SHAFAQNA – Conservative and far-right activists devoted to battling “radical Islam” may feel empowered now that Donald Trump is president, but they are already impatient he hasn’t yet delivered on their controversial agenda.
Less than a week after Trump took office, such activists and like-minded affiliates are hectoring him to immediately restrict immigration from Muslim countries. They are calling for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. They’re insisting he designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.
And they don’t understand why it’s taking him so long.
“He said he would do it on day one. No sign of anything happening today, on day 4, and it sure looks like his White House doesn’t even have refugees on its radar,” activist Ann Corcoran wrote about Trump’s proposed Syrian refugee ban on the website Refugee Resettlement Watch.
Since taking office Friday, Trump has issued several executive actions, including ones that pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and institute a hiring freeze on much of the federal workforce. A source familiar with the matter said late Tuesday that Trump plans to issue several executive actions on immigration on Wednesday, including one related to sanctuary cities. It was not clear whether any of the actions would deal with Trump’s pledges to crack down on Muslim immigration, and even if they do, it remains to be seen whether the details will satisfy the anti-Islamist crowd.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, when pushed Tuesday on the question about Muslims and immigration, suggested Trump may hold off on any moves until his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is confirmed and weighs in. However, liberal and American Muslim networks are preparing for worst-case scenarios, including all-out prohibitions on entry from visitors based on nationality, a full ban on Syrian refugees, and a possible halt to the resettlement of all refugees.
“Given what Donald Trump said throughout his campaign about his plans to put a halt to all Muslims entering the country, we have to be realistic about the kinds of proposals that could be on the table right now,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
“We are hearing the concerns and rumors from advocates, and are taking them very seriously,” the aide said in an email. “Since it sounds like this is treading into religious territory and the administration has been less than unequivocal about whether any Americans might get caught up in any of this, outside groups could likely make equal protection or establishment clause (religious freedom) claims.”
Stopping the spread of radical Islamism was one of the dominant themes of Trump’s presidential campaign. Not only did he promise to eradicate the Islamic State terrorist group — an issue on which he has bipartisan support — he also vowed to crack down on the spread of Islamist ideology within the United States.
As refugees escaping the turmoil in Syria flowed into Europe in 2015, Trump insisted that the United States could not admit any such Syrians because they might be terrorists. After terrorist attacks in Paris and California later that year, Trump proposed an all-out ban on Muslims entering the United States, a proposal he later tweaked to “extreme vetting” of immigrants from countries affected by terrorism.
Trump also has floated the idea of reestablishing a registry of U.S.-based foreigners that largely targeted Muslims. While he hasn’t said much about the Muslim Brotherhood per se, some of his aides have floated the theory that the decades-old Islamist group has already infiltrated the U.S government.
Trump has also surrounded himself with aides who have spoken out so harshly against Islamist-inspired extremism that Muslim-American leaders have cast them as “Islamophobes” bigoted against Muslims in general. Those advisers include Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser; Steve Bannon, his chief strategist in the White House; and Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director.
But the presence of such advisers in Trump’s orbit has elated anti-Islamist activists — many of whom were seen as fringe figures even during the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Such activists were disappointed that Bush did not speak out more forcefully against ideological extremism within the religion of Islam itself. Bush and former President Barack Obama also both opted to avoid using the label “Islam” when discussing terrorism, arguing that casting the fight as a religious war would merely boost terrorist outfits’ ability to recruit disaffected young Muslims.
Now, U.S.-based anti-Islamist activists see the Trump era as a way to gain credibility and followers.
One such organization is ACT for America, which bills itself as a grass-roots network dedicated to protecting American culture. The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded ACT for America an anti-Muslim hate group. Flynn, the man tasked with overseeing Trump’s National Security Council, has served on ACT for America’s board of advisers, and other Trump administration officials are affiliated with the group.
In an email to supporters in the weeks after Trump’s stunning win on Nov. 8, the network’s leader, Brigitte Gabriel, boasted that, “ACT for America has a direct line to Donald Trump, and has played a fundamental role in shaping his views and suggested policies with respect to radical Islam.”
Many of the anti-Islamist activists, however, are not content to simply hope that Trump will keep his campaign promises.
The day before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, a freshly formed alliance of anti-Islamist religious figures calling themselves “Faith Leaders for America” held a launch event in which they repeatedly called on Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
“We’d be very disappointed if they don’t do it,” Jerry Johnson, a member of the Faith Leaders’ steering team, told POLITICO. “We’re getting signals that they will do it. What we wanted to do is fortify them. We want to encourage them that they are actually faith leaders out there, pastors, rabbis, who would support that kind of decision.”
Branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, however, is exactly the type of move that is easier said than done, and which Muslim-American activists fear could have dangerous consequences for ordinary people.
The Brotherhood, which began in Egypt, disavowed violence decades ago. However, its ideology has inspired a range of other organizations, some of which, such as Al Qaeda, have turned to terrorist tactics. Some U.S. lawmakers are promoting legislation pushing a terrorist designation for the Brotherhood, although such determinations are usually made by the State and Treasury departments with strong input from lawyers.
The United States has generally refrained from using the terrorism designation on ideological grounds, and the financial links that groups such as the Faith Leaders have tried to draw between the Brotherhood and more radical groups are often thin. Still, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, mentioned the Brotherhood as a threat to the U.S. in the same breath as Al Qaeda. Tillerson’s pronouncement led Frank Gaffney, a longtime anti-Islamist activist considered a bit of a gadfly in D.C., to declare: “It’s morning in America.”
Liberal activists fear the Brotherhood-related push is really a cover for a longer-term crackdown on the Muslim community in the United States. If any U.S. Muslim organization is suddenly accused of being affiliated with the Brotherhood, it could face serious repercussions, even if the allegations are false.
The terror-designation push “will inevitably target domestic Muslim civil society organizations,” said Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the groups anti-Islamist activists frequently allege is a pawn of the Brotherhood. “It also diverts our essential national security resources away from true threats like [the Islamic State] and Al Qaeda.”
The Faith Leaders have not been shy about attacking American Muslims. The group expressed its anger that Imam Mohamed Magid, a top official with the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, was allowed to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast attended Saturday by Trump. The group alleges Magid is a member of the Brotherhood.
“Faith Leaders of America urges President Trump to make this the last event in which he is put in such company,” the group chided the new president.
Magid, who is known for his interfaith work, denied any ties to the Brotherhood and told POLITICO that he was alarmed by what the future holds under a Trump administration, especially if it is influenced by groups like the Faith Leaders.
How, Magid wondered, amid the potential onslaught of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Islamist activity, will he and other Muslims ever prove their innocence to such critics?
“I want to ask them the question: Who is not Muslim Brotherhood? Who is a good Muslim in America?” Magid asked. “Trump said he would like to be president for all Americans. He said also he would like to heal the divide. We would like to see how he would like to heal the divide.”