Donald Trump claims he will destroy ISIS, but his approach would be a major victory for ISIS’s efforts to encourage terrorism at home and abroad.
Speaking to Face the Nation on Sunday, Trump clarified his earlier pro-torture comments, laying out his anti-ISIS strategy. Trump argued that the US has to “play the game the way they’re playing the game,” and whilst he wanted to stay within the law, he thought the law should be expanded to, “at a minimum,” allow waterboarding.
Trump has previously proposed other repressive policies targeting Muslims. These include forcing American Muslims to register in a national database, and the investigation and raiding of mosques.
But these policies would just add credibility to the ISIS narrative that the West is at war with Islam. They would exacerbate the conditions that radicalize moderate Muslims, and ultimately lead to the destruction of America’s freedoms.
As Graeme Wood argued in his excellent cover story for The Atlantic—What ISIS Really Wants—the terrorist’s groups claim to power lies in the belief that establishing a caliphate will lead to an apocalyptic showdown with the West. This narrative relies on spreading the belief that there is systematic and deliberate oppression of all Muslims, and that retribution is necessary.
Any draconian rhetoric or policies that specifically target Muslims will be used by ISIS to fan the flames of hatred and radicalization. What better way to prove its claims and win followers than to point to the anti-Muslim fear-mongering of Donald Trump?
In addition to a raiding mosques and creating a Muslim database, Trump has suggested possible mass interment, similar to the camps used to confine over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. Trump has also proposed banning all Muslims from traveling to the US. The implication being that Muslims are suspects just because they are Muslim.
Trump has also encouraged the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment amongst his supporters. During one meeting in New Hampshire, a supporter claimed that Muslims were “a problem,” that there were jihadist training camps in the US, and that Obama was a Muslim. Rather than attempting to debunk these conspiracy theories, or dismiss the idea that all Muslims are “a problem,” Trump encouraged him. Effectively agreeing with his supporter, Trump stated he would look into it, and that “We need this question.”
Nowhere does Trump ever suggest alternatives such as improved law enforcement-Muslim relations, inter-faith dialogues, or programs to interrupt home-grown extremism. Instead Trump, like ISIS, feeds on the fear, gullibility, and prejudices of supporters.
As The National Interest has noted, “ISIS’s most fundamental appeal is based on a profound sense of catharsis, empowerment, and satisfaction derived from striking a blow at a hated, predatory oppressor.” If American Muslims are convinced they are suffering persecution for being Muslim, then they’re more susceptible to propaganda.
ISIS’s task is easier if evidence of such persecution is more readily available, as it would be under Trump’s policies.
Many Muslims already feel increasingly unwelcome. A recent Pew Research survey found that 63% of those who identify as or lean Republican view “about half” of US Muslims as anti-American, an increase of 16% from 2002. Since 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims (defined as vandalism, intimidation, assault, or murder) have risen five-fold. Politico has reported increased traffic to white supremacist websites ranging from the KKK to Stormfront.
Trump and his ilk have encouraged the dehumanization of all Muslims as real or potential enemies to be rooted out. Such dehumanization is the same psychological process that demonizes one group as less human and deserving of moral consideration, ultimately making vigilante or state-led discrimination and violence against that group acceptable and the norm. This process could lead to the mass interment or expulsion of some or all of America’s 2.6 million Muslims, which would amount to ethnic cleansing.
Trump’s policies are also a threat to personal freedom. His plan to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants would be disastrous. It would require the creation logistical infrastructure capable of managing the detainment and deportation of American Muslims en masse, regardless of their legal status or rights. Couple that with unchecked surveillance, and the thousands of armed raids and home searches that would be necessary to force all 2.6 million Muslims to visit registration centers, and force all 11 million undocumented immigrants into deportation camps, and you have the recipe for a bureaucratic and dystopian nightmare.
Perhaps the most ironic part is that the general electorate are becoming willing executioners of America’s liberties and Enlightenment values. Voters may opt to etch fear and hatred into their hearts in exchange for the false promises of a demagogic con artist. Just look to France, which is still under a three-month state of emergency from the Paris attacks and is considering extending it indefinitely.
American policy must be tailored to destroy ISIS without empowering it, marginalizing Muslims, or destroying our liberties. A good grand strategy should both protect the nation physically and also attempt to preserve its values. Trump’s plans would do neither and would be actively detrimental to both.