‘Confusion, anger and fear’ after Trump’s travel ban

Analysts say travel ban could hurt efforts by United States to regain trust of its allies in MENA region.

Some observers expect number of Muslim countries on travel ban list to grow

2017/02/05 Issue: 92 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert

Washington - The travel ban imposed by the Trump adminis­tration on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa could hurt efforts by the United States to re­gain the trust of its allies in the region and boost the morale of ex­tremists, analysts said.

With an executive order signed January 27th, one week after taking office, US President Donald Trump instituted a 90-day ban on people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Su­dan, Syria and Yemen entering the United States. Trump also stopped the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States and reduced the number of all refugees allowed to enter the country from 110,000 to 50,000 per year. Trump said the steps were necessary to protect the United States from Islamist terror­ists.

The order was reportedly devel­oped without input from US intel­ligence agencies, the US State De­partment or the US Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress were not alerted be­forehand.

The ban led to chaotic scenes at US airports, where travellers from the countries affected were de­tained and some returned to their home countries, despite having valid visas or permanent residency permits (green cards). Authorities later said green card holders from the seven countries would be al­lowed entry but visa holders would still be banned.

A US federal judge in Seattle, on February 3rd, issued a temporary restraining order — effective na­tionwide — to stop enforcement of Trump’s order and airlines quickly said they would allow US-bound travellers from the affected coun­tries aboard their flights. The White House termed the ruling “outra­geous” — a characterisation later omitted — and said it would seek an immediate stay of the ruling.

In the Middle East, the fallout from Trump’s ban could be serious. “The overall impact on the Muslim world in general will be to consoli­date the narrative that the United States is at war with Islam,” Richard LeBaron, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, said. “It puts our allies in the Middle East in a very awk­ward position.”

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd echoed those concerns, tell­ing parliament in London that the decision by the US government was a “propaganda opportunity” for ex­tremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.

The Organisation of Islamic Co­operation (OIC) said it was worried about “selective and discrimina­tory acts [that] will only serve to embolden the radical narratives of extremists and will provide further fuel to the advocates of violence and terrorism”.

The ban coincides with a contro­versial plan by Trump to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that would sup­port Israeli claims to the entire city and that could inflame the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The White House softened its strongly pro-Is­raeli stance somewhat on February 2nd by declaring that a further ex­tension of settlements on Palestin­ian land “may not be helpful”.

Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as White House coor­dinator for the Middle East under US president Barack Obama, said there is “confusion, anger and fear” in the region. Writing in the Wash­ington Post after returning from the Middle East, Gordon said Muslims across the region fear that Trump’s executive order “is not really a practical security measure at all but simply red meat for anti-Muslim Trump voters”.

Iran responded with the an­nouncement of a travel ban of its own but reactions from others have been more restrained. The United Arab Emirates cautioned the ban was not directed against Islam. The Arab League said it had “deep con­cerns” but expressed hope that the US government might review its position.

Turkey, which is not affected by the ban but sees itself as a voice for the Muslim world, was more out­spoken: “Regional issues cannot be solved by closing the doors on peo­ple,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.

LeBaron said muted responses from Muslim and Middle Eastern countries reflected a desire “not to be singled out like the seven other countries” but, even though the governments involved were cau­tious, people in those countries were “offended”.

The Iraqi government is in an es­pecially difficult bind. Invaded by US troops in 2003, Iraq currently hosts about 5,000 American mili­tary personnel who are supporting the Iraqi Army in its effort to push the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Mo­sul, one of Iraq’s biggest cities.

Parliament in Baghdad voted in favour of a reciprocal travel ban for US citizens but Prime Minis­ter Haider al-Abadi said the gov­ernment would not implement the measure. Pointing to the fight against ISIS in Mosul, Abadi said he did not want to harm Iraq’s national interests.

Some observers expect the num­ber of Muslim countries on the trav­el ban list to grow. “More countries are coming,” said Samer Khalaf, national president of the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Com­mittee (ADC), a lobbying group in Washington.

“I have no doubt that there will be a push to include Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states,” Khalaf said. Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria were other possible candidates.

“People who have his [Trump’s] ear are not distinguishing between Syrians, Saudis or Moroccans,” Khalaf said. “They are all the same to him.”

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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