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Mood change: The cooling of Donald Trump’s Islamo-scepticism


THESE are confusing times for any student of global religion and geopolitics. This weekend around 2bn Christians mark the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This happens to be a year when the Christian West and the Christian East celebrate Easter on the same date. Some well-connected Catholic and Russian Orthodox news services disturbed some of their faithful readers by predicting that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might stage a pre-election stunt by going to pray in Agia Sophia, a building which began life as eastern Christendom’s greatest temple. There was no sign of this actually happening; the mere suggestion that it might was enough to cause a frisson.

In just one respect, though, the global religious temperature may be cooling just a little. The administration of Donald Trump, elected among other things on a wave of Islamo-scepticism, seems to be toning down its collective antipathy towards all things Muslim and charting a more pragmatic path.

There are several signs of that. One is the decline in influence of some ideologically driven individuals such as Steve Bannon, the White House adviser who has never hidden his belief that the “Judeo-Christian West” must defend itself against what he sees as a centuries-old and multi-pronged challenge from the other monotheism. In recent days President Trump has made several mildly disparaging comments about Mr Bannon, confirming the general sense that his stock is diminishing.

Going by Mr Bannon’s logic, America should at least to be considering Russia’s invitation to be a partner against militant Islam, even if that means overlooking Russian misdeeds. But since America’s recent missile strike against Syria, that way of thinking seems to be have been set aside. As a colleague has written, this reflects a certain normalisation of American foreign policy. And in “normal” times, America and Russia treat the world of Islam not as an adversary or a friend but as a field of competition. Each player in this game has to cultivate some Muslim friends in order to confront others, and that is what America and Russia have generally done since the cold war.

Another sign of a shift is the presentation, more than the content, of the president’s executive orders aimed at stopping immigration from certain Muslim countries. When a second version of the order was published on March 5th, it was emphasised that the intention was not to ban adherents of a religion. By contrast when the first version was issued in January, only to be struck down by a successful legal challenge, its designation as a “Muslim ban” seemed not to be discouraged.

But perhaps the most tangible symptom of a mood change is the administration’s decision, after intense internal debate, not to designate the global Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation: a move that would have complicated America’s diplomatic relations with several countries and would have threatened the existence of some advocacy groups within the United States.

Senator Ted Cruz, the devout Baptist and Republican presidential candidate, was among the strongest advocates of this designation; it would also be warmly welcomed by the government of Egypt which wrested power from a Brotherhood-influenced administration in 2013. But the Trump team clearly listened to advice from other quarters, including American diplomats and intelligence officers who know the Middle East, and the governments of Morocco, Tunisia and above all Jordan.

What all these informants told the administration is that the Brotherhood isn’t a monolith. It can evolve in a more liberal-democratic direction, as did the Ennahda party in Tunisia, and even within one country, it can morph into several different phenomena, as happened in Jordan. A catchall demonisation might actually arrest this possibility, according to most pundits on Islam.

“All the professional advice was against the Brotherhood’s designation [as terrorist],” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution think-tank. Mr Hamid reports that many in Washington, DC have become less hostile to his way of thinking, which holds that Islam is more prone to theocratic tendencies than other faiths, but argues that the West should accept this and work for gradual change rather than slamming the door in Islam’s face.

Most Trump-watchers detect some change of attitudes towards Islam but not all are convinced that it runs deep. Mark Silk, a religion professor and author of the blog Spiritual Politics, thinks the mood remains volatile. He told Erasmus:

As in other areas, reality does appear to be having a sobering effect on the bumptious nativism and Islamophobia of our new president. To the extent that Bannon’s fading fortunes reflect that, it’s a good thing. But I would be careful not to jump to conclusions about the administration’s attitude to Islam. Its learning curve remains steep, and one terrorist incident in the United States could provoke a new storm of rants and, conceivably, anti-Muslim legal efforts.

Arsalan Iftikhar, an American Muslim author of a book on “Islamophobia” in high places, insists that the decline in standing suffered by civilisational warriors with a grudge against his faith is at best only a small mercy.

Regardless of their waning influence, every person of conscience should be concerned that the political ideologies of jingoistic ultra-nationalism were even allowed this close to the Oval Office in the first place…It has become quite clear that Donald Trump is very comfortable surrounding himself with bigots who represent the most deplorable aspects of our diverse American society.

Maybe so. But as with any boss, Mr Trump’s choice of bigot is subject to change. Today’s favourite can be tomorrow’s outcast; that goes for geopolitical views as well as individuals.


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