Trump’s cabinet and staff choices indicate a revival of the ‘clash of civilizations’ worldview

American Muslims report two times the odds of a suicide attempt in their life compared to other faith groups.
American Muslims report two times the odds of a suicide attempt in their life compared to other faith groups.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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President-elect Donald Trump has never been shy about invoking Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion people around the world, as a threat to American society.

In a March interview with CNN, Trump told Anderson Cooper that he thinks “Islam hates us.” Asked by Cooper whether he was referring to radical Muslims within the faith, Trump demurred: “It’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.” Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail was well documented; he frequently painted Muslims as inherently suspicious because of their identities.

Now, as Trump rolls out his national security staff and cabinet picks, it seems that the Trump administration continues to revive a ”clash of civilizations” worldview in its approach to foreign policy, which critics say could have devastating effects.

“Sadly, Trump traffics in a similar ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative to that of Al Qaeda and ISIS,” Fawaz Gerges, author of ISIS: A History, told Politico. “They all view the world in binary terms. … What Trump and his followers do not get is that their inflammatory rhetoric plays into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda, who labor hard to convince skeptical Muslims that the West is waging a war against Islam.”

In the early 1990s, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington popularized the term “clash of civilizations” to describe his theory for what post-Cold War conflicts would look like in the world. In a 1993 essay for the journal Foreign Affairs, Huntington laid out the case that the primary source for future conflicts would not be between countries or ideologies like capitalism vs. communism, but that it would be be based on clashing religious and cultural identities. Specifically, he divided the world into eight civilizations, noting that a clash between two irreconcilable cultures—the Western world and the Muslim world—would be a primary source of future global tensions.

Trump’s predecessors took pains to steer the debate away from the idea that the West was at war with all of Islamic civilization. George W. Bush led the country into a War on Terror, but he frequently returned to the idea that terrorists had distorted the “peaceful teachings of Islam.” When defining terrorist ideology, Bush said, “Some call this evil Islamic radicalism. Others militant jihadism. Still, others Islamo-fascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”

Barack Obama went further, insisting that the notion of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West only provoked and emboldened extremists. His rhetoric focused on countering “violent extremism”—a tact that enraged many on the right, who hectored both Obama and Hillary Clinton for not calling the problem “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But if Trump’s national security and staff picks so far are any indication, that era is coming to an end. Many share Trump’s ”clash of civilizations” approach to the Muslim world. Several have spoken about the US war with “Islamism” or “radical Islam.” And their thinking seems to be in line with Trump’s rejection of globalization and the desire to tighten immigration in order to “make America great again.”

Mike Pompeo, CIA director

Pompeo, a three-term congressman from Kansas, is Trump’s pick to head the CIA. He has singled out American Muslims leaders who don’t actively condemn all acts of terrorism as “potentially complicit in these acts, and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.” At a meeting with a church group in 2014, Pompeo pitted Christians against radical Muslims, the Intercept reported. “They abhor Christians and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior is truly the only solution for our world,” he said.

Pompeo also has ties to Frank Gaffney, the head of the Center for Security Policy, which is notorious for promulgating anti-Muslim views. “We don’t have to say all Muslims are bad,” Pompeo said in a conversation with Gaffney. “But this problem extends beyond just those who are engaged in violent extremism and we’re going to have to have a broader approach in order to keep Americans safe.”

Michael Flynn, national security adviser

Retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, slated to serve as Trump’s national security adviser, is perhaps the most vocal of Trump’s national security picks in pitting the West against Islam. Flynn has described Islam as a political ideology masquerading behind a religion, dubbing it a “malignant cancer.” In February, he tweeted that the fear of Muslims is rational; he has also called on Arab leaders to denounce as “sick” their “Islamic ideology.”

In his book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam And Its Allies, Flynn wrote that “Muslims have banned the search for truth” because they believe in the Quran, their holy book. “[S]enior American policymakers, ever since 9/11, have shied away from any criticism of Islam, repeating, despite all manner of evidence to the contrary, that ‘Islam is a religion of peace,'” wrote Flynn. “I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us.”

James Mattis, secretary of defense

Trump announced Thursday (Dec. 1) that retired Marine general James Mattis was his choice to serve as secretary of defense. Mattis has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Middle East policy, saying in 2015 that the US had to “come out from our reactive crouch and take a firm, strategic stance in defense of our values.” Though he’s not as much of a hardliner as Trump’s other team members—Mattis, for example, believes tearing up the the Iran deal is a bad idea—Mattis says Americans haven’t confronted the ideology of “political Islam.”

“Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?” Mattis asked in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 2015. “If we won’t even ask the question then how do we even get to the point of recognizing which is our side in the fight? And if we don’t take our own side in this fight we’re leaving others adrift.”

But some on the left suggest he will at least be a moderating force against overt anti-Muslim sentiment. He has favored partnering with Muslim-majority countries and is opposed to tactics like waterboarding.

Steve Bannon, chief strategist

One of Trump’s earliest appointees, of course, was Bannon, who will work alongside chief of staff Reince Priebus in the White House. As the head of Breitbart News, Bannon elevated the voices of numerous anti-Muslim extremists. On his radio show, he frequently had guests who insinuated that Muslim Americans were infiltrating the US to institute Sharia law.

In a 2014 speech at the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican, Bannon described the US war on terror as a continuation of Western history. ”If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing,” he said.

Katharine Gorka, homeland security transition team

Trump named analyst Gorka to his department of homeland security “landing team,” which will aide the transition between Obama’s DHS officials and his own. Gorka, who writes about Islam for Breitbart News, has questioned DHS documents that call Islam “a religion of peace.” In one of her columns, she said that when George W. Bush and Barack Obama called Islam peaceful, it “struck a sour chord for many,” adding that “American and Western leaders have preemptively shut down any debate within Islam by declaring that Islam is the religion of peace.”

When congresswoman Michele Bachman attacked Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin as a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, even party leaders like John Boehner dismissed the charge. But Gorka defended it, calling for an investigation. And Gorka’s husband, Trump campaign policy consultant Sebastian Gorka, has said that profiling Muslims based on their religion is “a synonym for common sense.”

Kris Kobach, adviser

Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach has not yet been named to any formal role within the Trump administration, but he has served as an adviser on immigration during the campaign and met with Trump after the election during the president-elect’s interviews with potential appointees. Kobach was one of the architects of NSEERS, a program implemented by the Bush administration to track the entry and exit of Muslims visiting the US. In his meeting with Trump, Kobach was photographed with a document indicating that he wanted to revive the NSEERS program and stop Syrian refugees from entering the US.