By Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow, ICSR
This article first appeared in The Atlantic and can be accessed in full here
On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump handed the Islamic State and its likeminded rivals a symbolic victory when he announced he would immediately suspend immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. By stopping the citizens of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran from entering the United States for 90 days, and from Syria indefinitely, the new American president worked wonders for salafi-jihadist ideologues the world over.
Citing, on Sunday, the “horrible mess” of Europe as his justification for the policy—which has already brought thousands out in protest at airports and street corners around the world—Trump’s position can be summarized as follows: By stopping citizens of countries that are “sources of terror” from entering into the United States of America, he will reduce the threat presented by “infiltration by foreign terrorists.” (It’s worth noting, as the New America Foundation has, that “every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident.”) In any case, reaffirming his position in a statement posted to Facebook on Sunday, Trump contended that “this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
If only this were the case. Not only does the policy miss the point, it betrays a worryingly superficial understanding of the threat from Islamist terrorism. The ban also has the power to make things much worse—it will go far to symbolically aid and abet the very terrorists that the president says he wants to keep out, popularizing and reinforcing their binary worldview. Unwittingly, the new administration is building the world that salafi-jihadists so dearly want to inhabit, one where “crusader governments and citizens” are seen to be persecuting Sunni Muslims en masse and in which the conspiracy about there being a U.S.-orchestrated “war on Islam” actually rings true.
As one of the Islamic State’s fans recently wrote on Telegram, when it comes to cleaving the world in two and undermining the prospects of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims, the self-proclaimed caliphate has a friend in Trump, a man that is “just stupid enough to do it for us.”
There’s no question that Trump’s latest policy blunder will be spun as hard evidence for the Islamist extremist reading of global politics, impacting the ability of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to influence and recruit. After all, a sense of grievance, when agitated correctly, can be a powerful thing. It can even serve as a way to galvanize support and justify the most extreme violence.
Of course, it’s not just salafi-jihadists that instrumentally value victimhood. Indeed, behind almost all extremist outrages lurks an artificially augmented conception of victimhood. It was, as the academic Nicholas O’Shaughnessy points out, a carefully cultivated narrative of victimhood that provided Adolf Hitler with the justification he wanted to attack the rest of Europe in 1939. It was a not dissimilar sense of victimhood that Timothy McVeigh cited as his reason for carrying out a “retaliatory strike” against the federal government in Oklahoma in 1996. Likewise, it was the victimhood narrative that al-Qaeda took to in order to justify its killing of thousands of civilians in the United States on September 11, 2001. Salafi-jihadists have in fact been parroting the victimhood line for decades now—and that’s not going to change—but what makes Trump’s latest actions so problematic is how they will be interpreted by those who would otherwise be America’s allies.
What many thought would only ever be crude and bombastic campaign rhetoric is fast becoming reality. And, monitoring this more closely than anyone else, probably rubbing their hands with glee, are extremists like those in ISIS, who have explicitly stated a goal of polarizing society and fomenting anti-Muslim hatred. While it may seem counterintuitive, when conditions are bad for Muslims in the West, salafi-jihadists are closer to achieving this goal. They want to foster communal vulnerability and generalized disillusionment—in so doing, they create their own recruitment opportunities and are able to frame themselves as a panacea, an immediate alternative to the status quo.
They can now declare with more gusto than ever that the White House is indeed at war with Islam, that all it wants from the Middle East is oil, and that it incorporates neither ethics nor morals into its myopic pursuit of global hegemony. In this sense, the new president is doing the Islamic State’s propaganda for it, buoying the caliphate in its time of need, and helping make up for its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria.
If Trump continues on this trajectory, it will help the Islamic State idea to live on, even if Mosul falls tomorrow and Raqqa the day after. In any case, the reverberations from his first 10 days in office will be sure to far outlive his time as president.
Charlie Winter is a Senior Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow him at @charliewinter