President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order that seals off the borders of the United States to citizens of seven Muslim majority countries may well be lifted in three months, but the damage it inflicts on America’s already tarnished image in the Islamic world is likely to endure far longer.
The newly minted White House administration remains defiant over the immigration curbs introduced on January 27 – defended as necessary to prevent the import of terrorism – even as fury over what has been dubbed a “Muslim ban” mounts at home and abroad.
The order blocks travellers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the US for three months, while also suspending the intake of refugees for four months. American foreign policy and political Islam watchers say the move in one stroke unravels the small but vital gains made by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in rebuilding American clout with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the bulk of whom hail from Asia.
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Despite lingering discontent in Muslim majority countries over some aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, the former US leader is seen to have made inroads in re-establishing America’s standing in these societies. The image of the world’s sole superpower was marred across the Muslim world in the decade preceding Obama’s eight years in power by President George W. Bush’s unpopular invasion of Iraq in 2003 that was widely seen as illegal.
Experts say Trump’s travel ban emboldens rather than weakens extremist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda, as it adds fuel to their radical narratives which paint the US as hell-bent on spearheading a violent reckoning between the Judeo-Christian Western world and Islam.
“The good work of President Obama in building bridges with Muslim countries is in tatters. America is still feared but she is no longer held in high esteem,” said Zaid Ibrahim, a Malaysian former cabinet minister who has led efforts to promote a moderate strand of Islam in the Southeast Asian country.
Peter Mandaville, a former adviser on political Islam at the US State Department, said the order could not “help but harm perceptions of America’s standing in the world”.
And Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College in Washington, said “the policy simply makes it harder for governments in Southeast Asia to be willing to cooperate with the US”.
“The Trump administration’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, America First policy, and frankly very erratic national security stance, should call into question America’s commitment to regional security,” Abuza said.
AMERICAN DREAM FADES
Apart from the damage to diplomatic ties, the curbs are seen as likely to hurt US soft power in many parts of the Muslim world.
In developing Muslim countries like Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia, it is routine for politicians to invoke the US as an imperialist bogeyman to shore up domestic support. But for many of the ordinary citizens in these societies, the US has remained a beacon that best represents the ideals of Western democracy and openness. That cultural capital, however, could also be under threat as a result of the latest curb, the experts say.
“I think that many residents of the Muslim world like America and its people even if they don’t like US policies,” said Michael Kugelman, the Asia programme deputy director at the Wilson Centre think tank in Washington.
“What I fear, however, is that Trump has gone so far in this case that many will be so disgusted with his policies that their general impressions of America will be tarnished,” he said.
Zaid, the Malaysian former politician, said Trump’s orders could take the sheen off Western-style governance and strengthen the hand of hardline Islamists.
“Autocratic Muslim leaders will emulate Trump and using strident Islamic rhetoric and laws, they will strengthen their position,” said Zaid, now a prominent critic of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“In this condition it’s almost certain that liberal democracy will disappear and the jihadists will take over. Malaysia is one such example where Islamic autocracy will impose their power in the near future,” he added.
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Trump, who has initiated sweeping policy changes through executive orders in his first fortnight in office, has slammed the widespread condemnation of the immigration curbs.
“This is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” the US leader said last Sunday.
Trump first made public his plans for a temporary but “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” following the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California. It was perpetrated by a married couple who professed allegiance to Islamic State. Trump at that time said his proposed curbs were necessary so “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. He cited polling data that he said showed “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population”.
Rudy Giuliani, the former public prosecutor turned New York mayor who is a close Trump confidante, said this week that soon after the initial proposal for a ban the then presidential candidate asked him for advice on the legal basis of enacting a “Muslim ban”. And Steve Bannon, the conservative rabble-rouser who is now Trump’s chief strategist, in a 2010 interview said he believed Islam was not a religion of peace, but instead was a “religion of submission”.
‘Good Muslims and bad Muslims’
These pronouncements suggest the ban was in fact targeted at Muslims, experts said.
“I worry that in the world view of Trump’s closest advisers, the Muslim world is indeed divided into ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’ and that for them ‘good Muslims’ are the ones who support the policies of the US and dedicate themselves to defeating the ‘bad Muslims’,” said Mandaville, who was a senior adviser to the Obama-era foreign policy chiefs Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, said that particular world view was prevalent in the US, even if Americans were reticent to acknowledge it. “There is a confusion over the links between extremism and Islam. On one hand Obama says there is no connection at all. The people around Trump and Trump himself say there is a connection ... they won’t admit it but [Trump’s] view is quite widespread,” he said.
The dichotomous framing plays into the ideological narratives perpetuated by Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
“This Muslim ban plays into the narrative of radical Salafist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, who try to create very clear distinctions between the umma [Muslim community] and the kaffir [unbelievers], and between Darul Islam [territory of Islam] and Darul al Harb [territory of war],” said Abuza, who specialises in the study of religious extremism in Southeast Asia.
“They strive to convince their followers and other Muslims that there is no place for them in the West and that the West is actually fighting a war against Islam.”
Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Programme, said the ban would do little to curb extremists.
The seven countries on the ban list were first identified by the Obama administration as “countries of concern”. This meant that international travellers eligible for visa-free travel into the US needed to apply for visas if they had travelled to these seven countries. Some Trump surrogates have used this fact to justify the current blanket clampdown, citing it as a mere continuation of an Obama-era policy.
“But the Obama list did not mean that there was a direct or known terror threat from the citizens of these countries to the US homeland. There is no intelligence that suggests that. That is the wrong [conclusion],” said Nakhleh. Muslims citizens of the seven countries make up about 12 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population, according to an estimate by the Pew Research Centre.
The Cato Institute think tank meanwhile said a total of 17 people from the seven nations had been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on US soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.
Despite the divisive nature of the ban, major Muslim countries have so far voiced only lukewarm condemnation of it. The most vocal opposition has instead come from secular civil society groups within the US, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said this week it “deeply regrets” the ban, adding that the measures would have a “negative impact on global efforts to fight terrorism”. And Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday declined to criticise the measures. He said the move was a “sovereign decision” by the US and was not directed at a particular religion.
Nakhleh, the former CIA expert, said predominantly Sunni Muslim countries in the Gulf region and Southeast Asia were nonplussed by the ban as it currently affected only “so-called failing states and two Shia majority countries, Iraq and Iran”.
“The Sunni countries may not be so worried now but that could be to their own detriment in the long run. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation should take a strong stand,” he said, referring to the umbrella organisation of 57 Muslim nations.
Leaders are also wary of tripping up Trump. Reports of his acrimonious phone call last Saturday with Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia, displayed his volatile temperament even when dealing with the leaders of stalwart allies.
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In Malaysia, opposition lawmaker Ong Kian Ming said Prime Minister Najib was probably restraining himself from taking a critical stance against the ban as he was “trying to stay on President Trump’s good side”.
Still, not everyone viewed the situation through doom and gloom lenses.
“Nothing, I repeat nothing, that Trump has done exceeds the damage that President George W. Bush did with the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” said Thomas Pepinsky, a Southeast Asia expert at Cornell University.
“Muslim leaders were able to work with Bush, and they will be able to work around Trump,” he said. ■
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