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The Trump ban? Turning a Muslim system on Muslims

The US travel ban shares similarities with a system that caliphs in early Islam used to exclude people based on religion

The Trump administration got off to a raucous start in 2017, with millions worldwide marching in solidarity for universal freedoms that seemed to be lost on a president who won the Oval Office not through the popular vote but through an archaic Electoral College process.

Trump’s triumph sent many into cringing mortification. There are plans for a wall on the Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States (was nothing learned from El Chapo?), more plans to restructure participation in Nato, threats to recall multilateral strides made in the Iranian nuclear deal, and the departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would affect 40 percent of the world’s economy if signed into law.

Trump's launch of 59 tomahawk missiles onto a Syrian airfield last week has added yet another element of unscripted unpredictability. While some call the aggression against Assad’s airfield, which drew praise from across the Arab world, bold and decisive, Trump's support base feels betrayed. And whether he is, in fact, committed to ensuring the removal of the Assad regime remains to be seen.  

Bannon’s baby ban

But it's the Muslim travel ban – Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven, now six, Muslim-majority countries and stopping refugees from entering the US – that has perhaps sparked the most outrage.

The ban in its various iterations is the work, no doubt, of Steve Bannon, the Rasputin-like figure who has obtained unlimited access to the White House and, until he was dropped last week, the National Security Council.

The very same 'beautiful babies' inspiring Trump's air strikes? Banned.

It’s Bannon’s ideology that has given birth to the travel ban, which lays bare the biased attitudes of the incumbent American leadership.

Bannon’s political ideology hails not from any founding father or ancient Greek philosophy, but from old European feudal systems that were largely separatist, adverse to trade and deeply paranoid about foreign encroachment of any kind. The very same systems, you might remember, that sent people fleeing towards the “New World” in the first place.

Bannon’s worldview wades in the same waters as Samuel Huntington’s, holding to an imminent “Clash of Civilizations” dystopia that has impacted American foreign policy for the last several decades.

The Muslim travel ban affects decimated, desperate and ravaged Syrian and Iraqi nationals, who have had their livelihoods seized from them. The very same “beautiful babies” inspiring Trump's air strikes? Banned.

Iranians are also banned from US entry, but this should come as no surprise to anyone.

Civil war in Yemen, and a proxy war between Saudi and Iran in Yemen, means this country has also landed on the ban list. War has produced thousands of Yemeni refugees who will find no solace in the US if the ban is upheld.

It’s worth noting that somehow Saudi Arabia hasn’t made the travel ban list, despite its sponsorship of terrorist cells, egregious human rights violations and angry refusal to take a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013 over Western, specifically American, procedures regarding its perceived enemies.

Thriving only a few years earlier, Libya is also included on the list of countries prohibited from entry into the US, after the political upheaval and destabilisation that has allowed the rise of IS and other militants. Somalia and Sudan share the same trends of violence, destabilisation, and scrambling for power by Muslim militants, and are also included in the ban.

The twist

Now here’s the irony: the Muslim travel ban shares a similarity with the old Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid caliphates of early Islam, and this is the separation and exclusion of people under its dominion based on religious orientation.

Jizya had two primary functions: it provided protection for non-believers in predominately Muslim societies and reinforced subordination of those who would not convert

Rashidun caliphates – the first five caliphs after Mohammed’s death - began mandating jizya upon non-believers in part because they weren’t required to pay zakat, the Muslim alms giving. This tradition meant that Jews, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians and any other nonbelievers living in Muslim lands from the Levant to Spain, were subject to this tax.

Forced tribute on a conquered population wasn’t a new practice at the time: the Sassanid, Persian and Roman empires also used the practice. But jizya was a significant contributing factor in the cementing of the great Muslim empires.

The jizya tax had two primary functions. First, it provided protection for non-believers in predominately Muslim societies and, secondly, the tax reinforced subordination of those who would not convert.

Some argue that the jizya tax was lenient according to income, and the dhimmis or non-Muslims living under Islamic rule lived in secure and peaceful circumstances for the most part. Others contend that jizya was “ritual humiliation,” and the shame imposed helped drive mass conversions to Islam and further augmented the spread of Islam. The practice of jizya changed over time, and whether it was a benevolent practice or a demonising force, it drew distinctions based on religion.

Shaming 'the other'

So whether he realises it or not, Bannon’s travel ban, based on religious orientation, and shaming Muslims and foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries, is from the old jizya playbook.

The original jizya is no longer imposed on non-believers in Muslim-majority states, although there have been recent calls to reinstate this practice by the Islamic State (IS) group and the Taliban in Pakistan and other places.

The CIA has seen the exodus of scores of seasoned Urdu and Arabic speaking intelligence gatherers in the fight against terror in recent months

But when it was in practice, jizya wasn’t just about a tax: it was, in some places, about shaming people of different religious faiths and keeping them in check and this is the underlying parallel that echoes through the chambers of time and into a 21st century unconstitutional travel ban.

The exclusion and prejudice against Muslims happening in the US may cause further conversions away from Islam, another degree of punishment and demonisation of the “other” Edward Said wrote about that still pervades.

Necessary adjustments

As chief architect of the travel ban, Bannon has created the blueprint to erect monuments of exclusion for Muslims worldwide, as did old civilizations to those they conquered.

Instead of an architect, maybe the US needs a chiropractor to perform adjustments to the spine of the current administration’s ideological practices.

The Central Intelligence Agency has seen the exodus of scores of seasoned Urdu and Arabic speaking intelligence gatherers in the fight against terror in recent months. These are Muslim-American spies and heroes, the likes of which do not grow on trees, who have proven commitment to eradicating terrorist factions around the world.

Understandably so, these men and women have been offended by the prejudice against Muslims under the current leadership. This development does not bode well for the Trump administration or Americans at large.

If Trump truly holds compassion for the plight of the Syrian people, why not lift the Muslim travel ban and allow Syrian refugees to recuperate from their trauma in the US, if even temporarily, until their country can come back into some semblance of balance?

The winds blowing through the White House are unpredictable and, with rumours of yet another staff shake-up, maybe Bannon will be out soon. Hopefully, this deplorable travel ban will go with him.

Amirah Masnavi has worked on several continents in several spheres, including teaching women in Saudi Arabia and consulting for UNESCO in France. She holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Southern California and a Masters in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from the American University of Paris. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Demonstrators support a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle that grants a nationwide temporary restraining order against the presidential order to ban travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on February 4, 2017 in Los Angeles (AFP)