In a series of ill-executed maneuvers, Donald Trump began his presidency by opening fire on the innocenti. Among the president’s unprecedented flurry of executive orders is one that alarmed the international community, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”
Known as the “Muslim ban,” the executive order targeted Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen — seven majority-Muslim countries. The order enforces up to a 120-day suspension on the entry of researchers, artists, professional athletes and patients seeking life-threatening medical treatment, as well as legal US residents and dual citizens from these nations. The law requires individuals and families from these countries traveling to the United States to pass a stringent screening process to determine whether they are a national security threat.
The New York Times reported that at least 100,000 US visas issued to foreigners were revoked when the order went into effect. Hundreds of thousands of Americans responded by showing up at airports across the nation to protest the ban in solidarity with those impacted.
Constitutional experts and members of Congress argued that the executive order defies the values of a nation founded by refugees and immigrants. Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley released a statement denouncing the order, stating:
The president’s ban on Muslims and refugees offends fundamental American values. We’re a nation that treasures religious freedom and religious tolerance. We’re a nation that doesn’t slam the door shut on refugees fleeing persecution and blight.
More than 1,000 State Department employees registered their professional alarm by using the device of a dissent letter. The “dissent channel” affords a mechanism for anonymous reporting of government abuses as well as objections to government policies without fear of retaliation. The letter targeting Trump’s ban reads in part:
The United States is a nation of immigrants, starting from its very origins. The concept that immigrants and foreigners are welcome is an essential element of our society, our government, and our foreign policy. So, too, is the concept that we are all equal under the law and that we as a nation abhor discrimination, whether it is based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. Combined together, that means we have a special obligation to maintain an immigration system that is as free as possible from discrimination, that does not have implied or actual religious tests, and that views individuals as individuals, not as part of stereotyped groups.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who defended the administration’s executive order, said that the inconvenience it had caused a few travelers was a small price to pay for public safety against possible terrorist attacks on US soil.
But two recent incidents involving children that made international headlines brought to light the executive order’s preposterousness.
A five-year-old Iranian boy attempting to reunite with his mother at Dulles International Airport was detained for hours.
A second incident involved a four-month-old Iranian baby, Fatemeh Reshad, who was banned from entering the United States to undergo a life-saving heart surgery at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon.
The detained children were finally allowed to enter the United States, but only after Washington State Attorney Bob Ferguson, who filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s executive order, was granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) by the Western District Court. Federal Judge James Robart ruled in favor of the plaintiff, citing Stormans, Inc. v. Selecky (2009):
The proper legal standard for preliminary injunctive relief requires a party to demonstrate (1) that he is likely to succeed on merits, (2) that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, (3) that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and (4) that an injunction is in the public interest.
The White House immediately appealed the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s decision, ruling that the executive order violated the Fifth Amendment, barring the government from denying individuals’ “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The court also ruled that the executive order violated the First Amendment, prohibiting religious discrimination.
The rulings on the unconstitutionality of the executive order forced the Trump administration to shift tactics. It decided not to challenge the court’s ruling by asking the Supreme Court to review it. There were two reasons for this: First, the administration wanted to avoid more political backlash from critics. Second, there were no guarantees that the Supreme Court would overrule the lower courts even if the Senate confirmed Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Instead, Trump has decided to rewrite the executive order in a more limited way. Immigrant rights organizations are celebrating this temporary reprieve.
Political analysts and legal experts believe that the executive order will not protect the United States from future terrorist attacks.
Bannon’s Christian Warriors Target Iran
Fueled by right-wing Christian ideology and anti-corporate authoritarian populism, the Muslim ban exemplified the Trump administration’s broader ideological and political strategy in the Middle East.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was the key architect of the order. Before he joined Trump’s presidential campaign, Bannon was the executive chair of Breitbart News, a far-right news organization. He was also a member of a secret group called “Groundswell” that was exposed by a report in Mother Jones. A group of conservative and right-wing activists whose goal is to restrict immigration, undermine Obamacare and dismantle same-sex marriage, Groundswell’s members include the likes of John Bolton, Steve Bannon and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence.
Bannon sketched out in broad strokes his worldview in a speech given at a conference in the Vatican via Skype in 2014. Sponsored by the Human Dignity Institute, a Christian right-wing religious outfit, the conference focused on promoting economic policies that reduce poverty and unleash the powers of “enlightened capitalism” to create more wealth.
Bannon’s ideological underpinnings are grounded in his apocalyptic aim of hastening a holy war between what he calls “jihadist Islamic fascists” and the Judeo-Christian West. In his speech, he said: “We are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.”
Bannon believes that the United States must maintain its military supremacy, particularly in the Middle East. Trump’s appointment of General “Mad Dog” James Mattis as Secretary of Defense aligns with this perspective.
In 2016, Mattis spoke to a room of journalists and foreign policy specialists at the Center for Strategic and International Studies conference in Washington, DC. His speech, “The Middle East at an Inflection Point,” targeted Iran’s threat to US economic and geopolitical interests.
Mattis claimed that Iran is profiting from ISIS’s reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. He said that the region’s economic and political instability provides Iran fertile ground to prop up pro-Iranian forces by deploying a sophisticated network of well-funded paramilitary Shia militias. Iran also has support from political and religious leaders who are ideologically aligned with Tehran.
When reporters asked Mattis to explain the importance of US military presence in the Middle East, he pointed to three interests: economic, diplomatic and security. Mattis said that although the United States is not dependent on Middle East oil, 40 percent of the world’s oil originates from this region. Because the United States has trade agreements with these oil-dependent countries, economic or political instability in the Middle East would impact the flow of oil. It is important that the United States maintains friendly diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern countries, Mattis said. Finally, security in the Middle East is important to prevent terrorism from reaching the shores of the United States to avoid another 9/11.
US military bases in Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have encircled Iran. Mattis said that Iran poses a threat to the United States and its allies by developing nuclear weapons capability, building ballistic missiles, engaging in cyber-terrorism and supporting Hezbollah and paramilitary Shia forces in the region.
Mattis is not the only Trump cabinet member who believes Iran is a threat to US interests. Disgraced former National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn, who resigned under pressure after it was leaked that he had lied about his discussions about lifting US sanctions with Russia’s ambassador, escalated rhetoric for a possible military confrontation with Iran. On February 1, Flynn released a statement accusing Iran for its “destabilizing behavior across the Middle East.” In a mean-spirited and combative tone, Flynn issued a stern warning: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
Vice President Mike Pence also reiterated that Iran is the leader of state-sponsored terrorism at the Munich Security Conference. Pence assured the European Union and Israel that the United States will threaten Iran with new economic sanctions should it continue with research and development of its nuclear weapons program. He said: “Under President Trump the United States will remain committed to make sure Iran never has a nuclear weapon capable of threatening our allies in the region, especially Israel.”
The Rise of a New Movement
Although a temporary restraining order by the courts has stopped Trump’s executive order, nevertheless it has tarnished the reputation of the United States as the beacon of democracy. The ban has also inflicted a form of collective punishment on innocents who bear the brunt of mounting political and ideological aggression waged by the United States against countries it deems as its enemies.
On February 19, several nonprofits and community activists organized the “I Am a Muslim Too” rally in New York City in response to the Muslim ban. Notable attendees of the 1,000-strong rally included hip-hop entrepreneur and co-founder of Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; Rabbi Marc Schneier; Imam Shamsi Al and American-Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour.
The American people and the international community are beginning to realize that only by forming a multiracial, inter-faith movement, such as the recent one in New York, will they be able to defeat Trump’s undemocratic executive order and bring to end this chapter of US history.