WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump says “Islam hates us.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and now a top National Security Council figure, sees himself as part of a multi-generational “Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.” White House adviser Stephen Miller believes Muslim immigration to the U.S. endangers American women.
Broad antipathy toward Islam ― the 3 million Muslims in the U.S. and the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world ― is a hallmark of the month-old Trump administration. On Monday, it launched a reboot of its controversial “Muslim ban” executive order, once again targeting citizens of Muslim-majority countries for exclusion.
But with less fanfare, the president and his advisers have repeatedly praised a troika of Muslim-led governments, explicitly arguing that working with them will serve some of Trump’s most controversial goals and implicitly using those relationships to suggest that he is tolerant of Islam.
The three regimes — Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — are part of the loose web of traditional U.S. partners, but they stand out for the distinctive characteristics they share. Opaque cliques control the government, and unaccountable security services tightly regulate independent political activity ― particularly that of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement, which frequently calls for free elections ― in the name of patriotic loyalty. With their grip firm at home, these regimes focus on winning popularity abroad, running massive public relations campaigns to shape the global conversation about Islam and present themselves as Western-friendly moderates.
Strange as the idea of Trump and his administration choosing Muslim favorites may seem, these undemocratic governments are actually a perfect fit, and the president’s aides aren’t shy about saying so.
Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s most recent major national security hire and a proponent of the view that Islam’s teachings are fundamentally violent, sees the three countries as pivotal. “Gorka’s core idea is that the United States should partner with a shortlist of Muslim allies — Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt — that he describes as ‘secular’ or willing to separate Islam from the running of the state,” The Washington Post explained last month.
President George W. Bush’s administration obsessed over the idea of Muslim “improvability,” arguing that the Muslim-majority world was ripe for the imposition of American-style capitalist democracy. Under President Barack Obama, Muslim activism, from the 2011 Arab Spring protests to young Malala Yousafzai’s campaign for peace in Pakistan, won official U.S. government celebration.
Trump’s team is taking a different tack. The priority now is Muslim “management” — the idea that Washington’s best bet is empowering its favorite regimes, even if their actions are deplorable and self-defeating, because the Muslim-majority world is inherently savage.
This is not a new belief. For years, Russia has cited it in the course of supporting its favored Middle East strongman, the mass-murdering Syrian President Bashar Assad, and criticized any talk of promoting democracy. But Moscow has always been a smaller player in the Middle East; its views aren’t enough to inspire a region-wide uptick in repression. A shift in Washington’s approach could yield far more dramatic results.
Supporting Sisi’s Suppression
In his most important national security speech on the campaign trail, Trump blasted the idea that democracy could work in Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world. A month later, he lauded Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, a former general, as a “fantastic guy.” When Sisi gained power in 2013, courtesy of a military coup and a crackdown that claimed thousands of lives, “he took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” Trump said.
While Obama and most leading Western politicians condemned Sisi’s campaign, there is a faction of Republicans who have long been fans. Three weeks after Egypt’s military rulers massacred more than 800 civilian protesters in one day, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) traveled to Cairo and released a ringing endorsement of the junta. Any level of brutality seemed acceptable to the GOP lawmakers, because of Sisi’s target: the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had run Egypt’s first democratically elected government for just over a year.
Islamophobic Republican leaders have long used the Brotherhood as their favorite bogeyman. For most Americans, the name conjures the image of a Muslim conspiracy, fueling the perception that Muslims in the U.S. have un-American loyalties and that Muslims abroad are fixated on religion alone.
Anti-Islam members of the GOP often misrepresent the broadly nonviolent Brotherhood, falsely suggesting that the group had played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, has tried to enforce Islamic law in the U.S. and has infiltrated the American government. With the specter of the Brotherhood central to their rhetoric, many Republicans have become cheerleaders for Sisi ― happy to echo his regime’s propaganda and to promote him as the right kind of Muslim, so they can argue that even some within the community want tough measures to deal with the “Muslim problem.”
The general-turned-president has worked to keep the applause coming. Posturing at venues cherry-picked for fawning Western coverage ― churches in Egypt, the World Economic Forum in Davos ― Sisi has presented himself as a leader of reform within Islam.
But observers say the talk of reform has more to do with winning foreign attention and trying to weaken his Islamist opposition than actual progress in Egypt. The Sisi regime has jailed tens of thousands of activists, many of whom have nothing to do with the Brotherhood. It has convicted scores of international rights workers, including some associated with the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. It has held one American aid worker for more than two years. Egypt’s economy is on the brink of collapse, and terrorist groups continue to wreak havoc, seen most recently in a December attack on a church in Cairo.
Sisi’s fixation on punishing any sign of dissent makes it hard for him to focus on specific, targeted counterterrorism efforts, analysts have warned. And his approach seems to guarantee further conflict.
While the Obama administration was willing to criticize Sisi after the coup, calling out his worst excesses, it slowly returned to most norms of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Still, it tried to maintain some distance from the regime’s abuses.
Under Trump, a warmer tone seems inevitable