As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump famously promised not only to use the phrase but also to fight “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet as his administration comes together, it’s getting harder to make the distinction between that fight and outright Islamophobia.
Religious prejudice should have no place in American life, a once-pat observation that bears repeating now. Moreover, claiming that “fear of Muslims is rational”—as has General Michael Flynn, Trump’s selection as national security adviser—makes the fight against terrorism more difficult, and distracts from equally profound challenges facing the US
Flynn’s comment is hardly unrepresentative. Trump himself has said “Islam hates us,” while he and several underlings have called for a registry for all Muslims in the US (the fate of this proposal is now uncertain). His adviser Stephen Bannon compares the fight against terrorism to medieval Christendom’s fight against the Turks. Some of Trump’s closest campaign advisers have called for ideological tests for all Muslims and widespread surveillance of mosques.
Purely from a practical standpoint—again, leaving aside moral or constitutional qualms—these views are profoundly unhelpful. Islam is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing faith, encompassing one-quarter of its population and divided among numerous sects. Overwhelming majorities of the world’s Muslims reject violence against civilians in the name of Islam.
These are exactly the people whose help is most necessary in fighting the threat of Islamic terrorism—and this is exactly the rhetoric most likely to alienate them. Such language also feeds Islamic State’s narrative that the West will never accept Muslims living in their midst and weakens the best line of defense against radicalization: the willingness of communities to police themselves and report suspicious activity.
And then there are the wider policy implications. The fight against radical Islamic terrorism is important, but it is only one of many geopolitical challenges—from Russian revanchism to the rise of China —facing the US Elevating it to the level of a millennial struggle seems more likely to be a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy than a wise strategic decision.
Finally, the incoming administration’s stance is encouraging to autocrats such as Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who says he wants to reform Islam, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who praised Trump as a “natural ally.” But stiffer repression (in Egypt) or continued war crimes (in Syria) will not dim the allure of violent jihad.
The only thing that will do that is support for better governance, more economic opportunity, greater political freedom, and stronger, more open communities. These are values the US has long stood for, admittedly sometimes more strongly than others, and they remain worth defending no matter who is president.