The decision to ban entry into the United States citizens of seven Middle Eastern and African countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya – was a hastily taken decision that has led to a public uproar in America and around the world. The idea that so many people would be automatically and indiscriminately banned from entering the United States is a direct affront to the core values of many Americans who view their nation as a country of immigrants. Moreover, the ban was just one of many quick and controversial decisions that were taken by the new president in his first week in office. On the heels of the women’s march, demonstrators were quickly mobilized to protest the new ban. Millions of Americans feel outrage as they watch the values that they hold near and dear trampled one by one.
Within this very problematic context, the debate has so far been noticeably emotional (Schumer shed a tear when talking about the ban), and somewhat confused. Strong and clear messages have been clouded by a major distortion that does not help in articulating the legitimate concerns of the protesters. Protesters call this a #muslimban – the hashtag immediately adopted on twitter – but this is a misnomer. The focus on religious identity as the heart of this ban results from the strong impact of identity politics on the way many people today think about policy in general, including with regard to international affairs. It refers to the tendency to view issues and developments through the prism of religious, ethnic, and other social identities, rather than in terms of the interests and behavior of states. But how can a ban on citizens of seven countries justifiably be called a ban on Muslims if millions of Muslims that live in other states are not banned? In fact many more Muslims are not subject to the ban than are. Moreover, although all seven states are predominantly Muslim, non-Muslim citizens of the designated countries will be banned as well, with obvious implications for Jews born in these states, for example.
If we shift our lens away from the religious factor, and to the states involved, on the one hand we may raise our eyebrows at the fact that Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt were not included on the list when it was nationals from these countries that were responsible for 9/11. On the other hand, we are now in 2017, and threat perceptions have shifted. The seven countries that were targeted by Trump are the same seven that the Department of Homeland Security targeted in February 2016, during the Obama administration. These were referred to as states of concern for purposes of granting visas, specifically due to the threat of foreign terrorist fighters, many of whom are nationals of these countries.
When state interests and threat perceptions are the basis of such sovereign decisions, this is normal foreign affairs.
Going a step further, by means of the ban, an implicit message has been delivered to the seven states: namely, that the administration views them as problematic, beyond the question of their citizens entering the United States. After a year and a half in which the Obama administration enabled Iran to get stronger – and to wage a devastating, indeed barbaric military campaign in Syria – Iran is for the first time in a long time being specifically and openly targeted in a very negative manner, especially following its latest ballistic missile test. While this has not been the overt message of the Trump administration with regard to the ban, when we direct our focus to states rather than religious identity, we can appreciate this additional message being transmitted to Iran. Perhaps Trump is beginning to signal which countries in the Middle East are America’s allies, and which are not. Indeed, the reaction of the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates to the ban drives this point home: Al Nahyan said it is wrong to see the order as directed against a certain religion, that most Muslims had not been affected by it. The UAE is a close ally of the United States.
One might ask if it is less of an affront to American values to have a state-based immigration ban rather than a religious-based one. For some perhaps not, but when state interests and threat perceptions are the basis of such sovereign decisions, this is normal foreign affairs; whereas placing people’s’ religion or identity at the forefront of such a decision is not. Moreover, elevating the identity-based rationale arouses a different set of emotions that cloud whatever legitimacy there is for the decision, as well where the true problems lie.
After a mere two weeks of the Trump administration, that have left many people angry and disoriented, it is not yet fully clear what is behind the new policy. But for those that are worried, making this an issue of anti-Muslim racism is probably not going to help clarify what people should be protesting about. They should be protesting the haste and sloppiness of the decision, the blanket across-the-board ban, and the trampling of core values of millions of Americans that remember both past refugee denials, as well as America’s proud tradition of being a nation of immigrants. But they should not forget the larger picture, and the nature of the states that were targeted, even as they protest the blanket ban. And reducing protests to anger over racism against Muslims does not allow any of the more nuanced messages – regarding both domestic and foreign affairs – to be heard.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.
Guy Landau is a senior at IDC Herzliya where he is pursuing a L.L.B in Law and BA in Government. He is a fellow in the Argov Program for Leadership and Diplomacy.