Feb 23rd 2017
WITH every passing day, there seems to be
fresh news about the Islamophobic sentiments harboured by people close to
Donald Trump. It’s not so much that anything fresh is being said now. Rather,
the ideological backgrounds of some senior individuals close to America’s new
president are being studied ever more closely as they settle into power.
And at the heart of their declared
ideology, it seems, is an essentialist view of Islam: in other words, a view
that the religion itself, as opposed to some nasty misinterpretation, can push
people to violence and is therefore to be treated as dangerous.
As one obvious example, Stephen Bannon, Mr
Trump’s chief strategist, has spoken with utter contempt of the two previous
occupants of the White House because of their optimistic insistence that Islam,
in its heart, is a peaceful faith.
You would expect the former boss of
Breitbart, a far-right news service, to be scornful of Barack Obama’s ideas
about the Muslim faith. But as people are now recalling, Mr Bannon was equally
dismissive of George W. Bush, who a few days after the 9/11 attacks insisted
that Islam was “a religion of peace.” Such naivete, in Mr Bannon’s acerbic
opinion, was to be expected from a “country-club” politician whose faint-hearted
view of the world was little better than the Clintons’. In truth, Islam was a
religion of submission and therefore it could not be a force for peace, he
One of Mr Bannon’s lieutenants, a former
Breitbart writer who now has a job at the White House, takes a similarly
Manichean view. That is Hungarian-born Sebastian Gorka, who will report to Mr
Bannon as a member of his Strategic Initiatives Group. An ex-soldier and
military lecturer, he was quoted by the Washington Post as saying he “completely
jettisoned” the idea that the causes of terrorism were complex: on the
contrary, what mainly inspired anti-American terror was the martial messages
delivered in certain parts of the Koran.
To see a third strain of Islamoscepticism,
take Ben Carson, an ex-presidential candidate and Mr Trump’s nominee for the
job of housing secretary. A fundamentalist Christian with an apocalyptic
streak, the retired neurosurgeon has espoused the view that Islam is not really
a religion at all but rather a “life-organisation system”. It follows, he
thinks, that no adherent of that faith should ever be president.
Whatever the intellectual merits of these
arguments, one striking comparison immediately occurs. Although some of his
Western admirers might be surprised to hear this, it is virtually unimaginable
that Vladimir Putin or any of his well-disciplined team would allow themselves
to make such a generalised critique of Islam or any other global faith.
If anything Mr Putin grows more insistent
over time in following and even outdoing the Bush-Obama school: respectful of
Islam as a religion, determined to give his own Muslim citizens a decent
existence as long as they obey him, and open to geopolitical co-operation with
Islamic countries. And in the regions of Russia where Islam prevails, loyalty
to Mr Putin sits comfortably with an increasingly conservative religious
In a news conference last December, Mr
Putin firmly told a questioner he did not like to hear Islam “wrongly linked to
terrorism”. Earlier last year, the president said that “in Russia, Islam will
always find a reliable ally, prepared to cooperate in solving world problems.”
Opening a mosque in Moscow in 2015, he excoriated the Islamic State terror
group for “discrediting a great world religion”.
Does this mean that he or other powerful
figures in Moscow have pored over the Koran and come to conclusions which are
different from those of Mr Trump’s zealous advisers? Of course not. It simply
means that the Russian state, like any confident geopolitical player in a
diverse and volatile world, wants to keep its options open. To commit yourself
unconditionally to supporting one global religion against another is an act of
irrational self-limitation. Such a one-track approach would be, to use a
favourite Russian word, netselesobrazno(“inexpedient”).
The same sort of flexibility (call it
ruthless pragmatism if you like) characterised 19th-century Britain and France
when they battled to support the Muslim Turks against Christian Russia. A
similar approach was taken by American cold-war strategists who forged deep
alliances with Muslim powers such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia.
By contrast, some of Mr Trump’s people talk
as though they really do put religious or cultural differences above all else
in the way they analyse the world and plan America’s course. Mr Bannon, for
example, thinks present generations should be inspired by the example of their
forefathers and their “long history of the Judeo-Christian West [and its]
struggle against Islam.” But the truth is that those forefathers were often
more utilitarian in their choice of friends and foes than we might imagine.
In contrast with America’s new masters, Mr
Putin’s Russia is closer in mentality to Lord Palmerston, the British statesman
who said in 1848 that in matters of diplomacy, “we have no eternal allies
and…no perpetual enemies, [only] our interests are eternal.” Whatever their own
affiliation, single-minded strategists usually apply the same principle to
religious diplomacy too.