‘Confusion, anger and fear’ after Trump’s travel ban
Washington - The travel ban imposed by the Trump administration on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa could hurt efforts by the United States to regain the trust of its allies in the region and boost the morale of extremists, analysts said.
With an executive order signed January 27th, one week after taking office, US President Donald Trump instituted a 90-day ban on people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen entering the United States. Trump also stopped the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States and reduced the number of all refugees allowed to enter the country from 110,000 to 50,000 per year. Trump said the steps were necessary to protect the United States from Islamist terrorists.
The order was reportedly developed without input from US intelligence agencies, the US State Department or the US Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress were not alerted beforehand.
The ban led to chaotic scenes at US airports, where travellers from the countries affected were detained and some returned to their home countries, despite having valid visas or permanent residency permits (green cards). Authorities later said green card holders from the seven countries would be allowed entry but visa holders would still be banned.
A US federal judge in Seattle, on February 3rd, issued a temporary restraining order — effective nationwide — to stop enforcement of Trump’s order and airlines quickly said they would allow US-bound travellers from the affected countries aboard their flights. The White House termed the ruling “outrageous” — a characterisation later omitted — and said it would seek an immediate stay of the ruling.
In the Middle East, the fallout from Trump’s ban could be serious. “The overall impact on the Muslim world in general will be to consolidate the narrative that the United States is at war with Islam,” Richard LeBaron, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, said. “It puts our allies in the Middle East in a very awkward position.”
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd echoed those concerns, telling parliament in London that the decision by the US government was a “propaganda opportunity” for extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said it was worried about “selective and discriminatory acts [that] will only serve to embolden the radical narratives of extremists and will provide further fuel to the advocates of violence and terrorism”.
The ban coincides with a controversial plan by Trump to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that would support Israeli claims to the entire city and that could inflame the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The White House softened its strongly pro-Israeli stance somewhat on February 2nd by declaring that a further extension of settlements on Palestinian land “may not be helpful”.
Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as White House coordinator for the Middle East under US president Barack Obama, said there is “confusion, anger and fear” in the region. Writing in the Washington Post after returning from the Middle East, Gordon said Muslims across the region fear that Trump’s executive order “is not really a practical security measure at all but simply red meat for anti-Muslim Trump voters”.
Iran responded with the announcement of a travel ban of its own but reactions from others have been more restrained. The United Arab Emirates cautioned the ban was not directed against Islam. The Arab League said it had “deep concerns” but expressed hope that the US government might review its position.
Turkey, which is not affected by the ban but sees itself as a voice for the Muslim world, was more outspoken: “Regional issues cannot be solved by closing the doors on people,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.
LeBaron said muted responses from Muslim and Middle Eastern countries reflected a desire “not to be singled out like the seven other countries” but, even though the governments involved were cautious, people in those countries were “offended”.
The Iraqi government is in an especially difficult bind. Invaded by US troops in 2003, Iraq currently hosts about 5,000 American military personnel who are supporting the Iraqi Army in its effort to push the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Mosul, one of Iraq’s biggest cities.
Parliament in Baghdad voted in favour of a reciprocal travel ban for US citizens but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the government would not implement the measure. Pointing to the fight against ISIS in Mosul, Abadi said he did not want to harm Iraq’s national interests.
Some observers expect the number of Muslim countries on the travel ban list to grow. “More countries are coming,” said Samer Khalaf, national president of the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a lobbying group in Washington.
“I have no doubt that there will be a push to include Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states,” Khalaf said. Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria were other possible candidates.
“People who have his [Trump’s] ear are not distinguishing between Syrians, Saudis or Moroccans,” Khalaf said. “They are all the same to him.”