Trump's travel ban: America first, or clash of civilizations?

Four UAlberta experts put the U.S. president’s controversial executive order in context.

Seldom does an American president’s pronouncement arouse so instantaneous, intense and overwhelmingly negative a global response.

Within hours of President Donald Trump issuing an executive order on Jan. 27 that bans travellers with citizenship from the Muslim majority countries of Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days—and bans travellers from Syria indefinitely—confusion, condemnation and resistance sprang up around the globe.

World leaders including Prime Minister Trudeau affirmed their commitment to welcoming refugees; foreign affairs ministers in targeted countries called the ban a gift to extremists and planned reciprocal bans for U.S. citizens; protesters assembled at major U.S. airports to decry the detention of legal migrants; lawyers worked to have them released onto American soil; civil rights and legal aid groups brought lawsuits against the government; and attorneys general in 16 states, including New York, California and Washington, began preparing legal challenges to the order.

America first, or clash of civilizations?

The Trump administration is denying the ban targets Muslims, arguing that 46 Muslim-majority countries are not subject to travel restrictions. But University of Alberta international relations expert Andy Knight doesn’t believe it, saying the travel ban is transparently Islamophobic and plays to the false notion of a “clash of civilizations” that sees Judeo-Christian and Muslim nations in a permanent state of conflict.

What is an executive order?

A president may use an executive order to direct and manage how the federal government operates. Executive orders, which are relatively common, have the power of federal law but are subject to legal challenge.

President Trump’s use of executive orders is consistent with his predecessors: President Obama issued nine executive orders in the first 10 days of his presidency in 2009.

Famous historical executive orders

  • 1863: Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, which ended slavery
  • 1942: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War
  • 1948: Harry Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. armed forces
  • 2014: Barack Obama’s exemption of children of undocumented migrants and parents of legal children from deportation

“Regardless of what Trump says now, much of his campaign was built on a theological position that argues that America should be a Christian nation and that Muslims are not welcome,” Knight said.

The false premise at the core of the travel ban, Knight added, is that the seven countries targeted by the ban constitute a threat to the United States, when in fact none of those countries have produced individuals who have perpetrated attacks in the U.S. Such deliberate misinformation is part and parcel of authoritarian tactics that, with the rise of right-wing populism in other parts of the world, are a real cause for concern, he said.

“It seems to me that we are beginning to see the clear outlines of a fascist state in the initial actions of this Trump administration. Trump and his Goebbels-like underlings are acting like fascists have done in the past. They are attempting to intimidate the press, to peddle falsehoods, to target non-whites within the U.S. population and to collaborate with similar types of fascist political parties in Europe and elsewhere.”

U of A political science professor Julian Castro-Rea sees Trump’s actions a little differently. He said they signal a deliberate shift of the U.S. role on the world stage, rather than indicating impending fascism.

“We may be witnessing an attempt at withdrawing the United States from the central role it has played as promoter of global institutions, global stability and trade liberalization since the end of the Second World War. That is why he has no problem disregarding relations with Mexico and NAFTA, dismissing climate change, forgetting a balanced approach to the Middle East, defying refugee international conventions, and so on,” he said.

Castro-Rea argued fascists usually have a more sophisticated plan to reorganize societies that is a far cry from Trump's more simplistic, populist approach.

“The U.S. under Trump does not aspire to be a global champion, only to do what is best for the narrow, immediate interests of the country as instinctively perceived by the average blue-collar worker.”

Slamming the door on a refugee crisis

Whether Trump is setting a new national course or pandering to his base, the travel ban is unnecessary and ultimately damaging, said Yasmeen Abu-Laban, a U of A expert in comparative and Canadian politics.

“I think what we have seen in last week are a lot of very theatrical things in relation to longstanding norms and policies. It looks like he’s doing something dramatic, but it’s very crude and blunt,” she said, adding she doesn’t believe the ban is going to make the U.S. safer.

“But there are tremendous implications for human rights. We are at a moment in our collective history where the number of refugees worldwide is at post-World War II levels, and this kind of response breaks with human rights norms and it raises huge ethical considerations.”

The ban flies in the face of the United Nations convention relating to refugees and sets a backwards precedent for treatment, she said.

“The U.S. is a signatory on refugee conventions, and this kind of response takes us back in time before we had a universal declaration of human rights. It breaks that tradition that there should be a safe haven for people fleeing for their lives. Right now, there are people who have been caught in the middle of all this and it’s a tragedy unfolding.”

Attack on academic freedom?

Equally troubling is how the travel ban threatens academic freedom, added Abu-Laban, who is also president of the Canadian Political Science Association. The association issued a statement expressing concern about how the ban will limit conference travel, workshop participation, research partnerships and fieldwork, all necessary for scholars to collaborate.

Reflecting on the broader implications, Abu-Laban noted, “given that the U.S. is a global leader when it comes to research and knowledge production, this is a very negative development in terms of what we do as university communities to foster the exchange of knowledge and ideas. The world has been globalizing, and there are many positive features of that globalization. This kind of ban hampers the flow of ideas, of goods, of people, of capital, of services. It’s all up in the air and it’s all very much interconnected.”

Canada is not immune

Mojtaba Mahdavi, chair in Islamic studies and professor of political science at the U of A, said he’s encouraged by the resistance to and condemnation of the travel ban both in the U.S. and abroad. He noted that the anti-refugee rhetoric of some Canadian politicians and the deadly attack on the mosque in Quebec City last weekend are reminders that Islamophobia exists here too.

“We should also be really careful about reproduction of these policies in Canada. I don’t think any country is immune,” Mahdavi said. “We are doing a great job with our prime minister and his message of tolerance and welcome to Muslims and other minorities. But we have to be careful about this discourse, which could be very problematic for the health of our Canadian democracy and multiculturalism.”

Mahdavi will present a public talk on Muslims and the Middle East in the Post-Trump Era on Feb. 3 as part of the U of A’s International Week.