Team Trump’s Message: The Clash of Civilizations Is Back
From Bannon’s defense of the “Judeo-Christian West” to Flynn’s attacks on Muslims, some nat sec experts fear the incoming Trump administration believes America is at war with Islam—and that it won’t end well.
By MICHAEL HIRSH November 20, 2016 politico
Last February Mike Flynn, the incoming national security adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” He urged his tweeps to “please forward” a Muslim-bashing video by one I.Q. al-Rassooli, a Britain-based, Iraqi-born polemicist who argues that Islam is less a religion than a cult in perpetual war with the West, that the Prophet Muhammad “committed crimes against humanity on a massive scale” and the Koran is “a rambling, incoherent, jumbled scripture of hatred and enmity that no true God would have ever revealed to anyone.”
Two years ago, in 2014, Steve Bannon, President-elect Trump’s incoming chief strategist, told an interviewer that “the Judeo-Christian West” is “in the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism”—an enemy that, unless harsher measures are taken, “will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
And this past May Mike Pompeo, President-elect Trump’s nominee to run the CIA, went to the Center for Security Policy, a hardline think tank that has accused Obama administration officials of being secret agents of the Muslim Brotherhood, for a sit-down with the head of the center, Frank Gaffney. Pompeo told Gaffney in a recorded interview that the fight “extends beyond those [Muslims] who are just engaged in violent extremism.” He added: “We don’t have to say that all Muslims are bad. But … we’re going to have to have a broader approach in order to keep Americans safe.”
“Keep up the good work, my friend,” responded Gaffney, who is best known for insisting that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin worked for the Muslim Brotherhood, and who once argued that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan tried to inject Sharia law into the country’s financial system. Gaffney, a frequent guest on Bannon’s Breitbart radio show, was reported to be advising the Trump transition team too, though he has denied such reports.
Welcome back, approximately, to the world just after 9/11, when terror hung in the air, fear was raw and palpable and Islamophobia was so rampant that George W. Bush felt compelled to go to a Washington mosque six days after the attacks and declare: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” Barack Obama, having inherited a much bigger global war from Bush after the invasion of Iraq, has avoided any talk of Islam at all and insisted on calling the enemy merely “violent extremism.” Obama repeatedly sought to remind Americans that it was precisely the idea of a “clash of civilizations” that Islamists embraced—because it frames the conflict as one against all of Islam and its culture, not just the jihadists.
But the incoming president, Trump, appears open to the clash-of-civilizations idea—one that fits neatly with his view of an America that rejects “globalism,” tightens up its borders against immigrants, and bans most new Muslims from coming in until they can be “vetted.” “I think Islam hates us,” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last March. While he said he was speaking of radical Islam, he added: “It’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.” For the Trump team, who did not respond to a request for comment, Muslims appear to be guilty of radical sympathies until proven innocent.
That approach, some scholars say, will be a terrible mistake, 15 years into what is already seen by some as a “Forever War.”
“Sadly, Trump traffics in a similar ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative to that of Al Qaeda and ISIS,” says Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, author of the recently published book ISIS: A History. “They all view the world in binary terms. … What Trump and his followers do not get is that their inflammatory rhetoric plays into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda, who labor hard to convince skeptical Muslims that the West is waging a war against Islam.”
True, there is plenty of reason to critique the Obama administration: It’s not as if the outgoing president is handing off a stunning success in the war against violent extremism to Trump. On the contrary, while Obama has prevented another mass-casualty attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11, the global conflict he will bequeath to Trump remains ill-defined, and Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo and install legal and constitutional justifications for the spreading secret war against Islamists everywhere have yielded near total failure. It is also true the disintegration of the Arab world into civil war and territorial archipelagos run by extremist Islamist groups like ISIS may well suggest there is a kind of breakdown in Islamic-Arab culture, one in which extremism can prevail regularly over moderation and democracy. Al Qaeda, plainly, was not a one-off phenomenon.
Still, some national-security and law-enforcement experts are aghast at any loose language that lumps all Muslims together, saying all that the apocalyptic rhetoric will do is ensure that many more of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims either support the terrorists or stand aside in resentment while the terrorists, acting in their name, do their worst. “I’m sure Flynn’s outspoken anti-Muslim bias will sour our already tarnished image abroad, especially in the Middle East and Asia, and make it difficult to win or retain reliable allies in any future conflicts,” says former FBI undercover agent Michael German, author of Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent and the co-writer of a new movie starring Daniel Radcliffe about white supremacist groups. “It certainly makes al Qaeda and ISIS propagandists’ jobs easier, as well.”
Some experts in Islam who are conservative politically, like former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, also say the new Trumpian framing is ill-thought-out—even if Obama may be somewhat to blame by inviting a right-wing backlash to his refusal to talk about the sources of Islamist extremism at all, for fear of stigmatizing or offending Muslims. “The Obama administration needlessly got itself into trouble by avoiding an adult conversation about the problems in the Muslim world. Muslims aren’t children. They don’t need Western affirmative action programs,” emails Gerecht. “However, I do have a really big problem when certain individuals attempt to paint Islam, in all its 1400-plus years of glorious complexity, as a deranged civilization and faith, whose denizens and practitioners are somehow uniquely capable of violence because they are hard-wired to do so, via the Koran, the holy law, and whatever else the anti-Islam crowd thinks makes Muslims tick. This is just historically atrocious. It is often obscene.”
There are also serious questions about how such a black-and-white global struggle would be waged strategically. Flynn, in his new book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-written with Michael Ledeen, argues that America is not confronting the radical Islamists alone, but that they are in alliance with anti-American nation states like Russia, Cuba and North Korea. Despite Trump’s fairly positive statements about Vladimir Putin, such a controversial approach could once again isolate the United States, as occurred during the Iraq war when George W. Bush targeted what he called the “Axis of Evil.” (Although Trump could potentially find some allies among the right-wing parties in Europe, which also tend to cast their nationalist views as a defense of the Christian West against the Islamic threat.)
Some radical Muslims appear a little stunned by the gift they have been handed. Referring to Trump, Abu Omar Khorasani, a senior Islamic State commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters: “This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands.” On the Shia side, Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said in a statement that Trump “does not differentiate between extremist and moderate Islamist trends and, at the same time, he overlooks (the fact) that his extremism will generate extremism in return.”
Another concern going forward, perhaps, is that for those who identify themselves with or are seen as part of the white nationalism movement—and Bannon, for one, denies he’s part of that—the specter of a global Islamic threat against “Western” civilization is a convenient bugaboo, feeding the alt-right narrative of the whites against everyone else. Much as the “Red Scare” of the 1950s helped to consolidate far-right control in Washington, at least for a time, the bigger the Islamist threat appears, the more compelling is Trump’s call to keep the world from our shores, justify closed borders and focus on his neo-isolationist concept of “America First.” Indeed, much as Obama desperately wanted to end the “war on terror,” it is fair to question whether some of the people around Trump may not want to.
In some respects—at least as the Trumpites would put it—they are only responding to Obama’s failures to end or even contain Islamist terrorism. Certainly any hope that anti-West terror would be confined to Al Qaeda and the Arab/Muslim world would be headed toward secular democracy—the aspiration of George W. Bush in invading Iraq in 2003, and the wishful thinking of optimists after the start of the Arab Spring in 2011—have been utterly dashed. Iraq is a dysfunctional disaster half occupied by ISIS, and constantly torn between Sunni and Shia interests; Egypt’s experiment with a democratic uprising has ended in a more brutal dictatorship than it had before; Libya and Yemen have come under the control of Islamist militias. Secular Arab democracy seems a lost dream.
All this has lent new credence to the projection made a quarter century ago by the scholar Bernard Lewis—who coined the phrase “clash of civilizations” (though it was later made famous by political scientist Samuel Huntington)—that the Arab world would not advance until it had its own Reformation analogous to the West’s, vanquishing religion from the realm of politics and confining it to the mosque. But until that happens, Lewis argued in his original 1990 essay—in which he also included the Islamic Republic of Iran—“This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”
But even Lewis warned against buying entirely into the Islamist vision by overreacting to it. “It is crucially important,” he added. “That we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”
Gerges, among others, fears that is precisely what lies ahead, and the over-reaction of the Bush administration after 9/11 is about to repeat itself, especially if Trump succeeds in dismantling the nuclear pact with Iran and lumps the Islamic Republic together with the other “Islamic fascists” he is preparing to take on. “Trump has chosen loyalists who substitute ideology and stereotypes for hard facts and deep knowledge of the world and America’s global role,” Gerges says. “There is a real danger that the Trump administration could exact a heavy toll on America’s standing in the world and national security interests. We must expect and prepare for the worst in the next four years.“