Donald Trump’s executive order which, he says, was aimed at making it harder for terrorists to enter America, targets three groups: refugees in general, who are blocked from entering the U.S. for the next 120 days; refugees from Syria, who may be barred indefinitely; and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries (countries initially selected by the Obama administration), who are barred from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days.
The executive order is morally unacceptable (it amounts to collective punishment), strategically dubious (since many terrorists are home-grown or came from countries other than those seven), and was initially implemented in a confusing and clumsy way which caused distress and uncertainty to many travellers, including US residents, even if they were not in the end affected by the order.
Additionally, it sets an anti-immigrant tone, when immigrants can hugely benefit their new countries. Just in the hi-tech sector alone, many of America’s greatest companies have been founded by Jewish child refugees: Google creator Sergei Brin fled anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union with his parents in 1979; Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp, says he escaped anti-Semitism in Ukraine with his mother in 1992; And Andy Grove, who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a child in Hungary while his family were deported to Auschwitz, went on to found Intel. There have been success stories of migrants of Syrian origin too. The biological father of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was Abdulfattah Jandali who was born into a Muslim family in Homs, Syria. How many of us today would be worse off if we didn’t have an iPhone or iPad? On a side note, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s mother was from a family of Syrian-Jews who had left Syria partly because of anti-Jewish prejudice there. In Britain, Muslim and Hindu migrants have made a huge contribution in many fields, notably medicine. In the arts and politics too, migrants have enriched society - the Saatchi brothers, for instance, were Jewish refugees from Iraq.
But whereas those protesting Trump are in many ways correct, the self-righteousness and double standards of some is troubling. Indeed if the more hysterical among Trump’s opponents continue to dominate the debate, it may even increase sympathy and support for Trump among the undecided middle ground - thereby increasing his re-election prospects should he stand again in four years.
Let’s be clear: the war in Syria descended into barbarity in part because President Obama encouraged the rebels, and the Sunni majority population of Syria who supported them, promising them arms and protection, and then abandoned them. Obama went on to release billions of dollars in funds to the Iranian regime, whose forces and Shia militia in Syria have done much, if not most, of the killing there these past six years. The new funds helped the Iranians fuel the effort to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from Syria, leading many to seek sanctuary in Europe and beyond. While millions of people in America, Britain and elsewhere have protested Trump’s refugee policies in just one week, they had little to say about Obama’s foreign policies over the last eight years.
They were largely silent when, during his time in office, Obama deported more immigrants than any other president in history, and when in 2011, Obama stopped admitting Iraqi refugees for six months while the vetting process was re-evaluated. Obama was welcomed to the UK on five visits without significant protest, whereas 1.5 million people have signed a petition in the last three days demanding Trump be refused one. Here are the numbers of Syrian refugees Obama let in to America as the war raged and while chemical weapons and barrel bombs were deployed against women and children by Assad and the Iranians:
And there were few, if any, mass protests as thousands of refugees and migrants died trying to reach Greece or Italy – partly as the consequence of a war in Libya, which the Obama administration, along with Britain and France, played a decisive role in. Or when, during Obama’s final week in office, many Cubans with legal visas for the U.S. were reportedly detained at U.S. airports, and then deported, and others were turned back at the Mexican border. And why weren’t there rallies demanding to allow in Yazidis, fleeing danger, death and slavery? After all, unlike many Sunni Arabs, they had nowhere else to go.
I don’t recall mass protests when, last October, a 500lb laser-guided US-made bomb was dropped on a funeral procession in Yemen killing more than 140 people and wounding 525 others. Or on the many other occasions during the Obama presidency when Muslim civilians were killed by U.S. drone strikes in several Muslim countries. (For sure, these deaths weren’t deliberate, but they were a direct result of the military and foreign policy choices Obama took).
The Guardian's Owen Jones helped promote last night’s 'Emergency demo against Trump’s #MuslimBan' outside Downing Street. But where was the protest when Israelis were banned from Malaysia and 15 other Muslim-majority countries - including Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Iran, the same countries whose citizens will now face increased vetting before visiting the U.S.? Where were the mass protests when Muslim preacher Hamza Sodagar, who gives sermons explaining how gay people should be beheaded or thrown off cliffs (actions that have since occurred in the Islamic State) was invited to Britain to give a series of lectures last October? Do those media columnists attacking Trump’s plans for a wall on the Mexican border (which I’m against) ever mention the growing calls in Mexico to build a wall on the country’s southern border to keep out illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala?
Donald Trump’s start as president has not been good. But he may yet find creative ways to stop the refugee flow in the first place. He is reportedly in talks with the Saudis about setting up safe zones for Syrians inside Saudi Arabia (if not inside Syria itself), and limiting Iran’s 'destabilising regional activities' in the region. If this works, it could, in the longer term, be more significant in helping Syrians than anything that was done under Obama.
In the meantime, it would certainly help the cause of anti-Trump protesters if they placed their arguments in context, or at least occasionally demonstrated against radical Islam too. After all, when I speak to my many friends in Arab countries (including Yemen) they are much more concerned about the dual threat of the (Shia) Islamic regime in Iran and the (Sunni) Islamic regime in IS, than about Trump’s executive orders back home.
Tom Gross is a journalist and international affairs commentator specialising in the Middle East