Donald Trump’s first acts as president were to sign a series of executive orders delivering on some of the most controversial of his campaign promises. On Friday afternoon, just two days after signing an order directing the Department of Homeland Security to build a wall along the Mexican border and increasing the number of border officers, the president signed an executive order that, according to the New York Times, “suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.”
The response to the proposal has been swift; spontaneous protests in support of immigrants and Muslims took place in airports across the nation, advocacy groups (successfully, so far) challenged portions of the order, while public figures like Madeleine Albright vowed to register as a Muslim.
The immigration ban on refugees from Muslim-majority countries is proposed in the name of security. While many Americans continue to protest, Donald Trump’s supporters are cheering, seeing it as the toughening stance needed in the fight against ISIS. The irony of his actions lies in the fact that they are exactly what groups like ISIS want: to erase the history of Islam and coexistence in this country.
In 2017 Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims, but in 1776, the founding fathers wanted to welcome them. Muslims, though a minority, have been present in the United States from the very beginning. Historians of slavery estimate that as much as a third of slaves may have been Muslim and some even fought in the revolutionary war like Yusuf ben Ali. Thomas Jefferson kept a Qur’an near his bedside and the other framers were adamant that the United States would be a land of religious liberty for Christians, Jews, and “Mahometan.” The first country to recognize the young independent United States of America was the Muslim sultanate of Morocco. In 1805 Thomas Jefferson even hosted an Iftar dinner in the White House.
Muslims participated in the Civil War and ran businesses as far West as Arizona. After the disintegration of the Mughal and Ottoman Empire, immigration from Muslim-majority countries increased. Islam is part of the religious fabric of America. Islam is American.
Yet, with a stroke of a pen, Donald Trump made Islam a foreign threat needing extreme “vetting.”
Donald Trump and ISIS agree on this. It’s probably why ISIS celebrated Trump’s victory. For ISIS to thrive, it is essential to provoke America into a civilizational conflict. ISIS is, at best, a regional threat, but it has global aspirations. Through the use of terrorism, it can extend its reach and provoke fear and hatred in far more powerful countries. Terrorism is a political strategy. Our fixation on religion blinds us to its strategic use.
Banning Muslims is exactly what ISIS has hoped to achieve for many years. Propaganda from ISIS regularly decries the United States as a nation of hypocrites who promise freedom out of one side of the mouth and demonize minorities out of the other. ISIS propaganda calls the US an unsafe place for Muslims.
Refugees fleeing from ISIS need somewhere to flee to. By banning refugees, Donald Trump vilifies the victims, deliberately conflating them with the perpetrators. ISIS is achieving its aims: a nationless population it can absorb into its nascent and brutal state, with an America that has given proof to their propaganda. Donald Trump’s words have already been featured in ISIS recruitment videos and this executive order will give terrorists exactly what they want.
Donald Trump’s executive order is not an act of strength, but of supreme cowardice. It’s also an act of brazen avarice (or, I suppose, extreme coincidence) since, according to Bloomberg.com, it “doesn’t include Muslim-majority countries where [the] Trump Organization has done business or pursued potential deals.” There’s no evidence of any Syrian refugee committing a single act of terror in the United States, nor have there been any Iranian or Iraqi terrorists. Donald Trump’s list of banned nations is comprised of nothing more than the most vulnerable of Muslim countries, six of whom we’ve bombed or used in proxy wars. Like all bullies, he has found a soft and weak target to point his finger at.
Some may take heart that his order only focuses on a small number of countries, but if his authoritarian tendencies remain consistent, then we should know that all autocrats start at the margins until they reach the center. Make no mistake, Donald Trump’s actions demonize an entire faith. In fact, for those who challenge the framing as a “Muslim ban,” it should be noted that, as the Times and others have noted, the order effectively prioritizes Christian refugees by giving priority to “minority religion[s].”
Trump may relish in the fact that for his followers he’s taking action, but this gesture is empty. Muslim bans and immigrations freezes will not make the United States safe. Terrorism is the act of the socially alienated and politically desperate and unless the conditions that produce terrorism are dealt with, terrorism will continue to be a feature of global politics. The narrative of foreign infiltrators ignores the real threat of homegrown terrorism, or far more frequent attacks from militias and the hard-right.
Banning Muslims satiates the anti-Muslim bigots, the fearful, and terrorists themselves. But Mr. Trump’s executive order isn’t about keeping Americans safe, but the weaponizing of fear against a vulnerable population. It is not coincidental that countries with actual histories of terrorism like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates are not on the list. His actions are about fear and the utility of that fear for his political agenda.
Alongside the history of coexistence is a history of intolerance. From the anti-Irish Catholic Know-Nothing Party, to the Asian Exclusion Act, to the internment of people of Japanese ancestry, this country has vacillated on the razor’s edge. The immigration policies of Donald Trump aim to return us to the darker eras of our history, consequentially erasing the history of vulnerable groups who are part of the fabric of this nation.
Since the horrific events of 9/11, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and its successor ISIS have desperately sought to radically change the tapestry of American life, to erase Islam in America, to put the lie to its claims of tolerance, and to strike fear in the heart of a much more powerful nation.
Today, religious liberty is threatened by a president who sees Islam as foreign, who bans and vets people based on their religious beliefs, and who fears refugees, the most vulnerable population in the world. Fear appeals to our darker demons. Donald Trump’s executive order gives reign to those demons.
Ali A. Olomi is a historian, writer, and Ph.D student at the University of California Irvine where he studies the history of the Middle East and Islam, specializing in topics of religion, gender and sexuality, cultural and intellectual history, and colonialism.