Trump's travel ban is a gift to jihadi recruiters: Mohamed Fahmy

Whether Trump succeeds in enacting his travel ban is, in a sense, already besides the point: on the ground in the Middle East, the damage is already done.

ISIS fighters have been openly celebrating Trump’s executive order and have even coined it the 'blessed ban'

The general sentiment on social media accounts was that the West was waging a war against Islam, and if you had any doubt about that before, Trump's "Muslim ban" was now the ultimate proof. (Radio-Canada)

I was in Egypt when President Donald Trump signed the controversial executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The prevailing feeling on the ground at the time: relief. Egypt wasn't on the list. But some people were concerned: "Are we next?"

Most of the coverage of the ban — which has since been suspended — and its implications has, naturally, been centred on the U.S., where people have been detained for hours in airports and the president continues his crass battle with his own judiciary.

But the way that groups in the Middle East have reacted to the ban is of at least equal importance.

The 'blessed ban'

As soon as the executive order was announced, I checked the blogosphere of the jihadi community, which prescribes waging a "holy war" against non-believers of Islam. The general sentiment on social media accounts was that the West was waging a war against Islam, and if you had any doubt about that before, Trump's "Muslim ban" was now the ultimate proof.

Because the executive order essentially reinforces the narrative that jihadi recruiters have been touting for a long time, many are actually celebrating its signing. New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, reporting from eastern Mosul, noted that ISIS fighters have been openly celebrating Trump's executive order and have even coined it the "blessed ban." She told me in a later conversation that senior al-Qaeda leaders have called the ban "a gift."  

Terrorist groups are celebrating because the executive order proves they have shaken the United States. They will seize this opportunity to launch a new recruiting drive, which is particularly important now, seeing as ISIS has lost ground and fighters in the region.

The other unintended effect of the ban is that it has the potential to alienate would-be allies in the region. From my time as an interpreter and stringer for the Los Angeles Times during the Iraq War, I saw how Iraqis who choose to work for and alongside the American military and media risked their lives. Many endured death threats from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, who viewed them as traitors who had collaborated with the enemy.

Sanctuary in the U.S.

For many of those people, the U.S. offered the promise of a sanctuary. Trump's executive order, with a single signature, attempted to take that away. Mohamed Tawfeeq, a U.S. green card-holder and my friend and former colleague at CNN, experienced that himself last month when he was detained at an Atlanta airport following a three-month assignment in Iraq. He was eventually allowed in, and has since filed a federal lawsuit.

Through my near-two decades as a journalist on the ground in the Middle East, my mission was to win the hearts and minds of everyday people in order to tell their stories. Relaying their suffering from years of war was one way of keeping their voices alive.

At times, I found myself in life-threatening situations where I, as a representative of Western media, had to dispel the perception that the West was indeed waging a war against Islam.

Stringers and journalists who find themselves in that situation now will have a much harder time against the backdrop of a U.S. president who has previously called for a "Muslim ban," and arguably attempted to enact one.

Trump has said it will have a new version of his travel ban ready next week. But whether Trump succeeds in actually enacting it is, in a sense, already beside the point: on the ground in the Middle East, the damage is already done.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Mohamed Fahmy is an award-winning journalist and author of The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo's Scorpion Prison to Freedom. He is the founder of the Fahmy Foundation, which advocates for free speech and fights suppression of the press.


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