Are we safer yet?, part 2: Islamophobia in the White House

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(Editor’s note: Arnold Isaacs, former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent, has long studied issues related to refugees and government policy. This is the second of two articles he has written for Injustice Watch on the immigration restrictions that President Trump ordered.)

His executive order on immigration “is not a Muslim ban,” President Trump insists. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”

Hmmmm. As we know, Trump left no doubt about his support of a Muslim ban during his campaign, when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” At some later point, he called former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and, as Giuliani tells it, asked him to find “the right way to do it legally.” Giuliani — whose account has not been disputed by the White House — duly came up with a plan applying to “areas of the world” rather than specifying a religion.

And then came the executive order, which does indeed mention places, not a religious faith, but overwhelmingly affects Muslims. Oh, and on the same day, Trump told an interviewer for the Christian Broadcasting Network that Christian refugees from Syria should be given priority for admission to the United States.

So… not about religion?

Americans will swallow that or not, no doubt mostly according to their political preferences. But even those who take Trump at his word must recognize that the great majority of Muslims in the United States and around the world will see his immigration order as an anti-Muslim act.

It’s not hard to grasp why that is dangerous, and one would hope that Trump’s senior advisers will recognize that reality and will be able to head off similar ill-advised moves in the future. Unfortunately, big question marks surround that hope. One of the biggest question marks has a name: Stephen Bannon.

Bannon, who is widely assumed to have played a key role in drafting the immigration order, has gotten plenty of critical coverage since he joined the Trump campaign last summer. Up to now, though, most of that criticism has been directed at his links with so-called “white nationalism” or the “alt-right” movement. In fact those ties are much less distinct and nowhere near as extensive or well documented as his connections with extreme Islamophobic views and their proponents.

Unlike the veiled statements or second-hand quotes that comprise much of the evidence for the white-nationalist story, Bannon’s record of explicit anti-Muslim bigotry is clear, easily accessible, indisputable — and alarming.

That record includes dozens of interviews he conducted with prominent members of the Islamophobia network on the radio show he ran while he was heading Breitbart News. Unfailingly, Bannon introduced those guests with fervent endorsements. During the interviews, he regularly expressed enthusiastic agreement with extreme and in many cases provably absurd statements, as shown in a list of excerpts compiled last fall in Mother Jones magazine — an article that got much less attention than it deserved from other news media.

Bannon did not challenge Pamela Geller, for example, when she repeated a completely unfounded charge that John Brennan, then head of the CIA, is a secret Muslim who converted to Islam while serving in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

Nor did he demur when Geller denounced George W. Bush for a post-9/11 speech calling Islam a “religion of peace.” “We all deplore” that statement, Geller told Bannon, “because it was a teachable moment” — that is, instead of saying it was peaceful, Bush should have called Islam violent and evil.

Instead of questioning those and other extreme views, Bannon introduced Geller in various appearances on his show as “one of the top world experts in radical Islam and sharia law and Islamic supremacism… the top leading expert in this field… one of the great American patriots.”

Along with the radio interviews, Geller was also prominent on the “Breitbart Author list” during Bannon’s tenure, writing numerous columns for the site (sample headline: “How Muslim Migrants Devastate a Community”).

Besides Geller, Bannon’s radio guests included such well-known activists as Frank Gaffney, John Guandolo (apparently the originator of the CIA-director-is-a-secret-Muslim story), Robert Spencer and other anti-Islam stalwarts.

All of them pushed versions of the movement’s staple scare stories: that Muslims are infiltrating the U.S. government and legal system in a plot to replace American law with sharia law, that mainstream Muslim American organizations are all part of a secret Muslim Brotherhood network and co-conspirators with terrorists, that the majority of mosques in America promote violent jihad, and so on.

Bannon challenged none of those, although all are false and based on obviously fabricated evidence. Indeed, he apparently holds similar beliefs, as disclosed in a Washington Post story this weekend on a film he planned a number of years ago, though did not make, warning of a radical Muslim plot to turn the United States into the “Islamic States of America.”

Bannon is not the only high-level aide in the Trump White House with anti-Muslim views. The president’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, also has a record of Islamophobic statements. But Bannon is of particular concern because his influence, at least judging from the events of the last two weeks, appears extraordinarily strong — including in the areas of national security and counter-terror policy, where it seems clear he has no knowledge or experience, just irrational delusions.

It is impossible to overstate how dangerous it will be if those delusions prevail in the White House and an Islamophobic ideology drives policy decisions.

Anyone who is realistic knows that the fight against extremist jihadi violence cannot be waged, at home or abroad, without Muslim allies. Muslims, not Americans, will ultimately determine how that fight unfolds and how it ends. Any U.S. policy that drives Muslims away instead of winning their support will only help the extremists.

It is hard not to think — and one certainly hopes — that alarm bells are already ringing in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, in the military leadership, and for Republicans in Congress who are in touch with reality, as surely many are. One can also guess that behind the scenes, there must be people who are trying to change the administration’s course and get the president to listen to saner, less hateful voices than Bannon’s. Whether they will succeed before more damage is done remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Americans should ask themselves another question: if Bannon’s Breitbart radio guests had made comparable statements about African Americans or Jews, and if he had responded the same way, how would the political and media worlds have reacted? Would he have been seen as a legitimate, if criticized, director of a national campaign, and would he have the power he has today? Or would he have been considered beyond the pale of accepted discourse? And what do the answers to those questions tell us about our standards on bigotry, and about ourselves?

Arnold R. Isaacs is a journalist and writer. He is the author of From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America, and two books relating to the Vietnam war. Part one of his commentary for Injustice Watch appeared here.