How President Trump could accidentally play into the hands of Islamist extremists

5143yxrfvrl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Back in 1990, the historian and commentator Bernard Lewis opined that the Muslim world was gearing up for a clash of civilizations with the west. At that time, the flashpoints of concern were Iran and Lebanon as opposed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya remained a constant thorn in the US’ side throughout this period and into our era with or without Gadaffi at the helm.

With the Iranian revolution still fresh in his mind, Lewis believed Muslims were returning to a binary view of the world divided between the House of Islam and the House of War. A war to be prosecuted against all unbelievers.

This he saw as a one thousand five hundred year clash between Islam and Christianity. Up to the 17th century, Islam had been in the ascendant. After that, it retreated miserably in the face of western expansion. The result of this humiliation was burning hatred that Lewis believed was turning to outright hostility. Hence the rise of what was termed ‘fundamentalism’ in the 90s and early 2000s and is being termed ‘radical Islam’ now.

fullsizerenderBut even Lewis conceded that fundamentalism wasn’t the full picture when it came to Islam. And his rather doom laden analysis ignored the efforts by secular governments in the Middle East to modernise their societies in the 20th century. It also portrayed Muslims as irrational and messianic – prone to red mist moments that sent them over the top. This orientalist view was rightly seen as insulting by a majority of law abiding Muslims.

Worse, the clash of civilizations view mirrors the ideology of extremist Islamists who tell Muslims that the west is engaged in an apocalyptic war against Islam. Daesh, AQ and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood depict western democracies as utterly hostile to Islam. It is impossible, they claim, for Muslims to live under such conditions and they must strive to create a caliphate that will eventually dominate the world.

President Bush, after 9/11, realised that it was important to separate out Islam from Islamism. He said the following:

Some call this evil Islamic radicalism, others militant jihadism. Still others Islamo-fascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.

Obama also realised that it was important not to bolster the jihadi narrative of a war by the west against Islam. Words had to be chosen very carefully. Trump’s circle dislike Obama’s refusal to recognise the influence of Islam. But there is a path that can be trodden between those who want to attack Islam in its entirety and those who refuse to recognise the role of theology. That is to say that yes, indeed, the building blocks of Islamist and jihadi ideology can be found in Islam – it’s just that most Muslims have chosen to build something very different with the building blocks on offer.

By all means recognise the theological influence in Daesh propaganda. Dabiq, the terrorist group’s magazine, is littered with Quranic references. Then ask yourself whether Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, is going to exercise a positive influence on Muslims round the world when he says something like this:

We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture.

This is pure Bernard Lewis and music to the ears of Islamists everywhere. The binary choice is being forced on Muslims by Daesh on one side and the political right on the other. In the middle, the “grey zone of compromise” is being extinguished. That phrase was dreamt up by Daesh and they rejoice when the middle path of reason and hope is squeezed a little narrower.

 

 

Advertisements

American Muslims are not Islamists – a dangerous assumption

Lt Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s pick to be national security adviser was reported by CNN to have said in August, 2016 that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” – in other words, that every Muslim is a potential Islamist.

islam-will-dominate-the-worldThis conflation of Islam and Islamism is very dangerous. Tell people over and over again that they are terrorists and extremists in the making and you might get what you wish for. In short, Islam is a faith practised by the aforementioned 1.7 billion people. Islamism is a relatively recent revivalist movement, spearheaded in the 20th century by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The ideology of Islamism seeks to detach Muslims from their home countries and nation states arguing that they should, instead, adhere to a globalised identity and strive to create some kind of caliphate. It developed in reaction to the very obvious decline of Muslim majority countries by the 19th century that allowed them to be overwhelmed by European colonial powers. Early Islamists even argued for modernisation and a degree of westernising in order to catch up with Europe.

ottoman_empire_bBut the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, the last Islamic caliphate, gave rise to a yearning among Islamists for the restoration of some kind of Muslim polity where religion and state would be fused – a caliphate under sharia law. But it needs to be emphasised that this was not a majority position among Muslims. And today, while elements of Islamism might find support among many Muslims, it is way off the mark to label all Muslims as Islamists in the making.

 

 

A Muslim registry – does President-elect Trump really mean it?

Politifact recently did a “deep dive” asking whether Donald Trump really meant it when he called for a registry of Muslims? Did he intend to include all Muslims or just some? Was it supposed to only apply to Syrian refugees? Or was it, as Trump himself explained, a casual slip?

rrrrrr3Their deep dive showed that Trump has truly obfuscated on this question. When pushed on MSNBC, Fox and other media about what he meant with his initial comment about a registry, he diverted to refugees though at the same time not ruling out every Muslim in the US. Politifact concluded that he intended to look at registering refugees first and then maybe expand the scheme.

NPR has reported that a registry wouldn’t be unprecedented. In fact, after 9/11 the Bush administration created a registry vetting people from terror-prone countries. This was called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). Twenty five countries, mainly majority Muslim, were covered by the registry. All those coming in to the US on a short-term visa were to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted.

83,000 people were impacted with about 13,000 removed for various violations. In terms of catching people of interest as potential terrorists, the number was a somewhat more paltry eleven. At a cost of $10m a year, the decision was eventually made that a more forensic targeting approach would be better than blanket surveillance of everybody from a particular country.

kriskobachIt looks like then, as Vox reported recently, that Trump will be reviving NSEERS. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach was involved with NSEERS and has indicated that this is the program that will be brought back as opposed to a new full-blown Muslim database. However, it remains to be seen if this will be good enough for his boss.

 

Why the President should not ban Muslims from the United States

Whatever motivated Donald Trump as a candidate for the presidency to suggest a ban on Muslims entering the United States, he should consider some very salient reasons for dropping the idea. For a start, it makes little economic sense.

If pulling President Trump’s heart strings won’t work, then the business case might convince the POTUS. In 2011, the purchasing power of American Muslims was estimated to be between $107bn and $124bn. This spending goes across a whole range of sectors:

  • img_3750Housing – $33bn
  • Motor vehicle and services – $16bn
  • Insurance and pensions – $11bn
  • Healthcare – $6.5bn
  • Entertainment – $5bn

The Muslim population is younger than the US average with education and income levels at a par if not slightly above the average household. This presents a huge potential market for corporate America. The obvious areas include halal food products and Islamic finance though companies have plenty of other opportunities if they think creatively and start talking to American Muslims more creatively.

As a market, Muslims are set to grow in population and spending. By 2030, their numbers will have doubled to over 6m regardless of any bans on entry and their share of US GDP will also have doubled to around 1.7%. All those young Muslims are already coming to form a spending phenomenon known as Generation M.  They are hard working, ambitious and will give their political support to those who help them move upwards. Politicians who support Muslim aspiration can expect to be rewarded with votes.

Muslim Americans are also expanding into the political sphere. This may dismay nativists and the alt-right but the truth is that these representatives, far from seeking a sharia governed caliphate, just want the same improved community services as non-Muslims.

While President Trump celebrated victory in New York in November, 2016, a Somali-American woman Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in US history. Hillary Clinton may have failed to smash her glass ceiling that night but Ilhan Omar broke several.

She began life amidst the horror of civil war in Somalia followed by a Kenyan refugee camp but is now a hijabi wearing member of the Minnesota House. If ever there was a genuine log cabin story in American politics, then Ilhan Omar’s biography fits the bill. As one newspaper put it:

Omar’s story is just the latest in a long line of oppressed people coming to the United States, grabbing hold of the country’s democratic levers and demanding equality and opportunity — mirroring the journey of Irish, Jewish and other immigrant groups.

569858440_1280x720In Dearborn, WWE Smackdown champion Terrance “Rhyno” Guido Gerin was defeated at the polls by Abdullah Hammoud for Michigan’s 15th House District seat. The wrestler thought he’d take the Republicans to victory but Hammoud, a 26 year old healthcare advisor, beat him soundly. No amount of wrestling themed campaign ads from his opponent stopped the more convincing Hammoud.

Hammoud’s programme included more support for small business including start-up loans as well as greater incentives to keep jobs in Michigan. Like an increasing number of Muslim Americans, Hammoud is well educated with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbour. He is the political and educational expression of Generation M.

With American-Muslims advancing politically and economically, the new Republican administration has to decide whether it stands for aspiration and advancement or if it prefers xenophobia and fear.

Can the Republicans resolve their Muslim problem?

Saba Ahmed is one of a bold band of American Muslims trying to convince Republicans that Islam is not their enemy. She came to national attention after wearing a Stars and Stripes hijab on Fox News.

Her attachment to the Republican Party should not come as a complete surprise given that up to 2000, an estimated 70% of Muslim Americans voted Republican. That all changed after 9/11 and the ratcheting up of the war on terror. Saba herself ran as a Democrat in 2011 before coming to the conclusion that she was in the wrong party.

Islamic values are very much traditional family values: pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-traditional family values, pro-business, pro-trade.

She subsequently set up the Republican Muslim Coalition “to bring the voice of conservative Muslims to American politics”.  Her view of the Trump victory is resoundingly positive but she worries that fellow Muslim Americans will shun the new President.

As a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, she believes Pakistani-Americans have been way under-represented in Washington DC but that Trump, with values that are not so dissimilar to those of Muslim Americans, could be an open door. The evidence for that is a bit thin as Trump begins his presidency after a campaign that was long on anti-Muslim rhetoric. Clearly the hope is that his harsh words were electioneering rhetoric and the reality will be entirely different.

 

Why US presidents should visit mosques more often

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-12-52-04

It is extraordinary that it took until February, 2016 for President Obama to make his first official visit to an American mosque – right at the end of his second term in office. Islamist propaganda has always cast the War on Terror as a war by the West against the whole of Islam on a global scale. Arguably, by not visiting a mosque during most of his term, the President had unwittingly bolstered that narrative. After all, why not visit a mosque?

In the United States as of 2014, according to Pew, there were 2.75m Muslims. By 2050, they will surpass those who identify themselves as Jewish. They are mostly anti-extremist, even believing that their faith leaders have not done enough to speak out on this issue – again, according to Pew. On the other hand, there is a widespread view that post-9/11 anti-terror legislation has impacted disproportionately on Muslims.

Obama finally decided to cross the threshold of a mosque in response to comments made by Donald Trump while running as the Republican presidential candidate. He told the congregation:

If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.

Muslims themselves have moved decisively towards a reconciled identity in the US adopting increasingly liberal attitudes on homosexuality and abortion. Politically, they trend towards the Democrats and in spite of high rates of business formation and suburban lifestyles nevertheless believe in bigger not small government.

But in spite of these encouraging signs of assimilation, Republicans are noticeably cool about their Muslim fellow citizens and even Democrats are not reportedly warm. Democrat attitudes to Muslims could best be described as neutral compared to outright suspicion among Republicans.

It is wrong and dangerous to conflate American Muslims with Islamist extremists. Successive surveys have revealed a community that is happy to adhere to American values and salute the flag. Yet Obama left it very late in his presidency to reach out to Muslims. Even George Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington after 9/11 to boldly state that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam”.

If we want to drive Muslims into the hands of Islamists, there are two proven ways to achieve this:

  1. Put the whole of Islam and Islamist extremism in the same bucket and depict both as some kind of civilizational threat
  2. Encourage a sense of victimhood among Muslims slowly convincing them that it is impossible to live as a Muslim in the United States (and only caliphate governed by sharia law will offer real protection)

The antidote to the above is to make a clear distinction between the majority of law abiding, patriotic Muslims as opposed to Islamist extremists – and deal with them very differently. Avoidance of victimhood narratives is also critical, instead disseminating stories of success and aspiration.

It would also help if presidents of the United States set foot more often in Muslim community venues to evidence that they are as much a part of the fabric of the US as Catholics, evangelicals and Jews.

Are Muslims in the United States more assimilated than in Europe?

According to the Cato Institute – the answer is yes. On what basis? Because Muslims in the United States have opinions on issues like abortion and homosexuality that are more in line with the general population than in Europe.

img_3746Cato quotes stats from Pew and Gallup showing that while 58% of Britons find homosexuality morally acceptable, next to no British Muslims do. While in the US, it’s 48% of the US who are fine with gay rights and 27% of American Muslims. So the gap in attitudes between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US seems to be much narrower.

On abortion, 55% of Britons are fine with abortion while only 5% of British Muslims find it morally acceptable. Go to the US and it’s 55% of non-Muslims who think abortion is moral compared to 40% of Muslims. Again, a narrower gap.

Cato then moves on to the labour market. In the US, Muslims are more likely to be in work than non-Muslims. That is reversed in Europe where unemployment rates are alarmingly high – particularly among women. This non-participation in the labour market creates a gulf between Muslims and the rest of society, Cato argues.

Something else is going on that may explain better assimilation in the United States than in Europe. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Muslims who believe in a literal approach to scripture fell eight percentage points from 50% while the non-literalists rose by 10%. Pew has also found that at least 23% of US residents raised in Muslim households had left their religion altogether.

This contrasts with Europe where second and third generation Muslims have often parted company with their parents’ cultural Islam seeking instead a globalised Muslim identity. That can include the hyper-literalism of salafism and in some instances, an adherence to extremist Islamism. But the picture is not all grim. London has a Muslim mayor who is a role model of integration and several Muslims sit in parliament. An increasing number of Muslims are successful in business and the arts but nevertheless, a degree of alienation clearly persists.

In spite of what looks like a rosier picture in the US, this did not stop the 2016 presidential election including a call by the Republican candidate Donald Trump to impose a ban on any more Muslims entering the country. Yet Muslims appear to have been an assimilation success story – especially compared to Europe.