In the aftermath of President Trump's Executive Order banning entry into the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries--Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya--his supporters have hailed his initiative as an important terrorist deterrent while detractors have attacked it as a recruitment tool for ISIS. While there may be some truth to both of these positions, the long-term fallout of other pronouncements may be more far-reaching--affecting US relations with the 1.7 billion Muslims in the years to come and also shaping conditions in Muslim countries.
Before elaborating on the future fallout of the new administration's initiatives, let's list its many pronouncements.
Candidate Trump has often made disparaging remarks about "Islamic terrorists." To many devout Muslims, this was and is an insult. Yes, there are terrorists who call themselves Muslims, but Islam is a religion that preaches the unity of humankind, freedom and justice. The candidate's then national security advisor, General Flynn, was even less circumspect when in 2016 he tweeted "fear of Muslims is rational."
In December of 2016, President Elect Trump condemned the Obama Administration's abstention on a UN Resolution demanding that Israel cease Jewish settlement activities on Palestinian territory, which then resulted in the passage of the resolution. Yes, in the past the US had always vetoed such resolutions supported by nearly every country in the world, who view Israel's actions as illegal under international law. President Elect Trump also stated that he would support moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the very day of his inauguration. This move, apparently still under consideration, has allegedly not been carried out because of the possible fallout. But the damage is done. Muslims heard the administration's sympathies loud and clear. Furthermore, in support of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the new administration did not condemn the Israeli Parliament's passage of a law expropriating Palestinian land--this law represents a line that Israel had not before crossed and a line that even some right-wing Israeli politicians have seen as dangerous. President Elect Trump further alienated Muslims, and especially Arabs, when he nominated David Friedman, a vocal supporter of Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory, as the US Ambassador to Israel. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to meet President Trump. In the past, President Elect Trump made numerous pronouncements in favor of further strengthening US-Israeli ties. While Arabs and indeed all Muslims are watching, further US indifference as to Palestinian rights will only continue to alienate Arabs and most other Muslims.
There are other provocative initiatives that the new administration may be contemplating. One of these is the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Most Muslims would strongly disagree with such a designation and would find this to be another slap in their face, as the administration continues its support of oppressive rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia who back such a designation to quash all opposition to their rule.
While the travel ban on seven Muslim countries has received most of the attention, these numerous initiatives may do much more long-term damage to US-Muslim relations. Interestingly, on a number of occasions when the President has addressed the travel ban, he has made matters worse by casting the refugee problem, in part, as a persecution of Christians. Religious freedom is prohibited in Saudi Arabia (which is not on the President's dirty 7 list), ISIS has taunted Christians by its barbarous acts against non-Muslims to further divide the two religions, and Iran has persecuted Baha'is, but in terms of sheer numbers, it is Muslims who have been the principal victims of ISIS and other Muslim terror.
With all the attention on the seven-country-travel ban, the pundits have not taken up one critical fact: some of them allege the reason for these seven countries is that President Trump has no business interests in these places but has business in Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists, and in other Muslim countries not on the list; while this is true they miss the fact that the seven countries are not ruled by Muslim dictators who are supported by the US. This is important because the administration's anti-Islam initiatives, coupled with its support of oppressive Muslim dictators, will increasingly encourage Muslims to engage in protests against their oppressive rulers. The chickens will come home to roost the day America's dictator friends are overthrown.
What does all this portend for America's standing in the Muslim world?
A simple fact that we have said before: in all of the Middle East and North Africa, the US is most popular in Israel and Iran (see the results of Pew Surveys). Israel is understandable, but why Iran? Our hypothesis is that the US is not unduly distrusted in Iran because Washington has not supported Iran's oppressive rulers. Trump's rhetoric and travel bans against Muslims, his increased and overt support of Netanyahu's provocative initiatives and of oppressive Muslim rulers (who condemn and incarcerate peaceful opposition) will further alienate Muslims around the world. This alienation could be seen clearly when Iran's former President Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah were the region's two most popular Muslim leaders in the Middle East. Why? Because they spoke out against the United States and US-backed Arab rulers. But matters will not rest there. The broad citizenry in many Middle Eastern Muslim countries will increasingly protest against their oppressive rulers--rulers who are backed by the United States.
Sadly, the Trump Administration, instead of promoting reconciliation, may be unknowingly sowing the seeds of discord.
In the end, to be effective, US policies must appeal to the people of the region, not just to their rulers. There is one inescapable fact. Islam is the fastest growing religion. Today it has 1.7 billion adherents. The US has no choice but to forge better relations. Words matter, as do actions. Provocative rhetoric will only alienate. Blind support of Muslim dictators who do Washington's bidding will one day blow up in America's face. Blind support for Netanyahu's excesses will in the end hurt Israel as well as alienate Muslims.
The Trump Administration should set aside its perceived short-term national interests and do all it can to reconcile all people of the Middle East and North Africa.