Trump says it's not a Muslim ban. In Middle East, few are persuaded.

A temporary ban on travel to the US for citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations has sparked reciprocal action from some. Many see it as a ban on Muslims, and say it could reenergize the 'clash of civilizations' debate.

Ali Abdul Hassan/AP
An Iraqi businessman Nazar al-Hamadani shows a phone picture of his Visa to United States during an interview with the Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Iraqis say they are shocked and disappointed with President Donald Trump's order that bans citizens of Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, from entering United States.

President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban US travel from seven Muslim-majority nations has sparked confusion and reciprocal action across the Middle East. 

Mr. Trump, citing lessons learned from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, blocked immigration for 90 days from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. He blocked Syrian refugees arrivals indefinitely.

Yet officials and citizens across the Middle East, unable to connect the dots between that White House list and the threat to the US those nations are meant to embody, are puzzled by choices that to them amount to a Muslim ban.

That disconnect, say analysts – based on the list of countries that have little evidential link to terrorist dangers on US soil – may serve to deepen anti-US anger, providing ammunition for anti-American jihadists and help reignite an us vs. them narrative.

Beyond that, it is likely to increase tensions within Arab countries, widening an already worrisome gap between citizens critical of US policy and leaders who are often dependent on the US for everything from investments to arms sales. That divide, analysts point out, has fed Arab uprisings and terror movements.

“In the public imagination, this is very damaging not only for the American idea, but because it rekindles the whole narrative about the clash of civilizations, the clash between Islam and the West,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics.

The list

Troubling to many in the region is the targeting of nations that did not produce a single 9/11 hijacker; the men who perpetrated the deadliest terror attack on US soil came mostly from Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon.

Nor are they in the top 10 producers of foreign fighters to the so-called Islamic State (IS), which include Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Morocco. 

Since 9/11, not a single immigrant from any one of the countries listed by the White House – who have already been subject to a stringent, two-year vetting process – has been involved in the death of an American in a terrorist attack. According to the New America think tank, the great majority of jihadists in the US have been citizens or legal residents, and about one-quarter were converts. Immigrants from Iran and Somalia were involved in three non-fatal attacks in Ohio, Minnesota, and North Carolina. 

Figures tabulated by the conservative Cato Institute indicate that, from 1975 to 2015, the chance of an American being murdered by a refugee has been about one in 3.6 billion per year.

“One of the major lessons we have learned after 9/11 is that many of the attacks emanate from within the United States,” says Mr. Gerges, the author of “ISIS: A History.” 

“If you talk to the ruling elite in Riyadh, in Cairo, in Amman, they are extremely terrified, extremely anxious,” he says. The travel ban “is ineffective, because it will hardly make any difference in the fight against extremism; it is counter-productive, because it plays into the narrative of extremist networks; and it foolishly undermines America as a moral voice.”

The list’s origins

The White House list was initially created by the Obama administration, which tallied “countries of concern” and added restrictions on people who had visited those countries but who could otherwise have entered the US without a visa.  It focuses on countries that are torn by war and fighting IS. In Iran’s case, the US State Department has for years named it the “lead state sponsor of terror,” largely because of its support of Lebanese Hezbollah, a perennial foe of US-ally Israel, and a key provider of pro-Assad fighters in Syria. 

But the new country-by-country ban is more comprehensive, banning all citizens from the seven countries. And it has caught attention for nations left off the list, many of them US allies, or places – like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE – where Trump has hotel, licensing, or other business interests.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are not on the list, despite extensive Taliban and jihadist activities there (one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino, Calif., attacks was from Pakistan); neither is Morocco, Russia, France, or the UK, all of which have produced many hundreds of IS fighters.

The broad brush has been particularly upsetting to many in the Middle East.

“We shouldn’t use rational tools to analyze an irrational process,” says Rami Khouri, a senior fellow and professor at the American University of Beirut. “Rationally, of course, there are several other countries [to add].… If you wanted, you could add Newark, New Jersey, where the 9/11 people lived, and in Europe, Hamburg.”

The choice of designations, he says, makes it “a political process, rather than a rational one.”

Striking back

Iran and Iraq have reciprocated with new bans on American travelers. And in Iran, hardliners are using the travel ban – which immediately affects more Iranian dual citizens, green card, and visa-holders than any other nationality by far – to criticize President Hassan Rouhani.

The centrist cleric, who is up for reelection in May, negotiated a nuclear deal with six world powers in 2015, and reached out to the West. But he has won modest economic relief in return, providing an I-told-you-so moment for his hard-line critics.

Trump’s order “is a wakeup call for politicians in the Iranian government … that any rational relationship with the US based on respect and dignity is just wishful thinking,” said Ali Keyhanian, head of the Society of Islamic Revolution Supporters in Tehran, in comments quoted by Iranian media.

The move “shows more than ever the extent of the shamelessness of the US government’s attitude [toward Iran],” the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, told lawmakers. “It’s a sign of fear in a [American] system which is hiding behind the veil of populism and democratic values.”

Some Arab leaders have been silent, says Khouri: “Very few, if any, Arab governments have said anything critical about this [Trump] move, because they don’t want to anger the US, presumably.”

Binary narrative

But whether the reaction to it is silent or vocal in the Middle East, the list could backfire.

“Al Qaeda and ISIS traffic in a very binary narrative, that Al Qaeda and ISIS are standing up, defending Islam and Muslims against Western imperialism and colonialization led by the United States,” adds Gerges. “Trump also traffics in a parallel binary narrative.”

That could help radical Islamist groups, these analysts say.

Their aim “is to precisely create tension and even warfare between the West and Muslim societies,” says Khouri from the American University of Beirut. “They keep harping on the question of Muslims discriminated against in the West, the US is bombing Muslims – and this is one more clear proof for them that the US has a very clear anti-Islam policy, can’t be trusted, and therefore has to be fought.”

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