By Declan Walsh
March 6, 2017
Lighter, tighter and more carefully worded, the reworked travel ban announced by the Trump administration on Monday aims to pass legal muster in the United States while meeting its stated objective of combating Islamist terrorism.
But in the Middle East, where its effects will be most keenly felt, the executive order was seen as boiling down to the same thing: a Muslim ban.
In Iraq, where the initial ban had drawn the sharpest criticism, relieved officials welcomed President Trump’s decision to drop their country from the list of nations whose citizens will be barred from entering the United States for 90 days. That decision came after pressure from the State Department and the Pentagon — and as American troops are working closely with Iraqi soldiers in the battle for Mosul.
In a minor triumph, there were none of the earlier chaotic scenes of travelers and refugees being turned back at airports.
Yet in the other six countries still on Mr. Trump’s list, his decision to push ahead with the ban only stoked their sense of grievance and discrimination. Regional experts repeated earlier warnings that Mr. Trump’s order handed an easy propaganda victory to enemies and might ultimately weaken American security.
“The idea that this is a Muslim ban has been reinforced even further,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Islamic State will use this ban to say: ‘I told you so. They only mean you harm. They only see you as the enemy.’”
The six countries left on the list are among the poorest, most chaotic or most politically isolated in the Middle East, so their inclusion carries ostensibly low costs for the Trump administration. Libya has multiple competing governments. Aid officials warn that Yemen, consumed by civil war, is on the verge of famine. Syria’s vicious six-year conflict has left vast urban landscapes in ruins. Somalia has been in a state of rolling chaos since 1991.
Iran does not suffer domestic upheaval, but decades of diplomatic hostility with the West have left it political isolated.
Trump administration officials point out that parts of the banned countries have become havens for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups, largely as a result of war and chronic instability. But by the same token, studies have shown that the citizens of those countries are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, and have historically not posed a major risk to security in the United States.
According to the New America Foundation, all 13 jihadist terrorists who have killed people in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, were American citizens or permanent residents. None had ties to the seven countries first singled out by Mr. Trump in January. A federal appeals court, rejecting that order, said his administration had produced “no evidence” linking citizens from the seven affected nations to terrorist acts in the United States.
Among citizens in the banned countries, the sense of injustice is compounded when they look at richer or more powerful neighbours, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, whose citizens have carried out major attacks in the United States, yet which have escaped Mr. Trump’s censure because their governments are harder to push around.
“You know what they say: When the wife commits adultery, hit the maid,” said Abdel Bari Taher, a Yemeni political analyst speaking by telephone from the war-ravaged country’s capital, Sana. “They are punishing Yemen and others because they are the weak ones. Meanwhile, all the Gulf states that funded terrorism carry on as usual.”
Mr. Taher said he had little doubt Mr. Trump’s ban was driven by domestic political considerations. “He is going after us just to please his right-wing supporters at home,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, it stung.