Nilay Saiya is assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research concerns the influence of religion on global politics. He is author of the book Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism (2018). He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.
Despite being touted by his supporters as a champion of religious freedom, his promises that protecting religious freedom would be a foreign policy priority for his administration, and his convening the first-of-their-kind “Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom,” America’s outgoing president, Donald Trump, ultimately proved to be no friend of freedom of religion, especially the liberty of Muslim communities at home and abroad.
This unfortunate reality should have come as no surprise. In his successful bid to become the forty-fifth president of the United States, Trump persistently derided Islam and Muslims—scorning refugees, embracing a mandatory Muslim registry and the policing of predominately Muslim neighborhoods, and promising to ban Muslims from entering the country. Once sworn into office, Trump surrounded himself with a number of known Islamophobes. During his ﬁrst week in ofﬁce, the president signed an executive order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for a period of 90 days and refugees from Syria indeﬁnitely. Trump shared several anti-Muslim videos and posts via his Twitter account, including a doctored picture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a hijab and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wearing a turban in front of an Iranian flag, and falsely claimed on multiple occasions that American Muslims celebrated in the streets following the 9/11 attacks. Under Trump’s watch, anti-Muslim hate crimes soared in the United States.
In his successful bid to become the forty-fifth president of the United States, Trump persistently derided Islam and Muslims.
The president also supported crackdowns on Islam abroad. Before his election, Trump praised dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for their opposition to Islamist extremism. During his presidency, he offered strong verbal support for authoritarian leaders who took a hard line against Muslim groups, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. Stunning revelations in the memoir of the president’s third national security advisor, John Bolton, exposed Trump’s belief that China’s mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.”
The president justified his approach to Islam at home and abroad on national security grounds. “I think Islam hates us…There’s a tremendous hatred there…we’re having problems with Muslims coming into the country,” Trump declared in a 2016 interview. Trump reasoned that by restricting Islam at home and through allied regimes abroad, the United States would be made more secure by keeping Islam’s innate hatred at bay.
In this view, there exists an inherent tradeoff between religious freedom and security. This position holds that religious liberty opens the ﬂoodgates to Islamist extremism. Conversely, increasing repression of Islamic groups raises the costs of rebellion and deters potential terrorists. In countries where this thinking prevails, the result is a perceived zero-sum game: Religious restrictions are seen as necessary to curtail Islamist violence. Whether he was aware of it or not, it was this theoretical basis that Trump was working from in his stance towards Islam. While Trump may have been the most overtly Islamophobic president in American history, his support for governments repressive of Islam simply continued a long history of American presidents propping up repressive regimes in the name of national security.
The problem with this view is that it gets the causes of extremism exactly wrong; contexts of repression, not freedom, are the ones which give rise to extremism and export it to other countries. Over the past decade, several studies have found religious restrictions on minority religious communities to be related to the onset of violent religious hostilities, including terrorism, civil wars, riots, and other forms of violence. When religious groups find themselves marginalized through state laws and policies, they are more likely to pursue their aims through violence, as has happened on a large scale in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Algeria. At the same time, religious freedom encourages peaceful religious forms of activity by creating space for religious groups to practice their faith freely; bring their religiously informed ideas to the public square; make positive contributions to society; and engage in debate through open channels of discourse, thus allowing diverse perspectives to be heard and depriving extremists of the ability to win the battle for hearts and minds by default.
Contexts of repression, not freedom, are the ones which give rise to extremism and export it to other countries.
As the United States backs and legitimizes repressive regimes, it should recognize the effect this has on those who bear the brunt of religiously oppressive policies. Such unholy alliances not only turn public opinion against the domestic government, they also poison ordinary peoples’ views of the United States. When individuals in these countries see their despised regimes being propped up by the United States, inevitably that rage turns against the “far enemy” as well. Western support for autocrats may give policymakers a sense of security in an age of terrorism, but one must always question what is happening behind the curtain of repression.
Today, millions of Muslims are either denied their basic rights to seek transcendent truth, or they do so in the face of stiff penalties. This is not simply a matter of domestic concern for individual countries, but one that carries significant ramifications for international security. The incoming Biden administration therefore has a compelling security interest to put an end to the demonization of Islam at home and America’s longstanding support for repressive regimes in the Islamic world.