ISIS has been trying for years to convince Muslims around the world that the West — and especially the United States — is at war with Islam. President Donald Trump’s new executive order on immigration will make it much easier for it to make its case.
The executive order — which bans all immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days, bans all refugee admissions for 120 days, bans Syrian refugees indefinitely, and puts Christian refugees at the front of the line — plays right into the ISIS narrative.
No immigrants from any of the seven countries on the list — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia — have killed Americans in terrorist attacks in the US. Not one. What immigrants and refugees from most of those countries are doing, however, is fleeing repression, violence, and war — in the case of Iraq and Yemen, wars started or supported by the US itself.
By blocking refugees from several Muslim countries and prioritizing Christian ones, the Trump administration seems to be sending the message that the US doesn’t care about Muslim suffering. ISIS propagandists couldn’t have said it better themselves.
ISIS’s vision of the US war on Islam has been a hard sell — until now
ISIS (and al-Qaeda before it) has long focused its propaganda on a putative laundry list of crimes the US and its Western allies have supposedly committed against Muslims around the world. It seeks to convince Muslims living in the West that their governments are against them, and that they must therefore take up arms and defend Islam against these attempts to destroy it.
For instance, in one issue of its online propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS warned that, “Muslims in the crusader countries [i.e., the West] will find themselves driven to abandon their homes … as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands.”
The biggest problem with that argument is that, while the US is involved in several wars in Muslim-majority countries — and does support dictators who repress Islamist political parties in several others — the US is a pluralistic, liberal democracy where people of all faiths (and no faith) are free to practice their beliefs as they see fit, with very few restrictions.
The fact that nearly all of the estimated 3.3 million American Muslims love their country and the rights and freedoms they enjoy in it directly contradicts the ISIS message.
Even in the darkest days after 9/11, President George W. Bush stated explicitly that the US was not at war with Islam. In a December 2002 speech at the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, in celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Bush told the assembled crowd:
Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace…
America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity, and morality. This year, may Eid also be a time in which we recognize the values of progress, pluralism, and acceptance that bind us together as a Nation and a global community. By working together to advance mutual understanding, we point the way to a brighter future for all.
In February 2016, President Barack Obama gave a moving speech at a mosque in Baltimore, telling Muslim Americans that they belong:
I want to speak directly to the young people who may be listening. In our lives, we all have many identities. We are sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters. We’re classmates; Cub Scout troop members. We’re followers of our faith. We’re citizens of our country.
And today, there are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities — as a Muslim, for example, or an American.
Do not believe them.
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.
Perhaps, even more important, though, was seeing the US take in thousands of Syrian refugees, both Muslim and Christian. That was more than just words — it was action. And it served as a strong counterpoint to the vision of an America at war with Islam.
But now, thanks to Trump’s executive order, ISIS’s message can seem a lot more convincing. If you're a young, confused Muslim kid seeing Trump advisers like Rudy Giuliani openly admitting that this is a “Muslim ban” done “legally,” it’s a lot easier to believe an ISIS recruiter who tells you the American government is at war with Islam.
Trump’s strategy to counter ISIS, which he laid out in a separate executive order published on the White House website on Saturday, emphasizes the need to use “public diplomacy, information operations, and cyber strategies to isolate and delegitimize ISIS and its radical Islamist ideology.”
Giving ISIS their biggest propaganda win of the past five years is a strange way to go about doing that.
Indeed, on Saturday, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement making that exact point: “Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred,” the senators explain. “This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
“Ultimately,” they write, “we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”