wall Street Journal ― noted the missing countries on Twitter. So did foreign affairs analyst Ian Bremmer, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, pro-Hillary Clinton activist Leah McElrath and independent journalists Paul Brandus and Rania Khalek.
The nations reportedly left off the list have been the true global sources of terror, they argued. Many highlighted the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens. Some of those attackers also had ties to the United Arab Emirates, and their putative leader, al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, was eventually found in Pakistan.
For those who pay close attention to the U.S. government’s foreign policy, bringing up Saudi Arabia in particular is good fun. It’s a chance to challenge U.S. orthodoxy and note its problems. It allows observers to underscore the hypocritical side of American statements about encouraging democracy and tolerance in the Middle East, highlight capitalism’s disregard for ethics (the Saudis are major arms buyers with ties to Trump’s business empire), and boost arguments for less U.S. engagement around the world (what good has it done if even citizens of a U.S.-aligned nation become radicalized?).
But there’s a darker aspect to this game. Saudi-bashing is a favorite tactic of the Islamophobia movement that Trump has now elevated to the White House.
Like many liberals, conservative American pundits frequently speak of Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record. They do so for a different purpose: not to prompt reform, but to argue that the Saudi kingdom is actually a dangerous enemy for the U.S., one that they contend shows what Islam is really all about.
By feeding their audiences a steady stream of Saudi excesses and conflating the kingdom with terror groups that target both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. (remember Trump falsely suggesting that the kingdom uses the Islamic State tactic of “push[ing] gays off buildings”?), these commentators spread suspicion of Islam. Their focus on Saudi Arabia is made easier by the fact that the Saudis are perhaps the best-known U.S. partner in the Muslim-majority world ― a frustrating ally at times, one not beloved by the American people, but a prominent partner nonetheless.
Opponents of Trump’s anti-Muslim proposal who don’t want to whip up more Islamophobia should be taking a different approach. If they want to slam his plan as cruel, bigoted and counter-productive, they should do so. But don’t suggest, directly or tacitly, that the president erred by not putting Saudi Arabia (or any other country) on his list.
Whatever satisfaction that kind of attack gives the critics, it provides no aid to the millions of people ― refugees separated from their families, anti-ISIS allies abandoned in dangerous countries ― that the Trump administration is moving to discriminate against.