Bloomberg: Trump's Travel Ban Harms the Islamic State's Victims

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Trump's Travel Ban Harms the Islamic State's Victims

JAN 31, 2017 2:19 PM EST

By Eli Lake

If you want to get a sense of the cruel stupidity of President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees, look no further than Vian Dakhil. She is a Yazidi lawmaker who became famous for her 2014 speech to Iraq's parliament as her people faced genocide. "Mr. Speaker," she said. "We are being slaughtered under the banner, 'There is no God, but Allah.'"

Because Trump has banned travel to the U.S. for citizens from Iraq (and six other Muslim-majority countries) for 90 days, Dakhil will not be allowed to attend a ceremony next week in Washington to receive the Lantos prize, an annual human-rights award named for Holocaust survivor and former Representative Tom Lantos.

Think about that for a minute. Dakhil, who is on an Islamic State most-wanted list, is precisely the kind of person Trump's new executive order is supposed to protect. It prioritizes "refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

What's more, the fate of the Yazidis personifies the "world on fire" that Trump is always complaining about. When he talks about practices we haven't seen since the Middle Ages, he's talking about the Islamic State's crucifixion, mass rape and murder of Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.

As Katrina Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation told me: "It's hard to imagine a more ironic and powerful illustrative example of how wrongheaded this executive order has been conceived."

It's not just Dakhil. Consider also Archbishop Bashar Warda. He's the Chaldean Catholic leader of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and one of the most tireless advocates for the besieged Christians of the Middle East. Because of Trump's order, Warda had to cancel a trip to Washington next week where he was going to meet with members of Congress to discuss the persecution of religious minorities. At a press conference on Monday in Rome, Warda said Trump's executive order will place a new burden on Iraqi Christians who are languishing as refugees: "It is not easy to distinguish from their names who is Christian and who is Muslim."

An irony here is that Trump's decision to prioritize religious minorities persecuted for their faith is one of the reasons his opponents say the new refugee policy and travel restrictions, taken together, comprise a prejudicial "Muslim ban." Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, made this point on CNN Sunday. "Here you have Mr. Trump saying that we're going to exclude individuals from predominantly Muslim countries, and then he carves out an exception for minority religions," he said. "The executive order is a smoking gun that violates the First Amendment."

Daniel Mach, the director of the ACLU's program on freedom of religion and belief, further explained Romero's logic. "In practice, the minority-faith preference will severely disadvantage Muslim refugees, the vast majority of whom would be ineligible for this religious exception," he said.

While this may be true, it doesn't make the Trump order a Muslim ban. To start, it does not ban travel from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which are Muslim-majority and whose citizens have conducted terrorist attacks in the U.S. Also, while it's true that Muslims are victims of the Islamic State (not to mention the Syrian regime and other actors in the Middle East), non-Muslims are at a special risk. John Kerry made this point in March when he said the Islamic State was perpetrating a genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.

President Barack Obama's refugee policy did not reflect the special risk posed to religious and ethnic minorities from the Islamic State. In 2016, the U.S. ended up taking in far more Muslims from Syria than Christians or Yazidis. Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who tracks U.S. refugee policy, told me that in 2016, 99.5 percent of Syrian refugees to the U.S. were Muslim. Only 12 Christian families were taken in last year from Syria under the new policy.

Even though Islam is by far the majority religion in Syria that number of Christians given safe haven is still much lower than it should be. The population of Christians in Syria in 2011 was estimated to be somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent.

The main reason the U.S. has taken in so few Christians from Syria is that many do not feel safe in the U.N. refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Those camps are where refugee applicants are first processed. Shea said most Christian refugees tell her that Islamic militias and criminal gangs prey on minorities in the camps, so most Syrian Christians go to the cities or churches for shelter.

Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International, acknowledged in an interview that Christians face discrimination in refugee camps. Though he said many also feel strongly about remaining in the Middle East, which has been a home to Christians since the time of Christ. Even still, Gabaudan said, the greatest cause of refugees in Syria is the indiscriminate bombing and military campaign of the Syrian regime. These atrocities affect Muslims disproportionately in some cases because many of Syria's Christians support the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who is also from a religious minority group, a sect of Islam known as the Alawi.

So in one sense it's admirable for Trump to try to open the door for religious minorities in the Middle East. They do face a special threat in a region where jihadists seek to cleanse conquered territory of non-Muslims, or at the very least subject them to second-class citizenship.

Had Trump's White House drafted the executive order through the normal process of government, giving Congress and other departments and agencies a chance to weigh in, he might have done some good. He might have avoided the confusion over last weekend about the status of permanent residents. He might have made exceptions for Iraqi translators, who help the U.S. military fight the jihadists Trump promises to destroy.

Instead, Trump has banned travel for the very people he says he wants to save.