A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Pyrrhic Victory

Donald Trump’s security policy plays into the terrorists’ hands.
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The goal of Islamic terrorism has been to encourage a clash of civilizations and sow chaos in the West. Donald Trump and Europe’s far right are giving them their victory.

© REUTERS/Neil Hall

Readers of the German magazine Der Spiegel were greeted last week by a startling image on the front cover – a cartoon showing Donald Trump holding the severed head of the Statue of Liberty. The allusion was clear, likening the chaos caused by Trump to the chaos caused by the so-called Islamic State (IS), whose beheading videos have spread across the internet like a virus.

The cover caused a great deal of consternation, both within Germany and in the United States, even among those opposed to Trump. The new US president is not a terrorist, and to compare his deeds to that of a member of IS would be grotesque. But to interpret the cartoon so literally misses the point: in a very real way, President Trump is bringing to fruition the goal that Islamic terrorists have been working for, whether he realizes it or not.

A Clash of Civilizations

It took a long time to get here. It was on September 11, 2001 that many in the West first learned of the aims of Islamic terrorism, at that time personified by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

President George W. Bush offered Americans the vague explanation that they had been attacked because the terrorists “hate our freedoms.” Experts, however, offered a more detailed explanation: On a practical level, the attacks were meant to drive the US and its allied secular Middle East regimes out of the Islamic world. But on a wider level, the aim was to provoke a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, resulting in a great confrontation.

But the Bush administration did not give in to the provocation, at least not in that language. Islam was not the enemy, President Bush repeatedly stressed. Although the Bush administration used the 9/11 attack as justification for the invasion of Iraq, which ended up furthering the aims of Islamist radicals in the Middle East, the conflict never looked like a clash of civilizations.

The Language of War

Flash forward 15 years, and it appears bin Laden has at long last gotten his wish. After a brutal decade of low-scale terrorist attacks and the rise of IS, the new US administration has embraced not only the language, but also the policies that bin Laden hoped to provoke the Bush administration into pursuing so many years ago.

The most prominent such policy is the so-called “Muslim ban,” Trump’s hastily executed order to ban people from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The specifics of the ban, and the reasoning behind the selection of these seven countries, are still nebulous. But the message behind it is crystal clear: Muslims are inherently dangerous.

Many have called the ban a “gift to IS.” The group, as with Al-Qaeda before it, has long sought to convince Muslims around the world that Western governments hate them. The words of the Bush and Obama administrations seemed to run contrary to that message. Now, Trump is verifying the IS claim.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei couldn’t resist tweeting this week, “We appreciate Trump! Because he largely did the job for us in revealing the true face of America.”

A Cabal of Provocation

It isn’t only the Muslim ban. The views expressed by Trump’s cabinet have been heard clearly throughout the Muslim world.

Last year Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” He told his followers to forward a video arguing that Islam is not a religion but a cult which is intent on the destruction of the West.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has run articles on his Breitbart website for years demonizing Islam and warning of an impending clash of civilizations. In 2014 he told an interviewer that “the Judeo-Christian West” is “in the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict…an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.”

The list of this type of language from the new US administration goes on and on, as exhaustively compiled by Politico late last year.

And the comments continue to be echoed by Europe’s rising far right, possibly poised for victories in upcoming elections in France and the Netherlands.

Europe to Follow?

Marine Le Pen, who could become the French president in May’s election, has said she wants to enact a Trump-style Muslim ban in France that goes even further. Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party could win the highest number of votes in the Dutch election next month, has declared the Koran a “fascist book”. “Islam wants to destroy us, and I want to prevent it,” he has told Dutch voters.

Europe is now at a crossroads. It can follow Trump’s path of provocation, which seems to be leading to the “clash of civilizations” so desired by Islamic terrorists. Or, Europeans can choose to rebuke those who see no future for peace between the world’s major religions.

Despite the message that Islamic extremists have been trying to send, the majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims do not see the West as an irreconcilable enemy. Trump’s actions may change how those unconvinced people see the US. But if voters in Germany, France, and the Netherlands reject the ideology of conflict in the coming months, they may not see Europeans in the same light.