The War on Terror Created the Muslim Ban

As promised, on the first day of his presidency, Joe Biden signed an executive order rescinding the Muslim ban and overturning one of Trump administration’s signature anti-Muslim policies. The country was “built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance,” declared the Biden administration’s proclamation, callin the ban “a stain on our national conscience” and “inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”

The expected move was welcomed by civil liberties and American Muslim organizations. The Council on American Islamic Relations commended President Biden on “an important first step toward undoing the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies of the previous administration.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the Biden Administration’s executive orders “welcome first steps after four brutal years of attacks on Black and Brown people.” 

Much of the subsequent discussion has revolved around the steps needed to undo the significant harms caused by the Muslim Ban. The ACLU, for example, called on the Biden administration to “provide justice by restoring lost diversity visas, waiving fees for those who were denied, and expediting processing, among other necessities.” 

In addition to the direct harm caused by the ban–families unable to reunite, children unable to visit dying parents, students no longer allowed to study in the United States, etc.–there is also emerging evidence of the psychological and public health toll the ban has taken among the target communities. A study from the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, for example, found that “women from the impacted countries living in the United States saw an almost 7 percent increase in their chances of delivering preterm from September 2017 to August 2018.” The Muslim Ban may have been rescinded but much of the damage it caused is irreparable and no executive order can provide repreive to its victims. 

Moreover, there seems to be no discussion of what made the ban possible in the first place. The Muslim Ban did not emerge, fully formed, out of the mind of Donald Trump or his white supremacist appointees like Stephen Miller. Instead, it was the product of a two decade long domestic war on terror against American Muslims. 

The Democrats played a significant role in waging this war, often through the same means as the Republicans, promoting shoddy counter-extremism programs which cast all Muslims as potential terrorists. The mainstream, state-friendly media provided its viewers with a steady diet of anti-Muslim tropes, casting American Muslims as either un-American or not fully American. The courts, the police, and intelligence agencies were all implicated, treating Muslims not as citizens but rather as national security concerns to be addressed through surveillance, entrapment, racial profiling, and deportations. It was this pervasive culture of Islamophobia, one that continues to exist, that created the conditions for the Muslim Ban. 

The Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, for example, focused on Muslims as uniquely prone to violent extremism. The program was rebranded under the Trump administration as Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) but did not significantly change, as it was already disproportionately targeting Muslims. The surveillance of American Muslims, too, continued under the Trump administration much as it had under the Obama administration, treating Muslims as suspect communities which required government monitoring. 

The domestic war on terror intimately tied Muslims to the label of “terrorist,” in quotidian usage, media discourses, and government policy and prosecutions. Muslims were disproportionately categorized as terrorists by the media and treated as such by intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and the judicial system. Numerous studies over the past two decades have rendered this insight all but banal. 

A study in 2011 which examined media coverage of 11 US-based attacks between 2001 and 2009, for example, suggested that “Muslim perpetrators tend to be portrayed as linked to al-Qaeda and motivated by a holy war against the U.S.”  Non-Muslims, on the other hand, were “more likely to be described as mentally unstable and coming from families that do not support such violence.” Similarly, a 2017 study found that “Muslims carried out just 12.4 percent of attacks in the US but received 41.4 percent of news coverage.” 

The application of anti-terrorism laws also reflects this disparity. Since 9/11, writes Trevor Aaronson, “federal prosecutors have applied anti-terrorism laws against 34 right-wing extremists compared to more than 500 international terrorism defendants.” An analysis of federal prosecutions since 9/11 also found that “the Justice Department has routinely declined to bring terrorism charges against right-wing extremists even when their alleged crimes meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism.” Meanwhile, in US courts, Muslim perpetrators of ideologically-motivated violence received “sentences that were four times longer than non-Muslims involved in similar cases.” 

The association of terrorism with Muslims, cultivated through a decades-long process that scholar Deepa Kumar terms “terrorcraft,” is both a product of, and contributes further to, the disproportionate targeting of American Muslims in the domestic war on terror. The dehumanization that the Muslim terrorist trope produces is necessary to secure domestic legitimacy for the Global War on Terror. The active construction of Muslims as both dangerous and less than human helps in securing legitimacy for US military operations in Muslim-majority countries.

The list of state-sanctioned and state-led offenses against Muslims are too numerous to note. Muslims have been harassed, surveilled, coerced into becoming informants, included on government lists as supposed terrorists, deported, and even killed. It is this context, one that American Muslims must still contend with, which made Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban not only possible but popular

The repeal of the ban is welcome news but as long as Muslims continue to be treated as a suspect community, an approach that has been taken by both Democrat and Republican administration, there will be new policies and continued support for old ones which cause further, irreparable harm to American Muslims. Despite the welcome first step from the Biden administration, the objective must be to bring an end to an almost two decades long war on terror and the Islamophobia that is its natural corollary.