In these first few weeks of the Trump Administration, the president’s often-harmful words have rightfully gotten a lot of attention. But his silences are no less telling.
President Trump uses his bully Twitter finger to advance his narrative of fear: portraying an America facing threats from his chosen targets, often Muslims. Trump tweeted, in his signatory misleading and inflammatory manner, about an attack in a shopping mall close to the Louvre Museum in Paris on February 3, carried out by an Egyptian living in the U.A.E. The attacker’s motives remain unclear. He may have been motivated by violent Islamist extremism, but he could be a deranged individual motivated by an impenetrable tangle of grievances. Fortunately, no one was killed in the machete attack, which makes it an unlikely subject for such high profile presidential attention. Nonetheless, Trump felt it sufficient reason to admonish America to “GET SMART,” presumably a reference to his highly controversial and legally-challenged immigration executive order.
In contrast, Trump had no comment about a deadly terrorist attack much closer to home, in Quebec, where on January 31 a young French-Canadian man opened fire on a congregation of Muslims at prayer in a mosque, killing six. The young man has a history of support for far-right White Supremacist extremist groups, and had expressed admiration for Trump. Far-right extremism is an increasing threat in the United States, but Trump has had nothing to say about it.
On February 9, the Egyptian government closed and sealed the Cairo offices of the El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. This is just the latest act in a sustained attack on independent human rights organizations in Egypt. El Nadeem enjoys a global reputation for its pioneering work monitoring the prevalence of torture in Egypt and rehabilitating the victims. Torture is widespread in President Sisi’s Egypt and the link between torture and abuse in Egypt’s prisons and the radicalization of prisoners who suffer that ordeal has been frequently documented.
The governments of Germany and the United Kingdom, and the European Union all protested the closure of El Nadeem and the ongoing attack on human rights activists in Egypt, but the United States government has said nothing, despite the fact that Secretary of State Tillerson spoke with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry over the weekend. A congressional delegation also visited Egypt recently and met with Sisi and Shoukry. Its leader, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, praised President Sisi, said nothing about the crackdown on civil society, and has introduced a bill in the House to restore cash-flow financing to Egypt, which would enable Egypt to use U.S. military assistance funds to purchase costly weapons systems by installments—a privilege removed by the Obama administration because of human rights concerns.
The Obama Administration devoted considerable attention to developing a more comprehensive countering violent extremism (CVE) program, one that went beyond a narrow focus on military measures to include addressing the factors that push vulnerable people towards violent extremism. The Obama Administration rightly emphasized the link between political repression and radicalization. President Obama said:
“When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied—particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines—when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”
President Trump’s comments, and eloquent silences, suggest a different emphasis. Trump’s intention seems to be stoke fear of Muslims and foster divisions and distrust between minority populations in the United States and the general population. Far from encouraging U.S. partners in the global struggle against violent extremism to address the grievances that are exploited by terrorists, the Trump Administration seems willing to give uncritical support to repressive authoritarian rulers like Egypt’s President Sisi, who may well be invited to the White House for a visit next month.
Advancing human rights and the rule of law must be at the heart of any sustainable and effective strategy to counter the threat of terrorism. Generating fear and division at home while supporting dictators abroad will make the problem worse.