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Waqas Mirza

Business as usual in Trump's 'War on Terror'

Trump speaks at the Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 30 May, 2017

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Comment: Trump calling on Muslim nations to fight 'radicalisation' simply deflects attention from Washington's own role in bolstering the ranks of extremist groups, writes Waqas Mirza.

The immediate reactions to Donald Trump's much-anticipated speech on Islam at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia have focused on its hypocrisy.

Admittedly, there is something unsettling about a president who once declared that "Islam hates us" and attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, now reciting banal platitudes about forming "closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce" with Muslim-majority countries, and calling Islam "one of the world's great faiths".

To suggest that this hypocrisy is the result of an opportunistic administration shifting its positions for the sake of diplomacy and coalition-building, is to put it too simply. It is, to be more precise, the direct product of a confrontation between the particular worldview of much of the Trump administration and the responsibilities which come with having to administer the American state.

The hypocrisy that is now manifesting itself in spectacular fashion stems from the meeting of a narrow nationalism deeply imbued with white supremacist notions of belonging and exclusion, and the requirements of managing a global empire.

The racism and Islamophobia that has been a persistent characteristic of the Trump administration is taking a backseat - at least momentarily - in order to ensure that long-standing alliances are tended to and national security interests are upheld.

This is also what explains how a man who railed against Muslim refugees as "terrorists" can now, with a straight face, remark that "more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim". To call this hypocrisy would be accurate, but nonetheless miss the point.

The fixation with extremism and its variants is a consistent corollary to the 'Global War on Terror'

There were, however, a few other elements of hypocrisy in Trump's speech that are more instructive. The focus of the speech was extremism and there is perhaps no one more qualified to deliver a speech on the subject than Trump, given that he packed his administration with countless far right extremists like Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller, the last of whom reportedly wrote his speech.

Given Trump's close affiliations with the far right, it does not require much imagination to realise that his concerns about "extremism" have little to do with extremism.

Read more: Trump urges Muslim countries not to 'shelter' extremists

Instead, the fixation with extremism and its variants is a consistent corollary to the "Global War on Terror", one which seeks to go beyond dropping bombs and launching missile strikes, to tackle the supposed ideology that underpins "terrorism". In Trump's own words, this is "history's great test - to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism".

Yet for all the focus on "ideology" as the harbinger of, or inspiration for terrorism, the available evidence simply does not support this view. Last year, for example, the Associated Press carried out an analysis of thousands of leaked Islamic State documents and revealed that "most of its recruits from its earliest days came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam".

To cite another example, an FBI Intelligence Assessment of 57 terrorist plots in the United States from 2001 to 2010 concluded that there were "few identifiable unifying qualities" among the 33 Americans who plotted the attacks. The group was sociologically and religiously diverse, and even included some who seemed to have "no identifiable religious affiliation" whatsoever.

Ideology, therefore, offers no explanation for "terrorism". In fact, the precursors to "terrorism" are so varied that no single reason can satisfactorily explain what motivates individuals to join extremist groups.

Ideology, therefore, offers no explanation for 'terrorism'

It can be, as Quintan Wiktorowicz argues in the Washington Post, due to socioeconomic factors: Young people facing a bleak future and a "fundamental breakdown of the social contract". It can also be due to anger and disillusionment about the conflict in Syria, as the case of 22-year-old Guled Omar in Minnesota exemplifies.

The allure of jihadism as a counter-cultural movement offers another reason many young people veer toward extremist groups. The FBI Intelligence Assessment also concludes that the "perception that the United States is at war with Islam, and [that] jihad is the correct and obligatory response" can be a motivating factor.

This does not even take into account the particular and often unique dynamics of regions where localised extremist groups establish a social base and operate. The rise of sectarian anti-Shia groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Pakistan, for example, have little to do with the rise of Jabhat-al-Nusra and the expansion of the Islamic State in Syria.

Why is there such a need for concocting this mythical and menacing threat of extremism?

The rise of al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria is due to factors distinct from those that contribute to the resilience of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hizballah in Lebanon.

In other words, there is no is singular, unifying "Islamist extremism" - or "radical Islamic terrorism," to borrow a phrase that even Trump's speechwriter saw inopportune to include in his speech in Saudi Arabia) - that one can identify and label as the enemy.

This only begs the question: Why is there such a need for concocting this mythical and menacing threat of extremism? Trump's speech does provide an answer, as he exhorts "Muslim-majority countries" to "take the lead in combatting radicalisation". If the problem is an ideology that exists in Muslim communities, then it is necessary for, as Trump puts it, "your nations [to] drive out the terrorists and extremists".

Such an approach allows the Trump administration to ignore its own role in bolstering the ranks of extremist groups

Such an approach allows the Trump administration to ignore its own role in bolstering the ranks of extremist groups. One no longer needs to worry about Islamophobia in the United States, US-led military interventions in Muslim-majority countries, and support for authoritarian regimes which create the conditions for extremist groups to thrive.

This approach is also strikingly similar to that taken by the Obama administration. As President Obama himself remarked at the Countering Violent Extremism summit in 2015, "Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam".

Needless to say, this in itself is a profoundly Islamophobic attitude and one that can be relied upon to rally public opinion for further interventions in Muslim-majority countries and repressive and surveillance measures against Muslim communities in the United States.

Ultimately, despite talk of a radical departure, Trump's speech indicated that his administration will maintain a remarkable continuity of policies which have bipartisan support in the country. Saudi Arabia will not be asked for ten years of free oil, as Trump once demanded, nor will it be asked to "pay dearly" for "our help and protection".  

Indeed, Trump's speech signals that at least when it comes to fighting "terrorism", his administration will continue to pursue business as usual.

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