An apocalyptic view of Islamist terrorism is the thread that connects key figures in the Trump administration and underpins this weekend’s immigration chaos. But is their ramped-up rhetoric just giving terrorists what they want?
By David Shariatmadari / The Guardian / Monday 30 January 2017 12.38 EST
It was the moment the world sat up and started to take notice of the US presidential campaign. Donald Trump had made headlines before, in June 2015, when he had called for a “great, great wall” along the Mexican border. Back then, he was hovering around ninth place in a crowded field of Republican candidates. But by 7 December, when he released a short statement calling for the “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, he was the frontrunner for his party’s nomination. His message, that Islam itself was a threat to America, was heard loud and clear across the globe, not least by 1.6 billion Muslims.
Now, as president, he appears to be following through. On Friday he stunned us again by announcing that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – encompassing around 220 million people – would be barred from entering the US for 90 days. On Sunday, his long-time ally, Rudy Giuliani, traced the order back to a conversation about the “Muslim ban” in which Trump asked him to “show me the right way to do it legally”. While commentators have had their work cut out trying to follow the twists and turns of Trump’s logic on everything from climate change to the CIA, on this issue his attitude has been consistent. If there is a Trump doctrine, “war on Islam” has to be a strong contender.
Trump with Rudy Giuliani, whom the president asked how to ‘legally’ create a Muslim ban. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
An apocalyptic view of Islamist terrorism is the thread that connects many of his appointments, be they military men, Breitbarters or TV pundits. National security adviser Michael Flynn has written: “I’m totally convinced that, without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated, and very likely destroyed,” adding: “Do you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies?”
Flynn’s deputy, KT Macfarland argued that, without American leadership, global jihadism will “usher in its version of paradise – the destruction of the apostates and unbelievers and the triumph of the caliphate”. National Security Council member Sebastian Gorka wrote: “America is now in a threat environment that makes some … look back wistfully at the cold-war years when the only real threat was the spread of communism”. Today, the official Trump platform includes the pledge: “We will defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism just as we won the cold war.”
Stephen Bannon: ‘We are “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic facisim’ Photograph: Andrew Harrer/EPS
Steve Bannon, the man whom many regard as the ideological linchpin of the administration, believes we are “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”. In a surprise move at the weekend, Bannon was appointed to the council, the principal body advising the president on foreign policy and intelligence.
Members of that team differ in the extent to which they distinguish between Islam and violent distortions of it. Before his appointment to the administration, Flynn, for example, tweeted a YouTube video with the title “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” from his verified account. The tweet has not been deleted. In contrast, special assistant to the president, Derek Harvey, believes that “the threat is the extremist interpretation of Islam”. Macfarland has written: “Not all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are extremists or terrorists. Not by a long shot.” However, she warns that “even if just 10% of 1% are radicalised, that’s a staggering 1.6 million people bent on destroying western civilization”. One 2014 estimate put the number of active jihadists at between 85,000 and 106,000 – or around 0.006% of all Muslims.
Michael Flynn: “Don’t you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies?’ Photograph: Andrew Harrer/EPA
Trump’s own understanding of Islam appears to be superficial. “I’ve had good instincts in life, and a lot of this is instinct,” he told the Washington Post last year. It’s also the influence of men including Frank Gaffney, whose thinktank, the Center for Security Policy (CSP), briefed Trump on sharia law before the crucial Iowa caucuses in February 2016. The CSP believes that “American civil and political society is under systematic, sustained and seditious assault – a ‘Stealth Jihad’ – by adherents to Shariah”. Incredibly, Gaffney himself suggested that the Obama administration had inserted an Islamic crescent moon into the logo of the Missile Defense Agency.
Gaffney hasn’t, as yet, been rewarded with a post in the administration. But Flynn’s and Bannon’s closeness to the president means their clash-of-civilisations rhetoric and blurring of the line between Islam and jihadism carry real authority. The question is: what effect will this actually have on terrorism, in the US and around the world?
Katerina Dalacoura, associate professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, thinks Flynn’s framing of the problem is wrong, for a start. “We have a situation very different from the cold war one,” she says. “Within the Soviet Union and eastern Europe generally, you had the population at large being sympathetic to the United States. The US was able to play a role of upholder of certain values because politically it had been unable to interfere. In the case of the Middle East, the US has no such standing. In fact, it’s the opposite – I think that through decades of intervention, [it] has been turned into an illegitimate actor.”
“It may be able to play that role in 10 or 20 years, if it continues to pull out of the Middle East. But not at this moment.”
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former chair of the UN Security Council’s counter-terrorism committee, is similarly sceptical. “I don’t think Islamic terrorism is an existential threat to western democracy. Western democracy has got other kinds of problems, in populism, in reaction against globalisation, in the fragmentation of political cultures, in the rise of the local over the collective. I would put terrorism way down the list of real existential concerns.” He describes it, instead, as a “lethal nuisance”.
Demonstrators at anti-Trump travel ban protest outside Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Atlanta Airport in Atlanta. Photograph: Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters
In terms of the fight against Isis, he expects American action around Mosul to continue, with the focus moving, in due course, to Raqqa. Eliminating the