The Germans criticised it. The British voiced their discomfort. The French, the Canadians and even some Republican senators in Washington stood in open opposition. But in Cairo and Riyadh, in the heart of the Muslim world, President Donald Trump’s decision to bar millions of refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the United States was met with a conspicuous silence. King Salman of Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s holiest sites, spoke to Trump by telephone yesterday, but made no public comment. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, whose capital, Cairo, is a traditional seat of Islamic scholarship, said nothing. Even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 nations that considers itself the collective voice of the Muslim world, kept quiet.
Leaders in Iran and Iraq, two of the countries targeted by Trump’s order, issued furious denunciations yesterday and vowed to take retaliatory measures. But the silence in the capitals of Muslim-majority countries unaffected by the order reflected a lack of solidarity and an enduring uncertainty about the direction Trump’s foreign policy might take in some of the world’s most volatile corners. Will he move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Designate Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization? Fall in line with Russia in dealing with the conflict in Syria?
“Trump has promised to do all kinds of things, but it’s not clear what he will move on immediately,” said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. “Nobody seems to know. It’s not even clear if Trump knows.”
The lack of unity stems from an old problem: Muslim leaders pay lip service to the “ummah,” or global community of Muslims, but are more often driven by narrow national interests — even when faced with grave actions seen as an affront to their own people.
“They don’t have a strong basis of legitimacy at home,” said Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “They are delicately perched between the anger of their own people and the anger they might generate from the American president.”
Trump’s executive order — which froze all refugee arrivals in the United States and barred the entry of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days — has sent a whirlwind of confusion, anxiety and fury across the Middle East and Africa. Refugees have been turned back at airports, families separated indefinitely and long-planned trips upended.
“I thought in America, there were institutions and democracy,” said Fuad Sharef, 51, an Iraqi Kurd bound for New York who was turned away from the Cairo airport with his wife and three children Saturday morning. “This looks like a decision from a dictator. It’s like Saddam Hussein.”
Yesterday, Trump administration officials backtracked on one aspect of the order, saying green-card holders would be allowed to return to the United States.
In a Facebook post yesterday evening, Trump insisted that his policy was not a “Muslim ban” and accused the news media of inaccurate reporting. Hours earlier, he had characterised the conflict with the Islamic State in starkly sectarian terms, asserting on Twitter: “Christians in the Middle East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”
In fact, a majority of the Islamic State’s victims have been Muslims, many of them shot, burned or beheaded. Among the Muslims who managed to escape Islamic State territory are the refugees Trump has now excluded.
In a phone conversation with Trump on Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany cited the 1951 Refugee Convention, which calls on signatories to take in people fleeing war, according to Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman. Yet in much of the Middle East, Trump is less likely to get such a scolding. He has drawn close to el-Sissi of Egypt, whom he called a “fantastic guy,” and is considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sissi’s sworn enemy, a terrorist organization. In a call last week, the two leaders discussed a possible visit to the White House by el-Sissi, whose administration faces accusations of human rights abuses — an unthinkable prospect during the Obama administration.
In his order Friday, whose stated aim is to keep extremists out of the United States, Trump invoked the Sept. 11 attacks three times. Yet Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of the 19 attackers, was not included on the list of countries whose citizens would be shut out. That reflects the deep economic and security ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Trump also has a personal financial link: In August 2015, just as his campaign was gathering steam, the Trump Organization registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia that were linked to a hotel development in the city of Jiddah.
Pakistan, another country whose citizens have carried out attacks in the United States, also ducked Trump’s list. Although Trump had a chummy phone call with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shortly after the election in November, Pakistanis are nervously waiting to see if Trump will pull U.S. troops from neighboring Afghanistan.
“There’s a lot of concern,” said Zahid Hussain, a political analyst in Islamabad. “For now, they want to keep quiet and see how things go.”
On Monday, King Abdullah II of Jordan is scheduled to meet in Washington with members of the Trump administration and Congress, the first Arab leader to do so since the executive order was issued.
Muslim solidarity once existed. As recently as the early 2000s, most Muslim-majority countries agreed on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sanctions against Iraq. Now, after several regional wars and a surge in sectarian strife, that consensus has been shattered. Multinational organizations that represent Muslims are viewed as toothless entities. The head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, which has headquarters in Saudi Arabia, was forced to quit last fall after he made a joke at the expense of el-Sissi of Egypt.
In the early days of Trump’s campaign, the Islamic scholars at Al Azhar, the ancient seat of Islamic learning in Cairo, spoke out against the “smear campaigns being launched against Muslims in America.” But the scholars have yet to weigh in on Trump’s executive order, and even if they do, few observers expect them to stray from official Egyptian government policy.
For many citizens of those countries, the docility of their leaders is frustrating. Samer S. Shehata, of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar, said that many of his students had already canceled their plans to study in the United States.
“I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that if you are a Muslim or an Arab, you’re going to be treated different in this Trump presidency,” he said.
Khouri, of the American University of Beirut, said the disconnect between rulers and civilians in some countries spoke to the underlying anger that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. “Even when this American move is insulting Muslims and Islam, they do nothing about it,” he said.
“That’s going to create more anger, and more pressure, in the Arab world. It’s terrible.”