How the Exclusion of Muslims Could Help Extremists

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This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 3 February 2017.

Within two weeks of taking power, new United States President Donald Trump has signed a number of executive orders that have caused alarm around the world. Perhaps the most controversial of these was an immigration ban that indefinitely suspended the entry and resettlement of Syrian refugees to the US and enacted a 90-day ban on travelers from six Muslim majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. While fears about Muslim immigration are widespread in the US and elsewhere, a significant body of research has failed to find justification for such policies. Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that they might make the targeted problem of Islamic extremism much worse.

The Trump administration has justified the move as “preventive” and designed to reduce terror threats facing the US, yet the Cato Institute finds that not a single person (including refugees) from any of the Muslim-majority countries included has been involved in a terrorist attack in the US in the past 40 years. Data provided by the New America Foundation (since 9/11) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2005-2014) has, meanwhile, found that on a 10-year average, 11,737 Americans are likely to be killed from gun violence per year, compared with just two by Muslim jihadi immigrants.

Furthermore, as Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh points out, “The three countries where the deadliest terrorists came to the United States from were Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.” These are also the three countries, along with Lebanon, from which the hijackers responsible for the September 11 attacks originated. Yet these countries have been excluded from the recent ban, some say because they also host Trump business interests. The ban also does not include European nations with sizeable Muslim minorities that have recently produced jihadist attackers.

While uniquely American interests are at play in the Trump ban, opposition to Muslim migration is growing across the Western world. It is pronounced in Europe, which has faced a wave of immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries at the same time as enduring a string of terrorist attacks. This has fueled the rise of far-right movements that often embrace Islamophobia. A July 2016 PEW Research Center poll found a rise in unfavorable views of Muslims in several European nations compared to the year before. In Britain, the figure jumped by nine percentage points to 28% and in Greece unfavorable views were found in 65% of the population. On average, 59% of those from the 10 European countries polled felt an increase in refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism.

The rise of far-right parties has further stoked this sentiment. In Austria, the nationalist and anti-immigration Freedom Party, which campaigned on the motto “Austria First,” narrowly lost a 2016 election but still holds 40 of the 183 seats in the National Council. The Polish, Hungarian, and Swedish parliaments all also host sizeable (in some cases majority) far-right, anti-immigration parties. Greece, which has seen thousands of migrants trapped after Balkan countries closed their borders, also witnessed protests from the “neo-Nazi and violent” Golden Dawn against the “Islamization of Greece” by Muslim asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Syria, and the broader Middle East.

The election of Trump and growing anti-immigration and Islamophobia in Europe may pave the way for further political change in critical elections in France and Germany this year. Marine Le Pen, whose National Front promotes nationalist anti-immigration policies, is among the favorites for the May 2017 presidential elections in the former. The Alternative for Germany party, whose policy platform states “Islam does not belong in Germany” and seeks a ban on the construction of mosques, is expected to be the first far right party to win seats in German parliament since the end of World War II.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s immigration ban will be taken up elsewhere in the world, or, indeed, whether it even has a future in the US. A federal judge in Brooklyn issued an emergency stay order shortly after the restrictions were issued, and many see them as unconstitutional. Regardless, it remains important to challenge the logic of such actions if the West’s inclusive, pluralistic societies are to be maintained. It is also critical to the eventual defeat of jihadist terrorism.

Exclusionary politics pose a clear danger to the cohesion and established identity of Western nations. Trump, who once declared “Islam hates America,” fails to not only distinguish between the religion and radical Islamic terrorism but also to acknowledge that many Muslim refugees and migrants living in the US or Europe often flee persecution and war in their home countries.

It is important for policy to respect this and also to remain rooted in empirical reality. A report by Professor Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina shows a 40% decrease in the number of Muslim Americans associated with violent extremism during 2016.  He also notes that Muslims make up a very small percentage of perpetrators of violent crime in the US. By his count, “123 people have been killed in the United States by Muslim terrorists since the [September 11] 2001 attacks — out of a total of more than 230,000 killings, by gang members, drug dealers, angry spouses, white supremacists, psychopaths, drunks and people of every description.”

Extremist groups can in turn exploit the exclusion and disorder sown by actions such as Trump’s Muslim ban. Experts in countering violent extremism (CVE) who have probed terror attacks in the US and Europe have often revealed exclusionary policies as a critical factor. The International Center for Counterterrorism, for example, has found that alienation and social exclusion are prominent among the range of motivations of EU citizens who joined extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Recruiters from radical groups have had significant past success in pointing to America as the enemy at war against Islam. While the countries targeted by the Trump ban are not commonly associated with US-based terrorism, they do represent fragile states that face radicalization and recruitment from militant and extremist groups, a trend that may now increase. The Islamic State (which has so far been silent on the ban) regularly disseminates propaganda promoting the victimization of Muslims by the West, including footage of children killed by drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. ISIS has long sought to eliminate the “gray zone” of Western Muslims subscribing to a more moderate version of Islam. Exclusionary policies will likely aid in this goal, as moderate Muslims increasingly feel unsafe due to prejudice.

Furthermore, the Trump administration’s ban—and any similar European actions to come—could jeopardize foreign policy gains in the Middle East and other areas of conflict, by compromising the safety of on-the-ground partners who assist in counterterrorism and CVE programming. Organizations working on CVE in conflict zones are already targeted for incorrect perceptions that they are furthering the anti-Muslim military policies of the US. Already, an Iraqi refugee who worked as an interpreter for the US Army in Baghdad and Mosul was detained and threatened with deportation at New York’s JFK airport.

While the new US administration has walked back some aspects of its Muslim ban and may face further legal challenges, it is unlikely to be its last effort to change the official US response to Islamic extremism. Just yesterday, it began talking of rebranding CVE as “countering Islamic extremism.” This would be another step backward in terms of fighting exclusion and the violence that can follow. CVE programming is not restricted to Muslims and includes youth susceptible to gang violence or white supremacist movements, for example. Moving away from this would inevitably increase already strong perceptions that Muslims alone are being targeted and make the task of jihadist recruitment even easier.

About the Author

Arsla Jawaid is a former journalist and has consulted for several think tanks on issues of youth radicalization and countering violent extremism. @arslajawaid

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